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What is a Soul?

What is a Soul?


The soul is the self, the "I" that inhabits the body and acts through it. Without the soul, the body is like a light bulb without electricity, a computer without the software, a space suit with no astronaut inside. With the introduction of the soul, the body acquires life, sight and hearing, thought and speech, intelligence and emotions, will and desire, personality and identity.

Everything Has a Soul

In truth, not just the human being, but also every created entity possesses a "soul." Animals have souls, as do plants and even inanimate objects; every blade of grass has a soul, and every grain of sand. Not only life, but also existence requires a soul to sustain it--a "spark of G-dliness" that perpetually imbues its object with being and significance. A soul is not just the engine of life; it also embodies the why of a thing's existence, it's meaning and purpose. It is a thing's "inner identity, it's raison d'être. Just like the 'soul' of a musical composition is the composer's vision that energizes and gives life to the notes played in a musical composition--the actual notes are like the body expressing the vision and feeling of the soul within them. Each soul is the expression of G-d's intent and vision in creating that particular being."1

Five Levels

But it is the human soul that is both the most complex and the most lofty of souls. Our sages have said: "She is called by five names: Nefesh (soul), Ruach (spirit), Neshamah (breath), Chayah (life) and Yechidah (singularity)."2 The Chassidic masters explain that the soul's five "names" actually describe five levels or dimensions of the soul. Nefesh is the soul as the engine of physical life. Ruach is the emotional self and "personality." Neshamah is the intellectual self. Chayah is the supra-rational self--the seat of will, desire, commitment and faith. Yechidah connotes the essence of the soul--its unity with its source, the singular essence of G-d. For the essence of the soul of man is "literally a part of G-d above"3--a piece of G-d in us, so to speak.

Two Souls

The Chassidic masters speak of two distinct souls that vitalize the human being: an "Animal Soul" and a "G-dly Soul." The Animal Soul is driven by the quest for self-preservation and self-enhancement; in this, it resembles the soul and self of all other creations. But we also possess a G-dly Soul"--a soul driven by the desire to reconnect with its Source. Our lives are the story of the contest and interplay between these two souls, as we struggle to balance and reconcile our physical needs and desires with our spiritual aspirations, our self-focused drives with our altruistic yearnings. These two souls, however, do not reside "side-by-side" within the body; rather, the G-dly Soul is enclothed within the Animal Soul--just as the Animal Soul is enclothed within the body. This means that the Animal Soul, too, is vitalized by the "part of G-d above" at its core. Ostensibly, the two souls are in conflict with each other, but in essence they are compatible.4


The Divine essence of the human soul is what sets the human being above and apart from all other creations, even the angels. The angel may be more spiritual, but the human being is more G-dly. No creation can possess true freedom of choice--a creation, by definition, has and consists of only what its creator has imparted to it; this is its "nature," and its every inclination and action will be dictated by that nature. It is only in the human soul that the Creator imparted of His own essence. The human soul is thus the only truly "supra-natural" being (aside from the Creator)--a being that is not limited by its own nature. A being that can transcend itself; a being that can choose to not merely react to its environment, but to act upon it; a being whose choices and actions are therefore of true significance.

Why a Physical Life?

A soul is formed in the womb of supernal spiritual realms, where it acquires its distinct identity and mission. To fulfill this mission, it is dispatched to the physical realm, enclothed within an Animal Soul and equipped with a body. Here the G-dly Soul is challenged by the (apparently) conflicting needs and desires of the Animal Soul; here divine reality is obscured by the dense selfhood of the body and physical world. In this arena of hidden truth and perpetual challenge, the soul can fully express and actualize its divine power.5

Guidance & Nurture

The soul is provided with a compass and guidebook to navigate the challenge of physical life, and the resources to fortify it. The Torah is the divine "blueprint for creation" that guides and instructs the soul on its mission in life. The Torah is also "food for the soul": by studying Torah the soul ingests and digests the divine wisdom and is supplied with the divine energy to persevere in its mission and overcome its challenges.


A mitzvah is a G-dly deed. Every time a soul performs a mitzvah--giving a coin to charity, putting on tefillin, lighting Shabbat candles--it acts as a "partner with G-d in creation" and brings G-d's presence into the world. The mitzvot are all physical deeds--so the soul can perform them only while a resident of the physical world, invested within an Animal Soul and a body. Thus the duration of its physical life is the soul's only opportunity to perform mitzvot. Everything that comes before and after is just a prequel and sequel to the soul's greatest and loftiest moments--its acts of connecting the G-dly with the mundane.

Life After Life

Upon conclusion of its physical life-span, the soul resumes a purely spiritual state. It can no longer perform mitzvot, but the G-dly deeds it performed during its physical lifetime have elevated it to heights it could not even had contemplated before its descent. These mitzvot are like seeds which take root in the soil of the physical world and grow and multiply, further fueling the soul's ascent; as do the good deeds performed in the physical world by others for the merit of the departed soul.

The World to Come

Ultimately, the soul will reunited with the body. In the Messianic Era, the resurrection of the dead will usher in a "World to Come" of eternal physical life, in which "death will be eradicated forever."6 In the World to Come, the entirety of creation will fully and uninhibitedly reflect the infinity and perfection of its Creator, and the physical will transcend the finitude and mortality which define it in today's imperfect world.

1. Simon Jacobson, in Towards a Meaningful Life.
2. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 14:9.
3. Tanya, ch. 2.
4. Tanya, chs. 1-12 et al.
5. See Body: The Physical World According to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.
6. Isaiah 25:8.
Yanki Tauber is content editor of
Illustrations by Chassidic artist Michoel Muchnik.
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Discussion (90)
September 17, 2014
to lou sisbaro, verona, N.J.
It will be impossible for a Jew to convince you or any other jew that his belief is correct. The questions you are asking do not have a correct answer neither are they containned in your reality nor in any material world you would like to touch or conceive.
Based on Maimonides princeples of faith, a jew must bild his own path and his own system of beliefs.
He must embarq in this venture with the absolute conviction that he will find his correct answer.All tools designed for jews are to be applied within a comunity of no less than ten males.
leon roiter
September 13, 2014
Soul is not soik.
Except soul, everything is nature in this universe. From smallest insect to elephant everyone got soul, that means soul is smallest in universe. Now as we are smallest souls, thus god too is similar to us but most powerful.
August 27, 2014
im a muslim and I initiated into the sufi path. I find ur expose as similar to ours. except I find it difficult that the animal physical body would be eternal..........
also, I discovered god created everything within Himself and not outside himself. in essence there is a part of god in everything. if u swith off the power station than all the lights and electricity is off. similarly if u swith god off than everything seize to exist becvause its impossible for god to create us outside Himself.
fu'ad rahman
July 4, 2014
Everyone has an explanation of what a "soul" is. The difficulty is it's something that simply cannot be tested by means of human observation. We cannot see,taste,hear,smell, and feel a "soul", so there are multiple definitions of what a "soul" is. Apparently it doesn't seem too far from the body. Descriptions of the after life whether it be heaven, hell, the underworld what have you they all still seem to exhibit the same attributes of a body. Pain obviously still exits, joy, greed, and many others. In reality there is no clear way to answer this until death, or revealed by means of human observation.
May 6, 2014
Man vs Soul
Folks good luck trying to answer this question about the human soul
I just don't think any of us a bright enough to give a answer or good reason about life and death. No one i my belief burns with a special flame to correctly answer this question. The human race and brain is not qualified.
Good luck in you quest, Join the many people that have tried to answer with conviction over the millennium. Ask the question but answer the question? that is far beyond the reality to answer. With all respect we are not God.
Lou Sisbarro
Verona N.J.
May 1, 2014
Hevra kadishah makes sure that the body is pure and ready to be given back to the one who created the body with his own hands.
This institution hands the jew the necesary tools to handle the mind´s attachment to the body
This jewish comunity uses the mind to connect with the soul and elaborate the supossed loss which was also created by the mind.
Our mind is so powerful that makes us believe that our attachment is uncontrolable, painful and real. It takes eight days to straighten the mind if the Hevrah Kadisha's instructions are followed with care.

Leon Roiter
leon roiter
April 30, 2014
Soul is a very pure thing. We should use it properly.
aparna choudhury
February 10, 2014
We always tell my body, my hand et al. Not I body or I hand, hence body is not I. I is the soul.Soul is the combination of mind,intelligence and trait.
January 13, 2014
The Soul
The nuance to death's nullification
January 12, 2014
soul and body
Lorna: The only way to connect with your soul is through your body. A'Shem not only cares about uour body he made it with his own hands. It would be good to give your body all it needs and take good care of it so you will give it back in the best posible shape to the one who made it. The body is sacred keep it so.

To get to heavens you must pass through the earth.
leon roiter
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