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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 (83)
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
January 12, 2014
I am always interested to hear other people's point of views on subjects like the Human Soul. I think with all discussions regarding this subject The human race seems to out of the water trying to find reasons for there beliefs of disbeliefs.
Reasoning on subject so monumental and profound.
Look I am be-leaver In God That in it self dose not make me right or wrong in my views. It appears to me that questions that are so far from being able to answer clouds our minds in the discussion. I have no eternal answers to this divine question, but I still question. Our Universe is just too large and is filled with
so many unanswered question about what and who we are, we seen to be caught in the quagmire of our own doubts, fears and the inability to be God like when trying to answer these questions. Folks we live on a slippery bank, where and when we fall will decide our faith. Thank you all for your observations.
Louis Sisbarro
Verona N.J.
January 11, 2014
The Soul
Thank you for your article. Life is very important to each individual from the point of view of elevating the soul.We have a physical responsibility to do this,
Joseph Solomon
December 22, 2013
The Search
Soul the eternal search of mankind.
No one seems bright enough to give complete answers, so we are born live and die still answering the same question. What is the soul?
Louis Sisbarro
verona n.j.
September 26, 2013
What is a soul?
As you age, your body gets older, weak, tired, but spiritually you don't feel it. You hear people say, " I don't feel 50 years old!." That's because you are feeling your soul. Your soul never ages, get sick, or dies. Read Genesis 9:4, 5, and 6. God don't care about your body, but he wants your soul back when you die. Why, only he knows.
Alona Israel
July 27, 2013
the soul
i totally agree with the fact of the article as it heavily borrows all its wisdom from the bible. But the comment challenging the issue of life after death is misleading because the same word of God that explains about the soul is same one talking about life after death. Even Moses who wrote the Torah by God's inspiration talked about the Book of life where those who will go to Heaven have their names written. Believe in the Word of God man to save your life. God Himself says there is Life after death.
Nairobi Kenya
June 10, 2013
my soul
My soul is my complete guide of right or wrong at all times. Whatever, and whenever I need to make a judgement call, wether it be business or personal,
my soul nearly always rears it,s head. It forces me to hear it out. It has served me so well in my life that I tend to seek it,s guidance before I commit to most decisions. It has never failed me.
It assures me of a second opinion.
walter routledge
March 7, 2013
Thank you; this cleared Up a lot of questions. I wasn't sure if the soul and spirit were the same but this helps. And for Anonymous for February 17, 2013 it seems as if the person who wrote the forum was Jewish just mainly because of the way they wrote "G-d" and referencing Shabbat candles and other various things. The way they wrote "G-d" is actually showing reverence and respect. Being careful when speaking of The Lord. Old school Jews never fully wrote God down out of reverent fear and respect. Which is also widely misunderstood and has caused some confusion in early translations when translators went to translate the bible from Hebrew and Greek because some letters were missing which is also how the word Jehovah came about. I don't believe they were censoring but writing traditionally and as per custom not because of a lack of respect but quite the opposite. But I can't speak for them I just thought I'd share I never knew until someone told me :)
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