jewish Funeral Guide

Jewish Attitude to Death

Body and Soul

Most people completely identify themselves with their body. When an average person is asked to point a finger at himself, he points at his chest. Scientific and technological progress is changing this perception. The heart that he points to can be exchanged for another person’s heart. The heart, kidneys, limbs and even faces can be, and indeed are transplanted from one person to another. Theoretically even the brain may be transplanted and the memory from an old brain transferred to a new one, in a similar fashion to data being moved from one computer to another.

What is this conglomerate of exchangeable organs? Is there any individual identity that transcends one’s body? - The body and even the brain do not fully identify a person. It appears that the information stored in the brain - the mind, memories, thought patterns and personal traits - much better represents the unique identity of a human being. This scientific idea of the mind as pure information, independent of the storage media, is pretty close to the religious idea of an intangible soul that transcends the human body.

Here is how the Torah / תורה describes the creation of Adam - the first man: “God formed man out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils a soul-breath of life [Nishmat Chaim].   Man [thus] became a living creature [Nefesh Chaya] / וייצר ה' אלהים את האדם עפר מן האדמה, ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים, ויהי האדם לנפש חיה” (Genesis 2:7). The Torah is teaching us, explains Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, that while the human body was created out of dust, the human soul came from God’s innermost essence in the same way that a breath comes from the inside of a person. This is in contrast to all other creations, which were brought into being only through God’s speech, which is external compared to breath, as in “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light / ויאמר אלהים יהי אור, ויהי אור”‎  (Genesis 1:3).

There are three levels of the soul: Nefesh / נפש, Ruach / רוח and Neshamah / נשמה. The word Neshamah is related to Nesheemah / נשימה - breath. Ruach means wind. Nefesh comes from the root Nafash - rest, as in the verse in the Book of Exodus 31:17, “On the seventh day, [God] ceased work and rested [vayeeNafash] / וביום השביעי שבת וינפש”. The way God creates a soul can be compared to a glassblower forming a vessel, explains Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. The breath (Neshamah) first leaves his lips, travels as a wind (Ruach) and finally comes to rest (Nefesh) in the vessel. Of these three levels of the soul, Neshamah is therefore the highest and closest to God, while Nefesh is the aspect of the soul residing in the body. Ruach stands between the two, binding man to his spiritual Source. It is for this reason that Divine Inspiration is called Ruach HaKodesh in Hebrew. The Neshamah is affected by thought, the Ruach by speech, and the Nefesh by action. The Nefesh, which is the lowest level of the soul, most probably can be identified with the information contained in the human brain.