Alexander I. Poltorak

What is a Soul? III (2). The Many Souls of Man: Nefesh HaElokit —The Godly Soul

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Nefesh HaElokit —The Godly Soul

In the previous installment of The Many Souls of Man, we discussed the animal soul, Nefesh HaBahamit. Now, we shall turn to the godly soul, Nefesh HaElokit.

Nefesh HaElokit[18] (the “godly soul” or “divine soul”) is not a creation.[19] All created things were created by means of divine speech in ten utterances.[20] The godly soul, however, was not created by divine speech, but rather exhaled, as it were, by G‑d and breathed into the first man:

Then the Eternal G‑d formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. Genesis 2:7

Thus, Nefesh HaElokit (the godly soul) is the eternal soul, which is not a creation but a “part” of G‑d Himself. Midrash explains:

And whence do we learn that the soul has been given from heaven? Come and see. When the Holy One, blessed be He, formed man, he did not have in him the spirit. What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He breathed with the spirit of the breath of His mouth, and cast a soul into him, as it is said, “And he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” (Genesis 2:7) Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, calls the godly soul a second[21] soul that enters the human body at a later time:[22] thirteen years old (the time of bar mitzvah—legal majority) for boys and twelve years old (the age of bat mitzvah) for girls. Tanya states:

[is to be found] in light of what Rabbi Chaim Vital wrote in Shaar Hakedushah (and in Etz Chaim, Portal 50, ch. 2)—that every Jew, whether righteous or wicked, possesses two souls, as it is written, “And neshamot (souls) which I have made.” [Isaiah 57:16.][23]

This soul is pure[24] and G‑d-centric, as the midrash states:

The soul is unique, altogether pure, concealed, abides in the innermost precincts of the body yet permeates and pervades the whole body and sustains it.[25]

Nachmanides[26] writes,

One who blows, exhales from his inside and essence.”[27]

The midot of the godly soul are called yetzer tov—the “good inclination.” Moreover, as the Alter Rebbe stresses in Tanya, Nefesh HaElokit is a chelek Eloka mima’al mamash “part of G‑d from above[28], indeed!”[29] This phrase is a quotation from the earlier work of the kabbalist Rabbi Shabtai Sheftl:[30]

It is a well-known fact that the souls of the Jewish people are a part of G‑d. This is hinted at in the verse, “[The Jewish] people is a portion of G‑d” (Deuteronomy 32:9), literally. Shefa Tal [31]

Similarly, the Vilna Gaon[32] writes in his commentary on Ecclesiastes that “And the soul is a ‘chelek Eloki mimaal’ (divine part from on high).”[33] The godly soul is also called a “princess, the daughter of the King in Heaven.”[34]

Sages drew a parallel between the soul-body relationship and the relationship of G‑d and the created worlds.  Godliness, at least its immanent aspect, can be seen as the “soul” of the universe. Godliness permeates the created universe and is so enmeshed with the created worlds that it is impossible to separate the physical from the spiritual. So, too, the soul is so enmeshed with the body that it is impossible to point out where the body ends and soul “begins.” In its immanent manifestation, godliness fills the worlds, as the three lower levels of the soul fill the body. In its transcendental manifestation, godliness encompasses the worlds, as the two higher levels of the soul envelope the body. Godliness is hidden just as the soul is hidden. Thus it is stated in the midrash:

G‑d filleth the world, and the human soul filleth the human body. G‑d supports the world, and the soul supports the body. G‑d is unique in the world, the soul is unique in the body. G‑d neither sleepeth nor slumbereth; the soul neither sleepeth nor slumbereth. G‑d is pure, the soul is pure. G‑d seeth and cannot be seen; the soul seeth and cannot be seen. Let the soul, which so far possesses the attributes of the Lord, praise and worship the Lord. [35]

Tanya refers to Nefesh HaElokit as the “second soul” because it first enters the body at the time of the bar or bat mitzvah—long after the animal soul has taken hold of the body. [36] The mission of the godly soul is to subdue the egocentric tendencies of the animal soul and then recruit it to join in the divine service.

The godly soul—Nefesh HaElokit—is said to express itself mainly in the brain. [37] As we mentioned before, this cannot be understood in literal terms. It means Nefesh HaElokit primarily manifests itself through our consciousness. In some context, Nefesh HaElokit refers to self.

This soul is rooted in the world of Tikkun (the Universe of Rectification), whereas Nefesh HaBahamit is rooted in the world of Tohu (the Universe of Chaos). The Nefesh HaElokit has all five levels, including Yechidah. Much of the first book of Tanya, Likutei Amarim, is devoted to the relationship between Nefesh HaElokit and Nefesh HaBahamit.

While Tanya clearly speaks of two souls—Nefesh HaBahamit and Nefesh HaElokit—we still need to understand why we need two souls. The root of this apparent duality is in the unique quality of G‑d—He exists, and He doesn’t exist (because He is unlimited and cannot be limited by what we call “existence”). G‑d is in a superposition of both states—existence and nonexistence, as it were. A man (and a woman) was created in the image of G‑d, which means that man reflects G‑d in all His manifestations. Therefore, there must be two distinct metaphysical entities—a divine soul and an animal soul—to reflect the blurry dual state of G‑d’s existence. [38] But which soul reflects the existence of G‑d, and which reflects G‑d’s “nonexistence”?

From one perspective, the animal soul, which is an egocentric soul, represents selfhood—the person’s “I.” In this sense, the animal soul, which is believed to make a person alive, reflects G‑d’s existence. The godly soul, which is G‑d-centric, represents the state of bitul—complete submission and self-nullification before G‑d. Thus, the godly soul, which makes a person lose his or her sense of independent existence, must reflect the state of the “nonexistence” of G‑d.

However, from another perspective, the roles reverse. As the Alter Rebbe describes in Tanya, these two souls are akin to kings warring over a city—the human body.[39] The godly soul must win this war and subdue the animal soul. From this perspective, it is the godly soul, which is ultimately destined to reign, that reflects G‑d’s existence (and the person’s “I”), whereas the animal soul, facing its ultimate defeat, reflects God’s “nonexistence.”

This role reversal hints at the underlying hidden unity of both souls. They are not two different souls, as distinct metaphysical entities, but rather two opposite facets of one soul—two sides of one coin. Just as G‑d has two states—existence and “nonexistence”—and He is in a superposition of these states, so too, the soul has two states—the godly state called the godly soul and the animalistic state called the animal soul. The soul, in a manner of speech, is in a superposition of these two states. From our perspective, we may see two souls, but actually (from G‑d’s perspective) there is one soul in a superposition of two states. This hidden unity reflects the ultimate unity of G‑d, who both exists and does not exist, as it were.[40]

Initially, Nefesh HaElokit opposes Nefesh HaBahamit, in the effort to subdue the latter’s egoistic and hedonistic tendencies and direct it toward serving G‑d. However, Nefesh HaBahamit has certain advantages over Nefesh HaElokit. Nefesh HaBahamit, which manifests itself primarily in the blood, is seen as “hot,” that is, full of emotions and enthusiasm. Nefesh HaElokit, on the other hand, manifests itself primarily in the brain and is seen as cold and rational. While its sole desire is to give and serve G‑d, it lacks the enthusiasm and the energy of the animal soul. To compensate for that, Nefesh HaElokit must convert and recruit Nefesh HaBahamit to the service of G‑d, to infuse it with energy, passion, and enthusiasm. Nefesh HaBahamit, which initially vigorously resists the influence of Nefesh HaElokit, ultimately is happy to lose the war and join Nefesh HaElokit in divine service.

The Zohar uses an allegory of a harlot and prince to illustrate this paradoxical dynamic: A king decided to test the moral strength of his son, the heir to the throne. To this end, he asked a loyal courtier to play a harlot and try to seduce his son. The courtier obliges and plays her role, trying to seduce the prince. While she is diligent in doing her job, in her heart of hearts, she desires to fail, because she knows that nothing will please the king more than her failure—the testimony to the maturity and moral fortitude of the prince.[41] So too, the animal soul inwardly desires to be defeated by the godly soul, although it resists strenuously. In this allegory, the harlot symbolizes evil. The purpose of evil is only to be defeated.[42] The ultimate purpose of the animal soul is to be won over by the godly soul and join ranks with it to serve G‑d with the warmth, energy, and passionate enthusiasm only the animal soul possesses.

The sechel (three intellectual faculties—Chokhmah-wisdom, Binah-understanding, and Da’at-knowledge) of the Nefesh HaElokit primarily vests itself in the brain, whereas the midot (seven lower sefirot representing emotive attributes) of the Nefesh HaElokit, called the Yetzer Tov (“Good Inclination”), vest themselves in the right ventricle of the heart.[43] This means that, in the language of Kabbalah, the Divine soul primarily expresses itself in the ChaBaD—the three intellectual sefirot (Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at)—intellectual attributes of divine emanation as they are reflected in the human soul. Just as the godly soul possesses both intellect and emotions, so too, the animal soul possesses intellect and emotions.[44]


[18] Sometimes written as Nefesh Elokit without the definite article “ha.”

[19] Spiritual things (such as souls or angels) are created by G‑d, just as material things are. The only difference is that spiritual things are more refined and ethereal and do not occupy physical space. In the Chasidic philosophy of Chabad, it is explained that most of the Nefesh Elokitnefesh, ru’ach, neshamah, chayah, and the external part of the yechidah—are created being. Only the inner part of the yechidah, called yachid, is not a creation but a spark of the divine.

[20] Genesis 1.

[21] Tanya, Likutei Amorim, ch.2.

[22] According to Tanya, Nefesh Elokit is the soul that is given specifically to Jewish people, who are called in the Torah by G‑d, “My firstborn”: “Thus saith the Eternal: Israel is My son, My first-born” (Exodus 4:22). This soul is the direct link between G‑d and His chosen nation. This does not mean, of course, that non-Jews have nothing godly in them. Every person comes from Adam into whom G‑d breathed the godly soul. Therefore, every person has a godly spark. However, according to Tanya, this spark is more revealed and more developed in the Jewish people. In potential, it is given to every Jewish person as a birthright. However, the extent to which it is revealed depends on the person’s action. A non-Jewish person can reach the highest levels of spirituality and closeness to G‑d.

[23] Tanya, Likutei Amarim, ch. 1. English translation by is from Rabbi Yosef Weinberg, Lessons in Tanya, Kehot. (See online,, retrieved November 21, 2021)

[24] “My G‑d, the soul Thou didst place in me, it is pure.” Morning prayers liturgy; see also Talmud, Shabbat 152b.

[25] Midrash Tehilim 103:4-5.

[26] Moshe Ben Nachman, known as the Ramban (1194–1270), an eminent biblical commentator, Talmudist, Kabbalist, and physician who flourished in Spain in the thirteenth century. He was also famous for being forced to debate the heretic Pablo Christiani. Although he won the debate, he was exiled from Spain.

[27] Nachmanides on Genesis 2:7. The Alter Rebbe quotes this expression verbatim in ch. 2 of Tanya in the name of the Zohar. However, it is not found in our editions of the Zohar.

[28] This expression, “part of G‑d from above” is from Job 31:2.

[29] Tanya, Likutei Amarim, ch. 2.

[30] Rabbi Shabtai Sheftl (1565–1619), a medieval Kabbalist who lived in Prague. Besides Shefa Tal, a popular and important Kabbalah book, he authored a treatise on the nature of the soul, Nishmat Shabtai HaLevi.

[31] Rabbi Shabtai Sheftl, Nefesh Tal, Hanau, 1612, Introduction.

[32] Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu, a.k.a. the Vilna Gaon (1720–1797)—a prominent Talmudist and Kabbalist.

[33] Vilna Gaon, Barak HaShachar commentary on Ecclesiastes (, retrieved November 27, 2021).

[34] Rama of Fano, Maamar Chikur Din 3:1, quoted in Rabbi Avraham Finkel, Kabbalah (Southfield, MI: Targum Press, 2002), p. 156.

[35] Talmud, tr. Berachot 10a; Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:9. For other references, see Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Inner Space: Introduction to Kabbalah, Meditation and Prophecy, ed. Abraham Sutton (Jerusalem: Moznaim, 1990), p. 16 and endnote 29.

[36] Tanya, Likutei Amarim ch. 2.

[37] Tanya, Likutei Amarim, ch. 2. See also, Torah Ohr, Miketz, 38b; Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch, Chasidic Discourses, vol. 1., “G‑d does not make tyrannical and unreasonable demands of His creatures,” ch. 2. (See in English,, retrieved on November 23, 2021.)

[38] I am grateful to my friend, Rabbi Yossi Krasnjanski for elucidating this point.

[39] “The body is called a ‘small city.’ Just as two kings wage war over a town, which each wishes to capture and rule, that is to say, to dominate its inhabitants according to his will, so that they obey him in all that he decrees for them, so do the two souls—the Divine and the vitalizing animal soul that comes from the kelipah—wage war against each other over the body and all its limbs” (Tanya, Likutei Amarim, ch. 9.) Interestingly, we find a “city” analogy vis-à-vis souls in Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul. Plato also uses the analogy of the city with three classes of citizens. The highest level of the soul, logos (or logisticon)—that parallels the Intellectual soul (Nefesh Elokit)—rules the city using the power of reason. In Plato’s tripartite soul, the eros (or epithymetikon) always seeks pleasure—a parallel with the Animal soul (Nefesh HaBahamit). Needless to say, Plato has no parallel with the godly soul. However, the parallel with Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul is not entirely appropriate because, clearly, Plato talks about three levels of the soul rather than three souls. Thus, it is more alike to the three levels of the soul nefesh, ru’ach, and neshamah, as we already pointed out in the previous installment.

[40] The ultimate albeit hidden unity of the opposite states of the soul—the Divine soul and the Animal soul—is an example of unity of opposites, a major topic in dialectics. Harking back to pre-Socratic philosophers of Ancient Greece, such as Anaximander and Heraclitus—who famously wrote that “The road up and the road down are the same thing (Hippolytus, Refutations 9.10.3)—to modern Western philosophy, where dialectics was championed by Hegel. He wrote, “That true and positive meaning of the antinomies is this: that every actual thing involves a coexistence of opposed elements” (Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830) Part One, IV. Second Attitude of Thought to Objectivity, Two, The Critical Philosophy).

[41] Zohar II, 163a.

[42] Tanya, Likkutei Amarim, ch. 9.

[43] Tanya, Likutei Amarim, ch. 9.

[44] Sefer HaKitzurim LeTanya, p. 81.; the ma’amar VaYavo Amalek, 5709, Kuntres 62, ch. 2.

Originally published on on 2021/12/15.

About the Author
Dr. Alexander Poltorak is Chairman and CEO of General Patent Corporation. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Physics at The City College of New York. In the past, he served as Assistant Professor of Physics at Touro College, Assistant Professor of Biomathematics at Cornell University Medical College, and Adjunct Professor of Law at the Globe Institute for Technology. He holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics.
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