Alexander I. Poltorak

What is a Soul? III (5). The Many Souls of Man—How Many Souls?

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In the previous installments of The Many Souls of Man, we discussed the animal soul, Nefesh HaBahamit, the godly soul, Nefesh HaElokit, the intellectual soul, Nefesh HaSichlit, and Other Souls. Today, we will take stock—How many souls are there?

How Many Souls?

So, how many souls does a person have? In Kabbalah and Chasidic philosophy, numbers are divided into two distinct categories—one and many. Two means many. Thus, there is no fundamental difference among two, three, four, and five. [90] As we shall see, there is one godly soul, and there is one natural soul. The godly soul is white and pure. The natural soul is gray, and there are many shades of gray—four in this case. There is only one godly soul—Nefesh HaElokit. However, when speaking of the natural soul, depending on the level of granularity, we can speak of one, two, three, or four natural souls whose respective names point to their functions.

Among scholars of Chabad philosophy, everyone agrees that there are two main souls, Nefesh HaElokit and Nefesh HaChiyunit. This dichotomy is essential, because it reflects the perceived “dichotomy” of the states of godliness—existence and nonexistence. (Needless to say, there is no dichotomy whatsoever in G‑d, whose oneness is absolute.) As it is stated, “G‑d made one opposite the other” (Ecclesiastes 7:14). [91] In this view, Nefesh HaChiyunit is viewed as a category of natural souls among which we findNefesh HaChiyunit (essential or living soul), Nefesh HaSichlit (intellectual soul), Nefesh HaTiv’it (natural soul), and Nefesh HaBahamit (animal soul).

Then there is an opinion that the two main souls are Nefesh HaChiyunit and Nefesh HaElokit, and that Nefesh HaChiyunit further splits into two—Nefesh HaBahamit and Nefesh HaSichlit. On this level, the soul trichotomy reflects the dialectics of two souls, the divine soul and the animal soul, which are antithetical and require a mediator—the intellectual soul—to allow two souls to relate to each other. The soul trichotomy reflects the basic dialectic triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Three souls parallel the three levels of the soul. The trichotomy of the souls also parallels the trichotomy of creation: (i) matter/space, (ii) time/change, and (iii) spirit.

Souls Levels of the soul   Domains  Creation
Nefesh HaBahamit  Nefesh  Olam (“world, ”i.e., space)  Matter
Nefesh HaSichlit Ru’ach  Shanah (“year,” i.e., time)  Time/change
Nefesh HaElokit Neshamah  Nefesh (“soul,” i.e., spirituality)  Spirit

Table 1. Trichotomy of Souls

Thus, the millennia-old debate about trichotomy vs. dichotomy of the soul that has occupied philosophers and theologians through modern times finds a happy resolution in Chasidic philosophy—each opinion has its place and depends on the degree of granularity with which we examine the souls; thus dichotomy is the first degree of approximation, and trichotomy is the second degree of approximation revealing more granularity and detail.

An even more granular picture revealing subtle distinctions between Nefesh HaChiyunit (essential soul) and Nefesh HaBahamit (animal soul) forces us to count them as two distinct souls and brings the number of souls to four, which are parallel to the four letters of the Tetragrammaton. This is parallel to four levels of the soul and four worlds.

Souls Levels of the soul Tetragrammaton Partzufim
Nefesh HaElokit Neshamah d’Neshamah (chayah and yechidah) Yud Aba
Nefesh HaSichlit   Neshamah Heh Ima
Nefesh HaTiv’it Ru’ach Waw Ze’ir Anpin
Nefesh HaBahamit Nefesh Heh Nukvah

Table 2. Four Souls vis-à-vis the Tetragrammaton

Finally, the most granular picture distinguishes yet another soul, Nefesh HaTiv’it (the natural soul), bringing the number of souls to five, reflecting five primary partzufim (divine visages that are dynamic configurations of inter-included sefirot) and five elements of the Tetragrammaton (four letters plus the apex of the yud). The five souls are parallel to five levels of the soul.

Souls Levels of the soul  Tetragrammaton  Partzufim
Nefesh HaElokit Yechidah Apex of the Yud Keter-Adam Kadmon
Nefesh HaChiyunit  Chayah Yud Aba
Nefesh HaSichlit Neshamah Heh Ima
Nefesh HaTiv’it Ru’ach Waw Ze’ir Anpin
Nefesh HaBahamit Nefesh Heh Nukvah

Table 3. Five Souls vis-à-vis the Expanded Five-Element Tetragrammaton

Each ascending number of souls reflects greater granularity and another spiritual structure. Thus, one encounters scholars of Kabbalah or Chasidic philosophy who maintain that there are two, three, four, or five souls, with five represented thus:

  1. Nefesh HaElokit (godly soul;*);
  2. Nefesh HaBahamit (animal soul);
  3. Nefesh HaSichlit (intellectual soul);
  4. Nefesh HaChiyunit (essential or living soul); and
  5. Nefesh HaTiv’it (natural soul).

According to this last opinion, each of these five souls has four levels—nefesh, ru’ach, neshamah, and chayah. Nefesh HaElokit, additionally, has yechidah—bringing the total to twenty-one levels:

Souls/Levels Nefesh Ru’ach Neshamah Chayah Yechidah
Nefesh HaElokit (NhE) Nefesh of NhE Ru’ach of NhE Neshamah of NhE Chayah of NhE Yechidah of NhE
Nefesh HaChiyunit (NhC) Nefesh of NhC Ru’ach of NhC Neshamah of NhC Chayah of NhC  
Nefesh HaSichlit (NhS) Nefesh of NhS Ru’ach of NhS Neshamah of NhS Chayah of NhS  
Nefesh HaTiv’it (NhT) Nefesh of NhT Ru’ach of NhT Neshamah of NhT Chayah of NhT  
Nefesh HaBahamit (NhB) Nefesh of NhB Ru’ach of NhB Neshamah of NhB Chayah of NhB  

Table 4. Levels of the Soul

Last, there is an opinion that there is only one soul, but with Nefesh HaBahamit, Nefesh HaElokit, Nefesh HaSichlit, Nefesh HaChiyunit, and Nefesh HaTiv’it as five facets of that soul. This opinion does not contradict that of scholars who maintain that there are five souls. The latter view looks from our human vantage point, whereas the former sees from the vantage point of G‑d. In other words, those who maintain that there are five souls speak of the outer structure as it appears to us; and those who maintain that there is only one soul speak of the essential, albeit hidden, unity of all souls.

Despite some ambiguity about the total number of souls, the big picture is clear. Two souls are at odds—the godly soul, Nefesh HaElokit, and the natural self-centered soul. Whether we call that natural soul Nefesh HaBahamit, Nefesh HaChiyunit, or Nefesh HaTiv’it matters little. Whether we consider these souls separate souls or different facets of the same soul does not matter very much, either. The fact that different names are used to denote this natural soul simply results from the complexity of the natural soul and its function. Each of these names highlights a particular aspect of the natural soul. Thus Nefesh HaChiyunit (the essential — or living — soul) pertains to and highlights the basic function of the natural soul—to enliven the body. Nefesh HaTiv’it pertains to the nature of the person, his or her proclivities, talents, tastes, likes, and dislikes. Nefesh HaBahamit highlights the egocentricity of the person. Thus, one may say that from a bird’s-eye view, Nefesh HaBahamit, Nefesh HaChiyunit, and Nefesh HaTiv’it are synonymous. However, a more nuanced view picks up subtle differences that are reflected in their names. Like any synonyms, they denote the same concept but highlight different nuances. The intellectual soul, Nefesh HaSichlit, serves as the bridge between the godly soul and the living (or natural) soul.

The dialectic tension between and the juxtaposition of the divine soul and the living soul mediated by the intellectual soul will play a critical role in the model of the soul that we shall attempt to develop in future installments.


[90] I am grateful to my teacher and friend, Rabbi Hirsh Rabisky, for elucidating this point.

[91] As explained in Tanya, Likutei Amarim, ch. 6.

* Although Tanya lists Nefesh HaElokit as the second soul (Nefesh HaSheini), because it enters the body much later than the first soul—Nefesh HaBahamit, here, we don’t follow the chronological order but, instead start with the highest soul—godly soul—and proceed in the descending order as souls get coarser and coarser

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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