What is a Soul? III (6). The Many Souls of Man—Levels of the Souls

Licensed from Shutterstock

In the previous installments of The Many Souls of Man, we discussed five different souls including the animal soul, Nefesh HaBahamit, the godly soul, Nefesh HaElokit, the intellectual soul, Nefesh HaSichlit, Other Souls, and their relationship, How Many Souls?  Before that, we discussed various levels of the soul in the post, What Is a Soul? II. Anatomy of the Soul. Today, we will are going to explore the relationship between the souls and the levels of each soul.

Levels of the Souls

To clarify the difference among souls and levels, the following analogy may help. Consider two different chemical substances, say, water and alcohol. Each of these substances can exist in any of the following four states: solid, liquid, gas, and ionized plasma. Although water and alcohol typically exist as liquids, they may be frozen to form solid ice [92] or evaporated to form gas. [93] If heated to very high temperatures, [94] these gases can ionize [95] and form plasma. In addition to these four classical states of matter, there are exotic quantum states, such as a Bose-Einstein condensate. These five states of matter make a good metaphor for the levels of the soul. While different souls in this analogy correspond to different chemical substances, the levels of the soul correspond to different states in which these substances can exist:

State of Matter  Level of the souls
Exotic states Yechidah
Plasma Chayah
Gas Neshamah
Liquid Ru’ach
Solid Nefesh

Table 5. The states of Matter as a Metaphor for the Levels of the Soul

This metaphor is particularly appropriate, for the following two reasons. First, as mentioned above, the five levels of the soul parallel the four worlds (Atzilut, Beriyah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah). Above Atzilut, there is a higher spiritual realm, called Adam Kadmon, which cannot be classified as a “world.” (In Kabbalah, olam, “world,” means concealment—helem, which is cognate with olam. Since there is no concealment in Adam Kadmon, it cannot be properly called a “world.”) These worlds represent progressive diminution and concealment of the divine light. However, this diminution is not linear. There is a significant drop at each level. The phase transition of matter is the best metaphor for the transitions of divine “energy” from one world to the next. Thus, we expand our table as follows:

State of Matter  Level of the souls  World
Exotic states Yechidah Keter/Adam Kadmon 
Plasma Chayah Atzilut
Gas Neshamah Beriyah
Liquid Ru’ach Yetzirah
Solid Nefesh Asiyah

Table 6. The States of Matter as a Metaphor for the Levels of the Soul and Worlds

Second, in classical philosophy and in medieval Jewish philosophy, the levels of the soul are often compared to four yesodot (literally, “foundations,” or classical elements)—aish (“fire”), ru’ach (“air”), mayim (“water”), and afar (“dust”). [96] These four foundations (elements) correspond to the four letters of Tetragrammaton. [97] The Arizal states:

From these four elements, which are hinted to by the four letters of the Tetragrammaton, all of physical creation was brought into existence. [98]

All Natural souls are seen as originating from these four foundations and combinations thereof. These four foundations or elements correspond to four levels of Nefesh HaTiv’it. These foundations are not material elements as in Greek philosophy; they are metaphysical categories that are best conceived of as spiritual counterparts of the four states of matter. Afar (dust) parallels the solid state, mayim (water) parallels the liquid state, ru’ach (air) parallels the gas state, and aish (fire) parallels plasma (indeed, physical fire is ionized gas—plasma). Thus, our table can be expanded as follows:

State of Matter  Level of the souls  World Foundation/Element 
Exotic states Yechidah Keter/Adam Kadmon  None [99]
Plasma Chayah Atzilut Aish (fire)
Gas Neshamah Beriyah Ru’ach (air)
Liquid Ru’ach Yetzirah Mayim (water)
Solid Nefesh Asiyah Afar (dust)

Table 7. States, Levels, Worlds, Elements

This simile goes even further. In physics, the relationship between energy and temperature is linear within each state. For example, the temperature/energy of water rises linearly as the water is heated, until it reaches the boiling point of 100 °C. As the water continues to be heated, its temperature does not rise; instead, the energy is used for the phase transition—breaking molecular bonds to convert water from the liquid state to the gaseous state, that is, initiating the evaporation of the water. This process is called the first-order phase transition. Something similar happens during an individual’s spiritual growth. As a person works on himself or herself, his or her spiritual level rises linearly in proportion to the amount of effort exerted. However, as the soul approaches the first “boiling” point—the point of transition from one level of the soul to the next—continued effort seems not to elevate the person further. It appears to the person that he or she is stuck at that level. In truth, all the energy exerted on spiritual growth is not lost—it is used to elevate the person to a new level—to reveal in the person the higher level of the soul. If, say, the soul first revealed was at the level on nefesh, the next level to be revealed is ru’ach. However, this process is not linear. A significant and sustained effort needs to be made (while working on oneself without visible progress) to transition from one soul level to the next—exactly as in the first-order phase transition.

Just as any chemical substance can exist in any of five states, so too can any of the souls be expressed on four—and in the case of Nefesh Elokit—five levels.

It is worth noting that while each soul can potentially be revealed on all levels, typically each soul primarily manifests itself on the one level characteristic of that soul. For example, Nefesh HaBahamit primarily manifests itself at the level of nefesh. But Nefesh Elokit primarily reveals itself at the level of neshamah. That is why, when used without specifying the level, Nefesh HaBahamit usually means the nefesh level of Nefesh HaBahamit, whereas Nefesh Elokit usually means the neshamah level of Nefesh Elokit.

On the other hand, when medieval Jewish philosophers wrote about nefesh, they meant what we today would call Nefesh HaBahamit, and when they wrote about neshamah, they meant what we today would call Nefesh HaElokit.

This installment concludes the Many Souls of Man. However, in future posts, we will continue the series What is a Soul?


[92] Water freezes at 32 °F or 0 °C, whereas pure ethanol alcohol freezes at -173°F or -114 °C.

[93] Water evaporates at 212 °F or 100 °C, whereas pure ethanol alcohol evaporates at 174 °F or 78.2 °C.

[94] In a closed system, the temperature at which a vapor becomes ionized depends on the pressure. To cause electrons to escape their atomic orbits in molecules of water, for example, they have to have the energy of at least 12 electron volts. To excite the electrons to this level of energy, one would need to heat the water to a blistering 12,000 °Kelvin (21,140 °F), which is very difficult but not impossible.

[95] Normal gas consists of molecules made of neutral atoms, where the number of electrons in an atom is equal to the number of protons in the nucleus (an electron has a negative electric charge -1, and a proton has a positive electric charge +1; thus, an equal number of electrons and protons neutralize each other giving the atom a total charge of zero). In an ionized gas, atoms have either extra electrons, giving the atom a negative charge, or fewer electrons than protons, giving the atom a positive charge. Atoms that have an electric charge (where the number of electrons does not equal the number of protons) are called ions. Ionized gas is made of charged ions, instead of neutral atoms. For example, plasma made from water has free electrons, positively charged water ions H2O+, and other positive ions such as O+, H+, and OH+.

[96] Midrash Rabba, Numbers, 14:12.

[97] Zohar Vayera 23.

[98] Sha’ar HaGilgulim (Gate of  Reincarnations) 18:4. (See  “The Four Elementals,”,, retrieved December 5, 2021.)

[99] Yechidah does not have a parallel in four foundations (elements). It is not surprising because the four foundations are seen as the spiritual sources of the Natural Soul, whereas yechidah is only found in the divine soul.


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.
Related Topics
Related Posts