Harry Freedman
Writing on Jewish history, Jewish books, Jewish ideas

When a Soul Sins

Racheli Raz via the PikiWiki - Israel free image collection project. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

In biblical Hebrew the word nefesh, which we usually translate as ‘soul’, is often used to mean ‘somebody’ or ‘a person’. It is used in such a sense in Leviticus 4,2: “When a person (nefesh) unintentionally sins.”

The early midrashic collection Vayikra Rabba (4,5) does not translate the verse in this way. It understands the word nefesh literally, as meaning: “When a soul sins”. It illustrates the point it wants to make with a well known parable, about a king who appoints two watchmen to guard his orchard. One is blind and the other lame. The king warns them not to steal the fruit in the orchard.

The watchmen are not as honest as the king hopes. They decide to help themselves to the fruit. But the blind man cannot see the fruit, and the lame man cannot climb up into the tree to get it. So the blind man bends down, hoists the lame man onto his shoulders, and between them they manage to reach into the trees and pick the fruit.

The king of course is furious but they each have a good excuse. “It wasn’t me” said the blind man “how could I see the fruit to pick it?” “It wasn’t me” said the lame man, “how could I climb the trees?”

But the king, being a king, is no fool. He knows what they have done. He makes the blind man appear before him carrying the lame man on his shoulders. He judges them as one.

The midrash uses this parable to illustrate divine justice. When a person sins, the soul blames the body “How I could do anything? I am insubstantial, I have no physical power. It was him”. The body also claims innocence “I am lifeless, I can’t do anything. It was the soul’s doing.” Divine justice therefore judges the body and soul as one.

This is a simple parable and it is full of holes. But it reflects an important stage in the development of religious thought. The midrash understands the body and soul, the physical and spiritual, as partners. The soul is superior, it has a divine origin, but in terms of our actions it is indistinguishable from the body. We have a responsibility to our bodies, to the material world, just as we do to our souls, to our spiritual well being.

Later, mystical thought takes a different perspective. From the 12th century onwards, initially in the mystical book Bahir, the soul starts to take on an independent existence. The body becomes a garment for the soul. Like all garments, the body wears out, it is replaceable.  This change in the nature of the relationship between body and soul allows the theory of reincarnation to become more central to kabbalistic thought.

Biblical Hebrew of course knows none of this. The soul, as depicted in Genesis, is the life force, breathed into Adam’s prostrate, unliving body. There is scant reference in the bible to the soul, per se, as distinguishable from the body.

The idea of the soul as an independent entity, the consequent doctrines of after-life, reincarnation and divine justice are all topics that developed long after the biblical period ended. The parable of the blind man and the lame man represents just an early stage in this development.

Harry Freedman’s 2014 book The Talmud: A Biography is now available in paperback on Amazon. His most recent book,  Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul is available from Bloomsbury Publications, Amazon or His biography of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs will be published in the second half of 2020.

About the Author
My latest book, Reason to Believe is the authorised biography of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs. Louis Jacobs was Britain’s most gifted Jewish scholar. A Talmudic genius, outstanding teacher and accomplished author, cultured and easy-going, he was widely expected to become Britain’s next Chief Rabbi. Then controversy struck. The Chief Rabbi refused to appoint him as Principal of Jews’ College, the country’s premier rabbinic college. He further forbade him from returning as rabbi to his former synagogue. All because of a book Jacobs had written some years earlier, challenging from a rational perspective the traditional belief in the origins of the Torah. The British Jewish community was torn apart. It was a scandal unlike anything they had ever previously endured. The national media loved it. Jacobs became a cause celebre, a beacon of reason, a humble man who wouldn’t be compromised. His congregation resigned en masse and created a new synagogue for him in Abbey Road, the heart of fashionable 1970s London. It became the go-to venue for Jews seeking reasonable answers to questions of faith. A prolific author of over 50 books and hundreds of articles on every aspect of Judaism, from the basics of religious belief to the complexities of mysticism and law, Louis Jacobs won the heart and affection of the mainstream British Jewish community. When the Jewish Chronicle ran a poll to discover the Greatest British Jew, Jacobs won hands down. He said it made him feel daft. Reason To Believe tells the dramatic and touching story of Louis Jacobs’s life, and of the human drama lived out by his family, deeply wounded by his rejection. Reason to Believe was published by Bloomsbury Continuum in November 2020 in the UK and will be published on 12 January 2021 in the USA. You can find out more about my books and why I write them at
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