Five Levels of the Soul


The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 14:9 and Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:37) identifies 5 levels of the soul. When discussing these levels the author would like to make the following points:

  • It is difficult to explain these levels in concrete terms because the soul is a spiritual gift from Hashem while the language of man is primarily physical.
  • It is even more to difficult to explain these levels in English (or any other language than Hebrew) because these languages are manmade and cannot effectively convey the nuance of these levels. By contrast, Hebrew is the both the language of Hashem who gives the soul to man and the language of scripture which uses these 5 terms.
  • Despite these disclaimers, one can obtain an understanding of this topic through analogies as explained below in the following section “Nature of the Soul’, through similar words in scripture or Mishna, and related passages in the Talmud, Midrash, and Zohar. 
  • Words in scripture at a literal level refer to the natural world. Hence the terms soul, spirit, and, and divine soul may even include animals in addition to reference to mankind.  However at the Kabbalistic level these terms refer to the 5 levels of the soul as explained below.     

With these limitations in mind, the discussion continues by introducing the following table which provides the Hebrew and English name, feature, and related verse in scripture for each level of the soul. This table will be explained in detail during the course of this article.

נפשSoul (animal)Growth or desireDeuteronomy 12:23
רוחSpiritCharacter or moodEcclesiastes 3:21
נשמהIntellect (divine soul)Prayer and  Torah studyGenesis 2:7
חיהLife (spiritual eternal)Spiritual lifeGenesis 2:7
יחידהUniqueOne with HashemPsalms 22:21

Nature of the Soul

The reader may ask, “How do we define or perceive the soul?” The Midrash (ibid.) and Talmud Berachot 10a answer this question by comparing Hashem to the physical world and by analogy the soul to the body. Both Hashem and the soul are spiritual and can only be explained to physical man in terms of analogy. The following table lists the attributes of the soul based upon the Talmud (5 attributes) and Midrash (6). The order of the attributes follows the listing of the Talmud. The Midrash has similar attributes with a different order.

Attribute of HashemTalmudMidrash
Hashem fills the worldSoul fills the bodySoul fills the body
Hashem sees but is not seenSoul sees but is not seenSoul sees but is not seen
Hashem nourishes the worldSouls nourishes the bodySouls sustains the body
Hashem is pureSoul is pure in the bodySoul is pure in the body
Hashem resides in inner sanctumSoul resides in inner chamber             —-          
Hashem is unique in world           —-Soul is unique in the body
Hashem never sleeps          —-Soul never sleeps

Another Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 4:8) lists 8 attributes of the soul, 6 as mentioned above and the others are that a soul, like Hashem, does not eat or perish. This introduction still leaves many questions about the soul unanswered which will be addressed in the following sections layer by layer.  

Literal Meaning – פשט – Sources in Scripture

This section will analyze the five levels of the soul through a survey of scripture where the Hebrew words for these levels are used in the following contexts:

  1. Animal kingdom.
  2. Physical man.
  3. Spiritual man.
  4. Hashem.

First Level of Soul – נפש

Although the literal meaning of the word נפש is soul, scripture uses this word in many contexts as follows.

Animal kingdom

The first time a word appears in scripture sets a connotation for that word. For example, the Torah uses this word in its first 4 times in reference to the animal kingdom (Genesis 1:20, 21, 24 and 30) for the 5th and 6th days of creation. The word soul did not appear earlier in the Torah because vegetation, created on the third day does not possess a soul.

Physical man

This level corresponds to man’s physical (animal nature) involving nourishment and procreation. The above Midrash quotes the verse in Deuteronomy 12:23, “For the blood is the soul (נפש)”, meaning that the circulation of blood is essential for animal and human life. In fact the presence of blood differentiates animals from vegetation. A similar statement is found in Leviticus 17:11, “For the blood is in the soul (נפש).” This word also refers to desire to consume food (e.g. meat or wine) as in Deuteronomy 12:15, 20, and 21.   

Spiritual man

In spiritual matters, the Kabbalah analyzes the connection between man and Hashem. When Hashem initiates or commands the action, this is then termed from above to below. When man initiates the action this is termed from below to above. Ideally man should connect with Hashem even when not commanded. Hence commandments will eventually lead to a connection from below to above. This distinction applies to man’s relationship with Hashem in term of the 5 levels of the soul.    

Above to below

In this case the word “soul” נפש refers to man’s spiritual nature to serve Hashem through Torah study, prayer, and observing the commandments (e.g. Deuteronomy 6:5, 11:13, and 26:16) as instructed by Hashem (i.e. above to below) thereby directing the animal soul to serve Hashem. It is interesting to note that the Torah uses the word “(animal) soul” נפש to refer to man’s spiritual nature, illustrating the difficulty of directly linking the words of the Torah to the world of Kabbalah. Nevertheless the author will attempt to integrate these worlds when discussing the 5 levels of the soul.

The Pentateuch focuses on this aspect of serving Hashem in the imperative form as shown in the following verses.

Deuteronomy 6:5 – “You shall love Hashem with all your heart, soul, and resources.” This verse refers to love of Hashem through Torah study as indicated by the following verses in the Torah (ibid 6:6 and 7) which speak of Torah study.

Deuteronomy 11:13 – “… To love Hashem and serve him with all your heart and soul.” This verse refers to love of Hashem through prayer as the Talmud Taanit 2a states that service of the heart is prayer.

Deuteronomy 26:16 – “This day Hashem commands you to perform these decrees and statutes … with all your heart and soul”, refers to serving Hashem through the commandments.

Below to above

The divine soul instinctively seeks a connection with Hashem, even if not commanded, just as the animal soul desires physicality without any commandment. The book of Psalms provides many examples of this yearning for Hashem (i.e. below to above – man to Hashem) using the analogy to the physical soul. For example Psalms 63:6 compares the spiritual enjoyment when praising Hashem to the physical enjoyment of dining upon a good cut of meat, “As with choice foods and fat, my soul will be sated, when my mouth praises with expressions of song.”

For the sake of brevity the author will only quote a few other verses from Psalms that refer to the soul yearning for Hashem.

42:2 – “As a hart cries longingly for rivulets of water, so does my soul cry longingly to You, G-d.”

42:3 – “My soul thirsts for the living G-d. When will I come and appear before G-d?”

63:2 – “O G-d … I seek You (divine). My soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You, in an arid and thirsty land, without water.”

63:9 – “My soul has clung after You (divine).”

These two devotional chapters of psalms use the term “my soul” 5 and 4 times respectively.  By contrast the term “my soul” only appears 11 times in the Pentateuch. In terms of context, Psalms 42 speaks of the suffering of Israelites in exile and their longing for a deep connection to Hashem through the temple in Jerusalem. In a literal sense, Psalm 63 speaks of the travails of David when fleeing from Saul in the desert of Judah. By extension these psalms refer to yearning for Hashem through times of difficulty, whether personal or national. 

In addition King David uses the expression, “(Let) my soul bless Hashem (נפשי ברכי) exactly 5 times (Psalms 103:1-2 and 22, 104:1, 35) corresponding to the 5 level of the soul which will be explained later in this article. It is interesting to note that this expression (נפשי ברכי) is not used in any other place in scripture.


In addition to serving Hashem, the physical soul can also rebel against Hashem, as the Torah (Numbers 15:30) describes the blasphemer, “A person (literally a soul) who shall act high-handedly, whether native or convert, he blasphemed Hashem. That person (literally soul) shall be cut off from his people.”  The Torah (Leviticus 4:2 and 27) also recognizes that the physical soul may commit an offence unintentionally, for example when describing the various sin offerings.

Hashem’s Perspective

The Torah uses the term “my soul” directly in reference to Hashem in the following verses from the book of Leviticus:

26:11 – “I (Hashem) will place My Sanctuary among you. My Soul will not reject you.”

26:30 – “… I (Hashem) will cast your carcasses upon the carcasses of your idols. My Soul will reject you.”

These two verses illustrate the duality of the relationship of Hashem with the Israelites. If the Israelites follow the commandments of the Torah then Hashem will draw close to them. However if the Israelites follow idolatry then Hashem will reject them. It is interesting to note that both verses use the words “soul” and “rejection” in reference to Hashem.  Of course these terms cannot be interpreted literally but must be understood in a figurative sense. Both the Targum Onkelos and Yonatan ben Uziel interpret the word “soul” as “word” (מימרי) and “rejection” as distance (רחק). Rashi (ibid. 26:30) quoting the Sifra explains the rejection as the removal of the Shechinah from the Israelites. The commentator Ohr HaChaim (ibid.) notes that the removal of the Shechinah, when the Israelites do not follow Hashem, may also apply to the righteous, denying them the closeness to Hashem because of the lack of spirituality amongst the Israelites.    

Second Level of Soul – רוח

Although the literal meaning of the word רוח is wind or spirit, scripture uses this word in many contexts as follows.

Animal kingdom

Like the first level of the soul, the Torah uses this word “spirit (רוח)” in its first 3 times in reference to the animal kingdom and destruction of man in the flood (Genesis 6:17, 7:15, and 7:22). In this sense the word spirit refers to the breath, movement (like the wind), and emotions of an animal or a person. It is interesting to note that for each of these examples the Torah uses the expression “spirit of life” (חיים רוח) contrasting the life of the animals before the flood with their demise because of the flood. Verse 7:15 speaks of the animals entering the ark to preserve their lives. After this incident scripture does not use the expression “spirit of life”.

Physical man

In addition to the life force of the spirit as mentioned above, this spirit may refer to man in terms of:

  • Emotion or disposition.
  • Well being.
  • Psychological nature.
  • Emotional/religious feeling.
Emotion or disposition

For example Isaac and Rebecca were disappointed by Esau’s marriage to women of the Hittites, as the verse says (Genesis 26:35), “They (these women) were a source of spiritual rebellion (רוח מרת) to Isaac and Rebecca (based on Targum Onkelos and Rashi).” However the Ibn Ezra translates this verse as “They (these women) were a source of disappointment (literally a bitter spirit רוח מרת) to Isaac and Rebecca.” 

Well being

The word “spirit” may refer to one’s state of well being as in the vernacular “to raise one’s spirits”. For example when Jacob heard that his beloved son Joseph was alive the verse relates (Genesis 45:27), “The spirit (רוח) of their father Jacob was revived.” 

Psychological nature

The word “spirit” may also apply in a psychological sense as “breaking one’s spirit”.  The Torah records (Exodus 6:9) that the Israelites did not believe Moses that they would be redeemed from Egypt because of their “shortness of spirit” (רוח מקצר) and hard work meaning that “their spirits were crushed by cruel bondage”.

Emotional/religious feeling

The word “spirit” may also apply in an emotional/religious feeling. For example the Torah (Numbers 5:14) relates that a husband may warn his wife about infidelity with a spirit of zealousness (קנאה רוח). The Talmud (Sotah 3a) indicates that this spirit may originate from pure (i.e. angelic) or impure (i.e. Satanic) sources because the husband is not sure about his wife’s actions. In addition before becoming upset, the husband should examine his own behaviour to determine the ultimate cause of his wife’s behaviour.

Spiritual Man

Above to Below

This word may also refer to divine inspiration in terms of wisdom, prophecy, and divine service.


The first time this word is used in the sense of as wisdom is when Pharaoh praises Joseph (Genesis 41:38), “Pharaoh said to his servants: Can we find another like him (i.e. Joseph) – a man in whom is the spirit of G-d (ם-י-ה-ל-א רוח)?” Here Pharaoh realized that Hashem had gifted Joseph with exceptional wisdom to correctly interpret his dreams and offer sound economic advice, in contrast to Pharaoh’s advisors who were not up to the task. Similarly Hashem endowed Bezalel with the “spirit of G-d” (ם-י-ה-ל-א רוח) to construct the Tabernacle as the verse states (Exodus 31:3), “I (Hashem) have filled him (Bezalel) with a G-dly spirit with wisdom, insight, and knowledge and with every craft.”


This divine inspiration may lead to prophecy as shown by the following verses (1 Samuel Chapter 10) which speak of the transformation of King Saul after his coronation by Samuel the Prophet. 

Verse 6 – “And the spirit of Hashem will pass over you (Saul), and you will prophesy with them, and you will be turned into another man.”

Verse 10 – “The spirit of G-d passed upon him (Saul), and he (Saul) prophesied in their midst.”

However this gift of inspiration may be retracted and replaced by an evil spirit if the person does not follow the ways of Hashem. In fact by not destroying the people and property of Amalek, Hashem withdrew the kingdom from Saul (1 Samuel 15:11 and 26) and as a result lost the gift of inspiration which was the transferred to his successor King David as the following verses relate (1 Samuel Chapter 16):

Verse 13 – “And Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him (David) in the midst of his brothers. And a spirit of Hashem passed over David from that day forth.”

Verse 14 – “And the spirit of Hashem departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from Hashem frightened him.”

Verse 15 – “And Saul’s servants said to him, “Behold now, an evil spirit of G-d is frightening you.”

Messianic Era

The spirit of Hashem will be manifest in the messianic era as Hashem will endow his spirit to the messiah and mankind as the following verses indicate.

Isaiah 11:2 – “And a spirit of Hashem will rest upon him (the messiah), a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of Hashem.”  

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 93b) points out Ruth would be privileged to have six distinguished descendants (i.e. David, Daniel, Chananyah, Mishael, Azaryah, and the Messiah) who would in turn each receive six blessings. The six blessings of the verse refer to the 3 mentions of spirit with 2 blessings per mention. The first mention of spirit is not included in this count of 6 because this mention is an introduction for the six blessings.

In addition to the messiah as a leader and role model, Hashem will grant the gift of prophecy to the world through His glorious spirit as follows:

Joel 3:1 – “And it shall come to pass that I will pour out My (divine) spirit upon all flesh (i.e. Jews and gentiles), and your sons and daughters shall prophesy; your elders shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions.”

Joel 3:2 – “And even upon the slaves and the maidservants in those days will I pour out My (divine) spirit.”

In a similar vein the prophet Ezekiel (Chapter 36) predicts a vast change in human nature where mankind will be transformed to the level of Adam before eating from the Tree of Knowledge. This new spirit will lead mankind to instinctively serve Hashem with love (Radak) and reverence (Targum Jonathan ben Uzziel).

Verse 26 – “And I (Hashem) shall give you a new heart, and a new spirit shall I put within you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”

Below to Above

The following verse in Ezekiel speaks of a greater transformation where this divine spirit will lead the Israelites from a general awareness of Hashem (i.e. love and reverence of Hashem) to meticulously following the commandments (i.e. below to above) even those for which the reason is not readily apparent (i.e. decrees as explained by Rashi on Leviticus 18:4 and Yoma 67b). This verse calls this spirit My (divine) spirit. By contrast the previous verse referred to a new spirit which is a more general term. 

Verse 27 – “And My (divine) spirit shall I put within you, and I shall cause you to go by My decrees and guard My laws and perform them.”

Third Level of Soul – נשמה

Animal Kingdom

Like the first level of the soul, the Torah uses this word “divine soul (נשמה)” in reference to the  animal kingdom and destruction of man in the flood (Genesis 7:22). In this sense the word “divine soul” refers to the origin of the soul, given by Hashem. In addition the word “נשמה” is derived from the word breath (נשימה) indicating that life is recognizable by breath, whether animal or man.

Physical man

In addition to the animals, this term “נשמה” usually refers to man, whether in a positive or negative context.

Positive Context

For example Isaiah, in a prophecy about the future, provides encouragement to the Israelites who will live after the destruction of the first temple. He advises them to consider that Hashem created the world for a purpose and will redeem the Israelites from exile. This message is equally applicable for the present where the Israelites look forward to the coming of the messiah and the building of the third temple. For these reasons this section of Isaiah was chosen for the haphtarah of parshat Breishit (Isaiah 42:5-43:10 and in some communities 42:5-21). At the beginning of the haphtarah Isaiah declares, “So said Hashem, Who creates the heavens and stretches them forth, spreads out the earth and what grows from it, gives a soul (נשמה)  to the people upon it, and a spirit to (רוח) to those who walk on it.” This verse is particularly germane to this discussion of the 5 levels of the soul because the verse:

  • Indicates the divine origin of the soul and Hashem’s plan for the world.
  • Mentions 2 levels of the soul, namely spirit (רוח) and divine soul (נשמה), above the first level (נפש).
  • Is somewhat obscure because it does not specify which level is higher.
  • Highlights the difficulty in relating the literal meaning of the verse to the explanations of Kabbalah.

Rashi on this verse explains that the spirit is at a higher level than the (divine) soul following the order of the verse (i.e. soul then spirit). He identifies the soul as the source of life, the spirit with a holy spirit, and those who walk as walking in the ways of Hashem. Redak takes the opposite approach with the soul exclusively reserved for man and while the spirit may apply to both animals and man. Each commentator uses other verses in scripture to bolster their interpretation. In fact both use Genesis 2:7 to explain the (divine) soul as the Torah relates, “Hashem formed man from the dust of the ground, and He (divine) blew into his nostrils a soul of life (חיים נשמת); and man became a living being.” According to Rashi the soul refers to mankind in general, as opposed to the animals, without emphasizing his spiritual nature. He interprets spirit as a holy spirit as described above in the section “Second Level of the Soul – Spiritual Man”. By contrast Redak understands the soul to refer to man’s special qualities, especially the intellect, over the animals as implied by Genesis 2:7. He interprets the word “spirit” as referring to animals as described in the section “Second Level of the Soul – Animal Kingdom”. From this disagreement we see the difficulty in relating the literal meaning of the verses to the Kabbalistic description of the soul.      

Negative Context

For example, Deuteronomy 20:16 refers to the enemies of Israel in Canaan. The Torah commands the Israelites when waging war to conquer Canaan, “You shall not allow any soul (נשמה) to live.” Similar verses appear in Joshua 11:11 and 11:14 describing the successful conquest of Israel and the enemies killed in these battles. Lest the reader think that the Israelites are a war mongering people, Maimonides (Laws of Kings 6:5), based upon the Jerusalem Talmud (Sheviit 6:1) explains, “Joshua sent three letters to the Canaanites before entering the promised land as follows, whoever desires:

  1. To flee; should flee.
  2. To accept a peaceful settlement; should make peace.
  3. To wage war, should do battle.”

Perhaps, the Torah uses the word (divine) soul in this context to emphasize that a (divine) soul should not interfere with Hashem’s plan (e.g. the Israelites taking the land of Israel) or else face dire consequences.

Spiritual Man

Above to Below

Hashem has endowed man with a divine soul as the verse states (Genesis 2:7), “Hashem formed man from the dust of the ground, and He (Hashem) blew into his nostrils a soul of life (חיים נשמת); and man became a living being.” Hence we see that man is both a physical (i.e. dust of the ground) and spiritual (i.e. soul of life directly from Hashem) being. The divine soul resides in every human being for a potential relationship with Hashem.

Below to Above

However this potential while innate is not automatic and must be developed through studying the Torah and performing its commandments as the verse states Proverbs (20:27), “Man’s soul is Hashem’s lamp, which searches out all the innermost parts.” Gersonides, medieval French Jewish philosopher, biblical commentator and Talmudist, explains that the soul will use Hashem’s illumination to fathom the secrets of the world. The closer one comes to Hashem the more secrets will be revealed to him according to the verse (Psalms 25:14), “The secret of Hashem is with those who reverse Him, and His covenant is to let them know it.”

King David ends his book of Psalms with the verse (150:6), “Let every soul (הנשמה), praise Hashem”, indicating that the soul which came from Hashem should in turn praise Hashem to realize the soul’s potential. 

Fourth Level of Soul – חיה

As explained in the introduction, the soul is composed of 5 levels of which the first three are active in daily life. The remaining two levels (viz. חיה and יחידה) relate to the world of Kabbalah and are therefore much rarer in daily life and certainly do not apply to animals. Therefore these two levels are barely hinted at in scripture and require the Midrash and Zohar for elaboration. The word חיה, which means life, alive and also wild animals, occurs 32 times in scripture. The first six occurrences (viz. Genesis 1:20, 24, 28, and 30; 2:7, 19) relate to the narrative of creation and refer to the life of animals, except for Genesis 1:30 and 2:7 which refer to man and his divine soul as explained by the Midrash. The next four occurrences (viz. Genesis 9:5, 12, 15, and 16) similarly refer to the animals. The remaining verses refer to life in general or animals. The expression חיה כעת, literally “at a living time or time of life”, occurs four times in scripture (Genesis 18:10 and 14; 2 Kings 4:16 and 17) and refers to the birth of a child when the mother had not previously conceived, hence the emphasis on life. The point of this analysis is to show that the 4th level of the soul is not directly hinted at in scripture and requires the oral Torah for elaboration.

Fifth Level of Soul – יחידה

As explained in the previous section the level of (יחידה) “unity or singularity” relates to the world of Kabbalah and is therefore exceedingly rare in daily life and certainly does not apply to animals. In fact, the word יחידה occurs only once in scripture in reference to the only child of Jephthah and not to the levels of the soul. The verse reads (Judges 11:34), “And Jephthah came to his house in Mizpah, and behold, his daughter was coming out towards him with timbrels and dances; and she was an only (יחידה) child, he had from her neither a son nor a daughter”.

Two verses in Psalms allude to the soul in a general sense using the word יחידתי, literally my only one, but not in reference to the 5th level, as follows:

22:21 – “Save my soul from the sword, my only one (יחידתי) from the grip of the dog.”

35:17 – “Return my soul from their darkness, my only one (יחידתי) from young lions.”

In both verses King David beseeches Hashem to save his soul from his enemies who are compared to dogs (gentiles) or lions (Israelites). Many of King Saul’s followers became enemies of David, who later became king of Israel, despite the fact that David prayed for them (ibid. 35:13) and considered them as family (ibid. 35:14). Several commentators extend this plea to the Israelites as a whole who seek refuge from their many tormentors. In fact, the end of Psalm 22 speaks of the messianic era where the Israelites will honour and revere Hashem (verse 24), all the nations will return to Hashem (verse 28), and Hashem will rule the world (verse 29). In this sense the expression “my only one (יחידתי)” may refer to an enhanced awareness of the soul at the time of the messiah.    

Targum Yonatan ben Uziel translates this word (יחידתי) as the soul of the body (22:21) or the body itself (35:17). Redak, on these verses, explains that the word (יחידתי) refers to the uniqueness of the soul but not the soul itself like the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 14:9).

In addition the Torah uses the word (יחידך) meaning “your only one” in reference to the binding of Isaac on the altar (Genesis 22:2, 12, and 16). In a literal sense this word refers to the special connection between Abraham and Isaac and the fact Isaac was the only child of Sarah. However the Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 17:2) finds a hint to the soul in Genesis 22:2, “Hashem said to Abraham: Please take your son, your only one (יחידך) a reference to the soul, whom you love – Isaac … and bring him up as an offering.”       

Although there are many verses in scripture which mention the soul these verses do not directly conform to the hierarchy of the 5 levels of the soul as described in the Midrash and Zohar.

Sources in Mishna and Talmud – דרש

The Mishna and Talmud do not explicitly discuss the five levels of the soul and not even mention the higher levels of spiritual life (חיה) and uniqueness (יחידה).  These sources refer to the lower three levels of the soul in different places but do not specifically address the hierarchy as developed in the Midrash and Zohar. Presumably the Mishna and Talmud did not wish to publicly reveal secrets of the Torah. Since there are numerous citations of the first three levels of the soul in Mishna and Talmud the author, for sake of brevity, will present a few examples of each of these 3 levels.   

First Level Soul – נפש

The Mishna defines the first level of the soul in terms of physical:

  • Life
  • Desires

Physical Life

The Mishna in Berachot 54a, based upon Deuteronomy 6:5, explains that an Israelite must love Hashem, “With all your heart, soul (נפשך), and resources”, meaning that an Israelite must give up his soul (נפש) in the face of idolatry.  Here the Mishna understands soul as synonymous with physical life. In fact the Mishnayot in Avot (4:16-17 in printed Mishna 4:21-22 in prayer book) justify martyrdom because this world is only a preparation for the world to come. However one must perform mitzvoth in this world to obtain a share in the world to come leading to a discussion in the Talmud when saving a life overrides a mitzvah and when saving a mitzvah overrides a life. 

There are many details in the laws of martyrdom which are explained in the article “Sanctification of Hashem” on this web site:

 Physical Desires

The Mishna in Avot (5:19 in printed Mishna and 5:22 in the prayer book) links the first level of the soul to physical desires, especially intimacy, by comparing two extremes, the righteous Abraham with an undemanding soul (שפלה נפש) and the wicked Balaam with a greedy soul (רחבה נפש). Abraham was not interested in physical desires based upon the verse in Genesis 12:11, “Now, I (Abraham) have known that you (Sarah) are a beautiful woman.” The Midrash Tanchuma Lech Lecha 5 on this verse comments that up to this point Abraham did not gaze at Sarah’s beauty. However when they crossed the Nile he saw Sarah’s reflection in the water. By contrast Balaam was driven by his physical desires to depravity. According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 105a) he even had relations with his donkey. In addition he gave the advice to Balak, King of Moab, to seduce the Israelites with Moabite women as the verse states (Numbers 31:16), “Behold! – They caused the children of Israel, by the word of Balaam, to commit a betrayal against Hashem regarding the matter of Peor (i.e. immorality and idolatry Numbers 25:1-2).” Since Balaam conceived of this plan of immorality this indicates that he was himself an immoral person as in the vernacular, “It takes one to know one.”   

Second Level of Soul – רוח

The Mishna and Talmud define the second level of the soul in terms of:

  • Character
  • Attitude
  • Emotional/Religious Feeling


The same Mishna links the second level of the soul to a person’s character or outlook by comparing two extremes, the righteous Abraham with a humble spirit (נמוכה רוח) and the wicked Balaam with a haughty spirit (גבוהה רוח). When pleading for the safety of Sodom, Abraham said to Hashem (Genesis 18:27), “I am but dust and ash.” When Balaam tried to curse the Israelites he boasted (Numbers 24:16) that he possessed the knowledge of the Supreme One (i.e. Hashem). To this preposterous claim the Talmud (ibid. 105b) retorts, “Balaam did not even know what was on his animal’s mind (i.e. the animal saw the angel of Hashem Numbers 22:23). Could he possibly know what was on the mind of the Supreme One?”


Another Mishna in Avot (3:10 in printed Mishna and 3:13 in the prayer book) emphasizes the importance of attitude and comportment with respect to sprit. Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa says, “ If the spirit (רוח) of people are pleased with an individual then the spirit (רוח) of Hashem is pleased with him. (Conversely) If the spirit (רוח) of people are not pleased with an individual then the spirit (רוח) of Hashem is not pleased with him.” This Mishna does not mean that one should cater to the base instincts of the masses (e.g. excessive food, drink, or vulgar entertainment). Rather the Mishna teaches that one should connect to the divine spirit of each individual and set a positive example for the community as the Talmud states (Yoma 86a), “A person shall make the name of Heaven beloved. He should read Torah, learn Mishna, serve Torah scholars, and be pleasant with people in his business transactions. What do people say about such a person? Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah, fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah, woe to the people who have not studied Torah. So-and-so, who taught him Torah, see how pleasant are his ways, how proper are his deeds.”

Emotional/Religious Feeling

The word “spirit” may also apply in an emotional/religious feeling. For example the Torah (Numbers 5:14) relates that a husband may warn his wife about infidelity with a spirit of zealousness (קנאה רוח). The Talmud (Sotah 3a) indicates that this spirit may originate from pure (i.e. angelic) or impure (i.e. Satanic) sources because the husband is not sure about his wife’s actions. In addition before becoming upset, the husband should examine his own behaviour to determine the ultimate cause of his wife’s behaviour. The Talmud (ibid.) quotes Reish Lakish, “A person does not commit a transgression unless a spirit of folly enters him (שטות רוח).” 

Third Level of Soul – נשמה

Divine Origin

Right from creation, Hashem blew a divine soul into Adam (Genesis 2:7) and this process repeats itself in every newborn as the Talmud states (Niddah 31a), “There are three partners in the creation of a person: Hashem, his father, and mother. Hashem gives the spirit (רוח) and (divine) soul (נשמה) and the parents the physical components including part of the animal soul through the flesh and blood which comes from the mother. When a person’s time to depart from the world arrives, the Holy One, Blessed be He, retrieves His part (i.e. spirit and soul), and He leaves the part of the person’s father and mother before them (showing the importance of Hashem’s contribution).”  

The Talmud (ibid.) mentions that in addition to the soul, Hashem endows mankind with the faculties of seeing, hearing, and speech as well as understanding and wisdom. The Midrash (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 5:13) adds the gifts of wisdom, advice (give and receive), and fortitude.

In discussing the purity of the soul, the Talmud (Niddah 30b) relates that when the fetus leaves the womb the angels administer an oath to the newborn child, as follows,” Be righteous and do not be wicked. Know that the Holy One, Blessed be He, is pure, and His ministers are pure, and the soul that He gave you is pure. If you preserve it in a state of purity, all is well, but if you do not keep it pure, I, the angel, may take it from you.”

The Talmud Berachot 60b rules that when a person awakens from sleep in the morning he should recite the following blessing which is an expression of gratitude to Hashem for restoring his vitality with a pure and divine soul. The blessing reads as follows, “My G-d, the soul (נשמה) You (divine) placed within me is pure. You formed it, breathed it into me, and guard it.  Eventually You will take it from me and restore it in the Time to Come (i.e. resurrection). As long as the soul is (נשמה) within me, I thank You … Master of all worlds and Lord of all souls (הנשמות). Blessed are You, Hashem, Who restores souls (נשמות) to dead bodies.” The Talmud Berachot 57b mentions that sleep is 1/60 of death. At a literal level this means that when a person sleeps he is physically inactive. However at a mystical level, as discussed in the following section of sources in Midrash and Zohar, the soul actually leaves the body, rises to heaven and then returns to the body in the morning.     

In our current prayers we add the clause, “You have created it” before the clause, “You formed it.” The Maharsha (on Berachot 60b) comments that these 3 terms (viz. created, formed, and blew) correspond to the first 3 levels of the soul (viz. animal soul, spirit, and divine soul), respectively. It is interesting to note that the Zohar links the first 3 levels of the soul to the Kabbalistic worlds of action, formation, and creation, respectively. This order is different from the order of the blessing upon awakening, highlighting the different ways of understanding the 5 levels of the soul.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a) discusses the actual moment when the divine soul enters the body. Antoninus (Caesar of Rome – likely Marcus Aurelius) suggested this entry at the time of conception. Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi countered when the embryo is fully formed, which is 40 days after conception. Antoninus objected that unrefrigerated meat without salt will spoil after 3 days. Similarly the embryo could not survive without a soul and Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi accepted his argument. However the Talmud in Menachot 99b relates that Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Elazar both say, “The Torah was given in 40 days (Exodus 34:28) and similarly the (divine) soul of man is formed in 40 days. This teaches that anyone who preserves his Torah studies, his (divine) soul is likewise preserved, and anyone who does not preserve his Torah studies, his (divine) soul is not preserved either.” This apparent contradiction may be resolved by differentiating between the stages of development of the divine soul. Initially Hashem places the divine soul in the embryo to maintain life. After 40 days of development, the divine soul is anchored to the body and ready to comprehend Torah instruction as the Talmud states (Niddah 30b), “A fetus is taught the entire Torah while in the womb (through the divine soul but is forgotten at birth).” (In modern parlance, we can say that Hashem “downloads” Torah knowledge to the divine soul in the fetus. As the child grows and studies he in effect accesses this downloaded Torah knowledge.)  

In addition to procreation, man has the ability to produce limited life forms. For example, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) records that Rava created a being (i.e. golem) through mystical means. However this creature could not speak because it lacked a soul which only Hashem can provide. Rashi explains that Rava created this being through the Sefer Yetzirah) (literally book of creation) and by combining the letters of Hashem’s mystical names. The following link provides more information on this source (

In fact Rabbi Moses Cordovero, central figure of 16th century Kabbalah, rules that this creature does not even possess the first level of a soul (נפש). Although this creature can move like an animal it lacks divine energy. (This point will be increasingly relevant when science attempts to produce artificial life.) The halachic codifiers ponder the status of a golem with respect to a quorum of 10 (i.e. minyan) for prayer. Based upon the ruling of Rabbi Cordovero, the majority view is that a golem cannot be included in this quorum because this creature lacks a divine soul. Rather this creature is considered like an animal with a human appearance. (For more information on this discussion the interested reader should consult Responsa of Chacham Tzvi Number 63).

Fourth Level of Soul – חיה

As explained in the introduction, the soul is composed of 5 levels of which the first three are active in daily life. The remaining two levels (viz. חיה and יחידה) relate to the world of Kabbalah and are therefore much rarer in daily life. Therefore these two levels are not specifically mentioned in the Talmud. The author would like to suggest a hint to the 4th level (spiritual life) from a quotation from the Talmud Berachot 18a, “The righteous even after their death are called living (חיים).” On a homiletic level, Torah scholars live on, after their physical death, through their families, teachings, writings, students, and good deeds (i.e. mitzvoth). In addition laymen live on through their families, legacy of good deeds, and charitable foundations. At a mystical level, the righteous are able to bridge both physical and spiritual worlds and in a sense are always alive (חיים).

For example the Talmud (Ketubot 103a) records that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, due to his holiness, was able to bridge both worlds, physical and spiritual after his leaving this world. Before his passing he commanded his sons, “My lamp should be lit, my table should be set, and the bed should be arranged in their usual places.” The Talmud (ibid.) explains that every Shabbat eve, even after his passing, he would return to his house and recite the Kiddush ritual before the Sabbath meal for his family. He therefore wished for everything to be set up as usual. From these citations, we can conclude that very special individuals operate at this 4th level of the living soul (חיה) both in their physical lifetimes in this world and the spiritual afterlife.     

Fifth Level of Soul – יחידה

As explained in previous section, the level of (יחידה) “unity or singularity” relates to the world of Kabbalah and is therefore exceedingly rare in daily life and not mentioned in the Talmud. The author would like to suggest an allusion to this 5th level from a quotation from the Talmud Sukkah 45b in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, “I have seen people of the highest (spiritual) level and they are very few. If they are only two then they are I and my son.” The Talmud (ibid.) questions that in every generation there are at least 36 righteous individuals who receive the Divine Presence every day then how could Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai say that there are only 2? The Talmud answers that the 36 righteous ones “need permission” to receive the Divine Presence. By contrast, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai did not “need permission”. The Talmud uses the expression “enter with permission” meaning that the 36 require preparation before reaching the exalted state of communion with the Divine. Rabbi Shimon was always in this state and therefore did not require preparation.    

The term (יחידה) “unity or singularity” fits very well with Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai because he was unique in his generation and united with Hashem. In addition Rabbi Shimon was also unique in his ability to master both the revealed and hidden (i.e. esoteric) aspects of Torah and is therefore reputed to be the author of the Zohar. His unique attachment to Hashem and prodigious scholarship led Hashem to perform miracles on his behalf when fleeing from the Romans. The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) relates that he and his son hid in a cave for 12 years where Hashem miraculously provided them with a carob tree and a stream of water.         

Sources in Midrash – רמז

The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 14:9) identifies and explains the 5 levels of the soul as shown in the following table which mentions the name of the soul in English, Hebrew, its feature, and related verse in scripture. The author would like to point out that approach of the Midrash is quite different from a literal reading of the verses as discussed in the above section “Sources in Scripture”.  

נפשSoul (animal)Growth or desireDeuteronomy 12:23
רוחSpiritCharacter or moodEcclesiastes 3:21
נשמהIntellect (divine soul)Prayer and  Torah studyGenesis 2:7
חיהLife (spiritual eternal)Spiritual lifeGenesis 2:7
יחידהUniqueOne with HashemPsalms 22:21

Five Levels of Soul

Soul (Animal) – נפש

This Midrash identifies the animal soul with vitality including the abilities of motion, growth, and reproduction. This Midrash focuses on blood as the life force for both animals and man, based upon Deuteronomy 12:23 “Do not eat blood, for blood it is the life (הנפש), and you shall not eat life (הנפש) with the meat.”

Spirit – רוח

This Midrash indentifies the spirit in a nonphysical manner based upon Ecclesiastes 3:21, “Who perceives that the spirit (רוח) of man ascends on high (i.e. heaven) while the spirit (ורוח) of the beast descends into the earth?” This ascent of the spirit occurs when a person sleeps and at the end of life when a person enters heaven (Gan Eden). By contrast the soul of an animal expires at death and does not reach paradise.  

Soul (Divine) – נשמה

This Midrash relates the divine soul (נשמה) to the Aramaic word אופיא which means intelligence, character, and conduct. It is interesting to note that this Midrash here does not provide a verse for a direct association to the divine soul. However this Midrash, at its end quotes, Proverbs 20:27, “A man’s soul is the lamp of Hashem” indicating the divine nature of this soul and its spiritual illumination. Unlike the Zohar this Midrash does not emphasize the hierarchy of the different levels of the soul with respect to mitzvoth.

After death the body returns to the ground the soul returns to its maker (Ecclesiastes 3:21). The Midrash (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:27) uses this verse to discuss Hashem’s judgment when a person passes away.  Both the divine souls of the righteous and the wicked reach heaven for judgment. Hashem assigns the souls of the righteous to paradise and the souls of the wicked to purgatory for cleansing up to 12 month (Eduyot 2:10). 

Life (spiritual and eternal) – חיה

This Midrash does not describe the nature of this level of the soul or its connection with Hashem. For example, Ecclesiastes Rabbah 5:13, when describing the creation of man, only mentions the spirit and soul but not these higher levels. The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 14:7) explains this 4th level  in relation to the body meaning that the soul gives life to the body and lives on after physical death.

Unique – יחידה

Similar to the fourth level, this Midrash does not describe the nature of this level of the soul or its connection with Hashem; rather its relation to the body in its uniqueness which will be discussed in the next section.  In addition most components of the body are paired (e.g. eyes, ears, hands, and feet). Even those that are singular (e.g. brain, nose, mouth, and heart) are made of many components (e.g. left and right side sides of brain and four chambers of the heart) as opposed to the soul  which is unique in that it has no components. The different levels of the soul are not physical and relate to the connection between man and Hashem in the different worlds of spirituality.

In addition, the Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 17:2) mentions the uniqueness of the soul in reference to Psalms 22:21 but uses the term divine soul (נשמה) to express this uniqueness which is another example of the confluence of the levels of the soul in terms of the Midrash. By contrast the Zohar differentiates between the levels of the soul in terms of divine service.  


The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 14:9) discusses the roles of the different levels of the soul when a person sleeps. Rabbi Yeshoshua bar Nechemyah holds that the spirit leaves (רוח) the body and ascends to heaven. The divine soul (נשמה) remains in the body to give it heat, as a lamp provides heat based upon Proverbs 20:27, “The lamp of Hashem (warms) the divine soul (נשמה) of man.” By contrast a number of sages in the name of Rabbi Meir hold that both the spirit and divine soul leave the body and ascend to heaven where the divine soul draws sustenance from above. Perhaps these opinions may be reconciled by considering different levels of people with respect to their connection with Hashem. In the case of a less connected person only the spirit rises to heaven but for a more connected person both levels of the soul rise to heaven. Both opinions agree that when sleeping the soul communes with Hashem to receive divine instruction and guidance. This may lead to insights of knowledge, especially Torah knowledge, and perhaps prophetic dreams as the Talmud states (Berachot 57b), “A dream is 1/60 of prophecy.”     

One Soul or Five Souls

After discussing the 5 levels of the soul the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 14:10) concludes that these levels represent different functions of one unified soul by comparing verses in scripture. For example the verse (Genesis 2:7) mentions the animal (נפש) and divine (נשמה) soul. Another verse (ibid. 7:22) mentions the spirit (רוח) and divine soul (נשמה). Since both verses mention life (חיים) the Midrash links these verses through the hermeneutic principle of “like words” or in Hebrew (שוה גזרה) or transliterated (gezerah shavah) to conclude that all of these levels are components of one soul. The author would like to point out that the gematria of חיים (meaning life) is the same as חכם (meaning a wise person) implying that the soul is attuned to divine wisdom.      

The author would like to discuss a number of considerations with this derivation. First the principle of “like words” is the 2nd rule of the 13 rules of Torah interpretation by Rabbi Yishmael quoted in the beginning of the Sifra (Commentary on Leviticus). Secondly the Talmud states (Pesachim 66a) that one cannot make a comparison of “like words” on his own. Rather he must have received a tradition from his Torah teachers who in turn have received a tradition from their teachers and so on dating back to the time of Moses. Thirdly, there are commentators who hold that man has different souls because when the spirit or divine soul leaves the body upon sleeping, the animal soul remains implying that there are different souls. However according to the above Midrash, the one soul is composed of different parts of which some may remain in the body while others ascend to heaven. At death all levels of the soul leave the body. Fourthly, the above Midrash did not mention the function of levels 4 and 5 of the soul when sleeping, implying that these levels are not active in daily life for most people.        

Secrets of Torah – סוד

Development of Man

Although the 5 levels of the soul are not directly explained in the Talmud and Midrash the following citations provide a glimpse into secrets of the Torah by connecting these levels to the development of man, both physically and spiritually.

The Talmud in Berachot 10a notes that King David uses the expression “(Let) my soul bless Hashem (נפשי ברכי) exactly 5 times (Psalms 103:1-2 and 22, 104:1, 35). In fact this expression (נפשי ברכי) is not used in any other place in scripture. The Talmud (ibid.) and Leviticus Rabbah 4:7 relate these 5 instances to 5 stages in a man’s life as shown in the following table.

Levels of SoulBerachot 10aLeviticus Rabbah 4:7
Soul (animal)FetusFetus
SpiritAt birthAt birth
Intellect (divine soul)NursingPursuing a career
Life (spiritual)Maturity (13 or more years old)Death
Unique (unity)DeathResurrection of dead

The 18th century commentator Rabbi Jacob Joshua Falk in his major work Pnei Yehoshua relates these stages of Berachot 10a to the 5 levels of the soul. The animal soul develops in the fetus as a basic form of life (i.e. nourishment and limited motion). The next level, spirit (i.e. character or mood), develops at birth and early infancy. As the child develops through full nourishment the intellectual soul is activated. The next two levels are much more difficult to achieve. The fourth level, spiritual life, corresponds to Psalms 104:35, “Let sinners cease from the earth and let the wicked be no more”, which means a life (relatively) free of sin. This stage begins at the age of maturity (viz. 13 years old) when the good inclination (i.e. divine soul) becomes active (Avot of Rabbi Nathan 16:2) and should be strengthened from year to year. In the opinion of Rabbi Falk the last stage, uniqueness or unity with Hashem, can only be achieved at death where the soul leaves the body and is no longer bound by physicality. It may be possible to achieve this highest level during one’s lifetime albeit on a temporary basis.

Leviticus Rabbah 4:7 provides a similar path through life in 5 stages. The author would like to take the approach of the work Pnei Yehoshua, apply it to this Midrash, and point out the subtle differences. The first two stages are of the Midrash are the same as Berachot 10a. However at stage 3, the divine soul, the Midrash quotes Psalms 103:22, “Bless Hashem, all His works, in all the places of His dominion.”This verse implies that man should bless Hashem in all of his undertakings, as he pursues a career whether in material or spiritual matters, using his divine soul. Here the Midrash recognizes death, separation of the soul from the body, as the fourth stage corresponding to a complete spiritual life. By contrast the Talmud considered death as the fifth stage and did not mention the resurrection of the dead in this context. The Midrash considers the highest level of the soul, uniqueness or unity with Hashem, occurring after the resurrection of the dead when sin will cease, based upon Psalms 104:35, “Sinners will be destroyed from the earth and the wicked will be no more.” Although the Midrash accepts that these higher levels of the soul are not obtainable (on a sustained basis) in this current world the Midrash of Deuteronomy 2:37 exhorts the Israelites to love Hashem with all their soul (i.e. all 5 levels). This means that it is possible to temporarily reach these levels especially at times of extreme devotion and connection with Hashem (e.g. prayer and Torah study).     

Based upon this derivation the reader may ask, “The Talmud states that Hashem grants the divine soul to the embryo. Here we are saying that the divine soul is active at nursing or when pursuing a career which occurs much later?” To resolve this apparent contradiction we can say that the divine soul is granted at gestation but develops through nursing and becomes energized at a later stage.    


Similar to the Midrash, the Zohar (1:184b) explains that when a person sleeps the divine soul leaves the body. However to maintain life the two lower levels remain intact. In the absence of the divine soul a spirit of impurity rests over the person. Upon awakening, Hashem restores the divine soul and the spirit of impurity only rests over the hands. This impurity is removed by ritual washing of the hands (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 4:1).   

It is interesting to note that the Zohar holds that only the divine soul leaves the body and not the spirit as expressed by Rabbi Yehoshua bar Nechemyah in Genesis Rabbah 14:9. Perhaps as explained above, the Zohar refers to more spiritual and learned individuals who will receive enhanced divine instruction and guidance when sleeping. Nevertheless this Zohar did not mention the function of levels 4 and 5 of the soul when sleeping, implying that these levels are not active in daily life for most spiritual and learned individuals.                  

Three Levels of the Soul – Mitzvoth

The Zohar 1:206a, as explained by the commentator מדבש מתוק, describes the first 3 levels of the soul in terms of spiritual growth and in ascending order. A person operates at the first level of the soul (נפש) through mitzvoth performed in a physical manner, whether between man and Hashem (e.g. eating matzoth at Passover Seder) or man to man (e.g. giving charity). The second level of the soul (רוח) is activated through prayer and basic Torah study because the word “רוח” also means wind (i.e. movement of air) which corresponds to the movement of air when one prays or studies Torah. Similarly Targum Onkelos on Genesis 2:7,”Man became a living being” translates as “Man became a speaking being (literally a spirit of speaking)”. In this manner the spirit is related to speaking. The third level of the soul (נשמה) is energized through intense Torah study using one’s mind (e.g. the oral law – Mishna and Talmud). In fact in Hebrew the letters for Mishna (משנה) and divine soul (נשמה) are the same.  

For example the mitzvah of donning phylacteries encompasses these three levels of the soul. The physical act of donning the phylacteries engages the first level of the soul (נפש) through physical action. The recital of the blessing(s) engages the second level of the soul (רוח) through speech. (The Ashkenazim recite two blessings, one on the hand tefillin and an additional one for the head tefillin. By contrast the Sephardim recite only one blessing for both the hand and head tefillin.) Detailed study of the laws of phylacteries engages the third level of soul (נשמה) though intellectual activity leading to both an understanding and appreciation of the mitzvah. With this awareness a person performs this mitzvah with increased connection and intent, resulting in a greater love for Hashem.  

The reader may ask, “Since non-Jews are not required to study the oral law, how do they activate their souls?” The Talmud (Sanhedrin 59a) answers this question by quoting Rabbi Meir who states that a gentile who engages in Torah study and observance of the seven laws of Noahides is considered like a High Priest, based upon Leviticus 18:5, “You shall observe My (divine) decrees and laws, which man shall keep and live through them.” Rabbi Meir explains that the word “man” mentioned in this verse includes both Jews and gentiles.

Higher Levels of the Soul

The Zohar did not discuss the role of the two highest levels in terms of serving Hashem. The author would like to extend this model of mitzvoth with respect to levels of the soul to encompass the two higher levels (viz. spiritual and eternal life חיה and uniqueness יחידה). The Talmud (Berachot 63a) in the name of Bar Kappara states that this verse (Proverbs 3:6), “Know Him (Hashem) in all your ways, and He (Hashem) will direct your paths” is fundamental to all Torah activities.  Maimonides (Laws of Proper Conduct 3:3) combines the above citation with a teaching in Avot 2:12 (in printed Mishna and 2:17 in the prayer book), “All your actions (even physical actions like eating, sleeping, speaking, and walking) should be for the sake of heaven”. The Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 231 elaborates on this principle and states, “If a person sees an action that will lead to serve his creator he should do it. If not then he should refrain from doing it.” In this manner a righteous individual who lives to serve Hashem and not his own personal needs operates at the level of the spiritual and eternal life חיה even in this physical world.

The author would like to explain the 5th level in terms of mastering the hidden or esoteric (נסתר) parts of the Torah in conjunction with leading a righteous life corresponding to the 4th level. Again a quote from Maimonides (Fundamentals of the Torah 4:13) illustrates this point, “I (Maimonides) maintain that it is not proper for a person to stroll in the Pardes (i.e. esoteric part of the Torah) unless he has studied the revealed part of the Torah which refers to the knowledge of what is permitted and what is forbidden, and similar matters concerning other mitzvoth. Even though the Sages (Succah 28a) referred to the revealed Torah as a small matter in comparison to the transcendence of the hidden Torah nevertheless, it is fitting for them to be given precedence, because they settle a person’s mind.

Also, they are the great good which the Holy One, blessed be He, has granted for stable living in this world and the acquisition of the life of the world to come. In addition these laws can be known in their totality by the great and the small, man or woman, those with expansive knowledge or limited knowledge.”

Following the hierarchy of levels of the soul and the advice of Maimonides we can conclude that intense study of the hidden part of the Torah is reserved for the very few, like Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai. Hence the 5th level is called unique (יחידה) both in terms of the very few who attain this level and the oneness with Hashem. In fact the Talmud Chagigah 15a reports that four scholars attempted to reach this level but only one Rabbi Akiva succeeded.

Five Worlds

Although the Zohar discusses the 3 lower levels of the soul, later Kabbalists for example Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, connect the 5 levels of the soul to the 5 worlds of Kabbalah as shown in the following table, starting from the highest level:

LevelSoul (Hebrew)Soul (English)World (Hebrew)World (English)
5יחידהUniqueקדמון אדםPrimordial man
4חיהLife (spiritual eternal)אצילותEmanation
3נשמהIntellect (divine soul)בריאהCreation
1נפשSoul (animal)עשיהAction

The definition of these worlds of Kabbalah is beyond the scope of this article and is discussed in many works of Kabbalah. The author has found this article to be useful:

The author would also like to point out that the correspondence between the level of uniqueness and primordial man indicates that a unique individual whose soul operates at the 5th level is a reflection of the ideal that Hashem has set for man corresponding to Adam before the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge.  

Man’s Mission   

The Zohar 2:27a interprets the word your resources (מאדך) in Deuteronomy 6:5 from the root word “much (מאד)”, implying that one should love Hashem without limits because the divine soul is similarly unlimited in its capacity. It is interesting to note that the letters of מאד when rearranged spell man (אדם), indicating man’s potential and mission for spiritual achievement. In addition these words מאד and אדם share the gematria of 45 which corresponds to the gematria of the Tetragrammaton in the milui (full spelling) system as shown below (20+6+13+6 =45). (The milui system of gematria takes each letter in Hebrew and spells out each letter in full.) The table presents the letters of the Tetragrammaton, the spelling in milui form, and associated gematria.



This article discussed the 5 levels of the soul through different perspectives with citations from scripture, Talmud, Midrash, and Zohar. It is difficult to find a consistent pattern between the different viewpoints of scripture, Talmud, Midrash, and Zohar. However the Zohar explains the function of each of the 3 level of the soul in terms of hierarchy of mitzvoth. The remaining 2 levels are much rarer in daily life but may be activated with intense devotion and effort.

Hashem has granted us a soul with 5 levels and through the Torah and its sages has shown us to how to connect with Him and energize the soul. As the verse states (Psalms 31:5), “In Your hand I entrust my spirit; Hashem has redeemed me, G-d of truth.” The point of this article is to explain these levels of the soul and inspire the reader to grow in serving Hashem as Rabbi Shimon says (Avot 1:17 in printed Mishna and 1:18 in prayer book), “Not study but action is the essence.”  

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *