Nephesh, Neshamah and Ruach

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Nephesh (נֶ֫פֶשׁ‎)

Nobody has a nephesh — a human person is a nephesh.

So is a fish, so is a turkey, so is an octopus!

Nephesh is often translated "soul" — think of English usage such as in "She was a dear old soul!" — it is an entire living creature.

Nephesh, or "soul" in the Bible, in any of the changing meanings that it had during Old Testament times, is not the Greek "soul" [ψυχή psuchê]. The concept of psuchê in Homeric Greece was a vague shade that survives us in the Underworld. This developed into the Hellenistic "soul" which had everyday mental and psychological functions of cognition, intellect, and desire. Throughout this time, the Greeks thought of the soul as distinct from the body (compare the '"ghost in the machine")': nothing like a nephesh, which is the whole living creature. This "ghost" meaning of "soul" is common in our modern English, and we have to be careful not to read it into the Bible.

  • Genesis 1:20 And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature (nephesh) that hath life (hayyah)[1], and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
  • Genesis 1:21 And God created great whales, and every living creature[2] that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
  • Numbers 31:28 And levy for the LORD a tribute from the men of war who went out to battle, one[5] out of five hundred, of the persons and of the oxen and of the asses and of the flocks;
  • 1 Kings 17:21-22 The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life[6] of the child came into him again, and he revived.

Poetical usage

Poetical usage of nephesh can lead to misunderstand of Hebrew nephesh, confusing it with Greek ideas about the soul. Consider the following, for example, and note Robert Alter's explanatory footnote to Jeremiah 31:11:-

  • Jeremiah 15:9 she has gasped out her life-breath. (q.v. for other translations)
  • Jeremiah 31:11 And their life-breath[7] shall be like a watered garden,

Neshamah (נְשָׁמָה)

  • Genesis 2:7 God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life [נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים neshamah hayyim]; and the man became a living being [‎ה‎נֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽ nephesh hayyah] (hayyah: "of life")
  • 1 Kings 17:17 his illness was so severe that there was no breath[8] left in him

Ruach (רוּחַ)

Ruach is moving air, whether in our throat and lungs or in the atmosphere. The prophecy of Ezekiel ch. 37 illustrates it:

So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And as I looked, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath[9] in them. Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath[9], prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath[9], Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds[9], O breath[9], and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath[9] came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great host.


  1. נֶ֣פֶשׁ חַיָּ֑ה nephesh hayyahnephesh→creature, hayyah→life
  2. כָּל־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַֽחַיָּ֣ה kal nephesh hayyah
  3. נֶֽפֶשׁׁ־בְּהֵמָ֖ה nephesh bəhemah
  4. נַ֭פְשׁוֹ nephesh
  5. אֶחָ֣ד נֶ֔פֶשׁ one soul
  6. נַ֭פְשׁוֹ nephesh
  7. their life-breath. The tricky Hebrew noun is the multivalent nefesh. It does not mean "soul," as many translators continue to render it. The core meaning is "life-breath" and, by extension, "life," but the latter would be misleading here because it could suggest "a lived life". Nefesh also often implies "essential self." It sometimes means "throat" or "gullet" (by metonomy because the throat is a passageway for the breath), and that is the probable sense in verse 13, where the satisfaction of appetite is invoked.
    [Alter's translation has "And I will wet the priests' gullet with richness . . . " in verse 13!]
  8. נְשָׁמָֽה neshamah
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 ר֖וּחַ ruach