Nephesh Hachaim 1:8

Nephesh Hachaim 1:8


R’ Chaim offers a rather complex discussion here about the positioning of the Cherubs in the Tabernacle and Holy Temple in order to illustrate his point 1. Let’s follow his reasoning.

Some sages stressed the fact that the two Cherubs faced each other 2 while others stressed the idea that both Cherubs faced the Temple 3. And others reconciled the difference by saying that the Cherubs did indeed face each other, but only when the Jewish Nation was loyal to G-d 4, while they faced the Temple walls instead when the Jewish Nation wasn’t loyal to Him 5 (see Baba Batra 99a).

After noting all that, R’ Chaim then refers us to Rashbam’s position there 6 that the statement to the effect that they faced each other refers to the Cherubs in Moses’ Tabernacle, while the one that says that they faced the Temple instead refers to the Cherubs in Solomon’s Temple. Rashbam also asserts that the Cherubs in the Tabernacle were originally configured to stand face to face, but that that configuration miraculously altered itself when the Jewish Nation became disloyal. He also argued that it could be said that they faced somewhat in both directions 7.

R’ Chaim then directs our attention to the comments of Tosephot there, who offer that the Cherubs were originally set face to face in line with the fact that the Jewish Nation was indeed loyal to G-d 8. But, why then were the Cherubs in Solomon’s Temple originally set at an angle rather than facing each other, R’ Chaim wonders 9? It’s because this last point actually alludes to something else 10.


The point of the matter is that G-d told us to “not stray from it” (Joshua 1:70) 11. But how then are we to earn a living if we’re never to stop studying Torah? Based on a discussion in Berachot (35b), we learn that some would argue that we’re indeed to never stray from it while others say that we’re to earn a living 12. Then we’re told not to concern ourselves with earning a living since “when the Jewish Nation is loyal to G-d 13, their work is done by others”, while we’ll be forced to provide for ourselves if we aren’t loyal to G-d that way 14.

But how then can it be that we’d ever be allowed to earn a living? The point of the matter, R’ Chaim indicates, is that if we’re forced to earn a living to get by, then we’re to still-and-all concentrate on Torah study while we’re working 15.

In any event, while that’s true of the majority of people — who have to work for a living — those rare individuals who have been chosen by G-d to study Torah all day long may not earn a living and thus abandon Torah-study for however long 16. R’ Chaim will now tie this last theme in with the situation of the Cherubs cited above.


It comes to this: one of the Cherubs represents G-d, R’ Chaim points out, while the other represents the Jewish Nation. And the degree of devotion that the Jewish Nation showed G-d evidenced itself in the positioning of the Cherubs. For, moment by moment and by miraculous means, they either faced each other straight on, when the Jewish Nation was devoted to Him, or they faced away from each other (either to a certain extent or altogether) when they weren’t 17.


1          Recall that R’ Chaim had discussed G-d’s “shadowing” our actions in the last chapter. He’ll now discuss a dramatic and physical manifestation of that in the placement and movement of the Cherubs, who represent the relationship between G-d and the Jewish Nation as we’ll see, and which was also discussed in the last chapter.

Curiously enough, unlike the previous chapters and most of them to follow, R’ Chaim offers lamdanut (subtle and close textual analysis) here, rather than enunciate his points outright. It seems that he’s actually hiding his main point, which a writer would only do either because what he has to say is too much of a secret to state outright, or for one other esoteric reason or another. We’ll expand on this in note 17 below.

2          As it’s said, “The Cherubs will face each other” (Exodus 25:20) and “The Cherubs faced each other” (Ibid. 37:9). Significantly, the wording in the Hebrew is that each Cherub will face its brother. We’ll expand on the significance of this, too, below.

3          Rather than each other, as it’s said, “They stood … facing the main hall” (2 Chronicles 3:13).

4          And thus “faced” G-d head on. We’ll expand on what “being loyal to G-d” signifies here, too, in note 17 below.

5          And turned away from Him.

6          R’ Chaim actually directed us to Rashi’s comments, but as is well known, Rashi’s comments to Baba Batra ended at p. 29a and were completed by Rashbam.

7          That is, at a 45 degree angle or so, facing neither the Temple itself nor the other Cherub directly.

We’d suggest then that R’ Chaim’s point here so far is to underscore just how varied the positioning of the Cherubs could be, depending on our deeds. And that that indicates just how far G-d’s manifestation (represented by the Cherubs) could alter, thus “shadowing” our reactions to Him.

8          At the time, in the Sinai Desert.

9          R’ Chaim is actually segueing into another point here: about the vital importance of Torah study (which will be expanded upon later, most especially in Gate Four below). We’ll see later on how the two themes complement each other.

10         As will be discussed in Ch. 9 below, in the days of the Tabernacle, the Jewish Nation was miraculously provided with food and drink, but that changed in the days of the Holy Temple (in ancient Israel).

What’s to follow also isn’t preceded by an out and out statement of R’ Chaim’s point (see end of our footnote 2 above).

11         I.e., from the Torah, which is to say, from Torah-study, as R’ Chaim will point out. See Rambam’s Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:8-10.

The term “the point of the matter” which R’ Chaim himself used here is puzzling, since it implies that what’s to follow will explain what preceded it, which it doesn’t seem to do!

But as we’ll explain below, it does explain it, but only on the esoteric level we alluded to in note 1 above.

12         And thus necessarily set Torah-study aside for a part of the day.

13         By constantly studying Torah, it’s implied.

14         The idea of things changing depending on whether or not the Jewish Nation is loyal to G-d or not, harkens back to the discussion of the Cherubs above, of course.

We’d thus offer that R’ Chaim’s point here is that when we’re loyal to G-d and “face Him” in our day and age just as in the past by engaging in Torah study He “shadows” and “faces us” too, and provides for us.

15         That is, we’re to work with our hands and with the minimum amount of concentration we’d need to do our work, yet we’re to concentrate the better part of our minds on Torah matters.

Now, couldn’t it be argued that while that was easy enough to live up to in the sort of agrarian-economy-based society that the Talmud is speaking about in which most of the work was labor-intensive and called for little concentration, but that a modern economy would seem to call for a lot more mental concentration? So, is the principle no longer applicable?

But see the Introduction to the esteemed Chayai Adam where R’ Danzig, its author, who lived in the 19th Century, spoke of always having one Torah thought or another in mind even as he worked for some years in industry. Others can do so, too, then.

16         See Rambam’s Hilchot Shmitta V’Yovel 13:12.

R’ Chaim offers a footnote of his own here which is likewise an instance of lamdanut (see footnote 1 above) rather than of philosophical or ethical insight like his other footnotes. It analyses the verses in the Torah and the Talmudic statements that differentiate between the needs and obligation of the masses versus those of the rare individual when it comes to Torah study.

17         R’ Chaim cites Yoma 54a, Zohar 3: 152b, 3:59b, and Zohar Chadash, Teruma 36a which all illustrate that.

We’ll now try to tie in all the points we made above about R’ Chaim’s hidden point here. The first thing to bring to mind is a statement made by R’ Chaim’s son, R’ Yitzchak, in the latter’s introduction to Nephesh Hachaim.

“So humble was R’ Chaim that he had no compunctions about drawing close to the poor and unlettered, he’d lecture about things that would not only speak to scholars but to those same simple individuals, and he’d somehow purposefully and unpretentiously address both in the course of his public teachings.”

Now, one would have to be exceedingly subtle in his choice of words in order to be understood — and not misunderstood — by either class of listener. And therein lies our argument about what R’ Chaim was saying and not saying in this curious chapter.

At bottom he’s insinuating that only “those rare individuals who have been chosen by G-d to study Torah all day long” affect the Cherubs– and by extension, the entire universe. Because the mitzvah par excellence is Torah-study, and they alone are the ones who truly engage in it (there will prove to be an even greater narrowing down of the field enunciated in Gate Four, but now isn’t the place for that).

The rest of us can certainly study Torah and indeed must, but we’re restricted by the need to earn a living (the reader should note that R’ Chaim speaks in the text itself as the need to work only enough to have what to eat, which very, very few of us manage to restrict ourselves to). While our need to earn a living can be accommodated, too, it’s still and all not really the best.

Thus while those in R’ Chaim’s audience who worked for a living were certainly encouraged to do the best they could and were reminded that they could do a lot, his more sophisticated listeners understood that it was they alone who were truly loyal to G-d and thus affecting the Cherubs and the course of the universe. And that they alone are truly G-d’s “brother” or partner (see note 2 above).

Hence, that point wasn’t expressed outright because it would have discouraged the others, and would seem to demean less than total Torah-study.


(c) 2018 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

Feel free to contact me at



Rabbi Feldman’s new annotated translation of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag’s “Introduction to the Zohar” is available as “The Kabbalah of Self” on Kindle here. His annotated translation of Maimonides’ “Eight Chapters” is available here and his annotated translation of Rabbeinu Yonah’s “The Gates of Repentance” is available here.

He has also translated and commented upon “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers).

Rabbi Feldman also offers two free e-mail classes entitled “Spiritual Excellence” and “Ramchal” that can be subscribed to.

Nephesh Hachaim 1:7

Nephesh Hachaim 1:7


R’ Chaim will now clarify the issue originally brought up in Chapter 5 about our being the animating force behind and the “soul” of countless worlds.

In fact, he reiterates, we can’t compare our control of those worlds to the sort of control that the soul has over the body it’s attached to, as that’s impossible 1. For while our bodies are directly animated by our soul 2, as we said in Chapter 6, R’ Chaim’s point here is that the celestial forces, worlds, and the very Chariot itself 3 are animated — and either brought to a state of rectification or destruction (G-d forbid!) — by the effect of our actions.4

And our actions have that ability, first, because we’re a compendium of the innumerable and interconnected forces and worlds that cascaded downward from the uppermost reaches down to the material world 5; and second, because of the high, interior, and sublime source of our souls, which implies that it incorporates them all 6. Both phenomena contribute to the control that our actions have over the universe 7.


In fact, our having been granted free will is rooted in our ability to incline ourselves and the universe in the direction of either goodness or wrongfulness. And thanks to that, even if we’d already inclined everything toward wrongfulness and destruction because of our misdeeds, G-d forbid, we’d nonetheless be able to rectify that all after the fact 8, and we’re able to undo the harm thanks to our being the repository of all of those worlds 9.

In fact, R’ Chaim makes the point, it’s our free will that enables us to direct G-d’s own actions, if one could say as much! For G-d is termed our “shadow” (see Psalms 121:5), and so just as one’s shadow’s movements follows his or her own movements step for step, our actions have the same effect upon G-d’s actions 10.

And this was reflected by the configuration of the Cherubim 11 in the Beit Hamikdash, which either faced each other 12 or didn’t 13, depending on circumstances we’ll soon explore.


1                I.e., it’s impossible to claim that our minds or our wills have the sort of inner, first-hand, and immediate effect over the worlds that our will to walk just then would have over our feet, for example. See 1:6.

2                I.e., by our mind or will (see note 1 above).

3                This refers to the celestial Chariot cited in the first chapter of Ezekiel whose mystical implications were discussed in the Heichalot and other ancient texts.

4                Alone. I.e., by the mitzvot we perform (which lead to rectification) and the sins we lapse into (which lead to destruction).

The fact that our physical actions rather than our innermost wills affect the worlds clearly signifies that we have a less intimate, less proximate relationship with the celestial worlds than we’d have thought. But that’s not to belittle the effect of our actions, as we’ll soon see.

Note also that “actions” here also refers to our “actions, speech, and thoughts” cited in 1:3 above. See 1:12 below on our actions, 1:13 on our speech, and 1:14 on our thoughts.

5                See 1:6 above.

6                See 1:5 above.

7             Our being the repository of various worlds touches on the material aspects of those mitzvah-based actions, while the high and deep roots of our souls are intimately related to the sublime spiritual aspects of the mitzvot.

8                Through teshuva.

See Hilchot Teshuva 3:4 and Kiddushin 40 for a discussion about our ability to help rectify the world, and Rosh Hashanah 18a about our being able to recast what would have been destroyed otherwise.

9                That is, our being the repository of all worlds enables us to move ourselves and those worlds in any direction we’d care to take them.

10              I.e., upon His actions when it comes the bolstering or destroying the worlds.

R’ Chaim cites an unknown Midrash (which is also cited is Sh’nei Luchot Habrit, Toldot Adam, Hasha’ar Hagadol 306) in the text here that quotes G-d as having said, “I will act toward you as you act toward Me”. And he cites the Zohar (2:184b) which reiterates the idea that the heavens reflect our actions down below.

Just consider the profound implications of the idea that G-d Himself “copies” our actions!

11              See Exodus 25:18-22.

12              See Exodus 25:20.

13              See 2 Chronicles 3:13.

(c) 2018 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

Feel free to contact me at


Rabbi Feldman’s new annotated translation of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag’s “Introduction to the Zohar” is available as “The Kabbalah of Self” on Kindle here. His annotated translation of Maimonides’ “Eight Chapters” is available here and his annotated translation of Rabbeinu Yonah’s “The Gates of Repentance” is available here.

He has also translated and commented upon “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers).

Rabbi Feldman also offers two free e-mail classes entitled “Spiritual Excellence” and “Ramchal” that can be subscribed to.

Nephesh Hachaim 1:6

Nephesh Hachaim 1:6


But the idea that we ourselves actually “animate” and function as the soul behind “the body of the universe”, so to speak, isn’t to be taken literally. Because while the very instant a soul wants a part of its body to move, it does, yet we ourselves don’t have that kind of sure, immediate, and definitive effect on things 1.

It comes to this: G-d created man last 2 so that he’d comprise and be a compendium of all the heavenly and earthly phenomena that preceded him, and so that all those phenomena would contribute to and be played out in his own makeup and component-parts 3.

Indeed, each of our elements and parts were to correspond to a specific celestial world and capacity, and we were to be a paradigm of heaven and earth, which were themselves to correspond to our makeup 4.  But then Adam and Eve sinned and a lot of that was moderated 5.


The mitzvah-system is also connected to its celestial roots and to the entirety of creation. And in fact each and every mitzvah is a compendium of millions of celestial capacities and lights 6.

As such, whenever someone performs a mitzvah he can either rectify things connected to the specific world and capacity relevant to that mitzvah, elevate them, or he can bolster their light or holiness — but only to the degree that G-d wants us to.

But one’s ability to affect such changes with his mitzvot depends on the quality of his performance of them, and on whether and to the degree to which he purifies his thoughts when he’d engaged in them, too. And that in turn adds holiness and vitality to that part of his being that’s engaged in the mitzvah that corresponds to it 7.


Were we to fulfill all of the mitzvot with all of their factors and conditions on the physical level, and were we to do that with pure and holy thoughts, we’d rectify all of the celestial worlds, would have become an intrinsic instrument of that 8, and we’d consequently be made holy and would be constantly surrounded by G-d’s Glory 9.

But when we’d sin and sully one of our capacities and organs, that would reach up to the corresponding source of that celestial world and capacity, which could destroy it (G-d forbid!), lessen it, sully it, dim and diminish its pure light, as well as weaken and diminish its holiness — depending on the particular sin we’d committed, how we’d committed it, and depending on the status of the world involved.

For not all the worlds can be affected the same way, in fact. The lower worlds could actually be destroyed (G-d forbid!), light could be withheld from higher ones, higher-yet worlds would be forced to emit less light or would be diminished somehow, while the arcane lights and holiness of the very highest worlds would be diminished 10.

And that’s because the impurity would touch upon the upper realms, since they’re all incorporated in those upper realms and contribute to them intrinsically 11.


1                R’ Chaim presents the first of his several complex and important notes to this chapter here. In short, it offers an illustration of the fact that things don’t instantaneously move to our “command” from the fact that the angels don’t (see Chullin 91b).

That might seem to be a far-fetched proof but it isn’t. For if it’s angels who enable things to happen here (see Derech Hashem 2:5:3-4), it follows then that if they don’t immediately respond to our order that we don’t control them (and the functions of the universe) the way a soul controls a body.

2                That is, He created man as the sum of all that preceded him. See our discussion of this in footnotes 14 and 18 to the previous chapter.

3                R’ Chaim cites Zohar 2:75b (which — like most of the other sources cited here — speaks to our having been created in G-d’s image, which is of course the major theme of this Gate), 3:48a, 3:117a; Idra Rabbah 135a, 141a; Reiya Mehemena, 3:238b; Tikkunei Zohar Chadash 2:97a; Zohar Chadash, 1:64b, 2:23b, 58b; Eitz Chaim 26:1, and Ari’s Likkuttei Torah, Ki Tissah and Ha’azinu.

4                This will be expanded upon in 2:5 below.

5                The point about Adam and Eve’s sin was offered in R’ Chaim’s second footnote here (rather than in the text itself as we laid it out, though it’s not clear why.).

This footnote offers a lot of R’ Chaim’s insights into Jewish Thought, so we’ll take each point separately.

A. He offers that Adam and Eve were originally made up of only holy component parts (also see Ramchal’s Adir Bamarom p. 11, and Leshem, Deah 2:3:1). And that wrong thus originally stood outside of their beings.

Thus while they were free and able to choose to do wrong by enabling it to enter their beings, their doing it was only as likely as one of us freely choosing to walk into fire (I.e., they certainly could have, but why would they want to?).

B. It was only after they sinned that wrong became a part of their — and our own — inner being, and then entered the universe’s system, too, given that man and the universe mirror each other. That’s when things began to be negatively affected by human actions.

(It’s thus vitally important to recognize that everything cited in this chapter and beyond takes place in the less than perfect world that resulted from their sin.)

C. By now, though, wrong is such a part of our inner being that we mistakenly think its promptings are coming from our very own selves, and it seems to us as if we ourselves want to do wrong. But it’s not us per se so much as those internalized forces of wrong that are “speaking” to us (R’ Chaim directs our attention to Eitz Chaim, Sha’ar Kelipot Nogah 2; Sha’ar Gilgulim 1; and Berachot 17a, Shabbat 146a. See Chovot Halevovot 5:5, and Hilchot Geirushin 2:20, as well).

(This last point is a very telling insight into our own misunderstanding of things. It offers that we tend to “misread” our hearts, for it’s not we ourselves who want to sin but rather the forces of un-holiness using our own voices like unholy ventriloquists!)

D. All of that thus brings about a great admixture of things in our hearts so that we’re sometimes righteous and other times wrongful, In fact, even our deeds can be somewhat right and sometimes wrong at the very same time (see Rambam’s remarks at the end of his commentary to the Mishnayot of Makkot). As such, no one is utterly righteous and no one is utterly wrongful (see Hilchot Teshuva 3:2), as we all have imperfect intentions from time to time.

E. The state of affairs in which wrong entered our beings as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin continued on until the time we received the Torah at Mount Sinai (Shabbat 146a, also see 3:11 below), though it tragically returned when we constructed the golden calf (Ibid. 89a).

F. The statement that Adam and Eve would die if they sinned (Genesis 2:7) wasn’t a threat of punishment so much as a warning that they’d internalize impurity by sinning and that the only thing that could rectify that would be the decomposition of their body and the subsequent purification of their beings (see Derech Hashem 1:3 and Da’at Tevunot 72).

G. In any event, death and human impurity will continue until the End of Days, when death will be undone (Isaiah 25:8) and the spirit of impurity will be removed (Zachariah 13:2) (also see Ma’amarim 5).

(The central point here seems to be that now that we’re in this less-than-perfect situation, whatever we do is a combination of right and wrong, thus we affect the universe both for the better and for the worse. So, R’ Chaim’s point at the beginning of the chapter that we don’t really serve as the “soul” of the universe — which he’ll address in the very next chapter in another light — could also be explained this way: we’re not exactly the world’s “soul” because we’re no longer on the level we’d need to be. After all, how could the world’s “body-parts” respond to us immediately if we’re at one and the same time telling them to do one thing [i.e., the right thing] and its opposite [i.e., the wrong thing]? And the repetition in this chapter of a lot of what’s offered in 1:4 above about our capabilities and inner makeup likewise serves to make the point that those factors are now on a lower status.)

6                Cited are Zohar 2:85b 165b; Tikkunei Zohar 129b-130a; and Eitz Chaim, Sha’ar Hayichudim 2. See 4:29-30 below.

7                But, again, we can no longer affect them to the degree we could have had Adam and Eve not sinned and had our ancestors not erected the golden calf.

R’ Chaim offers another note here that is likewise full of insights into Jewish Thought.

A. As soon as someone has it in mind to perform a mitzvah something of a “trace” (i.e., an impression) of that mitzvah is implanted in its celestial source above — even before the person actually performs it. And that enables a “surrounding light” to shine down upon him, and for a degree of holiness to encompass him (cited are Zohar 2:31b, 2:86b, 2: 128a, 3:122a. Also see 1:12 below and Ma’amarim 29).

(Notice the reintroduction of the idea of one thing encompassing another, the way bodies encompass souls of course, G-d’s being encompasses the universe — and how upper worlds encompass the lower worlds they control as discussed in  note 4 to1:5 above. Along the same lines, see 7C below which discusses being encompassed by the Garden of Eden, 7D about being encompassed by holiness, and 7E about being encompassed by Gehenom.)

B. That holiness and the encompassing lights then enable that person to “attach himself onto G-d”, if one could say as much, in his lifetime.

C. The “encompassing light” then helps him to actually fulfill the mitzvah, which then strengthens that light. And that then gives him the wherewithal to fulfill yet other mitzvot given that he’s “literally sitting in the Garden of Eden” then (as R’ Chaim puts it. See 1:12 below, Ruach Chaim 6, and Ma’marim 2 at end) where the yetzer harah has no power to thwart him (see Ma’amarim 20, 24).

D. You can actually sense the holiness you’re surrounded by at that time if you concentrate, and can thus grow in your soul.

E. The opposite is true, too, though. For when you sin — not just think about sinning (see Kiddushin 39b where it’s pointed out that one would have to actually commit a sin for harm to be done, and yet would only have to think of fulfilling a mitzvah to reap the benefits of that) — you draw a spirit of impurity down upon yourself (see Zohar 2:31b and 2:86b cited above), become surrounded by an impure spirit, and the very “air of Gehenom surrounds you” even though you’re alive (see Avodah Zara 5a).

8                The term used here is merkava or “chariot”. That’s to say that you’d be the “driver behind the wheels” of the instrument that accomplished all of that.

9                R’ Chaim cites Zohar 2:155a; and Raiyah Mehemna, 3:239a. See 4:15 below.

10              R’ Chaim cites Zohar 2:85b, Tikkunei Zohar 129b.

11              R’ Chaim’s final note to this chapter is presented at this point. It cites the fact that the idea that the upper realms are all connected to man can be found in Tikkunei Zohar Chadash 97a; Raiyah Mehemna, 3:219b; as well as in Sha’arei Kedusha 3:2; Likkutei Torah, Ki Tisa and Ha’azinu; and in Bereishit Rabba 8:3 and Kohelet Rabba 2:12.


(c) 2017 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

Feel free to contact me at



Rabbi Feldman’s new annotated translation of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag’s “Introduction to the Zohar” is available as “The Kabbalah of Self” on Kindle here. His annotated translation of Maimonides’ “Eight Chapters” is available here and his annotated translation of Rabbeinu Yonah’s “The Gates of Repentance” is available here.

He has also translated and commented upon “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers).

Rabbi Feldman also offers two free e-mail classes entitled “Spiritual Excellence” and “Ramchal” that can be subscribed to.

Nephesh Hachaim 1:5

Nephesh Hachaim Gate 1, Ch. 5


Whatever gives us the ability to do such momentous things, though? At bottom, it comes down to the very high source of our soul, which is the animating spirit behind everything, as we’ll see.

But to understand that we’d first have to see what drives things in general.

R’ Chaim begins with a discussion of the heavenly worlds 1. We’re to know that they’re intertwined, that they descend from the uppermost reaches all the way down to the material world 2, that each world is controlled by the one above it much the way that a body is controlled by a soul 3, and that — of course — G-d is the ultimate “soul” and controller of everything 4.


Now, there are four heavenly worlds 5. In ascending order they’re the world of the Ophanim, of the Chayot, of the Throne of Glory, and of Divine Emanation 6. And each one functions as the soul of the one below it.

As such it’s said that, “When the Chayot were lifted …, the Ophanim were lifted in correspondence to them, for the Ruach 7 of the Chayot was in the Ophanim as well. And when they (the Chayot) would go, they (the Ophanim) would go (too), and when they (the Chayot) would stand still, they (the Ophanim) would stand still….” (Ezekiel 1:19-21) 8. And we know that the Chayot were also controlled by the Throne of Glory above them, since we’re taught that “the Throne of Glory carried whatever carried it” and that “the Chayot carried whatever carried them… and the Throne carried the Chayot” (Zohar Chadash 66b) 10.

After portraying the interdependence of the worlds and the fact that the upper ones control the lower ones R’ Chaim then makes his main point, which is that it’s our soul’s high root and stature that sets us apart and enables us to do the world-altering things that we can do. As he puts it, “And the Throne’s living 11 soul is the root of the soul of the Jewish Nation 12, which is far loftier and higher up even than the Throne of Glory, as it’s the ‘man’ 13 atop it”; as it’s written, “On the likeness of the Throne was a likeness of a ‘man’” (Ezekiel 1:26) 14.


R’ Chaim then adds that we’re ironically the first and last things to have been created 15: first in the heavens, given our soul’s stature in the upper realms and given that our souls are rooted in G-d’s own breath which was blown into us 16. And we’re last because Adam and Eve were the last beings created on earth 17. Nevertheless, essentially the idea is that we’re most able to animate things because our souls are from the very innermost of worlds 18 thus we function as the “soul” to the world’s own “body”.


1                A “world” as used here isn’t a planet or the like but rather a complex mix of phenomena that are united in a specific way (much the way we’d speak of “the Torah world”, “the music world”, “the business world”, etc.). But the worlds under discussion here are utterly non-material and are directly related to creation and G-d’s interactions with the physical universe.

And as the Kabbalists teach us, each world is comprised of a number of esoteric non-material components termed Sephirot (which are the basic non-material elements of creation and Divine interaction), Partzufim (complex mixtures of Sephirot), and more.

2                That is, the Divine worlds descended downward in the course of creation – from G-d’s own Will down to the created world. (Divine beneficence continues to flow down through them.)

3                Of course a soul isn’t above a body so much as within it. The point is that superior phenomena (like upper-worlds and souls) control inferior ones (like lower-worlds and bodies). Let this serve as just one example of the need to “translate” and explain Kabbalistic ideas.

4                R’ Chaim cites various sources to corroborate these ideas. He offers Zohar 1:19b that speaks of the worlds enclosing and encompassing each other, which bolsters the idea of their being intertwined.

Then Idrah Zuta 291b that speaks of lights (i.e., worlds) enclosing other lights and shining upon them, which also reiterates their interconnectedness and subtly alludes to the idea of one controlling (i.e., shining upon) the other. The Zohar there also indicates that while the “revealed” (i.e., the outermost) light is termed “the King’s garment”, the “innermost” light (which drives it) is hidden. And that alludes to G-d’s hidden, soul-like qualities here.

And he offers The Ari’s Eitz Hachaim (Sha’ar Penimiyut v’Chitzoniyut 2) and Pri Eitz Chaim (Sha’ar HaShabbat 7-8, 24) that indicate that the outside of each world over-covers the one under it and becomes its inside (i.e., its controlling force) and soul, which underscores the idea of the more sublime aspects of each world controlling the less sublime ones.

See 3:10 for more on this as well as the beginning of Ruach Chaim.

5                There are actually an infinite number of them but they fall into four main categories.

6                Curiously enough, R’ Chaim doesn’t use the Kabbalistic terms here for the worlds as we’d expect (though he uses them in his footnote to 1:13). He’s assumedly using the terms cited here from Ezekiel both to underscore the antiquity of the concepts and to make it easier for the reader to follow his points as he reads the verses.

7                I.e., Soul.

8                Thus we find that the worlds are indeed intertwined, and that each is animated by the one above it which functions as its soul.

9                That is, the Throne of Glory eventually carried or supported from up above whatever initially carried it from below.

This doesn’t seem to be a direct quote from the sages as R’ Chaim claims. But see Ricanti to Exodus 32:19 in reference to Sotah 35a. (Also see Eitz Hachaim, Iburim Ch. 4 which also cites it as a quote from the sages without attributing a source),

10              This once again indicates that each of the worlds is controlled and animated by the one above it. But where is the highest world, G-d’s Emanation? That will be explained now.

11              I.e., Animating.

12              See Ma’amar 15.

13              Sitting…

14              I.e., the “man” sitting atop and controlling the Throne of Glory (as well as the worlds below it) is the source of our soul, which is why we have the abilities to animate and control this world.

Now, R’ Chaim adds a relatively lengthy and curious footnote here. In short, it says that the soul (which is termed “a literal portion of G-d up above”) passes through millions upon millions of worlds in its course downward to our world. And that only a small part of it occupies our body. (See 1:17 below for more of this.) That’s meant to underscore the unfathomable loftiness of our soul, of course. In fact, later on in his note R’ Chaim cites the Idra Rabbah (141b) which makes the point that everything depends upon this so very high and exalted soul.

But R’ Chaim also notes that of course we’re also comprised of a body, and that we’re in fact part “supernal being” and part “mundane being” (citing Breishit Rabbah 12 and Vayikrah Rabbah 9). And he indicates that the two are inexorably linked and function as two ends of a rope, so that when one “shakes” the rope by doing something physical down here, he then “shakes” and animates the rope up above. But doesn’t that seem out of place here? See footnote 18 below.

15              He cites Zohar 2:70b here.

16              See Genesis 2:7. This will be discussed in more detail in 1:15 below.

17              He cites Zohar 2:70b here.

18              See R’ Chaim Vital’s Sha’ar Hakedusha 3:2.

Now, mentioning our having been created last seems to weaken R’ Chaim’s argument that we serve as the soul of all of creation because of our high station. Why then does he cite this? And why does he focus on our physicality in his own note to this chapter (see our footnote 14 above)?

He apparently means to accentuate the fact that while we’re indeed heavenly in our core, we’re also very earthy. But that — like the heavenly worlds (cited at the beginning of the chapter) — those elements of our being are intertwined. So, while we’ve indeed been granted the ability to affect monumental change in the universe thanks to our soul, we’d still have to “shake” the “rope” (see footnote 14) down here through our physical actions to activate the upper worlds (which would then “shake” the “rope” up above in order to benefit this lower world, though R’ Chaim doesn’t address this latter point here).

This also touches on an important theme presented later on in Nephesh Hachaim to the effect that while much can be done in our hearts and minds (i.e., our “souls”) to draw close to G-d, we’re still and all obliged to do things with our bodies to that end at bottom (see 1:22, “Chapters” 4-5, etc.) .

(c) 2017 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

Feel free to contact me at


Rabbi Feldman’s new annotated translation of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag’s “Introduction to the Zohar” is available as “The Kabbalah of Self” on Kindle here. His annotated translation of Maimonides’ “Eight Chapters” is available here and his annotated translation of Rabbeinu Yonah’s “The Gates of Repentance” is available here.

He has also translated and commented upon “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers).

Rabbi Feldman also offers two free e-mail classes entitled “Spiritual Excellence” and “Ramchal” that can be subscribed to.

Nephesh Hachaim 1:4

Nephesh Hachaim Gate 1, Ch. 4


Now, no one should ever say, Who am I to think that I could do anything of consequence with my meaningless actions 1? In fact, R’ Chaim asserts, each one of us has it within him or her to bring about the sorts of profound things we’d cited above with our actions 2.

As he puts it, “not a single one of our actions, words or thoughts … is ever lost!” 3. Every action that each one of us takes is “great, far-reaching, and momentous” 4 and affects the very heavens and the supernal lights 5.

In fact, were we astute enough to understand what actually happens in the heavens as a consequence of our deeds we’d tremble, R’ Chaim asserts. For we’d come to realize just how much damage could come about by even our most minor misdeeds 6!

R’ Chaim then makes a very astounding, incredibly distressing statement.

In fact, he says, what we’d be doing with our sins would be even worse than what Nebuchadnezzar and Titus did when they (seemingly!) destroyed the first and second Beit Hamikdash!


In point of fact, Nebuchadnezzar and Titus could have no effect on the sup-ernal realm7, because they weren’t linked to it and couldn’t influence it 8. But we, on the other hand, who are so quite intimately linked with the supernal realm, can affect things in the heavens and the supernal Beit Hamikdash 9.

And so while Nebuchadnezzar and Titus could “only” destroy the phys-ical Beit Hamikdash, we could destroy the corresponding supernal Beit Hamikdash with our sins 9.

It should also make us tremble to realize that not only do we have it within us to do that, but it’s also true that we ourselves incorporate all worlds and their resources and capacities 10 which themselves comprise the supernal Beit Hamikdash!

For, just as our heart incorporates everything vital to our being and sits in the center of our body and thus corresponds to the Kodesh Kedoshim 11 in the Beit Hamikdash which sat in the center of Jerusalem 12, our heart also corresponds to the even shetiyah 13, which incorporates within it all of the sources of holiness 14.

So when we dwell 15 on adultery, for example, we set a virtual harlot 16 in the supernal Kodesh Kedoshim, G-d forbid! And we thus empower the forces of impurity and the “other side” there and actually do more harm that way than Titus did when he set an actual harlot in the physical Kodesh Kedoshim! And the same goes for any sin: with each one we commit we allow “strange fire” 17 to enter our hearts, as when we become angry or express any other untoward desire 18, G-d protect us 19.

For by virtue of the soul that has been implanted within us, we are the very soul of, the driving force behind, and are in command of innumerable supernal and earthly worlds 20.


1                See Mesillat Yesharim Ch’s 2 and 3 for the dangers of this attitude.

2                This democratic assertion that everyone’s actions count in this way contrasts with R’ Chaim’s statement in his second footnote to this chapter that it’s tzaddikim that affect such things! But see R’ Chaim’s remark in his Rosh Hashanah Drasha to the effect that no two people are alike, in that some can bring about great changes thanks to their spiritual standing while others can barely bring about any such changes at all (citing Ramchal’s Da’at Tevunot 126). As such his point here seems to be that we each do indeed affect changes, but tzaddikim can do even more.

3                I.e., is ever in vain.

4                After all, as R’ Chaim points out in his first footnote here, aren’t we told that we ourselves instigate what happens above, citing Pirkei Avot 2:1? But in point of fact, the Mishna there says that if you’re ever to avoid sinning you’d need to מה למעלה ממך דע – literally, to “Know what’s above you” (i.e., “an eye that sees and an ear that hears”; and that “all your actions are recorded in a book”) and to thus be mindful of what you do.

But R’ Chaim legitimately but quite non-literally translates מה למעלה ממך דע as saying, “Know that all that happens above is from you” in order to make his point. (See Ruach Chaim on that Mishna, too). Interestingly enough, though, the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciples understood the Mishna the same way as R’ Chaim did (see for example Kedushat LeviParshat Metzorah). Is this then an instance of R’ Chaim acknowledging the legitimacy of Chassidic thought? Perhaps so, given that R’ Chaim seemed sympathetic toward the movement: for one thing, he didn’t sign the ban against Chassidism that his teacher, the Gra, initiated. And R’ Chaim was known to have all of the major works of Chassidic Thought in his library.

(The reading of the Mishna itself, though, might actually derive from Zohar 2:117b).

5                The “supernal lights” spoken of here (צחצחות האורות העליונות) will be cited in 1:6, 12 (R’ Chaim’s footnote in 1:13) and 4:21 below.

6                It goes without saying that if our misdeeds cause such great harm, then our laudable deeds do great good, of course.

7                Where all of this counts, as we’ll see.

8                R’ Chaim nonetheless cites a statement in 3:12 below from Eitz Chaim that speaks to the powers that Nebuchadnezzar had in fact on the upper realms with his use of certain impure powers. Apparently then while Titus and he had some degree of power up above, they didn’t have the nearly ultimate power that we do.

9                See Da’at Tevunot 160.

9                R’ Chaim asserts that their act was as superfluous as grinding flour (which, by definition, is already ground), citing Eicha Rabba 1:41. That’s a striking statement, saying in effect that everything Titus and Nebuchadnezzar did was redundant for all intents and purposes since we’d already done the hard part with our sins!

10              R’ Chaim points out that this will be explained later on in 1:6 and 2:5.

11              I.e., The Holy of Holies.

12              See Zohar 2:157 and Kuzari 4:24.

13              The “Foundation Stone”, which is the point from which the rest of the world was formed (Zohar 1:131 and Yomah 54b). Also see Zohar 1: 71b and 2:222 for it resting in the center of the world.

14              R’ Chaim also cites Zohar 3:161a here to further prove his point.

R’ Chaim touches upon the centrality and potency of the Beit Hamikdash, its correspondence to our own beings, and he calls upon each one of us to make ourselves into a human Beit Hamikdash in his second footnote here — along with the dire warning that the earthly Beit Hamikdash will do us no good (i.e., it will no longer help to purify us and expiate our sins) if we violate the one within us!

 15             In our heart.

16              R’ Chaim terms a harlot “the image of jealousy”, in reference to Ezekiel 8:3, 5. See Rashi there as well as Zohar 2:3b and Avodah Zara 55a.

17              I.e., foreign and unwanted potencies; see Leviticus 10:1.

18              Notice that R’ Chaim is terming anger a ta’ava here: a lustful desire – one that’s perhaps on par with the sorts of immoral desires that would have set a harlot in the supernal Beit Hamikdash!

19              R’ Chaim cites Isaiah 64:10 and Ezekiel 43:7-9.

20              R’ Chaim cites and explains the import of Genesis 2:7 to make this point.

(c) 2017 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

Feel free to contact me at



Rabbi Feldman’s new annotated translation of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag’s “Introduction to the Zohar” is available as “The Kabbalah of Self” on Kindle here. His annotated translation of Maimonides’ “Eight Chapters” is available here and his annotated translation of Rabbeinu Yonah’s “The Gates of Repentance” is available here.

He has also translated and commented upon “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers).

Rabbi Feldman also offers two free e-mail classes entitled “Spiritual Excellence” and “Ramchal” that can be subscribed to.

Nephesh Hachaim 1:3

Nephesh Hachaim Gate 1, Ch. 3


Is R’ Chaim saying then that we’re in control of the world’s resources and capacities just as G-d is? Well, yes, in a way 1.  As he puts it, G-d created us to indeed control and affect millions upon millions of those resources and capacities, and to govern an infinite number of celestial worlds 2!

How so, though? Through our actions, speech, thoughts, and overall behavior; and for better or for worse 3.

For thanks to our good actions, speech, thoughts, and behavior we’re said to maintain and empower any number of celestial and holy capacities and worlds, and even make them holier yet and more luminous 4. In fact, our sages termed us “builders” 5 given that we set whole supernal worlds in order much the way that builders arrange their projects and bolster them 6.

But it’s also true that as a result of our bad actions, speech, thoughts, and behavior we correspondingly destroy many celestial and holy capacities and worlds 7, or we darken them or dim their light and holiness. We can even empower the forces of impurity, G-d forbid 8.


This, then, is the meaning of our having been created in “G-d’s image”: just as He controls and arranges all worlds each and every moment according to His will, He saw to it that we, too, have some degree of that control.

For G-d has granted us the ability to open and close 9 infinite numbers of resources and whole worlds by dint of the supernal sources of our actions, speech, and thoughts, and depending on how we utilize them each and every moment 10. As if we were actually in charge of them all, if one could say as much 11.


1           We’re now entering into R’ Chaim’s own original enunciation of what came to be a well-known Mussar idea termed Gadlut Ha’adam – Human Greatness – as taught by R’ Nosson Tzvi Finkel of Slobodka and his students.

Yet, R’ Chaim prefaces his remarks about our abilities with the term כביכול – “if one can say as much”. The expression is usually used when one is depicting G-d in too human terms, but it’s rarely used in the context of man (though see Rashi to Megillah 21 a ”K’viyachol”). Thus, what we’re about to hear about mankind’s abilities are true, but let’s not dare depict humans in too G-dly terms either (see note 10 below).

2             Understand that this phenomenon sets us apart from all other beings, including angels (see 1:10 below and see Zohar 1:5a for their jealousy about that). It enables us to be the model that everything else will follow (see 1:7 below), and it’s also the epitome of the often cited idea that our acts serve lofty purposes (see end of 1:9 below).

Now, while we’d have expected our physical actions to affect things as they do here on earth, who’d have expected our speech, thoughts and general demeanor to? R’ Chaim is thus underscoring the fact that those more subtle and often concealed qualities also have that effect. 

See 1:6 below for a reiteration of how we affect things for better or for worse.

3                R’ Chaim is of course referring to all the mitzvah-related actions (see 1:12 below), speech (see 1:13 below), and thoughts (see 1:14 below). But we don’t always engage in mitzvot, so how can we control the universe to the degree he’s indicating that we do (and how could it function)? But see Hilchot De’ot 3:2 where Rambam explains how we can turn everything we do into a mitzvah (also see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim  232:1). The fact that our “overall behavior” also affects things this way underscores the importance of our personality traits, which could be even more important than our physical, verbal, and mental actions (see Sha’arei Kedusha 1:2).

4                Isaiah 51:16 is cited here which reads, “And I placed My words into your mouth, and with the shadow of My hand I covered you, to plant the heavens and to found the earth”.

5                     See Berachot 64a.

6                    See R’ Chaim’s depiction of us as “builders” in the previous chapter, where he highlighted our limitations in that capacity versus G-d’s own omnipotence. This, too, will be referred to in note 10 below.

7                     Isaiah 49:17 which speaks of “those who destroy you and those who lay you to waste will come from you” is cited.

8                See R’ Chaim’s note to 1:12 below on this as well as Eitz Hachaim, Sha’ar Haklipot 3.

9                … the doors that allow for the free movement of…

10              R’ Chaim is making an exceedingly important point here: that we ourselves don’t ultimately affect the workings of the universe and its resources, since we’re not G-d, but we do enable them to function more or less easily one way or another by virtue of the fact that we are the gatekeepers. Thus, the power we have is to open and close doors, which is tremendous, but it’s quite secondary to G-d’s own power, needless to say (see notes 1 and 6 above).

And some of us are better at this than others, of course (see 1:14, 19 below about these two ideas).

See Gra on Sifrah D’tsiuitah 16b.

11              R’ Chaim concludes this chapter by citing the statement in Eicha Rabbah 1:33 to the effect that we “strengthen G-d” when we fulfill His wishes and “diminish His strength” when we don’t, if one could say as much. Zohar 2:32b which reiterates the point is also cited.

(c) 2017 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

Feel free to contact me at


Rabbi Feldman’s new annotated translation of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag’s “Introduction to the Zohar” is available as “The Kabbalah of Self” on Kindle here. His annotated translation of Maimonides’ “Eight Chapters” is available here and his annotated translation of Rabbeinu Yonah’s “The Gates of Repentance” is available here.

He has also translated and commented upon “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers).

Rabbi Feldman also offers two free e-mail classes entitled “Spiritual Excellence” and “Ramchal” that can be subscribed to.

Nephesh Hachaim 1:2

Nephesh Hachaim Gate 1, Ch. 2


But, just how are we like G-d? To know that, though, we’d first have to realize that we’re actually told that we were created “in the image of E-l-o-h-i-m1. R’ Chaim underscores the fact that that’s the name of G-d that speaks to His being in control of all the universe’s resources and capacities 2.

And how much is G-d in control of all the universe’s resources and capacities? Completely. For, when we humans build something out of wood, for example, R’ Chaim points out, we don’t start off by actually creating wood: we simply take whatever available pieces of wood we need and set them in place. And when we’re finished, we leave, and the edifice we built stands on its’ own.

But when G-d (as E-l-o-h-i-m) “built” the universe He created it out of sheer nothingness by means of His limitless ability 3. And each and every moment literally He willfully imbues the world and its contents with “being and new light” 4. In fact, were G-d to withhold that for an instant, everything would then simply return to sheer nothingness 5. That’s why The Men of the Great Assembly worded the prayers to read “He renews the act of creation daily” 6, which means to say that G-d does that literally, moment by moment 7.


Thus G-d is said to be in control of all the universe’s resources and capacities as signified by the term E-l-o-h-i-m 8 in that each and every resource and capacity is under His control, He provides them all with their capacity and power each and every moment, and He alone is capable of changing them and setting them in order as He sees fit 9.

And we’re somewhat like that, too, as we’ll see.



1                We’ve translated the term as “the image of G-d” of course, since E-l-o-h-i-m is one of G-d’s names, but that translation is still and all somewhat misleading as we’ll see.

                  Now, we find that particular names depict specific characteristics. Someone named Shmuel, for example, may be called “Shmulie” by family, “Shmulke” by friends, “Samuel” (its English equivalent) by co-workers, “Sam” by others, etc. And this same man will likely act and be perceived by others according to the name in question. The same could be said about G-d, if you will. He too is represented by different names, seven of which are sacred (see Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 6:2) and scores of which are more like “appellations” (see Chizkuni to Exodus 14:22), and each represents a trait.

R’ Chaim’s point is that particular names of G-d depict specific Divine characteristics and that we’d need to know which characteristic is being expressed here by the use of the name E-l-o-h-i-m.

2                R’ Chaim refers to the citation of that in Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 5:1.

3                This depiction explains the following detail: E-l-o-h-i-m is the name for G-d that’s used in the recounting of creation (rather than the usual name Y-h-v-h).  So we’d have expected R’ Chaim’s point to be that our having been created “in the image of E-l-o-h-i-m” implies that we’re creative beings. Instead R’ Chaim points out just how unlike G-d we are on that level. For while humans certainly affect change, we still and all arrive in the middle of things then leave. We’re thus a vital element in the universe, but only an element nonetheless. Indeed, R’ Chaim is underscoring the idea that we humans are not creative so much as re-creative.

And he cites Zohar 2, 96a in a note below which differentiates between the names E-l-o-h-i-m and Y-h-v-h, and he addresses the subject in 3:9 below.

As for G-d creating the universe out of sheer nothingness, see 1:13, 3:2 below, as well as Ramban and Gra’s Aderet Eliyahu to Genesis 1:1, and Ramchal’s Da’at Tevunot 194.

4                “New light” means to say, additional degrees of animation.

See note to 1:13, 3:11 below and R’ Chaim’s remarks in Ruach Chaim 4:22, as well as Ramban to Genesis 1:4, Maharal’s Netzach Yisrael Ch. 1, and Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 1:1,

5                See Shabbat 88a and Ramban to Genesis 2:17.

A point to be made is that since everything can thus come undone and become sheer nothingness if G-d so willed it, and yet He hasn’t brought that about, G-d clearly intends for the universe to go on and isn’t utterly displeased with it, as some might think.

6                This is found in Yotzer Ohr before Kriat Sh’ma.

7                R’ Chaim also offers the fact that G-d is said to “be making” them now rather than to have made “the great luminaries” (Psalms 136:7) in the distant past.

He then offers a note here, his first in a long series of them throughout the book. We’ll offer the gist of this one and others like it that help us understand the point at hand, but few others.

The note raises the question as to why none of this moment-by-moment activity is discernible to us. And it offers that it’s because all of that goes on below the surface of things, in each thing’s spiritual “elements” and “fathers” (i.e., its non-material roots and antecedents) (R’ Chaim cites Zohar 1:23b as illustration of that fact. See 3:10 below for this same citation. Also see R’ Yitzchak’s note to 1:1 and Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 4:1-2, 5 on this idea), which are themselves rooted in the four letters of G-d’s name Y-h-v-h (see 3:11 below), and which all join together to produce each and every thing moment by moment as is also spelled out by the concept of the different “parts” of time (see Hilchot Kiddush Hachodesh 6:2 and Pardes Rimonim 2:1).

Also see R’ Chaim’s note to 1:13 below.

8                … specifically, which is a plural term, thus alluding to G-d as E-l-o-h-i-m being in control of infinite numbers of things…

9                R’ Chaim’s next note at this instance makes the point that the term E-l-o-h-i-m is sometimes used in other contexts in the Torah, as when it refers to idols and national overlords (see Psalms 96:5, Micha 4:5, Zohar 3:8a, 208a), and judges (see Exodus 22:9 and Rambam about that in Moreh Nevuchim 2:6). But given  that none of these have inherent so much as G-d-given abilities (see R’ Chaim’s Ma’amarim 3 and Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 1:1-4), they’re clearly un-G-dly.

(c) 2017 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

Feel free to contact me at


Rabbi Feldman’s new annotated translation of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag’s “Introduction to the Zohar” is available as “The Kabbalah of Self” on Kindle here. His annotated translation of Maimonides’ “Eight Chapters” is available here and his annotated translation of Rabbeinu Yonah’s “The Gates of Repentance” is available here.

He has also translated and commented upon “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers).

Rabbi Feldman also offers two free e-mail classes entitled “Spiritual Excellence” and “Ramchal” that can be subscribed to.

Nephesh Hachaim 1:1

Nephesh Hachaim Gate 1, Ch. 1


Amazingly enough, we’re said to have been created “in the image of G-d” (Genesis 1:27, 9:6). But what exactly does that mean? It surely speaks to a core-central part of our being that we’d have to comprehend if we’re ever to understand ourselves. So the greater part of this first Gate goes about explaining it while the idea reiterates through the entire work either overtly or subtly.

In point of fact, most of the mystical teachings of the Zohar focus on this seemingly other-worldly phenomenon 1. But we won’t be exploring the Zohar’s understanding of that here so much as the more implicit meaning of our having been created in His image as the earlier Literalists understood it 2.


Now, the idea of our having been created in G-d’s “image” certainly isn’t to be taken literally, as G-d hasn’t an “image” per se 3. What it implies is that we have something in common with Him 4 — something vitally important as we’ll see.

Let’s explain the analogy between our beings and G-d’s image this way. It’s written for example that “I was like a bird of the wilderness; I was like an owl of the wasteland” (Psalms 102:7). That’s certainly not to say that the person who’s speaking here has wings or a beak, or that he’d literally become a bird; but rather, as the Literalists explained it 5, that he’s somewhat bird-like in that he might, for example, wander about the desert in solitude the way certain birds do or the like, but nothing more than that 6. So our having been created in G-d’s “image” implies that we’re somewhat like G-d. We’ll soon see what it means 7.


1                See Eitz Chaim 1:2 for this point.

The Zohar (Parshat Ki Taitzai 279b, Tikkunei Zohar 19, 42a) uses the term Adam Kadmon (“Primordial Man”) when discussing this, thus referring to a more abstract notion of humankind. But R’ Chaim’s point is that he’ll be speaking about us specifically (though the term Adam Kadmon will be cited in 3:8).

Ari refers to Adam Kadmon very often in Otzrot Chaim, Sha’ar HaIggulim, and in Drush Adam Kadmon. He uses the expression Tzelem Elokim (“The Image of G-d”) in Otzrot Chaim, too. R’ Chaim’s son R’ Yitzchak (who wrote the Introduction above) added a lengthy and comprehensive treatment of the idea of Tzelem as explained in the Kabbalistic literature here which we won’t be addressing.

2               The so-called “Literalists” included Rambam (in this instance most especially and specifically, as we’ll see in note 6 below), Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Radak, and others. They were termed literalists because they strove to explain what the Torah was actually expressing. And so, for example, Rambam cited our ability to think as what likens us to G-d, while Ibn Ezra attributed it to the fact that we have an immortal and exalted soul.

3                After all, isn’t it written, “To whom can you compare G-d, and what likeness can you arrange for Him?” (Isaiah 40:18)?

4                That is, there’s a remote resemblance between G-d and us.

5                See Sha’ar HaHakdamot 5d for a discussion of the Literalists in this context.

6                This explanation of the extent of the metaphor is derived from the very first chapter of Moreh Nevuchim. Also see Ramban’s comments to Genesis 1:27.

7              Also see Ruach Chaim 2:1 and 2:2,5 below for a different discussion of this, as well as Ramchal’s Da’at Tevunot 80 and Kinat Hashem Tz’vaot 2.

(c) 2017 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

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Rabbi Feldman’s new annotated translation of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag’s “Introduction to the Zohar” is available as “The Kabbalah of Self” on Kindle here. His annotated translation of Maimonides’ “Eight Chapters” is available here and his annotated translation of Rabbeinu Yonah’s “The Gates of Repentance” is available here.

He has also translated and commented upon “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers).

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R’ Chaim of Volozhin never wrote an introduction to Nephesh Hachaim but his son R’ Yitzchak did so in his place, and we’ll be encapsulating it here, in this first part 1. R’ Yitzchak’s first point is that ordinarily an author would write an introduction himself that would humbly and modestly offer why the work was written and what its objectives were. But since his father didn’t write one, R’ Yitzchak set out to offer an introduction that would, ironically, almost boldly do all it could to cite his father’s greatness 2. We’ll encapsulate that introduction in this first part and go on from there to highlight the makeup of Nephesh Hachaim itself.

R’ Yitzchak says that he’d hardly know where to begin to express his father’s greatness, and that he himself was unworthy of the task. But R’ Chaim’s reputation is already well known, he then says, and he goes on to depict something of the great man’s personality and accomplishments. For one thing, aside from being a great, prodigious, and righteous scholar, he is also known for having established the great Yeshiva of Volozhin – the first actual yeshiva as we know it — and for having had many hundreds of students 3.

But even when he was young he was known to have been an amazingly diligent student who’d study day and night. At first he was a disciple of the well known author of Sha’agat Aryeh – R’ Aryeh Leib Gunzberg (c. 1695 – 1785), whose legal decisions were oftentimes accepted by Chassidim and Mitnagdim alike.

Then he became the principal disciple of the great and world-renown Gaon of Vilna, R’ Eliezer (1720 – 1797). The Gaon was not only a scholar of great depth and accomplishment but also an ascetic, kabbalist, philologist, and arguably the greatest Jewish scholar of the post-Talmudic era, and the one man who could lead the charge against the nascent Chassidic movement that seemed to threaten Jewish life at the time 4. R’ Chaim not only absorbed his teacher’s wisdom, he also served him humbly, and shivered in awe even many years later when he related things that his teacher had said.

So humble was R’ Chaim that he had no compunctions about drawing close to the poor and unlettered, he’d lecture about things that would not only speak to scholars but to those same simple individuals, and he’d somehow purposefully and unpretentiously address both in the course of his public teachings. He cared little about his physical settings or accoutrements, or his honor (never taking offense about anything untoward said about him), so humble was he. And he never took solace in all of the good and holy things he’d done, but always expected more of himself and questioned his own motivations.

Most tellingly, R’ Yitzchak, his son, remembers his father constantly asking him if he were doing enough to help others with their troubles, “since people weren’t created for their own situations in life (alone) but to help others as much as they can”.

The Introduction ends in a rather poignant way. R’ Yitzchak reports that on his death-bed R’ Chaim handed R’ Yitzchak his handwritten copy of Nephesh Hachaim and directed him to do two things after R’ Chaim would pass: to publish Nephesh Hachaim as soon as possible, and to see to the well-being of the by-then successful and world-famous Volozhin Yeshiva; and he then died.

Believing that his father would have understood just how much work was required to keep up the yeshiva, R’ Yitzchak focused on doing that, and thus didn’t have time to publish Nephesh Hachaim until some time had passed. But R’ Yitzchak took the tragic and haunting facts that his newest baby passed away about a week after his birth and that his “precious, beautiful, charming, and beloved” eight year old son Simcha Naftali Hertz also died within that period as signs from Heaven that he shouldn’t have delayed publishing Nephesh Hachaim in fact. So he set out to do that.

Thus ends the gist of the Introduction to Nephesh Hachaim.


A lot of theories have been enunciated about R’ Chaim’s intentions when he wrote Nephesh Hachaim. Was it perhaps meant to be a diatribe against the Chassidic movement, in line with the thoughts and actions of his teacher, the Vilna Gaon – or perhaps an acquiescence to the movement’s strength and numbers by that point? Was it a revelation of just how much the two schools of thought converge — or how they differ? Was it meant to be the embodiment of non-Chassidic Kabbalistic standards – or a statement to the affect that while there are differences, they aren’t fatal and that the schools are closer than thought despite the marked differences? Many argue one way or the other.

In any event we’re presented here with a glorious text of Mussar, Kabbalah, and Jewish Thought that serves as the most fundamental statement of “Lithuanian”, “Yeshivish”, non-Chassidic attitudes and perspectives. And it has allowed for great Yeshivish thinkers like R’ Shlomo Elyashiv, the author of the magisterial Leshem Shevo Vachlama; for the many Mussar masters, from R’ Yisrael Salanter onwards to contribute to Jewish Thought; and for the very many students of their thoughts to grow in the service of G-d in ways that would not have been possible without Nephesh Hachaim.

The book is comprised of four “Gates” and a section entitled “Chapters” that lies between the third and fourth gate. The first gate discusses just what our having been created “in G-d’s image” means; our ability to affect heaven and earth; the potency of our words and thoughts; our souls and their connections to G-d; the nature of repentance, and more.

The second gate discusses Jewish prayer and the import of the wording; the consequences of sin; what’s involved in “whole-hearted prayer”; intentions in prayer, and more.

The third gate is the most esoteric and complex, and it’s actually skipped by many because of that as well as because of the knotty implications that can be drawn from it. We’ll be especially careful in our wording and explanations there. It discusses the idea of G-d being the “site” upon which the universe stands; the danger in discussing this along with the need to discuss it in our day and age; G-d’s perspective of things versus our own; the nature of G-d’s having apparently withdrawn His being in order to allow for the creation of mortal beings, and the pros and cons of discussing this; G-d’s absolute rule, and more.

The “chapters” section discusses the dangers of egocentrism; purity of heart and altruistic service to G-d; the idea of attaching oneself onto G-d’s presence; practical mitzvah-observance and prayer; fearing G-d’s exaltedness versus fearing retribution, and more.

And the fourth gate encapsulates what had been said before and expands upon ideas like the importance of Torah-study and studying it altruistically; the fear of G-d; attaching oneself onto G-d’s presence and onto His Torah; the significance of original Torah insights; the personal and universal impacts of studying Torah; the fact that G-d’s presence dwells in this world when people study Torah, and more.

May G-d grants us the wherewithal to draw from the wisdom within Nephesh Hachaim and to thus serve Him wholeheartedly.


1 R’ Yitzchak included a number of rather erudite scholarly footnotes to this Introduction which we’ve omitted since they would have taken us far afield and wouldn’t have served our purposes here. He provided notes throughout the book, too, which we also won’t be offering.

2 Though it’s not generally known, in fact most introductions are the very last thing written in a book. For it’s the venue through which the author presents the gist of the ideas that he’d come to realize after having written the book and dwelled on the points he made. R’ Chaim consequently didn’t write an introduction because he was still editing and adding on to the book right before his passing.

3 Before the establishment of the Volozhiner Yeshiva gifted young men would study with their local rabbi or perhaps from a more accomplished and learned rabbi of another town or city until he himself earned ordination and went on to be such a rabbi and teacher. But R’ Chaim perceived that that system could no longer thrive — or compete with the Western university system that was beginning to attract intelligent and inquisitive young Jewish men.

So the Volozhiner Yeshiva (and the entire yeshiva system) was created so as to be the hub of Jewish intellectual life. It was lively, intense, and thrilling, and there were always people studying there and parrying with each other in a search for truth.

4 Though it’s hard to imagine now, at the time the Chassidic movement seemed to be a threat to traditional Jewish life with its new practices and areas of concentration.