Category Archives: Mussar

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.


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.