Monday, March 7, 2011

Do animals have souls? (Part I)

Do Jews believe that animals have souls?  I get this question a lot lately.  People want a quick yes-or-no answer, but the problem is, the Hebrew language has five different words that get translated as "soul" (nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah and yechidah) and they mean different things in Jewish mysticism (kabbalah).  So before I can answer the question, I need to define the five levels of the soul.  Sorting this out is not always easy, because different commentators have interpreted these terms in different ways throughout the centuries, and they don't always agree.  Here are the basic definitions as I understand them:

1. Nefesh (NEH-fesh) the physical life force of the body. All animals certainly have this, or they would not be alive.  For that matter, so do plants have nefesh.   This is also the word used by King David in Psalm 25:20: "O guard my soul and rescue me." Some modern versions of the Bible translate this as "guard my life."  In Jewish thought, to "guard your soul" means to take care of your health and safety.  We are also commanded to take care of our animals in the same way, giving them proper food, water and shelter: "A good man takes care of his animals, but wicked men are cruel to theirs." (Proverbs 12:10)   So before we go any further, let's be very clear that whether or not animals have souls in the theological sense is irrelevant in terms of our responsibility to care for them.  One cannot argue that animals are "things" and then go abuse them, heaven forbid.  (In fact, even "things" have a netzotz -- a divine spark of holiness - within them, but that's a whole other blog.)

2. Ruach (ROO-akh) literally means "wind" or "spirit" and is the emotional level of the soul.   In Hebrew/Yiddish idiom, to do something "with ruach" means to do it with feeling -- such as singing a song or playing an instrument with "soul."  Biologically, I would associate ruach with the limbic system, the "mammalian" part of the brain that controls emotions. Maimonides, an important 12th-century Jewish philosopher, clearly states in his Guide for the Perplexed that when it comes to the love between a mother animal and a mother human, there is no difference, because love comes from the emotional level.  This is the reason the Torah forbids slaughtering a baby animal on the same day as its mother (Leviticus 22:28) because the mother might see this and feel emotional pain.  By extension, Jewish law forbids slaughtering any animal in front of another.  (Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 34:14)

Maimonides also argues that the commandment to send away a mother bird before you take eggs or young from a nest (Deuteronomy 22:6-7) is meant to teach us compassion for the feelings of the mother bird.  I have chickens and believe me, they do indeed get upset if they see you taking their eggs.  So clearly, from a Jewish perspective, birds and mammals have ruach.  Whether or not insects, fish, reptiles, etc. have this level is up for debate.  Certainly they experience fear; otherwise, they would not run or swim away.  But does a snake feel love?

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady (the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, 18th century) wrote in the Tanya that humans actually have two souls: an "animal" soul that they are naturally born with (which seems to correspond to the nefesh-ruach levels described above) and a "divine soul" which is "a part of God above" and must be developed and consciously focused on spiritual things.  These two souls have been compared to a rider and a horse; when they work together, all is well, but if the horse throws the rider, the lower body desires take over and a person acts only on animal instincts.   From Rabbi Schneur Zalman's perspective, only humans have the higher soul level, although his is NOT the last word in the subject.  This brings us to:

3. Neshamah (neh-SHAH-mah) is the word most commonly used in colloquial speech for "soul" in the usual sense, that is, an immortal soul that survives death.   But it is also the word used in Psalm 150 for "let everything that has a soul praise God."  Some translations render this as "everything that has breath," because neshamah is etymologically related to the word neshimah, meaning "breath."  Now, if everything that has breath is to praise God, wouldn't that suggest that animals, too, have a neshamah?  In Psalm 148, everything in the universe is praising God, even inanimate objects such as the sun, moon and stars.  So "praising God" can't really be used as a criteria for whether or not something has an immortal soul.

However, we should note that there are many anecdotal stories of people encountering "ghosts" or spirits of animals.  So it does appear quite possible that something in an animal survives death.

In kabbalah, neshamah is associated with the higher levels of the mind and, interestingly, some Jewish philosophers felt that we are not automatically born with a neshamah, that we must develop it.  This is supported by modern brain research. The more we use our brains, the more synapses we develop among the neurons, and the more intelligent we can become.   Conversely, a brain that is not stimulated will lose synapses and, in some cases, fail to learn even basic language and reasoning skills.  "Use it or lose it" apparently applies in both biology and theology.

Jewish philosophy has long regarded knowledge as the only thing we take with us to the Next World, which may be why developing the intellectual neshamah is associated with immortality.  But does this mean we are developing a "soul," or simply improving the physical brain?  Hard to say.  The fact is, we can't really prove there is an immortal human soul, anymore than we can prove -- or disprove -- the existence of an immortal soul in animals.  What we can say is that humans do possess a level of intelligence that is greater than even the higher primates, and that we humans can develop a conscious sense of right and wrong that animals lack.   (A lion may kill prey, but he does not murder.)   Most Jewish thinkers also maintain that humans are the only beings with free will, who can consciously choose to know their Creator.

Neshamah is generally connected not only with intellectual pursuits, but also with moral responsibility.  In Yiddish, to have a "Jewish soul" (yiddische neshamah) means to have a sense of proper humanity and compassion.   In other words, to be a mensch -- an upright person of true integrity and honor -- the highest compliment one can give in the Yiddish language.  

4. Chayah (KHAI-yah) literally means "living."  It is used in the Torah in Genesis 2:7 , where God breathed the breath of life into Adam and then Adam "became a living soul (nefesh chayah)."  Note that this term combines nefesh, the life force of the body, with chayah, "living."  But isn't a body with nefesh already living?   In the biological sense, yes.  So chayah must add another dimension to human existence.

In kabbalah, chayah refers to a higher spiritual level, something like a collective consciousness, where all members of humanity are connected together.  The word adam literally means "human being" -- homo sapiens -- in Hebrew, and only later in the story does it become the name of a specific man.   Adam Kadmon -- the Primal Adam -- is often pictured as a hermaphrodite cosmic being who contains all the souls of all the humans who ever were or will be born.  He/she is the chayah level of the human species.  (In Jungian terms, the species archetype.)

(This section was updated on 12/31/15, incorporating some feedback from readers.) Do other species also have a chayah level?  Not in the human sense.  But if we regard chayah as the species archetype, then each pair of animals in Eden would be the species' chayah.  Nefesh chayah is used in one other place, namely Genesis 1:20, which seems to support this.  The full phrase is  is "yishr'tzu hamayim sheretz nefesh chayah" which is translated variously as "let the waters swarm (teem) with swarms of living creatures," or with "moving creatures that have life," etc. So the focus is on them being alive, which is what I said the nefesh level was, i.e., the life force of the body.  They are all created by direct command, not by having the "breath of life" breathed in separately.

Thjis is a main difference between animals and humans.  Everything else in the Eden story is created by God simply speaking it into existence: "Let there be light -- and there was light."  Only in the case of humans does God "breath the breath of life" into them directly.  Again I stress:  This does not mean that other creatures don't have life.  And we have already demonstrated that many creatures have feelings.  But Judaism does take the direct  "breathing in" of Adam's nefesh chayah  to mean that there is something different about humans as compared to the rest of creation.  Rabbi Natan Slifkin, known as the "zoo rabbi" and author of Man and Beast, clearly states that humans are the only beings that have a "divine soul" in this sense.   But on the other hand, he also devotes many pages to our responsibility toward animals as stewards of the earth.  So do numerous other Jewish commentators.

4. Yechidah (yeh-KHEE-dah) means "unity" and comes from the same Hebrew root as echad, "one" as in "God is One." Yechidah does not appear in the Bible as such, but is a kabbalistic term developed in later Jewish mysticism. Yechidah is the level of the soul where we can "touch God."

 Judaism does not teach that we can become God or merge entirely with God as some mystical systems do (although some Hasidic thinkers came pretty close to that.)   We Jews are not pantheists.   But there is a level where we can experience oneness with God's Creation and, through this experience, get a "taste" of the oneness of God.  Humans all over the world have reported this type of experience. 

Do animals also experience oneness with God?  It is impossible to say, because they cannot tell us.  Some Jewish thinkers (as well as others) maintain that animals -- and, in fact, all created beings except humans -- automatically do the will of God because they were created that way, with no free will to do otherwise.   In that sense, they may be more in tune with God than we are.  At the same time, they do not seem to have the same level of creativity that comes with our free will.

In conclusion:  There is no clear yes-or-no answer to this question.  Whether or not you believe animals have souls depends on how you define "soul," and Judaism does not speak with one voice on the subject.  One thing Judaism does clearly say, however, is that animals are living beings with feelings, that they were created by God, and that we are commanded to care for them properly.   (That's three things, actually, but you know what I mean.)

This being the case, why is it that Western civilization  -- much of which is based on the Bible -- has become so callous toward animals and the environment?  The fault lies not with Judaism, but with a non-Jewish philosopher named Rene Descartes -- "the father of modern philosophy" -- who lived in the 1600s and believed that animals are nothing but automatons, unfeeling machines that cannot feel pain. This is not in accord with Jewish thought but, unfortunately, a lot of Jews, as well as many Christians and others, have adopted Cartesian attitudes over the centuries -- a topic we explore in Part 2 of this series.


Dennis Tate said...

Rabbi Gershom: thank you immensely for writing up this exceptionally informative blog on this fascinating subject. A couple of weeks ago my daughter and I watched a special on PBS/Nova regarding how a Border Collie had at least a one thousand name vocabulary.

This collie knew the names of over one thousand toy stuffed dolls. A scientist picked nine dolls out of the pile of one thousand and tested the dog to see if he could choose the correct ones...he got all nine correct.

Then the dog was introduced to a NEW toy, that he had never seen before. This new toy was named Darwin. The new toy was put in with the other nine toys and the dog was asked to go fetch Darwin? The dog returned to the scientist and again was asked to fetch Darwin...the dog returned with Darwin!

This dog had reasoned through the process that he knew all other nine toys...this is a new this must be Darwin!

Abigayl and I were astonished!

(Now that i think of it...the collie might have been a she?!)

The show was on PBS/Nova....

Yonassan Gershom said...

Thank you for reading my blog, Dennis. This dog was clearly a prodigy, but even ordinary dogs are incredibly smart -- the average dog is capable of learning 100 or more commands and/or words. Since dogs respond well to pointing, I point to things and name them with my dogs. I also talk to my animals like they are people -- I'm not sure how much they actually understand, but I think it is more than we realize. I saw another PBS program a while back aboujt a parrot that not only recognizes shapes and colors, she names them!

Peter said...

Dear Rooster,

I came across your blog whilst searching on Google. I applaud your very positive attitude towards animals. I'm not Jewish, but the attitude of religions on this issue interests me. I have a page about the views of world religions on animal souls on my website: [url][/url] - see the page "Views of world religions".

The Jewish view I cite on that page at the moment (from another article) is quite negative in tone, so perhaps I should quote you as well, or even instead! I will be happy to link to this blog if you agree (please leave a message via my website).

Once again, thanks for an informative article.

Anonymous said...

Rabbi, you say that 'nephesh chayah' first appears in Gen 2:7 and only is used of humans. Is it not the same words in Gen 1:20, which is referring to animals? I notice there is an extra 'le' before 'nephesh' in Gen 2:7. Does this make a difference to the meaning? Many thanks in advance Catherine.

Yonassan Gershom said...

To anonymous: You are correct -- the term "nefesh chayah" does appear first in Genesis 1:20. My error. However, there is indeed a definite contextual difference in meaning.

The full phrase in Genesis 1:20 is "yishr'tzu hamayim sheretz nefesh chayah" which is translated variously as "let the waters swarm (teem) with swarms of living creatures," or with "moving creatures that have life" etc. So the focus is on them being alive, which is what I said the nefesh level was, i.e., the life force of the body.

This is also the place where the usage of "chayah" gets interpreted by some commentators as referring to the "Platonic Ideal" of each species. But do note there is no "breathing in" of a soul to the "living creatures" here, just a fiat commandment to Let there be."

In Genesis 2:7 the extra L' you refer to indicates motion towards something, in accordance with God breathing a soul INTO the primal Adam. And he BECAME a "living soul" which indicates that his essence is not the physical animal body that simply "has life" but a higher spiritual existance.

As I said, there is a lot of disagreement on how to interpret these levels. I know that animal rights and "deep ecology" people want to make humans an animals absolutely equal, and if you believe you are nothing more than your DNA, then it would appear we humans only a different type of ape. However, even a very intelligent ape like Koko is only on the level of a young child with a vocabulary of about 1000 signs (words) and an IQ around 70, which for humans is retarded. And it tok her 20 years and a LOT of coaching to get there. This is far below the 20,000 words of an average educated English speaking person. So it would seem that humans do have a higher level of something -- whether of soul or merely better brain cells is hard to prove.

See for an interesting psychological critique about the "personhood" of gorillas.

Once again, please note that even if animals are not equal to humans n terms of personhood, that does NOT give us the right to abuse them.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your reply Rabbi. I was referred to your article not because of issues with animals, but because I am trying to determine if man 'is' a 'soul' or has been 'given' a 'soul'. If I read Genesis (in English) it seems to be saying that man is created a 'soul' and therefore the soul is body and spirit combined, so the 'soul that sins' dies etc. I'm trying to determine what the ancient Israelites believed regarding 'life after death' ie is there consciousness after death? or is it the case that 'the dead know nothing', 'there are no thoughts etc in the grave',according to the Tenach. I will study your article some more. I'm aware that our English translations of the Tenach, don't always do justice to the meaning. Thank you again Rabbi. Catherine

Yonassan Gershom said...

Catherine, if you go by just the Tanach, it would appear that the idea of a spiritual soul was not well-developed in ancient times, although we do have hints of it, such as in Eccelsiastes 3:21 which reads: "Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?"

This follows the oft-quoted statement that man and beast go to "the same place"(the grave) but keep in mind that Solomon's purpose was not to define the soul per se, but to point out that all of our material wealth is, in his words, hevel hevalim -- meaningless. But the fact that he refers to the soul of man going "up" hints that such a belief existed. Solomon, however, accepts on what he can see: That the bdies of humans and beasts both de and "return to dust."

We also have the story of Saul consulting the spirit of Samuel. (1 Samuel 28:7-20) This is told as an actual event, not a dream or vision. So there are a few hints of an afterlife already in Tanach.

However -- and this is extremely important! -- Judaism does not go by "just the Bible" the way fundamentalist Christians do. There is a vast oral tradition that goes along with the written texts. And it is in this oral tradition -- much of which has been published in books in modern times -- that we find the more esoteric teachings.

Jeff Eyges said...

So it would seem that humans do have a higher level of something -- whether of soul or merely better brain cells is hard to prove.

Actually, Rabbi, in recent years the genetic mutation that allowed for development of speech has been identified. The great apes lack that mutation.

Yonassan Gershom said...

One could argue that the mutation was caused when God breathed in the nefesh chayah, thereby elevating humans to a different category from apes. There are some rabbinical opinions that in say "Let us make Man" the "us" refers to God along with the rest of creation participating in the process or creating Adam's physical body. Which is one possible way of reconciling evolution with Genesis. The body evolved from nature and the higher consciousness was "breathed in" by God later.

Jeff Eyges said...

There are theistic evolutionary biologists who believe that God set up the system so that it would eventually produce a being with a higher-order intelligence, then God breathed in the nefesh chaya (I think Ken Miller at Brown may be one of these; I know he's a practicing Catholic). Mainstream biologists don't agree with that position; they feel the data indicates that the appearance of beings such as ourselves was not inevitable.

I think that from a Jewish perspective, it could probably be resolved within the framework of Kabbalah (I believe that in Vedanta, which has some very similar concepts, they see it as an evolutionary process involving consciousness as the precursor or substrate of matter), but you would know more about that than I.

Yonassan Gershom said...

I'm aware of the various "intelligent design" theories as well as the arguments pro and con. What I believe is that there is a God who created the universe, but part of that creation process included enough random factors to allow for creativity and free will. An analogy I like to use goes like this:

Imagine a computer programmer designing a complex video game. If he pre-programs every character's actions and every event on the quest in advance, he does not have a game, he has a movie. So he programs in some random factors which allow the computer to choose which monsters pop up in response to whatever choices the players make, what weapons they can earn, which companions they take on the quest, etc. By giving up some control over the program, the game allows for some real choices within the parameters of the game. It also allows for real mistakes and the possibility of losing as well as winning.

Now, if God is the programmer of the universe, so to speak, then I believe he also programmed in some random factors, the things we call geological events, mutations, free will, etc. God could at any time step in and re-program things to go His/Her way, but then there would be no free will, and God would just have a bunch of robots. So God allows for multiple possibilities in the way things evolve and grow.

Some events, such as an asteroid smashing into the earth and ending the age of dinosaurs, probably were predestined, given the orbits of planets and asteroids. But how things developed after that had multiple possibilities. We might as easily have ended up being more like birds than mammals. But since God in Judaism has no physical body, the "image of God" is not necessarily a primate one. The "image" (actually, "likeness", the Hebrew word is "tselem") is not about the phyical body or "animal self," it is about the ATTRIBUTES of God that we can emulate.

Like all analogies, this one has its limits, but it works for me.

Anonymous said...

I do believe animals also have souls, just by my faith in God and by his word, I read no where that God breathed into the animals life, I am a women and I also do not read any where that God had breathed into the womans nostril either. I believe anything with a brain, heart and lungs is worthy of God's promise to his Kingdom. Wonderful blog it opens up many more questions for me to study.

Yonassan Gershom said...

According to Jewish mysticism, the First Adam was created as a hermaphoroditic being who was both male and female in one, then later separated into two individuals. (Based on Genesis 5:2, see also Midrash Rabbah VIII:1)

This is the origin of the idea of "soul mates" or "finding your other half." Some schools of kabbalah teach that the human soul remains both male and female on the spiritual level, only taking a gender when it enters a human body. This is probably the origin of the statement by Paul of Tarsus that in heaven "they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven [which have no gender] --Matthew 22:30)

The word "adam" in Hebrew means "human" in terms of the species: "Male and female God created them and called their name Adam" (Genesis 5:2) Only later does "Adam" become the name of a specific male. So technically the breath of life was breathed into female and male together. (The word commonly translated "rib" also means "side," BTW.)

Therefore, medieval Christian arguments that women had no souls were bogus. Of course, during that time the churches were not consulting us Jews about what our scriptures mean or how to translate various Hebrew words. In fact, no Jews were involved in doing the King James translation (which bwecame the basis of so many other versons); the Jews had all been expelled from England in the 1200s. Thus there are many misunderstandings in popular culture about what Genesis does or does not mean.

Yosef Kahane said...

You mentioned some commentators that say that we are only born with the animal soul, and need to develop the higher soul. It is the higher soul that lives on after death. So, it this to say that if we do not develop our higher soul, when the body dies, everything we are dies too? If so, according to these commentators, how does one develop the higher soul?

Yonassan Gershom said...


According to classical kabbalah, one develops the higher soul through learning Torah and doing the mitzvot. (For non-Jews, it is the Seven Laws of Noah.)

Some kabbalists speak of building a "spiritual body" through one's deeds. Again, they were equating "soul" with moral and ethical development -- which is why you find references to non-Jews not having souls in medieval literature -- given the barbarity that Jews experienced at the hands of the Crusades and the Inquisition, I do not think they REALLY mean no "soul" in terms of no eternal life, but rather, no "heart," no compassion, no feelings for others, no conscience -- the things that make us human beyond species biology. I have heard Holocaust survivors say that the Nazis were "heartless beasts without souls" and by this they were referring to behavior.

Isaac Luria (kabbalist, 1500s) believed that a human soul that showed no improvement after 3 incarnations would indeed cease to exist. However, except perhaps for Haman and Hitler, there are rarely souls so wicked that they have NO good qualities, so in real life I do not think this happens very often. Most of us keep coming back over and over until we get it right.

Peter said...

I revisited this page when revising my web page about the views of organised religions on whether animals have souls. I find your discussion superior to anything else I have found from Jewish sources. So I have now put a link to this page from my website. Thanks for a very clear discussion and for your compassion towards all animals!

Yonassan Gershom said...

Well thank you, Peter. The problem with a lot of Jewish sites is that they use a ,ot of in-house jargon not accessible to the general (often non-Jewish) reader. I try to write in a more user-friendly style and to translate all my Hebrew & other foreign terms. And there does seem to be a big need for this page -- after 2 years it still gets the most daily hits of anything on my blog. Glad to be of help :)

dm said...

Back in November I adopted a 3 year old cat. She had been in a non Jewish household. Lately I have been playing Hebrew songs on my Kindle. As soon as Belle hears the music or the singer she runs over sits next to me listening. As soon as the song is finished she'll run off. She does like the late Arik Einstein.
Just wondering if Belle and were meant to be because she might have a Jewish soul.

Yonassan Gershom said...

DM, thank you for this comment -- my apologies for taking so long to get back to you, I was not online much this past winter. Anyway, it is possible, according to kabbalah, for a human to reincarnate as an animal, although that is not the normal order of things. But there are such stories in the Hasidic tradition. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was of the opinion that most domesticated animals are reincarnations of humans. No way to prove that, but it is an interesting idea.

I have a dog who always shows up for havdalah (the ceremony to end the Sabbath) and sits there quietly and rresectfully, even though there is no food or other treats for her.

Your question has inspired me to do a part three of this series: "Do animal reincarnate?"
I'll be posting it soon.

Jeff Eyges said...


Jeff Eyges said...

Oh, bother. Blogger's commenting system is way behind Disqus and IntenseDebate.

Here: The tiny Chihuahua who thinks he's a Buddhist monk

Judith Acosta said...

Thank you, Rabbi. I am sharing your insights. My husband and I just read Genesis 30 and were delighted and surprised to see that animals (and all living things) were infused with Nefesh Chayah. God is good. He would not create anything He does not love.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Genesis 30? I think you meant Genesis 3? Typo?

Anyway, there are many good teachings about Judaism and animals but much of the community lost connection with that when we became urbanized. Also, much of the mysticism was thrown out by Jews who came to America and wanted to be "modernized." This blog is my tiny attempt to help heal that breach. Peace & blessings.

Anita said...

I am happy to have found your blog. As an Orthodox Christian I found myself nodding along in agreement. Blasted Descarte. I have always wondered why in Italy, France, Greece, Spain, Malta, Cyprus, why there was so much cruelty and neglect of animals. People ask me all the time, too. Now I understand where it came from and I can point them to your posts.

Not all Christians believe in the Substitutionary Atonement.

Orthodox Christians believe in The Recapitulation Theory as taught by the early Church Fathers, and Mel's movie is a far cry from the way we see it, thankfully.

Thank you for your wonderful and informative posts on this subject.

Anonymous said...

Well of course all animals and living things have "souls" - just look into their eyes!

Rene Yoshi said...

Thank you for explaining this in such a succinct way!

Dr. Miles Tadman said...

I have heard that a dead body is called a dead nefesh.

I have always thought of the nefesh as the container of the image.

Yonassan Gershom said...

I have never heard that. Did you perhaps misheard "nebbesh" as."nefesh?"

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Unknown said...

Any living creature has a soul and spirit that would be common sense. God has a special relationship with animals as they cannot read the bible.
Wnere as humans need to read.
Animals are gods pets, so how would you treat your pet if your are godly?

Unknown said...

Yes, the collie was a she. Thank you for asking!

Attila said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Attila said...


My question is not about animals, but our relationship to them. I'd like to ask, "what's the original Hebrew for "dominion" in Gen 1:28?" Someone said it's not "radah," or dominion, but "yarad," "to lower oneself." Dominion is a problematic word, because it can mean "property" or "ownership" (lat. dominium). Thus, many believers think that God granted them the rights to use animals as they wish. If you are in mood to expound on this, even in an article, I wouldn't mind - I like reading your stuff.

Thanks for this article about the soul.