Nefesh HaHayyim Section 1 Chapter 1

I have decided to relearn one my most favorite works, the all time classic, Nefesh HaHayyim.  Nefesh HaHayyim was written by R. Chaim of Volozhin, the primary student of the Vilna Gaon.

My goal is to jot down some of my thoughts on this work on the blog.  We will look at his words and ideas, both on their own as well as in relationship to other thinking.  I plan on turning to the material he presents to gain a better, more comprehensive perspective on this work.

R. Hayyim of Volozhin begins his work with a discussion of man as being created in “G-d’s Image.” While recognizing the challenging language of tzelem, image, R. Hayyim does not provide a deep esoteric definition.[1] Instead, he defines tzelem, in line with Rambam in the first chapter of the Moreh Nevuchim.[2]

Rambam’s idea is that tzelem and demut refer to similarities in character traits, not physical likeness. However, R. Hayyim’s use of Rambam is not to advance an argument against G-d’s corporeality. Rather, his purpose is to present the thesis that human beings are an extension of G-d. As we will encounter going forward, R. Hayyim develops an argument for how every action we do has divine implications because of humanity being in G-d’s image.

[1] In R. Yitzchak’s notes to the text as we have it, he presents the deep definition his father alludes to in this first chapter.  I will review that note in a subsequent post.


Some have been of opinion that by the Hebrew ẓelem, the shape and figure of a thing is to be understood, and this explanation led men to believe in the corporeality [of the Divine Being]: for they thought that the words “Let us make man in our ẓelem” (Gen. i. 26), implied that God had the form of a human being, i.e., that He had figure and shape, and that, consequently, He was corporeal. They adhered faithfully to this view, and thought that if they were to relinquish it they would eo ipso reject the truth of the Bible: and further, if they did not conceive God as having a body possessed of face and limbs, similar to their own in appearance, they would have to deny even the existence of God. The sole difference which they admitted, was that He excelled in greatness and splendour, and that His substance was not flesh and blood. Thus far went their conception of the greatness and glory of God. The incorporeality of the Divine Being, and His unity, in the true sense of the word–for there is no real unity without incorporeality–will be fully proved in the course of the present treatise. (Part II., ch. i.) In this chapter it is our sole intention to explain the meaning of the words ẓelem and demut. I hold that the Hebrew equivalent of “form” in the ordinary acceptation of the word, viz., the figure and shape of a thing, is toär. Thus we find “[And Joseph was] beautiful in toär (‘form’), and beautiful in appearance” (Gen. xxxix. 6): “What form (toär) is he of?” (1 Sam. xxviii. 14): “As the form (toär) of the children of a king” (Judges viii. 18). It is also applied to form produced by human labour, as “He marketh its form (toär) with a line,” “and he marketh its form (toär) with the compass” (Isa. xliv. 13). This term is not at all applicable to God. The term ẓelem, on the other hand, signifies the specific form, viz., that which constitutes the essence of a thing, whereby the thing is what it is; the reality of a thing in so far as it is that particular being. In man the “form” is that constituent which gives him human perception: and on account of this intellectual perception the term ẓelem is employed in the sentences “In the ẓelem of God he created him” (Gen. i. 27). It is therefore rightly said, “Thou despisest their ẓelem” (Ps. lxiii. 20); the “contempt” can only concern the soul–the specific form of man, not the properties and shape of his body. I am also of opinion that the reason why this term is used for “idols” may be found in the circumstance that they are worshipped on account of some idea represented by them, not on account of their figure and shape. For the same reason the term is used in the expression, “the forms (ẓalme) of your emerods” (1 Sam. vi. 5), for the chief object was the removal of the injury caused by the emerods, not a change of their shape. As, however, it must be admitted that the term ẓelem is employed in these two cases, viz. “the images of the emerods” and “the idols” on account of the external shape, the term ẓelem is either a homonym or a hybrid term, and would denote both the specific form and the outward shape, and similar properties relating to the dimensions and the shape of material bodies; and in the phrase “Let us make man in our ẓelem” (Gen. i. 26), the term signifies “the specific form” of man, viz., his intellectual perception, and does not refer to his “figure” or “shape.” Thus we have shown the difference between ẓelem and toär, and explained the meaning of ẓelem.

Demut is derived from the verb damah, “he is like.” This term likewise denotes agreement with regard to some abstract relation: comp. “I am like a pelican of the wilderness” (Ps. cii. 7); the author does not compare himself to the pelican in point of wings and feathers, but in point of sadness.” Nor any tree in the garden of God was like unto him in beauty” (Ezek. 8); the comparison refers to the idea of beauty. “Their poison is like the poison of a serpent” (Ps. lviii. 5); “He is like unto a lion” (Ps. xvii. 12); the resemblance indicated in these passages does not refer to the figure and shape, but to some abstract idea. In the same manner is used “the likeness of the throne” (Ezek. i. 26); the comparison is made with regard to greatness and glory, not, as many believe, with regard to its square form, its breadth, or the length of its legs: this explanation applies also to the phrase “the likeness of the ḥayyot (“living creatures,” Ezek. i. 13). As man’s distinction consists in a property which no other creature on earth possesses, viz., intellectual perception, in the exercise of which he does not employ his senses, nor move his hand or his foot, this perception has been compared–though only apparently, not in truth–to the Divine perception, which requires no corporeal organ. On this account, i.e., on account of the Divine intellect with which man has been endowed, he is said to have been made in the form and likeness of the Almighty, but far from it be the notion that the Supreme Being is corporeal, having a material form.



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