Nefesh HaHayyim Section 1 Chapter 2

After presenting us with a general definition for tzelem, R. Hayyim specifies what the Torah means when it states “btzelem elokim.” His contextual question is, what characteristic trait does humanity share with the elokim aspect of G-d. For this definition, he quotes from the Arbaah Turim of R. Yaakov ben Rabbeinu Asher, that elokim refers to G-d as the master of all koah (power) (chapter 5). By having power, human beings have the ability to create and improve the world. However, the similarity falls short, which is R. Hayyim’s primary point in the second chapter.

For R. Hayyim, the distinction between humanity and G-d in relationship to creation is that humanity can only build from a preexisting object and once the item is built, it can remain in existence without the builder’s involvement. G-d, on the other hand, can create out of nothingness (at least at first) and cannot allow existence to remain without continuous involvement. As such, there is a continuous creative process, for G-d’s koah, as infinite and necessary, never ceases to operate.

In other words, the continuous nature of creation is not that G-d continuously creates but rather the supernal power, which is limitless, never ceases to stop acting. R. Hayyim further proves his argument by highlighting that we say in birchat yozer ohr the phrase l’oseh orim gedolim (from Tehillim 136:7), meaning that creation, in the context of our world,[1] is in the present and timeless.

Having established the criteria of G-d being able to create yesh me’ayin and that G-d is continuously creating, R. Hayyim concludes the second chapter by reiterating that all koah in all worlds is continuously emanating from G-d.  In his notes to the end of the chapter, R. Yitzchak of Volozhin comments[2]on how we know that the name elokim relates to power and strength.  However, he emphasizes that while we use the term elokim for other leaders, such as judges and angels, to signify their power, we must recognize that all power is ultimately from G-d.  As such, we refer to other powers as elokim aharim, meaning that their power comes from the elokim, the baal koach.  Therefore, when we say hashem elokaichem emet, what we are saying is that G-d is the true source of all power, the true elokim.  

[1] This is based on the kabbalistic schematic of the existence of four levels of created worlds: atzilut, beriah, yetzirah and asiyah.  In this Kabbalistic schematic, creation ex nihilo occurs from atzilut and beriah.  The worlds of yetzirah and asiyah are the worlds in which G-d fashions and acts upon the already existing primordial matter (Ramban Bereishit 1:1).  Additionally, as R. Hayyim’s son notes in this chapter, the action of oseh is the continuous manipulation of the divine name YHVH which can be mixed into 1080 different possible combinations based on the letters and the various vowelizations of the letters.  Based on the Zohar, the constant manipulation of the four letters is equivalent to the constant balancing of the four elements, earth, wind, water and fire. 

[2] R. Yitchak’s proof texts are reminiscent of Maimonides in his Moreh Nevuchim, sec.1 chapter.2: Some years ago a learned man asked me a question of great importance; the problem and the solution which we gave in our reply deserve the closest attention. Before, however, entering upon this problem and its solution I must premise that every Hebrew knows that the term Elohim is a homonym, and denotes God, angels, judges, and the rulers of countries, and that Onkelos the proselyte explained it in the true and correct manner by taking Elohim in the sentence, “and ye shall be like Elohim” (Gen. iii. 5) in the last-mentioned meaning, and rendering the sentence “and ye shall be like princes.” Having pointed out the homonymity of the term “Elohim” we return to the question under consideration ( .

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.


The travails of Jewish miseducation: Issues of belief 2

Marc Angel republished an article of his in the Winter Conversations journal, put out by his organization, the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.  In this piece, titled Reflections on Torah Education and Mis-Education, written in 2008 for Tradition, he decries the seeming miseducation of Jewish children because teachers are unaware of sophisticated, meaningful ways to answers challenging questions. 

He presents five case studies to prove his thesis.  In each of these stories, the common theme is that the Rabbis must be correct and any dissent is just completely wrong.  As with Rabbi Angel, those stories struck as me as sad but true.  I recall having heard some of the same responsed during my formative years growing up, attending a Chabad synagogue (though my high school education also was based on the ultra-rationalism of fame [which will require its own separate piece]).   Rabbi Angel then proceeds to explain how each of those cases can be handled in a competent, clear manner, with both respect to Hazal as well as the changes in understanding that have occured.  In each of these cases, he provides sources to rely on.  Of course, finding sources to back most opinions is not too difficult. 

In thinking about this article, I felt a sense of satisfaction in Rabbi Angel’s attempts to confront standard questions that repeat themselves in Jewish Education.  He doesn’t fault the teachers for teaching certain ideas, but he does fault them for not knowing how to respond to questions today.  Yet, something seems to be lacking from his perspective.  Going back to the previous piece on belief, answers are not always needed.  Sometimes questions will remain.  The reason answers are secondary is because the whole enterprise is secondary.  Belief takes a back seat to action for most people.  Sure, we pay lip service to the “tenets” of Judaism, regardless of whether we are talking about Maimonides’ 13 principles or some other system.  Yet, I would suggest most people who attend Orthodox synagogue tend to be more focused on checking off mitzvot than in contemplating theology or belief.  This is especially true when it comes to interpersonal relationships.  I happen to also believe that this is the correct approach.  Nefesh HaHayyim, the great Kabbalistic work of R. Chaim of Volozhin, the father of the Modern Yeshiva, discusses in his opening chapters about recognizing that all of our thoughts, actions and words, whether good or bad, have an effect on the divine realms (this is obviously not a unique theme to R. Chaim of Volozhin, but it is a source with which I am quite familiar).  However, he also cautions his reader that if we constantly dwell on the affects of our thought, speech and action, we will be immobilized and never accomplish anything.  I think the same can be said for belief.  Belief is important and can be a foundation for our actions.  Yet, when it comes to action, if we first were to consider our tenets, it would be detrimental and cause actions to be delayed or forgotten about. 

I should also state that I am not advocating for an Orthopraxy.  I advocate for the idea that beliefs, while important, are not primary.  If you look at my list from the previous discussion, you will see that the beliefs are general principles that are to guide the grand scheme of practice.  Specific aspects of belief on the other hand are important from an intellectual and philosophical stand point but should not be barriers to the true calling of following ritual and commandments, namely growing spiritually (we will discuss spiritual growth in a further piece). 

To conclude, let me return to the piece by Rabbi Angel.  I must commend him for writing such a thought provoking piece as well as for his other recent works, especially Maimonides, Spinoza and Us (of which I wrote a short review).  For many in our community, modern science and modern thought, whether popular or academic, offers challenges to “traditional” understandings of our texts.  As such, I do believe our educators need to be better prepared to handle these questions.  This is true whether the questions have answers or require a sincere response of “I don’t know, let us study this some more together.”  Of course, part of the problem is that “our” educators are often not “our” educators but come from communities that do not espouse a MO mindset (in whatever form that might be).  Just to add, all of the above about engaging questions and being up-to-date on contemporary challenges is a requirement for clergy regardless of career for people look to any Rabbi when contradictions arise.  It is not enough to be well-versed in Judaica. 

For the next installment, we will use another article from the same Conversations volume to discuss studying Bible today.  For those interested in looking ahead, see Torah min haShamayim: Conflicts Between Religious Belief and Scientific Thinking by Daniel Jackson.