So many things must have been mysterious to the ancients. The setting sun with its burst of majestic colors and the onset of night. The rising sun and the ability to see and interact with the world. The changing seasons, the constellations moving in perfect synchrony through the night sky. Yet one phenomenon apparently caught their imagination. The movement of invisible air.
Perhaps it’s because unlike all the other phenomenon above, it touches us, directly stimulating our senses – like a cool draft on a hot day. Like a leaf or feather brushing against our skin a draft catches out attention. “What could it be”, imagine the ancients pondering, “What is moving the clouds? Bringing rain or exposing the hot sun?”
But more than wind, more than moving clouds, there certainly is something incredible about this invisible mysterious moving force. It is what gives us breath! Life! A live person has this invisible force moving in and out of his mouth, and a dead person indeed does not!
It is no surprise then when looking into the biblical writings that spirituality seems to be synonymous with the movement of this invisible movement of air.
נשמה- Neshama- Soul- is simply another word for breath. The part of a being which enables us to see life. As it’s known, for time immemorial, people would discern life and death by trying to discern breath. Hence when a person dies, he/she breathed their last breath…
רוח- Ruach. Spirit- Simply is another word for wind. What indeed is this movement which I feel across my skin? Perhaps it’s other souls who have departed their bodies. Thus we have the term ‘spirits’. It’s ironic even in today’s culture, when depicting a horror scene with ghosts and spirits, many movies depicts a howling windy old house with a spirit or ghost drifting in the winds…
Ironically the one common word for soul which doesn’t directly correlate with air movement, נפש – Nefesh- another word for soul, is derived as a result of having the ‘wind of life’, which enables us to live and talk. See Bereishis/Genesis 2:7. ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים ויהי האדם לנפש חיה. “And God blew into his nostrils the breath of life and behold Adam had a living soul. The Targum Unkelus translates “And Adam had a living soul” simply as “והות באדם לרוח ממללה” “Adam had a Ruach (spirit i.e. the ‘wind’) of speech.” (see the Targum Yonason Ben Uziel for similar rendition). In other words, the simple translation according to these two definitive works of the sages were “And God blew into his nostrils the breath of life and behold Adam had a ‘wind’ of speech (נפש).”
What many modern Jews may not be aware of is the origin of the Tenufa rite performed in the Beis Hamikdash (Temple). The Tenufa, waving of sacrificial offerings, are sourced in countering the ‘evil winds’. Most of these practices are no longer relevant in today’s Judaism but two tenufos/wavings certainly are. Waving the 4 species on the holiday of Sukkos and the Hoshanas on Hoshana Rabba. So as where we may find the practice of the ancients trying to invoke spiritual energy to excise the evil winds from the world by shaking vegetation at them and chanting, those who participate in this ancient rite are in fact doing that themselves.
So simply speaking, the ancients, curious of the world around them, simply saw this mysterious wind which emanates from the mouth as the actual force of life. They revered it as much and thereby created the concept of a Neshama- soul.
Postscript: What is a soul?
If we were to strip away all the layers of commentaries and notions plied upon the text from the later Sages and Rabbis, was the biblical ‘Neshama’, what we translate as soul, even considered spiritual in the way we would today? Or what it simply a way for them to perceive the mystery of life and all of our notions of spirituality was plied onto the meaning of these words in later generations?
Souls, Heaven and Hell
If one were to look at the actual text of the Torah, there is no mention of reward or punishment in the form of Heaven or Hell. The concepts of Heaven and Hell and a vast body of material dealing with afterlife was only incorporated into Judaism during the times of the Talmud when the Jews were under the dominance of the Babylonians and the Persians and were exposed to such notions which were a staple of those ancient cultures. Until then, for a good 1000 years, the Jews simply did not have an afterlife as part of their religious experience, as one can clearly see in the Torah all the rewards and punishments were physical and in this world- simply read the daily Shema recitation. But we should be wary. Even the Heaven and Hell of the Talmud was nothing like the Heaven and Hell we have today. Our Heaven and Hell were strongly influenced by the Zohar which according to many scholars, was in most if not all written in the 15th century (or a compilation of writings that have been amended to the work as years went on) where the work actually adapted many influences from Eastern religions like reincarnation etc…