The Two Souls

We have already had occasion to note[1] that Rabbi Schneur Zalman begins his ethical work with an analysis of the psychological composition of the human—more specifically, the Jewish—personality. As a practical ethical philosopher and moralist, his immediate concern is with the psychic forces which mold the pattern of the daily conduct of the “average” individual.

Thus, in the very first chapter of the Tanya, the author lays down the foundation of his psychological system, which is based on the doctrine of the “two souls.” These souls are conceived as the sources of all human activity, and of the conscious and unconscious forces behind them.

The first is the so-called “animal soul” (nefesh ha-bahamit). It is the vital principle that animates the physical body, the “life” of the body. Indeed, it is also called the “vital soul” (nefesh ha-chiyyunit), and the author uses the two terms interchangeably and, frequently, conjointly: “the vital animal soul” (nefesh ha-chiyyunit ha-bahamit). It is the source of the bodily instincts and appetites and from it the senses derive their perception. The “vital” soul in man is akin to the “vital” principle that animates all created beings, inasmuch as it is the principle of their existence and functions. For this reason the mineral, vegetative and living forms of existence are said to possess a “vital” soul. But in addition to its animal functions, the vital soul in man possesses certain essential qualities, such as intellectual and emotional attributes, which are not to be found in the lower animal species, and which make the “animal soul” in man distinctly “human.” These would include self-esteem, pride, modesty, ambition, and many other dispositions, both good and bad, which are “natural” to most men, and which come under what is commonly called “human nature.”

The second soul is of an entirely different category. It is defined as “a part of G‑d above indeed,”[2] and termed the “Divine soul” (nefesh ha-elohit). It is completely independent of the body in the sense that it exists before its coming into the body, and it survives the body after the latter’s death. The Divine origin of this soul provides the extra-mundane dimension which enables the soul, while residing in the body and animal soul, to rise above them and act in defiance of the natural dispositions of the individual.

In other words, Rabbi Schneur Zalman presupposes two distinct sources of human activity: one natural and this-worldly; the other supernatural and otherworldly, and in his terminology—the “animal soul” and “Divine soul,” respectively. These two sources are combined in the living individual.

The doctrine of the “two souls” provides the basis for a number of interesting deductions, the most significant of which may be summarized as follows.

The complexity of human dispositions, especially the commonly experienced conflict between that which one is disposed to do and that which one knows one ought to do, does not stem from the division between the body and the mind, as had been assumed by some psychologists of the Middle Ages. In some Medieval analyses of human psychology, particularly those following the Neo-Platonic tradition, the body, as the vehicle for the lower faculties of the soul, was blamed for the evil impulses in man’s life, which man shared with the lower species. The rational faculties alone, namely, the intellect and rational will, were believed to be uniquely human. Consequently, a moral life could be attained only by the mastery of the mind over the body, i.e., by the mortification of the flesh. Moralists held that such mastery was possible because they believed that the mind was independent of the body, and that the rational contents which constituted the mind did not arise within, nor were they a real part of, the impulsive life.

In Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s analysis, however, the human being is not simply a being composed of a body and a mind, but of a body and two minds, since each of the two souls has a mind of its own, with a will and reason of its own. The animal soul is the source of intellectual perception which is limited to the individual’s natural mental capacities; the author calls it the “human intelligence” (sechel enoshi). This “human” intelligence manifests itself in such activities as the sciences, arts, handicrafts, and the like. The Divine soul, on the other hand, is the source of a higher, or “Divine intelligence” (sechel elohi). The “Divine” intelligence manifests itself in the quest for knowledge of the Creator, in love and awe of G‑d, in the sense of the sublime and the holy, and in concern with similar purely spiritual matters.

Inasmuch as the animal soul is concerned with mundane matters and is the source of the instincts and impulses, its mind, will and reason are all influenced by the nature of this animal soul, since they arise within, and are part of, this animal soul. In this case the mind and the body act in unison, and there could be no freedom of will in a moral sense. It is only by virtue of possessing at the same time also a Divine soul, which is “otherworldly” and which transcends the body with all its dispositions, that man truly has freedom of choice in his actions.

As for the body itself, with all its natural dispositions, it need not at all be assumed that it is bad, any more than nature at large may be assumed to be bad in a moral sense. In Rabbi Schneur ZaIman’s analysis, the body is neutral ground, an instrument which can be used for either good or bad. Moreover, the very natural dispositions themselves are innocent forces which can be debased or sublimated at will.

The two souls, as conceived by Rabbi Schneur Zalman, do not constitute a dichotomy in the strict sense. The animal soul and the Divine soul do not reside in the body side by side, as two separate and irreconcilable entities. Rather are they closely interlocked, with the Divine soul informing the animal soul and acting through it, while both together inform the body and act through the bodily organism. Nevertheless, they are distinct in their essence, being derived from two distinct sources, and this distinction provides the polarity of dispositions in human experience. It is the Divine soul, however, which constitutes the true essence of the human being. The Divine soul is the unifying principle which is potentially capable of making the individual a whole and harmonious man. Indeed, on balance, the Divine soul is potentially the stronger of the two, standing in relation to the other as light is in relation to darkness. Where light and darkness meet, light must prevail as a matter of course. In Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s view there is no doubt but that the human being is essentially a moral creature.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s doctrine of the “two souls,” as he indicates in the opening chapter of the Tanya, is based on Chayyim Vital,[3] the exponent of Lurianic Kabbalah, and is loosely related to a Scriptural text.[4] Rabbi Schneur Zalman develops it at great length, and makes it a corner-stone in his ethics, philosophy and mysticism. He gives us a detailed analysis of the nature and functions of each of the two souls, which will be summarized below.

The Divine Soul

The “Divine” soul (nefesh elohit) is conceived as a substance which is “a part of G‑d above, indeed.” Its relationship to its Maker is based on more than a vague spiritual affinity. Rabbi Schneur Zalman sees the soul as emanating from G‑d. To describe the soul’s close relationship to its Maker, the author draws a parallel between the descent of the soul from the Divine Mind and the physical process of procreation, whereby a child “evolves from the paternal drop of semen deriving from the paternal brain.”[5] Thus, the Scriptural text, “Ye are children unto the Lord your G‑d,”[6] is to our author more than a figure of speech, or an expression of endearment. The relationship between the Divine soul and its Heavenly Father is more real to him than the corresponding blood relationship in the physical world. For, whereas in the physical world a father and son constitute two separate entities, the Divine soul and its Heavenly Father are never detached, since in the metaphysical order there are no limitations.[7]

The concept of such an absolute affinity has far-reaching implications, not only for the man-God relationship, but also for the inter-human relationship. It lends reality to the Chabad concept of true brotherhood. For although the author acknowledges that there are myriads of gradations in the quality of souls, he insists, nevertheless, that all emanate from the Supreme Mind, or Supernal Wisdom (Chochmah Ila’a), and all thus truly have one Father. Hence, those individuals who are conscious of possessing such a soul must be conscious of the close affinity that unites them with others. It is only such individuals who accentuate the physical and material aspects of life that see themselves as separate bodies. But, after all, it is the spirit and not the body that constitutes the essence of man, and those who, like Rabbi Schneur Zalman, can see through the outer shell and perceive things in their true essence and reality, must be conscious of unity rather than separateness. This feeling of real brotherhood is not restricted, of course, to the Chasidic community.[8]

Turning to the nature and faculties of the Divine soul, Rabbi Schneur Zalman develops an elaborate anatomy of the psyche.

He, too, speaks of the psychic triad, the nefesh, ruach and neshamah. But in the Tanya this triad is not conceived in terms of faculties distinct from the soul’s substance, as in Platonic thought, but rather in terms of the soul’s substance.

What exactly is meant by the triple distinction of nefesh, ruach and neshamah, as conceived by Rabbi Schneur Zalman, is not explained specifically in the Tanya. Apparently, the definition of these terms is of no immediate concern to the main theme of this work, which, as we had occasion to note, centers on Divine service reaching to the highest levels of love and awe of G‑d. However, from other sources where Rabbi Schneur Zalman deals with the subject, we gather that the said three categories of the soul are conceived as three dimensions of the soul’s essence itself. Broadly speaking, it may be said that neshamah, the highest dimension, is reflected in the soul’s intellect powers; ruach—in its emotion powers; and nefesh—in the soul’s outer manifestations, or “garments,” namely, the faculties of thought, speech, and action. Be it as it may, the nefesh, ruach and neshamah, “constituting the Divine soul even of the ‘ame-ha-aretz and the most worthless, all emanate from the Supreme Mind, which is, as it were, the Supernal Wisdom (Chochmah Ila’a)”;[9] all belong in the higher source of consciousness and have nothing to do with the lower instinctual or impulsive life, which lie within the realm of the animal soul. Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s concept of the soul as being composed of nefesh, ruach and neshamah is largely derived from the Zohar, where all three are conceived as being already contained in every soul.[10]

The soul operates by means of its powers which in turn are manifested through the bodily organism. The Powers of the Soul (kochot ha-nefesh) are divided into two broad categories: General Powers and Particular Powers. The General powers are Delight (oneg) and Desire or Will (ratzon).[11] They are termed “general” because they are not associated with any specific organ of the body. One may find delight in intellectual activity, or in emotional experience, or in the activity of any of the physical organs. Similarly, the desire and will exercise influence over the intellect and emotions, as over the conscious movement of the bodily organs.

The Particular powers are subdivided into two categories: Intellect-powers (sechel) and emotional qualities (middot). The Intellect-powers are said to “reside” in, i.e., act through, the brain, whence they extend to the heart. From their primary seat in the brain, the intellect powers extend to other bodily organs by means of the nervous system, such powers manifesting themselves in various skills and arts performed by the bodily organs.

The intellect has three faculties: chochmah, binah and da’at (hence the abbreviation ChaBaD). These are generally translated as “wisdom,” “understanding,” and “knowledge,” respectively. But in the Tanya these terms mean something quite different. What is meant here by chochmah is the power of conception, the faculty where an idea is first conceived; binah refers to the cogitative faculty, where the idea is analyzed; and da’at represents the final state in the mental process, where the idea attains its most definite comprehension, which, in turn, gives rise to corresponding emotions and feelings. Da’at is the mental faculty that transforms ideas into motivated dispositions.

Chochmah is creative; binah is developmental; da’at is concluding. The conclusion produced by da’at will vary with the type of subject engaging the mind: in theoretical speculation it will produce the logical inference or opinion, e.g., the verdict in a legal problem; in moral judgments it will produce a disposition consonant with the judgment, such as a feeling of attraction or aversion in relation to the moral issue under consideration. It is with the latter function of da’at that our author is specifically concerned.

Creative intellectual activity begins with a “flash,” or a “point” (comparable to the geometric point that is the beginning of all construction). The Hebrew word chochmah contains the letters that can be reconstructed to form the two words koach-mah (“the potential what”).[12] Undefined and unarticulated, this “point” already contains the whole concept in potentia, like a seed potentially containing the whole tree within its fruits. Because it is as yet amorphous, comprehension is lacking, and the flash of illumination might be dissipated unless it is promptly developed. Here it is where the faculty of binah takes up this “point” and begins to expand it. The idea begins to take shape and form, depth and breadth. The “point” develops into a structure. (Binah comes from the root banah, to build.)

In the mystic language of the Kabbalah and Chasidut, . chochmah and binah are termed “father” and “mother,” because chochmah impregnates binah and from the union of the two the higher emotions are born.[13]

However, even after the idea is conceived and developed, it might still remain in the abstract, in the realm of pure speculation, unless the mind becomes completely imbued and thoroughly saturated with it, producing mature conviction and total commitment. This is the function of the third faculty, da’at “knowledge,” in the Biblical sense of the word, as in “And Adam knew Eve,”[14] in the sense, that is, of attachment and union, resulting in a close correspondence between the intellect and the emotions.[15]

The faculty of da’at is of special importance in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s psychological system. It is not only the concluding phase of the reasoning process, but also that intellect-power which exercises control over the consciousness; it compels and concentrates attention on the ideas arising in the mind. Da’at is the link between the reason and the emotions, and since the steadfast occupancy of the conscious mind is the prime mover of the higher emotions, and the latter in turn determine action, da’at has a decisive and dynamic role in determining the whole personality of the individual.

The intellect-powers of the Divine soul manifest themselves in contemplation of the Divine Being, of the En Sof. The emotions which these intellect-powers produce are fear, or awe, of the Divine Majesty, specifically the dread of being separated from G‑d; and love of G‑d, namely, the desire to be attached and united with Him. Love and awe are the primary emotions, from which all others evolve.[16]

In addition to the three intellect-powers, the Divine soul possesses seven essential affections, or emotional qualities (middot). The Hebrew word middot means “measures,” and the emotions (or affections) are so termed because they vary in quality and intensity in accordance with the quality of the intellect-powers of the individual which produce them.

The first three emotional qualities are the principal ones. They are chesed (“kindness”), gevurah (“severity,” in the sense of restraint), and tiferet (“beauty,” in the sense of harmony). The next three—netzach (“victory”), hod (“splendor”), yesod (“foundation”)—are secondary and auxiliary. The seventh, called malchut (“majesty”) is the outlet through which all emotions are communicated.

Chesed (kindness) is an affection which manifests itself in the outpouring of benevolence. It finds expression in charity, sharing of knowledge and in all acts of love and goodness. It is, in fact, identified with the primary emotion of love. It knows no limits.

Gevurah (severity) expresses itself in contraction, constraint, withholding. It is related to the primary emotion of fear (or awe).

Tiferet (beauty) is a synthesis of the first two, with chesed predominating; a moderated kindness, resulting from the interplay of chesed and gevurah.

Kindness by itself, unlimited and untempered, despite its apparent attractiveness, can be self-defeating and harmful. Too much love spoils the child; too much bounty can be corruptive.

To be fully effective, the attribute of kindness must be tempered with that of severity, limiting the endowment to the absorptive capacity of the recipient. The injection of severity into kindness produces a new quality called gevurah she-b’chesed (“severity-in-kindness”).

Severity unmitigated is clearly undesirable. It must be tempered with kindness. This quality is termed chesed she-bi-gevurah (“kindness-in-severity”). An obvious example of it is found in the disciplinary action of the parent chastising the child.

The other emotional qualities, too, are not to operate in their pristine states, but must combine with one or more of the others, according to prevailing circumstances, or the needs of the situation. The initial combinations of the emotional qualities with each other result in 7 × 7, that is 49, affections or dispositions.

The three intellect-powers together with the seven emotional qualities are said to correspond to the Ten Supernal Sefirot whereby G‑d manifests Himself in Creation.[17] In fact, just as the human soul descended from its Divine origins, so are its ten powers descended from the ten Divine Attributes. For it is a basic principle in Chabad, as in Kabbalah in general, that all phenomena in the temporal world have their “source” and origin in the eternal order.

In addition to these ten powers, the soul is said to possess three auxiliary instruments as outlets for its creativity. These are thought, speech and action. They are termed “garments” of the soul, being external to it. Thought is the instrument of the intellect. It is more closely related to the soul and enjoys a greater unity with it than the other two.[18] It is continuous in its action, being constantly fed by an endless flow from the infinite capacity of the soul’s intellect.

Speech and action are more properly the auxiliaries of the emotions, since the latter necessarily exist in terms of an external object and must be communicated.

In thought itself there are said to be three categories, corresponding to the three faculties of the intellect, chochmah, binah and da’at, mentioned above. In the first, the thought is in its pure form, unarticulated. In the second, the idea receives mental “verbalization.” Here we find the term “letters of thought.” In the third, the thought has fully matured and seeks actual expression.

Having defined this soul as a part of the Divine, it is to be expected that all its powers would be oriented toward G‑d. The nature of this soul is such that by its very essence it knows no commitments save to G‑d alone. Its interests and activities are wholly centered on G‑d. Its essential attributes are awe and love of G‑d; it desires only obedience to G‑d and communion with Him. In the light of the above, Rabbi Schneur Zalman goes on to define the three “garments” of the Divine soul, namely, thought, speech, and action. These, too, are Divine in nature, being the soul’s contemplative, verbal and actual activity centered on the Divine Wisdom and Will which are embodied in the Torah and its precepts. These “garments” are thus the vehicles whereby the Divine soul communes with its Maker.[19]


The Philosophy of Chabad: Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Vol. 2 [Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1973], pp. 25-39

Reprinted with the permission of the publisher


[1]  Mindel, Introduction, Likutei Amarim [Tanya], Part One, pp. xxv, ff.

[2]  Tanya, beg. chap. 2.

[3]  Sha’ar haKedushah and Etz Chayyim, Portal 50, ch. 2.

[4]  Isaiah 57:16.

[5]  Tanya, chap. 2.

[6]  Deut. 14:1.

[7]  Cf. Isaiah Hurwitz, Shenei Luchot haBerit (Amsterdam, 1698), pp. 326b, 380b.

[8]  See Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov, by Abraham H. Glitzenstein, KPS (Kfar Chabad, Israel, 1960), pp. 154 ff. Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s doctrine of Ahavat Yisrael is completely influenced by the Ba’al Shem Tov’s teachings.

[9]  Tanya, chap. 2.

[10]  Zohar I, pp. 79b, 141b, 206a; III, 70b, etc.

[11]  The Hebrew word ratzon means both desire and will.

[12]  Tanya, chap. 18. The faculty of chochmah is identified with humility and self-abnegation (bittul). Cf. Zohar III, p. 34a.

[13]  Tanya, chap. 3. Cf. Zohar II, pp. 85a, 290a.

[14]  Gen. 4:1. Cf. Shenei Luchot haBerit, op. cit., p. 149b.

[15]  Tanya, chap. 3.

[16]  Ibid.

[17]  Ibid., beg. chap. 3.

[18]  Ibid., chap. 8

[19]  Ibid., chap. 4.