Hebrew Language and Jewish Thought

By David Patterson | Go to book overview

6

THE SOUL

What is the soul and where does it come from? According to a mystical tradition, G-d creates every soul from the letters of the holy tongue. He puts those letters together to form an utterance, so that, in the words of Adin Steinsaltz, “the soul of a [person] is the Divine speech that speaks the [person]” (Steinsaltz 1989:32). The soul, therefore, is more an action than an object: it is a speech act of the Holy One. What we make of our souls lies in whether and how we join our speech to that Divine speech through our thoughts, words, and deeds. What is the Divine speech that is the substance of the soul? It is Torah. And the Torah is made of fire, as it is written in the Or HaChayim's commentary on Genesis 23:2: “When man cleaves to G-d all his elements become transformed into the element fire, which forms the basis of the soul.” Thus the great sage and mystic Solomon ibn Gabirol (1022-1070) wrote a poem-or a prayer-on the soul, saying:

Thou hast imparted to it the spirit of wisdom
And called it the Soul.
And of flames of intellectual fire hast Thou wrought its form,
And like a burning fire hast Thou wafted it
And sent it to the body to serve and guard it,
And it is as fire in the midst thereof yet doth not consume it,
For it is from the fire of the soul that the body hath been created,
And goeth from Nothingness to Being,
“Because the L-rd descended on him in fire.”

(Solomon ibn Gabirol 1952:104-105)

The last line in Ibn Gabirol's poem is an allusion to G-d's descent upon Moses as Moses ascended Mount Sinai (from Exodus 19:18). And what came down from On High when the fire descended upon him? It was Torah, and, through Torah, the revelation of the soul.

Just as the Torah is made of black fire on white fire (Tanchuma Bereshit 1; Devarim Rabbah 3:12; Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5:11:6; Zohar II, 226b), so does the soul originate “in fire, being an emanation from the Divine Throne” (Zohar II, 211b). Therefore, it is written in the Midrash, when the angel tried to frighten Jacob as

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Hebrew Language and Jewish Thought
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Opening Remarks on the Holy Tongue 6
  • 2 - First Things 16
  • 3 - Giving Voice to G-D 32
  • 4 - The Good 51
  • 5 - For the Sake of Another 70
  • 6 - The Soul 89
  • 7 - Exile 110
  • 8 - Dwelling 133
  • 9 - The House of the Book 153
  • 10 - The Word 173
  • 11 - The Holy 195
  • 12 - Closing Remarks 216
  • Appendix 220
  • Notes 223
  • Bibliography 230
  • Index 237
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