Like most ancient peoples, the Hebrews saw man as a copy of the universe. He thus contains all the potencies thereof: spiritual, vital, material. Hence, Qabbalistic philosophy pictures each human being as comprising a number of elements:
when the Holy One created man He took the dust of the lower Sanctuary, but for the making of his soul He chose the dust of the upper Sanctuary. Just as in the formation of man’s body from the dust of the lower Sanctuary, three cosmic elements [air, fire, water] were combined, so in the formation of his soul from the dust of the upper Sanctuary, further elements, to the number of three, were mingled, and so man was completely formed. — Zohar 3:24b
Generally, Qabbalah divides the human constitution into four aspects. The highest element is neshamah, meaning "breath, spirit, wind." This spirit or divine breath is equivalent to the pneuma of the Greeks (from pneo, "to breathe"), the Latin spiritus (from spiro, "to breathe"), and the Sanskrit atman (from an, "to blow, to breathe"). Neshamah is the essential consciousness, the first "breath" from ’ein sof, which animates the rest of the human being. Sometimes it has been mistaken for the vital principle in the human body (hai) because it is spoken of as the breath of God. The vital essence of the lower part of the human constitution is the reflection of neshamah, much as in theosophy the pranas are the representation on the lower planes of atma-buddhi in the human being. After death neshamah "goes up direct to the very inner" (Zohar 2:142a).
The second element is ruah, also "breath," the spiritual soul. It is comparable to the Greek nous, the Latin mens, and to buddhi-manas or spiritual soul. It is ruled by and forms the throne or vehicle of neshamah In connection with ’elohim, ruah denotes the mental quality of the gods, regarded in Genesis as moving over the waters of space or chaos at creation Equivalent to the third Logos, it operates through the universe, producing what is noble and good in human beings and leading them to virtue. A similar meaning implies exceptional soul powers, as in the inspired ruler or prophet, hence the prophetic spirit, often represented as passing from one person to another. After death the ruah goes up to Eden, but not so high as the neshamah
The third element is nefesh, the "vital breath" or lower human soul. It corresponds to the psuche of the Greeks, the Latin anima, and modern theosophy’s lower mind — kama-prana with the breath of manas (mind) upon it. Being closely associated with the physical body, it has no light of. its own It is the throne of ruah which rules and lights it and forms its crown After death the nefesh or lower soul "remains in the grave Below" (ibid.).
These three breaths find expression on earth in guf, the physical body, which corresponds to the sthula-sarira, the Latin corpus, and the Greek soma.
It is significant that the first three aspects — neshamah, ruah, and nefesh — should all be derived from words meaning "breath" or "wind." The Qabbalist understood the esoteric lining of truth, for all are manifestations in degree of the one fundamental breath of Being: neshamah, the breath of divinity; ruah, the breath of spiritual mentation; and nefesh, the breath of psychic vitality. These three breaths each has its field of action in one of the three higher ’olamim above the fourth world of qelippoth or shells, where guf is at home. Each is sustained by the element above it.
From observing these grades of the soul, one obtains an insight into the higher Wisdom, and it is wholly through Wisdom that in this way certain mysteries are connected together. — Zohar 1:83b
Neshamah, ruah, and nefesh may be looked at in several ways. Nefesh and ruah are sometimes seen as two aspects of one grade, and when neshamah
enters into them and they cleave to it, and when it dominates, such a man is called holy, perfect, wholly devoted to God. "Soul" (nefesh) is the lowest stirring, it supports and feeds the body and is closely connected with it. When it sufficiently qualifies itself, it becomes the throne on which rests the lower spirit (ruah), . . . When both have prepared themselves sufficiently, they are qualified to receive the higher spirit (neshamah), to which the lower spirit (ruah) becomes a throne, and which is undiscoverable, supreme over all. — Ibid.
Using the analogy of the flame, nefesh is likened to the blue light at the bottom of the flame, which is attached to and exists through the wick (guf).
When fully kindled it becomes a throne for the white light above it. When both are fully kindled, the white light becomes a throne for a light which cannot be fully discerned, an unknown something resting on that white light, and so there is formed a complete light. — Ibid.
When we are born we are endowed with nefesh "from the primordial ‘animal’ sphere, the sphere of purity, . . . the supernal order of angels," also referred to as the perennial celestial stream. When we achieve purity in this aspect, we will be endowed with ruah "which appertains to the sphere of the Holy Hayoth [living beings]." Ruah forms a crown to nefesh These two principles are intertwined, and if we do not strive after spiritual things, that is the extent of our being. But those of greater merit are endowed with neshamah "from the region of the Throne" (Zohar 3:94b). The neshamah descends to the nefesh and ruah, so that all three combine harmoniously to form a unity in those who serve the Divine:
the neshamah resides in a man’s character — an abode which cannot be discovered or located. Should a man strive towards purity of life, he is aided thereto by a holy neshamah, whereby he is purified and sanctified . . . — Zohar 1:62a
Over the body and the three souls is a fourth, supernal soul, which is
inscrutable and unknowable. Everything is dependent upon it, and it is veiled in a covering of exceeding brightness. It drops pearls which are linked together like the joints of the body, and it enters into them and displays through them its energy. It and they are one, and there is no separation between them. — Zohar 2:245a
Sometimes the highest principle "which remains above" is called the tsurah or divine "prototypal form." This tsurah is equivalent to the spiritual monad. It produces the neshamah as its reflection, and they are connected by a vital spiritual thread up which the neshamah aspires to rise to perfect union with its prototype. Another term for this highest part of the human being is yehidah (the one, the only, the unique), the indivisible individuality of the human constitution This term is comparable to the Greek word monas, meaning "one."
A further aspect of manifested beings is brought out in this striking statement:
Over all these stars and constellations of the firmament there have been set chiefs, leaders, and ministers, whose duty is to serve the world each one according to his appointed station And not the tiniest grass-blade on earth but has its own appointed star in heaven Each star, too, has over it a being appointed who ministers before the Holy One as its representative, each according to his order. All the stars in the firmaments keep watch over this world: they are appointed to minister to every individual object in this world, to each object a star. Herbs and trees, grass and wild plants, cannot flourish and grow except from the influence of the stars who stand above them and gaze upon them face to face, each according to his fashion — Zohar 4:171b
The doctrine of reincarnation appears in the Zohar as the teaching of gilgulim (wheels), the revolution of souls, but it is more implied than explicit. Also implied is the idea that everything exists in divine form before birth Qabbalists hold that the soul after death goes through a series of. whirlings, which apply both to the transmigration of the physical and other atoms, and to the reimbodiment of souls (cf. The Secret Doctrine 1:568n).
The soul puts on garments appropriate to the sphere which it is to enter. Before birth it wears cloaks of higher light (’or). All is hidden in the divine form before it takes birth; hence the soul is the expression of its past karma within its divine form. All the forms of the earthly world were originally fashioned of supernal light in the Garden of. Eden, the habitation of holy spirits.
After birth, while in guf, the soul wears a cloak of skin or blindness (‘or). At death the soul removes the lower cloak of blindness and ascends into the inner worlds. The body has returned to dust and the soul is clothed in luminous garments. The nefesh disintegrates with the body, the ruah stays in the Garden of Eden, and the neshamah "ascends to the place where all delights are concentrated" (Zohar. 2:226a-b). When it leaves the Garden to imbody, the soul takes off its celestial garment and puts on an earthly body. Then when it leaves the earth, the Angel of Death takes off the earthly body so it can again put on the celestial garments in the Garden of Eden that it had left behind there.
There are two lines of human evolution: (1) recession of spiritual capacity as "cloaks of higher light" (’or,) become veiled through material descent; and (2) the expansion of a physical "cloak of blindness," of matter (‘or).
Adam then arose and realised that he was both of heaven and of earth, and so he united himself to the Divine and was endowed with mystic Wisdom. Each son of man is, after the same model, a composite of the heavenly and the earthly. — Zohar 2:130b
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2006. Copyright © 2006 by Theosophical University Press)
One great gain that the scientific use of the comparative method in religion has brought us is the duty of genuine reverence for other men’s beliefs. Whatever thoughts any human soul is seeking to live by deserve the reverence of every other human soul. — William Temple