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All three words can mean something like "soul", e.g., neshama in גלגול נשמות, and ruach in וַתְּחִי רוּחַ יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם (Bereshit 45:27). So, what is the difference?

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Lev, since each of these words can have very different meanings in different contexts, please include in the question references to the appearances of the words to which you refer or their contexts. –  WAF Jul 17 '11 at 1:52
    
For instance, according to Rambam, when used as a description of God, Ruach refers to Hashem's Will. Like in (Gen.1:2) ... and Hashem's Ruach was hovering over the surface of the water. –  zaq Aug 8 '11 at 13:32
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6 Answers

I've seen it explained as follows (in Wisdom, understanding, and knowledge: basic concepts of hasidic thought):

Nefesh - Every creating thing in the world has a Nefesh, the G-dly force that gives it life. Inanimate objects (such as rocks) have only this. (see here)

Ruach - Every living thing has a Ruach as well, the life-giving force that animates the living thing. (see here)

Neshamah - Referred to in Tanya as "an actual part of G-d". This is only found in the Jew. (see here)

Note: I've linked to the snippets view of google books searches. This is not ideal. If anyone knows of a better online source that says the same thing, please let me know.


The Maharsha in his Chidushe Aggadot (3A, d"h "Mishmorah Rishonah Chamor") says almost the exact same thing. He says that there are 3 parts of the soul of man which are called "The Natural", "The Life", and "The Intellect". He says that Kabbalists call them the "Nefesh", "Ruach", and "Neshamah". See there for a little more elaboration.

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In this Youtube video (5:49 seconds in), Rabbi Chaim Miller explains that:

  • Nefesh == Instincts of the Soul

  • Ruach == Emotions of the Soul

  • Neshamah == Intellect of the Soul

He does not bring his source.

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In Kabbalah or Chasidut Nefesh means a bodily soul, or instinct, or inate. (All created things have nefesh). Ruach is often used in the context of "Ruach Hakodesh", which is a sort of divine inspiration, or an aspect of godliness /correctness of thought (morality is one example of that). Ruach can also be the basic life force of any living thing. Neshama is the higher level soul which is connected directly to Gd, it exists only in humans.

Outside of Kabbalah, Nefesh is the life force of any living being. Ruach is the animator of life, its what allows things to move, and Neshema is the combination of Ruach and Nefesh.

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Nefesh can mean either "breath" or something like "life force". "Ruach" is usually used to mean "spirit" in the sense of "enthusiasm" or "vigor". Not sure about neshema and how it differs from nefesh.

EDIT: Wikipedia has a concise summary of the kabbalistic usage:

Kabbalah separates the soul into three elements: the nephesh is related to instinct, the ruach is related to morality, and the neshamah is related to intellect and the awareness of God.

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Ernest, can you cite references for your translations? As I commented on the question, these words have very different meanings in different contexts (and indeed at different points in the history of Hebrew language and usage). –  WAF Jul 17 '11 at 1:54
    
How different are the usage of the words within the context of "soul"? True, the words didn't always refer to a soul, but once they did, I don't think there is -that- much variety in the context or meaning. –  avi Jul 17 '11 at 14:51
    
Each word definitely has specific shades of meaning. My first paragraph is about common usage in my shul, which is why I can't quote any source. But the Wikipedia link summarizes how they're used in Kabbalah, where they do have very specific meanings. The Kabbalistic meaning of "refuah" is consistent with the common usage I mentioned. –  Ernest Friedman-Hill Jul 17 '11 at 16:14
    
@avi Yes, the specification of the meaning "soul" definitely helped. But when it comes to fine nuances, it is important to isolate the meaning of the words as much as possible, to ensure that context or other circumstantial influences are not confounding those distinctions. –  WAF Jul 17 '11 at 20:23
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Accoding to the Rambam in "the Guide of the Perplexed", (and WAF above), the meaning of the words in each individual case are to be determined by the context."

Ruach:

  • Ruach is a homonym, signifying" air," that is, one of the four elements.

    "And the air of God moved (Gen. i. 2).

  • It denotes also," wind." In this sense the word occurs frequently.

    "And the east wind (ruach) brought the locusts" (Exod. x. 13):" west wind" (ruach) (ib. 19).

  • Next, it signifies" breath."

    "A breath (ruach) that passeth away, and does not come again" (PS. lxxviii. 39) wherein is the breath (ruach) of life" (Gen. vii. 15).

  • It signifies also that which remains of man after his death, and is not subject to destruction.

    "And the spirit (ruach) shall return unto God who gave it" (Eccles. xii. 7).

  • The Hebrew ruah when used in reference to God, has generally the fifth signification: sometimes, however, as explained above, the last signification, viz., "will."

Nefesh:

  • The Hebrew nefesh (soul) is a homonymous noun, signifying the vitality which is common to all living, sentient beings.

    "wherein there is a living soul" (nefesh) (Gen. i. 30).

  • It denotes also blood," as in

    "Thou shalt not eat the blood (nefesh) with the meat" (Deut. xii. 23).

  • Another signification of the term is "reason", that is, the distinguishing characteristic of man, as in

    "As the Lord liveth that made us this soul" (Jer. xxxviii. 16).

  • It denotes also the part of man that remains after his death (nefesh, soul)

    "But the soul (nefesh) of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life" (I Sam. XXV. 29).

  • Lastly, it denotes" will";

    "To bind his princes at his will" (be-nafsho) (PS. CV. 22): "Thou wilt not deliver me unto the will (be-nefesh) of my enemies" (Ps. xli. 3):

    • and according to my opinion, it has this meaning also in the following passages,

      "If it be your will (nafshekem) that I should bury my dead" (Gen. xxiii. 8):" Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my will (nafshi) could not be toward this people" (Jer. xv. 1), that is, I had no pleasure in them, I did not wish to preserve them.

    • When nefesh is used in reference to God, it has the meaning "will," as we have already explained with reference to the passage,

      "That shall do according to that which is in my will (bi-lebabi) and in mine intention (be-nafsht)" (I Sam. ii. 35).


According to Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion (admittedly, not the best source.)

The Neshama goes up to Hashem (olam ha-ba and techiat hamatim), and both the ruach and nefesh remain on earth. The Ruach stays with the body and never leaves it. The week after death, the nefesh wanters between the deceased's' home and grave, then infrequently comes returns to the grave until it is weaned from the grave by the end of a year.

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can you point out where in the Guide to the Perplexed this is discussed? –  Menachem Aug 10 '11 at 23:27
    
sure. Volume I: Ruach - Chapter 40. Nefesh - Chapter 41. (also related: Chai - chapter 42) –  zaq Aug 11 '11 at 2:43
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Nefesh is the brain, so it can die. Thinking animals have a nefesh. However, ruach is immaterial; not physical. Ruach is your holographic-like personality software that develops in your nefesh hardware brain. Animals do not have a ruach with higher level thinking and consciousness. As software can be transferred from one computer through a network to another computer, when you physically die, your ruach will be transferred from your hardware brain through the logos (universal neural network) to either Heaven (New Jerusalem) or Hell (the grave Place of Torment, and later the Lake of Holy Spirit Fire). People have often wondered how the nefesh and ruach can be different if they both think and feel emotion. Now you know, it's because the ruach is the personality software that develops in the nefesh hardware.

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source?......... –  Shmuel Brin Jan 19 at 2:45
    
Yes, this doesn't sound mainstream :) Is it according to a specific school of Kabbalah? –  Lev Jan 19 at 19:11
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