I have seen "Baal Nefesh" used frequently in various contexts: sometimes as one who is scrupulous in halacha, other times as someone who is a quality person.

What is its simple translation/meaning?

  • Check it out in its original context: mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt2823.htm#2 Apparently it just means the guy is hungry!
    – Double AA
    Jan 21, 2013 at 6:54
  • @DoubleAA - That's according to Rashi. The Targum translates it as "master of the soul" (nearly the opposite of Rashi's interpretation as meaning someone beset with a gluttonous soul), and Metzudas David likewise interprets it as meaning someone who has the intellect to recognize that he should despise bad things.
    – Fred
    Jan 21, 2013 at 7:31
  • @Fred They're both appropriate Pshatim. While נפש literally means throat/neck, it's used quite often as a synecdoche to the human spirit/soul/רוח (which is breathed through the neck, much like נשמה literally means breath but is also often taken as the 'soul').
    – Double AA
    Jan 21, 2013 at 7:50
  • @DoubleAA It's true that the throat is considered karov lanefesh (B'rachos 44b), and that the hollow, neck-like opening within which the tongue of the supporting the beam of a scale is inserted is anthropomorphically referred to as נפש מאזנים (Bava Basra 89a), but the strict translation of נפש (as a noun) is person, soul, life-force, or desire (as in B'reishis 23:8). The commentaries on Mishlei (including the Ralbag, Malbim, and others who explain this as referring to a gluttonous person) interpret נפש not as throat, and there is no evidence that even Rashi translates this as throat.
    – Fred
    Jan 21, 2013 at 20:06
  • (For anyone following, Fred and I have continued discussion in the comments to my answer.)
    – Double AA
    Jan 22, 2013 at 1:23

5 Answers 5


SBA quotes the Yismach Mosheh that a "ba'al nefesh" is someone for whom the things related to the soul are more important than physical things. Rabbi Gil Student also quotes some statements by Rashi and Rabbeinu Chanan'el to define a ba'al nefesh. Rabbi Micha Berger quotes the Nefesh HaChayim as well; see there.

You can read the whole subject on Avodah here.


"Someone who really cares about their soul"; a "soul man", if you will. Often "the average Joe need not be stringent about this, but a soul man should be." If I'm not mistaken, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein occcasionally does rank stringencies, and I think he says "appropriate for anyone G-d fearing" is stronger than "appropriate for any soul man."


Jastrow demonstrates (מר IV, p. 834) through a number of Talmudic sources that the term was popular during the Second Commonwealth and the meaning is, specially in this construct, "master over his desire".

The eminent Talmudic scholar, Prof. Saul Lieberman, concurred with Jastrow's translation (Qiryat Sefer, 1937 p. 223).


I've gathered a bunch of sources, mentioned in the answers already here, and in other places.

While Rashi to Mishlei 23:2 says that a Bal Nefesh is:

אם רעבתן אתה ותאב לאכול
If you are glutton and desire to eat

Others, such as the Alshich and the Metzudat David, interpret the verse as a positive quality:

[אם יש לך נפש משכלת למאוס ברע - If you have a discerning soul to hate evil]

When halacha refers to someone as a Bal Nefesh, they are referring to someone on a higher spiritual level.

In Talmud Pesachim 40A, Rashi translates a Bal Nefesh as a Chasid, a pious person. The Mosif Rashi on the Daf brings the Rashi from Chulin 6A (quoted below) and adds from "Ha'Orah Chelek 1 Siman 84 (anyone know what that is?)"

"someone who rules over his inclination and distances himself from sin"

Rabbeinu Chananel on that passage in the Talmud says:

בעל נפש כלומר המתרחק מריח עבירה ומדקדק הרבה על עצמו A bal Nefesh is one who distances himself from (even) a whiff of sin and is very exacting on himself.

Rashi on Talmud Chulin 6A translates a Bal Nefesh as an "Adam Kasher". Micropedia Talmudit brings two opinions about the definition of an Adam Kasher is (it appears they are both brought in the Tur and commentaries of Yorah Deah 346, but I did not look them up):

  1. Rosh in the name of the Maharam -- Someone who is not suspected of any sin, nor of neglecting any positive commandment. Nothing sinful is ever associated with him. This applies even if he is not a great Torah scholar.

  2. Bach, and others. -- He is recognized as being fit/proper, he seeks out Mitzvot and good deeds, even if he is not learned.

The Aruch brings an additional interpretation that I did not understand. I'll put it here, and if anyone can translate it and/or bring a source, please add it in:

וי"מ בעל נפש דכל שעה שאין לו אנינות הדעת שיכול לאכול כל פת

The Hon Ashir (by Immanuel Chai ben Ben Avraham Ricchi (https://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12736-ricchi-raphael-immanuel-hay-ben-abraham), the author of the Mishnat Chassidim) on Avot 1:17 says:

ואם בעל נפש אתה, שאי אתה חש על כבוד גופך כי אם בתורת ה' חפצך

If you are a Bal Nefesh, meaning you do not care about the honor of your body, rather you desire the Torah of G-d.

R' Chaim of Vholozin, in his Ruch Chaim to Avot chapter 3, end of mishna 1, says that a person is given free choice to transform his physical corporeality into spirituality, should he desire to do so. The opposite is also possible. Those who transform their flesh into spirit are called "Baalei Nefesh". [I recommend reading inside, because it is wonderfully written, and there are many great details I left out]

The Ohr Hachayim to Vayikra 22:12 explains that there are different levels to the soul, which each have different purposes. The Nefesh is the base level that all created beings have when they're born, but the Nefesh alone does not enable the person to elevate his physical actions and make them spiritual. That is only possible once a person receives his Ruach (second level) by virtue of his good deeds. Once he has a Ruach, he is able to elevate his Nefesh to the level of Ruach.

Thus, a Bal Nefesh is one who is able to elevate his Nefesh to the level of Ruach. (read the Ohr Hachayim inside for many more details).

The Ohr Hachayim on Vayikra 4:2 says that when a person sins he causes damage to his Nefesh (which is why a wicked person is called dead even while he lives). Thus, a Bal Nefesh is someone who hasn't sinned, even unwittingly. [He goes on to explain that the sin does not complete damage the Nefesh, and it unwitting sins can be expunged through sacrifices, and intentional sins can be expunged through Teshuva and Yom Kippur (read the Ohr Hachayim inside for many details).

(an interesting discussion from a Chabad perspective about whether a Bal Nefesh is a higher or lower level than a Yirat Shamayim here )


Most literally the phrase Baal Nefesh is probably something like "master of [a] throat", although the simple meaning is more like "possessor of a soul". Either way though it seems to include just about everyone.

  • 1
    Maybe people are a bit befuddled by your determination that the most literal translation of נפש (even in the context of בעל נפש) is throat. Did you perhaps confuse it with בלועך from the same verse, which the Ibn Ezra defines as the pharynx (בית הבליעה)?
    – Fred
    Jan 21, 2013 at 20:18
  • @Fred I wasn't aware the literal translation was a matter of controversy. Wouldn't you agree that נשמה literally means breath? The usage as soul and then human or person is (very) common instance of synecdoche. The verse in Mishlei above is not a proof, though when you remember the literal meaning of nefesh you see hidden beauty in the psalmists's poetry. I thought I was clear in this answer the difference between exact translation and likely meaning.
    – Double AA
    Jan 21, 2013 at 20:34
  • That's true of נשמה, but that's not the word under discussion. I know that you are not arguing about the the simple meaning of the expression, but I have yet to see reasonable evidence that a literal translation of נפש here should be throat. I'm also not aware of a controversy, because I don't know of anyone who translates it as throat, but maybe I'm just ignorant. Am I missing something?
    – Fred
    Jan 21, 2013 at 20:54
  • 1
    @Fred The basic answer is that we have cognates of נפש in other Semetic languages such as Ugaritic and Akkadian which mean throat. Taken with the other pulmonary imagery (ויפח באפו, נשמה, רוח) I see no reason to not assume a correspondence. As for Biblical use, your best bet is probably Job 41:10-14 and then Tehillim 69:2. It fits in well with Mishlei 23:2 (as mentioned above) and of course Vayikra 23:29 ודעימיה. I'm sure there are other indications as well; you could try Google if you want. (Speculation: it would be interesting to see if/how this plays in to Shechita and Dam haNefesh.)
    – Double AA
    Jan 21, 2013 at 22:56
  • Ok, I get it now. A bit of a chiddush, but reasonable speculation. I'm a bit at odds with your phrasing that it "probably" is the literal translation (I'd prefer a less confident qualifier since I don't see this in other mefarshim). A bit of a rewrite (including working in the info from your comments and sourcing the Semitic cognates) would "probably" get me to upvote the answer (though I'm not the one who downvoted, so you won't get a double jump from me). ;)
    – Fred
    Jan 21, 2013 at 23:21

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