Throughout Tanach, the heart is used as the seat of emotion. For instance:

  • The heart understands (Melachim Aleph 3:9)
  • Thought comes from the heart (this seems to be the straightforward understanding of verses like Koheles 1:16 that discuss speaking with the heart)
  • The heart can view things prophetically (see Melachim Beis 5:26 and commentaries there)
  • The heart falls (Shmuel Aleph 17:32)
  • The heart gives endurance during times of crisis (Yechezkel 22:14)
  • The heart rejoices (Tehillim 16:9)
  • The heart cries (Eichah 2:18)
  • The heart is comforted (Yeshaya 40:1-2)
  • The heart is pained (Devarim 15:10)

This is an excerpt of Koheles Rabbah 1:38 (Warsaw numbering; 1:16 in Vilna numbering), which lists 58 such emotions and traits that come from the heart.

Scientifically, emotions and thoughts come from the brain. Rav Chaim Miller says that emotions come from the Ruach-level of the Neshamah. But either way, it doesn’t come from the heart. So where do all of these descriptions come from?

  • I think Ramba"m discusses this, maybe in Sefer Ahava? Incidentally, I gather that recent scientific research has discovered "brain cells" located in the heart, thus, apparently, confirming what we knew and mentioned for so many years. See jewishvirtuallibrary.org/heart. There are other meanings to the term lev. – DanF Sep 12 '17 at 20:53
  • @DanF Yesodei HaTorah 4:7 seems to indicate that the heart is the seat of thought. See also the wording he uses at the end of 4:13 there (בעל לב). He also describes a haughty person as one with a large heart (ego?) - גבה לב - in De’os 1:1, 2:2, and 2:3. – DonielF Sep 12 '17 at 21:05
  • 1
    Literarily, the heart is the seat, because the passions are in the blood (a faster heartbeat when excited, loss of blood in the face when embarrassed...). – rosends Sep 12 '17 at 22:17
  • 1
    @magicker72 Explain Shemos 28:30 according to that explanation. The Choshen is clearly on his chest, so how do you translate והיו על לב אהרן? Aharon has no responsibility to keep the 72-letter Name on his mind at all times, so obviously the passuk refers to its physical placement. – DonielF Sep 13 '17 at 1:30
  • 1
    @DonielF I'm not saying it can't mean "heart", but that I heard that it also means "mind". Cf. libbu in Akkadian, which also has multiple meanings, including "heart" and including "mind". – magicker72 Sep 13 '17 at 1:54

You are asking the question based on the modern metaphors and using scientific terminology. This does not apply to the metaphors that the Torah uses. The Torah uses the heart as the seat of the will and desires of a person (יצר טוב and יצר הרע) As a result, it expresses matters in that way.

This is not a matter of modern science. This is what the Torah metaphors are used for. The brain would be pure logic, the heart the will and desires, the liver and kidneys the emotions. All of these are nowadays referred to the brain, but in tanach and the talmud that is what the metaphors are used for.

The heart is not the seat of the emotions, that is the modern English usage. In the Tanach, it is the seat of the will and personality not the emotions.

This is explained in Some Body Part Metaphors and Euphemisms in Biblical Hebrew

  • The total personality of a person. Most particularly for the inner self - what it means to be human – personality/inclination
  • intellect, rational thought (metaphorically “the brain” in English)
  • memory,
  • emotions,
  • desire, will, determination,
  • courage

The emotions are basically used to refer to the liver or the kidneys.

Rav Hirsch on VaEschanan says

על לבבך - Accordingly the demand here is, that the words spoken here as being our duty are to be kept present in our minds and exert a permanent influence on our hearts, accordingly on our feelings and thoughts.

Additionally a number of meforshim point out that the literal translation is your (singular hearts (plural). This mean both the yetzer tov and the yetzer harah in a person must be influenced and controlled by the command of Hashem. Thus, the לב is the seat of the yetzer of a person, the will and desires.

Similarly, the Torah commands

This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them, and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray.


and you shall not wander after your hearts: Heb. וְלֹא תָתוּרוּ, like “from scouting (מִּתּוּר) the Land” (13:25). The heart and eyes are the spies for the body. They are its agents for sinning: the eye sees, the heart covets and the body commits the transgression. - [Mid. Tanchuma 15]

|improve this answer|||||
  • This doesn’t answer the question. Those are still functions of the brain (and now you’re ascribing things to the kidneys that are still actually of the brain). – DonielF Sep 12 '17 at 23:57
  • @DonielF This is not a matter of modern science. This is what the Torah mataphors are used for. The brain would be pure logic, the heart the will and desires, the liver and kidneys the emotions. All of these are nowadays referred to the brain, but in tanach and the talmud that is what the metaphors are used for. – sabbahillel Sep 13 '17 at 1:33
  • You should speak that out more quickly. I totally missed that. – DonielF Sep 13 '17 at 1:38
  • @DonielF I added an section that explains this explicitly. Is this enough to remove your down vote? – sabbahillel Sep 13 '17 at 1:45
  • I’ve removed my upvote, but it still doesn’t fully address the question. You say this is a metaphor, which seems self-understood. The question remains why the passuk uses a metaphor. – DonielF Sep 13 '17 at 1:47

The Torah speaks about a psychological concept of a heart, not the physiological organ.

Psychology works by making up concepts and describing interactions between them. Those concepts are theoretical and not empirical, for example, "joy, desire/urge, communication, evil inclination" etc.

  1. The Heart in Judaism, that you mention in all of your examples, is a conceptual bodypart that correlates with the concept of Tifferes and is the residence of the "Emotional IQ" - everything we judge "not-intellectually".

  2. Let me put it simply, in humans we have 3 basic levels of "reasoning": 1. pure intellect שכל or מח (the brain) 2. pure body needs/urges (יסוד - ) 3. intermediate part, a mix of the two, i.e. emotions and feelings. Those three are often referred to as abbreviation מל"ך - which is מח, לב, כבד. Kabbalicly they are roughly represented by דעת, תפארת ויסוד.

  3. Those concepts are as old as the humanity, but most importantly, they preceded the anatomical knowledge, namely, the existence of the physical brain, the heart and the liver was dictated by the existence of the theoretical concepts: something that resides in the head, the chest and the bottom part of the torso.

  4. In other words (here comes the answer), the folks didn't know what the brain and the heart and the liver are for (see Hulin for their poor understanding of the hart's functions), but they were ascribed their psychological functions - this piece of meat is responsible for feelings etc. Therefore this piece was (arbitrary) called the heart (לב) and the grey matter - the brain - מח.

  5. This concept was very popular with doctors for millennia, up until very very recently. This approach is consistent with Rambam (beg. of Yesodey Hatora) explaining the reference to G-ds bodyparts in the Torah, like יד ה', רגלי ה', עיני ה' etc. Once again, the concept existed long before anatomy.

NB: I agree that we don't know the correlation between this concept of Tifferet and the physical heart that pumps the blood. But I'd compare it "spiritually-Kabbalicly" to our lack of understanding of how putting the Teffilin or wobbling a Lulav works on a spiritual level.

|improve this answer|||||
  • 1
    That’s all well and good, but this still doesn’t answer why it’s the heart. I agree that it can’t mean a literal heart, but why use the word “heart” at all? Why is that body part specifically used as the metaphor? – DonielF Aug 29 '18 at 18:05

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .