Understanding Nefesh Hachaim

Among my many sins, I spent years teaching Torah for a living. During those years I was often forced to confront – both for myself and for my students – why some answers and explanations are more likely true than others.

To large measure, I eventually settled on a variation of Occam’s razor which, roughly described, states that a problem’s true resolution is probably the one which requires the least interpretation. For all intents and purposes, the Talmud does this on nearly every page; rejecting a proof whenever another equally (or more) likely possibility is presented.

I would often apply the tool during debates. To briefly illustrate (based on another of my articles): Is the Chasam Sofer’s way of understanding Rabbi Yishmael’s interpretation of Deut. 11:14 a possible meaning of the Gemara in Berachos 35b (which the Chasam Sofer insists would only apply within geographic Israel)? Of course. But, given the fact that Rava explicitly applies the Rabbi Yishmael’s position to his students – most of whom surely lived outside Israel – suggests that possible is not synonymous with likely. And derush is not the same as pshat.

Over the years, this way of thinking became so habitual for me, that it threatens to spoil my enjoyment of many great Torah pleasures.

So here I am, asking for help.

For years I’ve thought about various passages in Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin’s Nefesh Hachaim and enjoyed their insights. But I’ve also contended with a growing sense that I’ve never really understood how it all worked. One idea might be built on a source that didn’t seem to quite fit the context within which it was quoted. And another idea felt strangely foreign when measured against my understanding of some classical Torah sources. In short, I’m missing something important. Is it possible that Rabbi Chaim’s style is simply a product of the larger changes brought by the Tzfas revolution?

There’s no better way to illustrate my problem than by offering some concrete examples of each of the classes of problem I’m having.

Nefesh Hachim Sha’ar 2, Chapter 5

Rabbi Chaim quotes this gemara (Brachos 10a):

הני חמשה ברכי נפשי כנגד מי אמרן דוד לא אמרן אלא כנגד הקב”ה וכנגד נשמה מה הקב”ה מלא כל העולם אף נשמה מלאה את כל הגוף מה הקדוש ברוך הוא רואה ואינו נראה אף נשמה רואה ואינה נראית מה הקב”ה זן את כל העולם כלו אף נשמה זנה את כל הגוף מה הקב”ה טהור אף נשמה טהורה מה הקב”ה יושב בחדרי חדרים אף נשמה יושבת בחדרי חדרים יבא מי שיש בו חמשה דברים הללו וישבח למי שיש בו חמשה דברים הללו

These five “ברכי נפשי“, in relation to what did David write them? They were certainly written in relation to the Holy One, blessed be He and the soul (of a man). Just like the Holy One, blessed be He fills the entire world, so the soul fills the entire body…

Rabbi Chaim uses this passage – among others – to advance the theory of immanence (i.e., that G-d somehow fills all the space of the physical universe to the exclusion of all else). In fact, I don’t see how the Gemara in Brachos can be used as a proof, as that doesn’t seem to be its most likely – and certainly not its only – interpretation. Why couldn’t you understand the passage to mean that, just like the soul is intimately aware of, influences, and even controls its body, so G-d is aware of, influences, and – when He chooses – controls the entire world? I can’t be 100% sure that that’s what the Gemara means but, as long as reasonable alternative interpretations exist, no single approach can be considered definitive.

But my main interest in this chapter is in how Rabbi Chaim quotes Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim:

וגם הרמב”ם ז”ל כתב במורה בפ’ ע”ב מחלק הא’ שכל העולם בכללו נקרא שיעור קומה. והאריך להמשיל כלל חלקי העולם לחלקי אברי האדם וכל עניניו שבו. ושהוא ית’ הוא נשמת העולם כענין הנשמה לגוף האדם ע”ש. ודבריו ז”ל ראוים למי שאמרם. שכן מבואר בזוהר תולדות…

And also the Rambam of blessed memory wrote in the Moreh 1:72 that the entire world is called “shiur koma”. And he goes to great length to compare all the parts of the world to the parts of a man’s limbs and all his composites. And that He (who should be blessed) is the soul of the world as a soul is to the body of a man, see (the Moreh). And his words are fit for he who said them, as it’s clear in the Zohar…

In that chapter, the Rambam certainly goes to great lengths to compare the biological structure of humans (and animals) with the structure of the natural world as a whole. But he also most definitely does not extend the comparison to G-d. And, even more emphatically, he does not use his comparisons to propose any semblance of immanence (which would run counter to the second of Rambam’s 13 principles).

What’s even more interesting is how Rabbi Chaim refers to that passage in Moreh Nevuchim as an explicit discussion of “שיעור קומה” – a phrase the Rambam doesn’t actually use. In fact, the phrase has very specific implications in the kabbala world. The שיעור קומה to which Rabbi Chaim’s reference presumably refers is the name of a mostly-lost kabbalistic text that is known to describe G-d using very physical terms. The historical fact that Rambam was aware of the text and explicitly declared it a heretical fake does seem to place this whole passage in a confusing light.

Here’s the text of the Rambam’s thoughts on שיעור קומה from his תשובות סימן קיז (quoted from Rabbi Yosef Qafih’s translation):

שאלה, יורנו הדרתו מה לומר למי ששאל שאלה בענין שעור קומה האם הוא כדברי מי שאמר שהוא חבור אחד הקראים ושמע את זאת מהדרתכם, או שהוא סוד מסודות החכמים ז”ל וכמוסים בו ענינים גדולים טבעיים או אלהיים כמו שאמר רבנו האיי ז”ל באחד הקונדרסים בעניני חגיגה. ושכרו כפול מן השמים. תשובה, איני סבור כלל שהוא לחכמים ז”ל ואינו אלא חיבור אחד הדרשנים בערי אדום ולא יותר. כללו של דבר השמדת אותו הספר והכרתת זכר ענינו מצוה רבה, ושם אלהים אחרים לא תזכירו וכו’ כי אשר לו קומה הוא אלהים אחרים בלי ספק.

Question: His glory should teach us what to say to someone who asks about Shiur Komah. Is it like those who say that it is a book of the Karaites – and this was heard (in the name of) his glory; or is it a secret from the secrets of our sages containing great mysteries of natural or Godly matters as our master Rabbeinu Hai of blessed memory (wrote) in one of his publications on Chagiga, and the heavenly reward (for studying such a book) should be double?

Response: I don’t believe that (the book) in any way came from the sages. It’s nothing but a publication of preachers in the cities of Edom and nothing more. To sum up, destroying that book and eliminating the memory of it’s contents is a great mitzva: “The name of other gods you should not mention.” For (in the minds of those who wrote that book) the one who has stature (קומה) without a doubt refers to foreign gods.

Nefesh Hachim Sha’ar 2, Chapter 12

Rabbi Chaim’s theme in this chapter is that great people ignore their own suffering and, instead, devote all their attention and prayers to the parallel suffering of God. Without a doubt it’s a beautiful idea. His primary proof text is from the Gemara in Brachos 31b, which he quotes in this passage:

והוא שדרז”ל בחנה ברכות לא ב והיא מרת נפש ותתפלל על ה’. שהטיחה דברים כלפי מעלה. ר”ל הגם שהיא עצמה היתה מרת נפש עכ”ז השליכה צערה מנגד ולא אכפת לה להתפלל ע”ז כלל. אל”א שהטיחה דברי תפלתה לפניו ית”ש על הצער של מעלה הנעשה מחמת שהיא שרויה עתה בצער. ולכן אמרו שם שגם משה הטיח דברי’ כלפי מעלה כו’ אל תקרי אל ה’ אלא על ה’.

And this that the rabbis explain (Brachos 31b) concerning Chana “‘And she was bitter of soul and she prayed on God’ that she pressed her words towards the heavens.” That is to say since she herself was bitter of soul, with all that she cast her suffering away and saw no reason to pray for it at all. Instead, she [pressed] the words of her prayer before Him (Whose name should be blessed) in regard to the suffering of heavens resulting from her suffering. Therefore they say (ibid) that ‘even Moshe [pressed] his words towards the heavens…don’t read it as “to God” but as “on God.”

In my translation I placed the word “pressed” in brackets. This is because that is the simplest translation for the word הטיחה. But, as far as I can tell, it’s also not consistent with Rabbi Chaim’s interpretation. After all, he clearly uses it as though it means “shift” or “transfer.” (It should be noted that Rashi to Berachos 32a “הטיח. לשון זריקה כמו כמטחוי קשת” does translate the word as “throw,” but the context over there clearly implies conflict and accusation, rather than support.)

Let’s see a few other places where the word is used, like Sukkah 53a:

והאמר רבי אלעזר לעולם אל יטיח אדם דברים כלפי מעלה שהרי אדם גדול הטיח דברים כלפי מעלה ואיטלע ומנו לוי

And Rabbi Eliezer said: a person should never press (יטיח) his words towards heaven because a great man pressed his words towards heaven and he was crippled. Who was he? Levi.

Whatever יטיח means here, it’s obviously not good, since it led to Levi’s injury and we’re all warned not to do it. Rabbi Chaim, by contrast, recommends all of us strive to act this way. Still, though, while it would seem הטחה is not an appropriate action, this doesn’t prove that Rabbi Chaim’s actual translation is strained. For that, we’ll see Beitza 9a:

הרואה אומר להטיח גגו הוא צריך

One who sees (a man doing this) will say he’s (doing it to) plaster his roof.

I’ve never done it myself, but I imagine that one plasters a roof by smoothing soft tar beneath a heavy tool of some sort. The motion is one of pressing. Similarly, the gemara in Bava Kama 28b says:

לפיכך אם הטיח צלוחיתו באבן חייב

Therefore, if someone smashes his glass against the stone (left illegally in a public place, the owner of the stone) must (pay damages).

Each of those sources suggest that הטחה is an act of smashing or, at least, pressing vigorously against a resisting counter force. I’m really not sure how that word could be taken to mean some kind of willing transfer for the comfort and benefit of a recipient (G-d, in this case).

Nefesh Hachaim Sha’ar 1, Chapter 15

Concerning the theoretical possibility of G-d having some physical quality (corporeality), Rabbi Chaim (quoting R’ Chaim Vital) wrote:

…שאין עצמות מהותה נכנסת כלל בתוך גוף האדם ואדם הראשון קודם החטא זכה לעצמותה ובסיבת החטא נסתלקה מתוכו ונשארה רק חופפת עליו. לבד משה רבינו ע”ה שזכה לעצמותה תוך גופו ולכן נקרא איש האלקים

…That the Essence of (G-d’s) Existence does not enter at all into the body of a human. But Adam before the sin merited the Essence and, due to the sin, it was removed from his midst and remained only hovering above him. (All this is) besides for Moshe who merited to have the Essence (of G-d) inside his body. For this reason, he is called “man of G-d.”

I can’t think of any way to read those words that won’t do violence to the second of Rambam’s 13 principles (that the unity of G-d is infinitely simple and that He has no internal divisions). And I’m just at a loss as to how the physical bodies of at least two human beings (Adam and Moshe) could have encompassed the “Essence of G-d.” What am I missing?

But I’m also unsure what to do with Rabbi Chaim’s proof text: “ולכן נקרא איש האלקים” Is there really no other credible interpretation of those words than that Moshe’s body encompassed G-d? Is it not far more likely that it means Moshe, through his behavior and life’s works, exhibited all the values and principles taught by G-d and His Torah? How do those words prove Rabbi Chaim’s idea? I understand that חז”ל sometimes took verses out of context by way of אסמכתא, but those sources weren’t being used for proof (as evidenced by frequent use of “וקרא אסמכתא בעלמא”).

Nefesh Hachaim Sha’ar 2, Chapter 2

In the context of prayer, Rabbi Chaim wrote:

כי עצמות א”ס ב”ה סתים מכל סתימין ואין לכנותו ח”ו בשום שם כלל אפילו בשם הוי”ה ב”ה ואפי’ בקוצו של יו”ד דבי’ … וז”ש האריז”ל בלשונו הקד’ הובא בהקדמת פע”ח. שכל הכנויים והשמות הם שמו’ העצמו’ המתפשטים בספירות וע”ש

For Atzmus Ain Sof (“the Essence of G-d without end”) is the most hidden of all secrets and there’s no way to describe Him in any way, even with the Name “Havaya”…And this the Arizal wrote in his holy language – brought in the introduction to Pri Eitz Chaim – that all descriptions and names are (really just) names of the essence that has spread among the sefiros.

What this appears to mean is that we shouldn’t think about G-d Himself during prayer and that, in fact, God Himself is not even conscious of us. But we should instead focus on various names that actually represent reflections whose actual “location” is the sefiros.

Now before you accuse me of being naive and hopelessly foolish, I hasten to add that I’m aware that Rabbi Chaim Vital is the primary source of this idea – I’ve seen it in the original. And I’m also aware of the possible implications of what I’m writing (particularly in relation to the second and fifth of the Rambam’s principles). But that doesn’t help me understand the concept itself.

I must add that Sha’ar 2, Chapter 4 includes a note that’s very relevant to this discussion:

הגהה: ומ”ש בכוונות התפלה והברכות לכוין בכל ברכה כוונה מיוחדת לספירה מיוחדת לא ח”ו לעצמות הספירה. כי הוא קיצוץ נטיעות ח”ו.

And that which is written in the focus (כוונות) of our prayers and blessings to focus each blessing a specific focus on a specific sphere, that is not, G-d forbid, to say (that we should focus on) the Essence of the sphere, for that would be heresy.

I certainly agree. But how can we square that with what he wrote above: “שכל הכנויים והשמות הם שמו’ העצמו’ המתפשטים בספירות”? And, as an side point, who wrote those הגהה notes? It’s known that Nefesh Hachaim itself was only published after Rabbi Chaim’s death: could these have been added by the publisher?

Nefesh Hachim Sha’ar 2, Chapter 4

There’s one word in particular that’s used a lot by Rabbi Chaim that I’ve never really understood: כביכול (“were it possible”).

אמנם לא שאנו מדברים אליו כביכול על עצמותו ית’ לבד בבחי’ היותו מופשט ומופרש כביכול לגמרי מהעולמות כענין שהיה קודם הבריאה דאם כן איך נתארהו ח”ו בכל ברכותינו ותפלתינו בשום שם וכנוי בעולם כלל

However, it’s not that we talk to Him – were it possible – in relation to His essence (may it be blessed) alone, in a way that’s completely distinct and separate – were it possible – from the worlds, the way it was before creation. For if that were so, how could be refer to Him – G-d forbid – with our blessings and prayers using a name or reference at all?

Leaving aside some interesting issues surrounding the passage as a whole, here’s my immediate problem: if speaking directly to G-d is somehow a theological problem – perhaps even forbidden – then it’s a problem. And if (as Tehilim 145:19 would suggest) it’s perfectly reasonable and permitted, then let’s do it. But what value is there in imposing a conditional (“were it possible”) status on a principle or belief? Is it possible or isn’t it?