Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Rabbeinu Bachya on the Soul and Mind

Previously, we explored Ramban's view on the soul. Now let us turn to Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher.

In his commentary to Bereishis 2:7, Rabbeinu Bachya cites both views regarding whether the soul is indivisible or tripartite. He notes that according to the latter view (which is that which Ramban says is supported by Chazal and which Ramban favors), whereas the vegetative soul is spread throughout the body, the rational soul is housed in the brain:

הנפש החכמה נמצאת באדם לבדו בה משתתף עם העליונים הקדושים העומדים לעד לעולם בחכמה ושכל ומשכנה במוח והיא הנקראת נשמה שנאמר ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים

Rabbeinu Bachya continues to note that while the account of the golem in Chazal supports the view that man contains three souls (of which the golem only possessed two), Scripture indicates that the soul is indivisible. Nevertheless, he does not appear to clearly decide the matter, and the point that is concerning him, and which he stresses, is that both views agree that the soul lives on in the next world after death.

Interestingly, whereas Rabbeinu Bachya here makes the unqualified statement that sechel is housed in the brain, in his commentary to Bereishis 1:26 he says that sechel comes from the brain and machshavah comes from the heart, and in his commentary to Bereishis 6:6 he says that the heart is the kli for machshavah, which originates in the brain. It seems that Rabbeinu Bachya was seeking to accommodate the Galenic view, of the mind being housed in the brain, with the traditional view found in Chazal that the heart houses the mind.

What can we take from Rabbeinu Bachya's writings for the modern dilemma of whether brain-death is death? Well, although he himself does not take a definitive stance on the nature of the soul, it does seem that he believes that if the soul could be differentiated, then the human part of it would be housed in the brain. The brain is the seat of the mind (even though he was also hanging on to the ancient view that the heart is also involved), the mind is what defines us as human beings, and thus the neshamah would be in the brain and manifest itself through the brain's activity.


  1. Why is this relevant? For the Chareidi world the philosophies and mysticism of the rishonim are obsolete and the only thing that is relevant now is the teaching of the Zohar (al pi haAri za"l) - either they reinterpret the other opinions to agree with it or they ignore them.

    On the other hand, the rationalists will accept logical arguments from wherever they come and don't need to evoke the authority of great medieval authors.

  2. OMG! No relevance. Rabbenu Bachaya is speculating. He doesn't know. What is his rationale? That alone is a speculation. But it's really much worse than that. Does ANYONE here think that if he believes that the 'sod' of Elokim is elu hem yud, meaning that there are ten creators and not one he can possibly know anything relevant to US about the nature of the soul or spirituality? I certainly don't think that he can.

  3. Rabbi, it seems like what you are trying to define is when the soul leaves the body. I don't think this is a good way to define halachic death. What you are doing seems like something out of the Zohar. It is good for kabbalistic things, but halacha generally doesn't seem to follow this type of reasoning.

    The people who are pro-brain death generally explain their stance in a very different way than you are. Rav Tendler equates it to getting your head chopped off, for various reasons.

    Personally, I don't think modern science has come up with a way to detect when the soul has left the body. Even if we say the brain is the house of the soul, what does that really mean and how does it relate to halachic death?

  4. I don't understand why you are continuing in this direction.

    You first have to prove that a being can lose it's human status before any of this is relevant.

    I believe, based on different halachic principles, that once you have a human being, or a human soul or human mind, nothing can remove it from that status, not even death. (i.e. the body of a dead person is halachically treated differently than the body of a dead animal)

  5. I agree. Someone with brain death is a dead human, not a live animal. But I think that these sources from Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya help us reach that conclusion.

  6. "But I think that these sources from Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya help us reach that conclusion."

    Then I will continue to just watch how you proceed, because I do not see how it comments on the topic in one direction or the other.

    I will try to explain why by analogy.

    Often, a person will say "my computer died".. and forgive me, but I'd like to take a look at what it means that a computer has "died"

    The way I see it we have 5 vital systems. The CPU, the hardrive, the monitor/GPU, RAM, and the motherboard. If any one of these systems fail, you will not be able to access the content on your computer. Which part do you have to replace to say that you have just gotten a "new computer"? Is there any one specific part, that if that is replaced you now have a "new" one?
    I think not. Sure people can endlessly debate if its the speed, or the content of the computer that defines it.(CPU/RAM or Harddrive) but I would argue, that it isn't any one specific part, but rather when you replace a majority of the parts that you now have a new computer. (Microsoft, by the way, says you have a new computer when any 3 components have changed, and you then need to buy a new license)
    Meaning, it is how the system works as a whole that defines the "death" of something, not any one specific piece or part.

    I think that by defining death as the failure of heart/lungs/head (decapitation) you get a more human definition of death, and one that doesn't fall victim to a discussion of which exact body part defines humanity.

    As an aside, if you want to argue that either the harddrive (memories) or the CPU (cognitive ability) define the computer, then you have problems when somebody has a cloud-enabled computer, where all processing and data-storage is done over the internet, and the "computer" is just a collection of devices, that could be compared to the "limbs" of the computer. i.e. keyboard,monitor,RAM,GPU and some sort of modem. (This can be analogous to a talkative Golem or to the mind/soul)


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