The Soul: Is there a difference between a Gentile and a Jewish Soul?


I have been asked many times do Jews believe that non-Jews have different souls then Jews, and that they are incapable of acting with noble intentions. This is based on a passage that appears in the Chassidic work called Tanya, which I shall quote below, The question stems from a feeling that it is not that by following Judaism one has positive spiritual advantages, but that by not being born Jewish one is permanently defective and incapable of acting ‘good’.


I should here point out that there is nothing objectionable for the followers of Judaism or any other religion to believe that following their religion gives one spiritual benefits that those who are not followers cannot have. Clearly that is true of all religions I am familiar with, whether Western or Eastern. However the passage in question seems to indicate much more then that.


It should be noted that while the work Tanya is the main text of Chabad Chasidim, it cannot be ignored by those who are not Chabad. There are a few reasons.


First, even non-Chabad Chassidim, like me, look upon Tanya as one of the classics of Chassidic thought, and even if we do not follow the Derech[1] that Chabad does, we accept the teachings that are in that work, as we do those found in the other classics of Chassidic thought.


Second, even those Chassidim who have objections to some of the theological views in Tanya and other Chabad works, like the Rebbes of Ziditchov, will not disagree with this particular issue as the sources are ones that they accept.


The same is true of the Misnagdim, like Rabbi Chaim who in his work Nefesh Chaim criticized Tanya, or the Sefardim whose Rabbis base much on Kabbalistic works. They would have no problems with what appears in this passage.


Therefore we need to explain what is meant by this passage in Tanya. Let me quote it as it appears translated on  


END CHAPTER 1: The explanation [of the questions raised above] is to be found in the light of what Rabbi Chayim Vital wrote in Sha'ar ha-Kedushah (and in Etz Chayim, Portal 50, ch. 2) that in every Jew, whether righteous or wicked, are two souls, as it is written, "The neshamot (souls) which I have made,"[2] [alluding to] two souls. There is one soul which originates in the kelipah and sitra achra, and which is clothed in the blood of a human being, giving life to the body, as is written, "For the life of the flesh is in the blood."[3] From it stem all the evil characteristics deriving from the four evil elements which are contained in it. These are: anger and pride, which emanate from the element of Fire, the nature of which is to rise upwards; the appetite for pleasures— from the element of Water, for water makes to grow all kinds of enjoyment; frivolity and scoffing, boasting and idle talk from the element of Air; and sloth and melancholy— from the element of Earth. From this soul stem also the good characteristics which are to be found in the innate nature of all Israel, such as mercy and benevolence. For in the case of Israel, this soul of the kelipah is derived from kelipat nogah, which also contains good, as it originates in the esoteric "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil." The souls of the nations of the world, however, emanate from the other, unclean kelipot which contain no good whatever, as is written in Etz Chayim, Portal 49, ch. 3, that all the good that the nations do, is done from selfish motives. So the Gemara[4] comments on the verse, "The kindness of the nations is sin,"[5]— that all the charity and kindness done by the nations of the world is only for their own self-glorification, and so on.

BEGINNING CHAPTER 2: The second soul of a Jew is truly a part of G-d above, as it is written, "And He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,"[6] and "Thou didst breathe it [the soul] into me." And it is written in the Zohar, "He who exhales, exhales from within him," that is to say, from his inwardness and his innermost, for it is something of his internal and innermost vitality that man emits through exhaling with force.



There is a significant problem when one approaches a passage such as this to explain it to a general audience. The Alter Rebbe when he wrote it assumed certain things of the reader.


First was a familiarity with Kabbalistic works and concepts. Second was an intimate knowledge of the texts and their meaning, whether the Talmud or Kabbalistic texts.


Also we need to realize that the discussion of the souls of gentiles is really a side issue here The primary issue he is trying to get across is about how Jews should serve HaShem. Non-Jews are mentioned in passing and without any attempt to explain in depth the issue, unlike what he does with regards to the Jewish soul which takes up many chapters.


This makes ‘unpacking’ what the Alter Rebbe intended for an audience not familiar with the concepts and works he expected them to know a bit difficult. I will try to simplify it so that the concepts are understandable, even though some of the deeper Kabbalistic concepts and issues in the texts will not be addressed. Those who are more knowledgeable should look at the sources for a deeper understanding.




To understand what the Alter Rebbe meant we need to examine a few ideas presented in Rabbinic works. The first thing is a passage in the Zohar that reveals to us some very important ideas about souls:


Come and See: When a man is born he is given a pure animal soul[7] from the ‘Holy Wheels’.[8] If he has more merit he is given a soul[9] from the ‘Holy Animals’[10]. If he has more merit he is given a soul[11] from the Throne….[12]


This particular passage in the Zohar is discussed and explained in the Etz Chaim, Portal 50 chapter 2, which is mentioned in the passage from Tanya. However from the text, we now have a new problem. It appears that there are not just two souls, but many souls![13] However, this is a problem only if we look upon these distinctions as ones of quantity and not quality. In Chassidic works we see that it is an idea of quality. This is seen in a story of the Baal Shem Tov[14]:


I have heard from those who relate the truth that they heard from the Honorable Holy Rabbi, the Maggid, Yechiel Mechel of Zlotchov ZTzvK’L[15]. He related to them that when he came the first time to the Baal Shem Tov ZTzLH’H[16], he (the Baal Shem Tov) commanded that they give him honor. And he (the Baal Shem Tov) said they should know that this man (Rebbe Yechiel Mechel) is the son of the Holy Rabbi Yitzchok of Drovitch. “I tell you that the father of this man was given from Heaven the smallest of souls, such that there was almost no soul in that generation which was as insignificant as that one. But he raised it up to the level of the Tanna Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.” Until here I have heard.


We see from here that the same soul is considered as having been raised (qualitatively) as it goes from one level to the next and it is not considered as if something is added. We can compare this to a person’s knowledge. When a person is young he knows very little. As he learns and gains more information, his level of knowledge increases. Nothing of what he learned earlier is lost, but his level of knowledge has increased/expanded. That is the idea here with the soul. Through the learning of Torah and performance of the Mitzvos one’s soul ‘expands’ to higher levels of spirituality.[17] First to the level of Ruach, then Nashamah and then further. Likewise when the Alter Rebbe mentions the G-dly soul, it is an issue of quality and not quantity.




In any case, there seems to be a qualitative difference in the souls between a Jew and a non-Jew. This qualitative difference is one of how far the soul can rise. To understand why this is the case we need to examine a teaching that occurs in numerous places in the Talmud. It involves the question of actions done by someone who has been commanded to do them, as opposed to one who does the same actions when they are not commanded to do so.


The Talmud[18] relates that Rav Yosef[19] was considering whether we follow the view of Rabbi Yehudah that the commandments do not apply to one who is blind. Originally he considered it better if a blind person was not obligated because they could do the commandments even though not required and he felt the reward for such an action would be better. However he changed his mind when he heard the view of Rabbi Chaninah. Rabbi Chaninah taught[20] that “It is greater (i.e. the reward) for the one who is commanded and acts, then for the one who is not commanded and acts.”


Before mentioning two cases from the Talmud that applies this concept to non-Jews, let me relate an interesting story about the Rebbe Reb Bunim of Pershischa that exemplifies the point that I am trying to make here[21].


It was related to me from one of the talmidim when I was in Pershischa about the righteousness of the Rebbe[22] Z’L.


Once he was traveling to Danzig[23] and passed by the city of Sheps. There was a scholar there and his name was Rabbi Zalman Chasid and he was very poor. When the Rebbe got to the place he was staying he sent for Rabbi Zalman and he said to him that he should make a meal for him as was the custom of Chassidim, and he gave him a large amount of money for it. Immediately Rabbi Zalman went to his house. He purchased fish and fowl and everything that would be needed, in large quantities. And even with this a large amount of money was left over.


When Rabbi Zalman had left, the Rebbe ordered the servants at the guesthouse to bring to him a merchant of coats, and he purchased a fur coat for Rabbi Zalman. He also purchased shoes, socks and flax which he commanded that they use to make shirts from. He in this way purchased all means of clothes. When it came the time for the meal, he told the servant to wrap it all up and bring it to Rabbi Zalman. Then he went to the meal.


He commanded that they should take his wife and get her new clothes from head to toe for the winter. He saw that the children lacked proper clothes so he gave money that they should purchase for them material and bring it to the house and make for them clothes. There was great joy in the house. After eating he ordered them to buy liquor and also gave a large amount of money for that.


After the meal he went back to his guesthouse accompanied by Rabbi Zalman. When they were about to part from each other the Rebbe took a sum of money and gave it to Rabbi Zalman. Rabbi Zalman was very surprised and did not want to accept it. He said that he still had a large amount of money left over from the first time he had given him money. And also from the second time when he purchased the clothing.


The Rebbe answered him: The Torah says[24] “You shall surely give to him, and your heart shall not feel bad when you give to him.” There are many questions about this verse, but the simple meaning is that when you give to the poor man because you have compassion on him this is not charity at all. This is like a medicine for the heart because it cannot bear the suffering that this person has due to his compassion for him. For this reason one needs to give charity many times so that ones heart not feel bad, until he no longer has a need to feel compassion on the poor man who has received money. Then, after that, he is able to perform the mitzvah of giving charity. Now that I have given to you all this, my heart is no longer pained over your condition. I am now able to perform the mitzvah of giving charity in its proper manner as commanded in the Holy Torah. All that I exerted myself was in order that I should be able to reach this level. If you will not accept the money from me then all of what I did was for nothing.


Immediately when he heard this Rabbi Zalman accepted the money with a pleasant countenance. They separated from each other with many blessings and with friendship.


In Pershischa, performing any mitzvah that was not 100% for the sake of Heaven, i. e. just because HaShem commanded it, was seen as defective. This was extended even to the mitzvah of giving charity, which was even beyond what the Baal Shem Tov taught as it is related[25]:


I heard said in the name of the godly man Yisroel Baal Shem Tov whose soul is in heaven: Every mitzvah that a man does with any ulterior motive[26] would have been better for him had he not done it at all, except for charity. Because even if it is not done in the best manner, which is for the sake of heaven, in any case it is a positive command to sustain the poor.


Having in mind this idea of doing a commandment only because it was commanded as opposed to doing it for other reasons, we can now look at the passages in the Talmud where this idea is directly related to non-Jews:


They asked of Rabbi Eliezer how far must we go with regards to the honor of father and mother? (He answered) Go and see what one idolater did for his father in Ashkelon, and his name was Dema the son of Nesina. The sages asked of him that he should sell to them jewels for the breastplate of the High Priest for 60,000. Rav Kahana said that it was for 80,000. However the key (to the chest where the jewels were) was under the head of his father and he did not want to disturb him. The next year The Holy One, Blessed is He, gave him his reward as it was born to him among his flocks a red heifer. The sages of Israel went to him and he said to them, ‘I know that if I was to ask of you all the money in the world you would give it to me, however I only ask that you give me what I lost due to my honoring my father. On this Rabbi Chaninah said, if this is the case for one who is not commanded and acts[27] how much more is it for those who are commanded and act. This is as Rabbi Chaninah taught that “It is greater the one who is commanded and acts, then the one who is not commanded and acts.”[28]


In another passage[29] we see this idea in reference to a non-Jew learning those things in the Torah that relate[30] to the seven commandments that a non-Jew is required to fulfill.


We were taught, Rabbi Meir taught, from where do we learn that even an idolater who occupies himself with Torah (i.e. learns Torah) is considered like the High Priest? We learn this because it says, “that a man should do them and live from them.”[31] It does not say, ‘Kohanim, Leviim and Yisroelim[32], but ‘a man’. From this we learn that even an idolater who occupies himself with Torah is considered like the High Priest. However he does not receive the reward of one who is commanded and acts, but as one who is not commanded and acts; as Rabbi Chaninah taught that “It is greater the one who is commanded and acts, then the one who is not commanded and acts.”


From these teachings of the Rabbis it is clear that non-Jews who act righteously are rewarded. There is the famous teaching of the Rabbis: “The pious of the nations have a place in the world to come.”[33] Even clearer is the well known statement in the Midrash[34] “I bring heaven and earth as my witness[35], whether Jew or Gentile, whether man or woman, whether male or female slave, everything depends on the actions one does; so shall a spirit of Holiness rest on the person.”  So we see clearly that HaShem rewards the actions of a person, whether Jew or non-Jew, both physically and spiritually. [36]


However it still remains that there is a greater reward for those who are commanded (Jews) then those who are not (non-Jews). Why is it that one who is commanded has a greater reward and is considered spiritually higher then one who does the same thing but had not been commanded? This is answered by the MaHaRaL of Prague in his novella on the Aggadah.[37]


He gives two reasons. The first is the one traditionally understood that the one who is commanded has a harder time doing the act, as he must overcome his Yetzer HaRah[38], while the one not commanded does not have that problem.[39] However, he is not satisfied with this reason and gives a second reason:


The one who is commanded and acts does this because of the one who is greater then him who has commanded him, while the one who is not commanded does it on his own and not because HaShem desires it[40]  which is a much higher level because if the command is from HaShem that is higher. But if the person is not commanded and acts he is doing it by himself, it comes from him, and this is not on as high a level.


Elsewhere[41] he explains this with an analogy: If a human king commands his people to go to war or do something for him they will be rewarded because this was his command. But if he says that they can do it if they want, the reward he gives is not as much. The reason is that with the former they are doing what he explicitly has commanded, and the later was their own choice.


The point here is that when one is commanded by HaShem it is possible to do the act because HaShem has said to do it, while if it is not commanded, one is doing it for personal reasons. This is what the story of the Rebbe Reb Bunim teaches. He first acted from compassion, and so it was, in his mind as if he did not fulfill a commandment at all, because he was not doing it only because HaShem commanded it. Therefore he did the command over again, with the intention of doing it ONLY because it was commanded by HaShem.


It should be noted here that this status of a non-Jew is not a permanent thing. A non-Jew has a

‘glass ceiling’ as it were. But if they wish to gain greater spiritual benefits then they can and should convert, and this ‘glass ceiling’ goes away. The Rambam in Hilchos Melachim[42] states this idea when he says that if they wish to do more then the 7 mitzvos they should convert. That a convert gains these spiritual benefits is also indicated in Etz Chaim at the end of Portal 50 chapter 4.




With this we can now approach the issue of the non-Jewish souls being from the impure kelipot and the Jewish ones from kelipat nogah. The Alter Rebbe had assumed those reading his works were familiar with the passage, so he only brought a part of it. Here it is in full from Portal 49 chapter 3:


The souls of the gentiles are from the three klipos, wind, cloud and fire, which are completely bad; likewise

 the impure domestic and wild animals and birds. However the animal soul of the Jew, and the souls of the animals from the pure domestic and wild animals and birds are all from ‘nogah’.


To understand this we need to consider the difference between the pure and impure animals. While we could simply say that one may be eaten and the other not, this is not totally correct.


First, the impure animals may be eaten under certain conditions. For example, if one needs them for a medicine, or if they get mixed together with permitted foods in a proportion where they are considered nullified.


Likewise, the pure animals are not always allowed. In order to eat them one needs to perform certain acts. Kosher slaughter, is required, and preparation of the meat. Also making the proper blessing over the food before eating it. However under those conditions when the impure is allowed to be eaten, this is required[43]. From this we see the difference is that in one case, for the pure things, one needs to perform some acts to make the eating permissible, but not for the other.


This has a direct relationship to the idea of klipos nogah. This idea of klipos nogah involves the mixture of the good and bad where the ‘good’ needs to be separated from the ‘bad’ and elevated. How are they separated? By performing mitzvos with them, or in some way related to them. How is the ‘good’ separated from the ‘bad’ in the pure animals? By proper slaughter and preparation according to the halacha, and then by making the proper blessing.


This separation of the ‘good’ is sometimes referred to as elevating the klipos. This occurs only with things that are associated with Mitzvos. Those that are not associated cannot be ‘elevated’. The three klipos are associated with things that are outside of the commandments, while the klipos nogah are with those things for which the commandments apply and are needed for them to be purified or elevated. This is the same idea of the difference between the Jew and non-Jew. A Jew is under the obligation of the commandments, while a non-Jew is not.


To summarize what we have seen until here: A Jew by definition is obligated in the commandments and as such can achieve a higher level of spirituality from performing the commandments. A non-Jew can also gain reward, but unless that non-Jew converts according to Jewish law and has taken on the commandments as an obligation, they will get rewards, both spiritual and physical, but not as much as they could have gained had they been a Jew. In Kabbalistic terms this distinction is reflected in the soul being bound to either the klipos nogah or to the other three klipos.




Finally we need to understand what the Alter Rebbe tried to teach us when he stated: “So the Gemara comments on the verse, "The kindness of the nations is sin," that all the charity and kindness done by the nations of the world is only for their own self-glorification, and so on.”


The first point that needs to be made on this is that there are two words where the translation gives an impression that can be misleading.


The first is the word ‘sin’ in the translation of the verse in Proverbs. The word there is Chatos, and there are three meanings that it could take, as we see from the discussion that appears in the talmud there.[44]


One meaning is that Chatos means a sin sacrifice, which is the view of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai who says that the charity and acts of kindness of the nations are considered as if they had brought a sin sacrifice, i.e. it effects atonement for them.


The second is that it literally means ‘sin’ and a few Rabbis explain why that is the case.


However there is a third meaning, that is the meaning ascribed to the Vilna Gaon[45] that it means something ‘deficient’. We shall see that this is the meaning that best fits for the teaching of Rabban Gamliel that the Alter Rebbe has quoted.


The second point is that ‘self-gratification’ is a poor translation for the Hebrew word ‘l’yisyahaar. This word is closely related to another word: yohorah which will be discussed below. But the word ‘self-interest’ would probably be a better translation in this case.


The simple meaning of this passage of the Gemara is explained by the MaHaRaL[46]:


Rabban Gamliel holds that they (the nations) do it completely because of yohorah and not l’Shem Shamayim.


What does this mean? The MaHaRaL is here contrasting two ways of performing the mitzvos: yohorah and shem Shamayim. The later means that one does the act purely for the sake of HaShem, because He commanded it. This is what we saw above in the story of the Rebbe Reb Bunim. It is an action done without any ulterior motive at all. This is contrasted with yohorah. I have seen ‘yohorah’ translated as ‘assumption’[47], in the sense of someone acting in a way that appears to others as if he is acting above his level of observance. For example, in the Shulchan Aruch[48] we learn that there is a difference of opinion as to the order of the parshos in the tephilin. There it says that one who is G-d fearing should follow both views, and the custom among Chassidim is to have two pairs because of that. However it states there that one should only do that if one is known for his piety. Someone from a community where they do not wear two pairs who does so openly[49] is called ‘yohorah’ even though it is a meritorious act on its own. This is because it gives the appearance that one is more observant or pious then they are. He is acting beyond the norms for who he is.


This has a clear relationship to the issue of non-Jews and keeping commandments that they are not commanded to do. Since they have not been commanded to do the act, they cannot do the act l’shem Shamayim. There is some other reason for it based on their innate character. Rabban Gamliel is here saying that the non-Jews who perform acts of charity are not able to do it as a mitzvah, and hence are doing it for other reasons. Their performance is therefore deficient. In any case they are acting in a way above what they are required to do, and that is the point here, as the MaHaRaL is indicating. Even though the act is an honorable one done from noble intentions it is deficient as it cannot be done as a command of HaShem




From the ideas presented above we can understand many other issues that relate to non-Jews that sometimes seem difficult to understand. For example there is a famous question about an apparent contradiction from Rabbinic teachings.[50] In the Midrash[51] commenting on the priestly blessing[52] it states:


If he does tshuva (repents) He lifts his face to him (shows him favor). We would think that this applies to all, so the verse says ‘to you’ (i.e. Israel) and not to another nations.


Here we see that the Midrash indicates that non-Jews repentance is not accepted. But as is pointed out the book of Yonah gives a clear example of non-Jews repenting, and Rabbinic sources quote this as a perfect example of how HaShem accepts repentance.


However this is the same as the story of in the Talmud of Dema the son of Nesina. It is an issue of being commanded and not being commanded. A Jew has a special command to repent while a non-Jew does not. Therefore the repentance of the non-Jew is accepted, as would be the case for a Jew, but there is a spiritual benefit that the Jew has more then the non-Jew because by repenting he is also performing a commandment of HaShem.




To conclude, Judaism recognizes a clear distinction as to the level of spirituality that a Jew can achieve as opposed to a non-Jew (unless they convert). But, unlike any other religion that I am aware of, Judaism asserts that HaShem rewards all for what they do, even the non-Jew, in both physical and spiritual ways. These ideas are explained in Kabbalistic and Chassidic works in reference to different levels of souls and the sources of those souls.



© Moshe Shulman 2012

For more information, questions answered, or help with missionaries you can reach Moshe Shulman at


[1]  The word ‘derech’ refers to the way one serves HaShem. Those things that one places more emphasis on and those less.

[2]  Isaiah 57:16

[3]  Leviticus 17:11

[4]  Bava Basra 10b

[5]  Proverbs 14:34

[6]  Genesis 2:7

[7]  Heb. Nefesh

[8]  Heb. Ofanei HaKodesh, which is a reference to the Holy Chariot that the prophet Ezekiel saw.

[9]  Heb. Ruach

[10]  Heb. Chayos HaKodesh, which is a reference to the Holy Chariot that the prophet Ezekiel saw.

[11]  Heb. Nashamah

[12]  Zohar II 94b. The passage continues and describes many more levels of souls given to those who merit it.

[13]  This passage continues and expounds on a number of levels higher then the three mentioned here.

[14]  Agrah d’Pirka from Rebbe Tzvi Elimeilech of Dinov #29.

[15]  Heb. Zachir tzaddik v’kadosh l’varacha: The memory of a righteous and holy man is a blessing.

[16]  Heb. Zachir tzaddik l’chai HaOlam HaBah: The memory of the righteous is life in the world to come.

[17]  This is explicit in Etz Chaim Portal 50 chapter 3. See also the classical Chassidic work, M’Or v’Shemash parshas Yisro in the paragraph starting with the words: ‘Also in the Midrash mentioned above “I am HaShem your G-d”’

[18]  This is Bava Kamma 87a, but the idea appears in a number of places besides this, two of which involve gentiles and will be discussed here also.

[19]  Who was blind

[20]  And this is the accepted view.

[21]  Remosim Tzifim on Tanna d’bei Eliyahu #74

[22]  The Rebbe Reb Bunim of Pershischa.

[23]  Before the Rebbe Reb Bunim became a Rebbe he was a businessman in lumber and traveled often to Danzig.

[24]  Deuteronomy 15:10

[25]  Sefer Turi Zahav by Rebbe Binyamin of Zalzitz, a talmud from the Ball Shem Tov and his talmidim, parshas Reah, on verse 15:10.

[26]  i.e. not totally for HaShem’s sake.

[27]  The command is part of the Torah commandments for the Jewish people but not included as part of the 7 commandments for the non-Jews.

[28]  Kiddushin 31a

[29]  Avodah Zara 3a

[30]  See Tosephus there.

[31]  Leviticus 18:5

[32]  These are the three groups that make up the Jewish people.

[33]  Toseftah Sanhedrin 13 as stated in the Rambam, Mishnah Torah, Hilchos Tshuvah chapter 3 halacha 5

[34]  Tannah D’Bei Rebbe Eliyahu beginning of chapter 9.

[35]  This is a possible allusion to what Moshe said in Deuteronomy 30:19.

[36]  I know of no religion outside of Judaism which makes a similar claim for those who are non adherents to that religion.

[37]  This is on the passage in Kiddushin 31a.

[38]  Literally ‘evil inclination’.

[39]  This view appears in the Tosephus on the passage from Avodah Zara 3a mentioned above

[40]  Since HaShem does not command it we see that he does not desire it, even though he will reward it if it is done.

[41]  On his commentary on Avodah Zara 3a.

[42]  Chapter 10 Halacha 9

[43]  Except that under certain conditions a blessing would be required.

[44]  Bava Basra 10b

[45]  Quoted in the Artscroll commentary on Proverbs Volume 1 page 265.

[46]  From his novella on the Aggados. This one from Bava Basra 10b.

[47]  Dictionary of Marcus Jastrow.

[48]  Aruch Chaim 34:1-3

[49]  There are a number of cases of  Rabbis from such communities doing this privately to avoid ‘yohorah’.

[50]  This appears a number of times in the classical work Bnei Yissuschar by Rebbe Tzvi Elemeilech of Dinov.

[51]  Midrash Tanchuma parshas Haazini #4.

[52]  Numbers 6:26