The Guf (Body) and the Neshama (Soul)
The starting point with the topic of gilgul is to understand the relationship between the guf (body) and the neshama (soul). The essence of a human being is really the spiritual component which we refer to as the soul; the body is simply its physical clothing. The fact that they are able to stay connected is remarkable. The Rema (Orach Chaim 6:1) explained that this is the pli’ah (wonder) which is being referred to in the bracha (blessing) of Asher Yatzar. (Mishnat HaGilgulim, pg. 371).
Rav Dessler expressed this centrality of the soul to a person very succinctly: “Ratzon ha’adam hu mahuto — The will and desire of a person is his essence.” He wrote that even the death of the body doesn’t change this essential inner quality of a person. For example, one whose life was empty and attached to illusions will remained attached to these very same illusions even when he has separated from his physical body. Based on a Gemara in Brachot discussing the soul of a woman who had died but was still very interested in what was happening in the world, we see that the feeling [and desire for] honor remained within her exactly as it had been in Olam Hazeh (this world). (Michtav M’Eliyahu, Chelek Bet, Yamim Nora’im, pg. 62).
The Nature of the Soul
The soul has five different aspects. Their order from bottom to top is: Nefesh, Ruach, Neshama, Chaya, and Yechida — although, even within a single one of these aspects, there are countless additional levels. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 1).
When a person is created for the first time, his nefesh enters him to facilitate his bodily functions working properly. If his actions are appropriate, his ruach will enter him after he becomes 13 years old. And if his actions continue to be good, his neshama will then enter him when he turns 20. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 2) Although most people barely acquire the lower level of nefesh, the potential exists for a person to access all three levels of the soul. One will continue to reincarnate until he does, or history runs out of time. As the Gemara (Sanhedrin 98a) states, there is a final time for the arrival of Mashiach. (Rabbi Winston, Fundamentals of Reincarnation, pg. 59).
A person who has acquired the level of ruach is one for whom speech is sacred. This person will not have much difficulty in abstaining from base actions. His struggle will rather be to perfect the way he speaks, avoiding transgressions such as negative speech about others. Or, it might be to daven (pray) better. The level up from ruach is neshama, which corresponds to the level of machshava, or conscious thought. This means to think before one acts or speaks, and to have self-awareness. (Rabbi Winston, Fundamentals of Reincarnation, pg. 52).
The nefesh, ruach, and neshama of a person all contain 613 parts (what are referred to as 248 “limbs” and 365 “tendons”). The souls can actually divide into an unlimited number of roots, which can each contain unlimited numbers of sparks. Whichever sparks were not rectified within one gilgul will return in a future gilgul to become rectified, while those which were already rectified will not need to reincarnate. Rather they will ascend and remain on the level befitting them. Therefore, they will no longer be able to become blemished in any way by future gilgulim. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 14, 21).
Once one has rectified all three aspects of nefesh, ruach, and neshama, he will be considered to be an adam shaleim (complete person). He will no longer need to reincarnate for his own sake. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 2) There are cases, however, where he may need to reincarnate for the sake of others. (Rabbi Winston, Fundamentals of Reincarnation).
It is generally impossible for a regular gilgul (i.e., past one’s initial creation) to acquire a nefesh, then a ruach, and finally a neshamah, all in the same lifetime. Aside from a special procedure, which is beyond our ability today, once one has completely rectified his nefesh, he will be able to receive and rectify his ruach only once he has died and returned in a new gilgul. And he will need to die and return once again, in yet another gilgul, to be able to receive and rectify his neshama. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 7).
Rav Chaim Vital explains that this is a remarkable explanation for why some completely righteous people die young. Since they completely rectified their nefesh after only a few years, but were unable to receive and rectify their ruach within that very same lifetime, they ended up dying early. Their nefesh had no need to be detained in this world, and their death is what actually allowed, first their ruach, and then their neshama, to be rectified through their subsequent gilgulim. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 7).
All of this is in the case of a regular gilgul. If, however, the gilgul comes through the process of yibum, where a brother-in-law marries his former sister-in-law following the death of his brother, it seems that all three, the nefesh, ruach, and neshamah, or at least the nefesh and ruach will be able to be rectified together within the same lifetime. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 3).
While new aveirot during subsequent gilgulim can not damage those aspects of the soul which were already rectified, they will increase what needs to be repaired within whichever section of the soul one is currently trying to repair. This could ultimately require many more gilgulim until one is able to achieve a complete tikun. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 11).
The chet of Adam in Gan Eden damaged most of the sparks of his soul. The goal of the later generations is to rectify them.
The next step with understanding gilgul is to recognize what happened with Adam HaRishon (the first man). The soul of Adam HaRishon, prior to the chet of the Eitz HaDa’at Tov v’Ra, (tree of the knowledge of good and evil) incorporated all the souls that have ever come into the world, and which will continue to do so, until the time of Mashiach. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 12) As a consequence of this chet, all of these souls became “blemished.” It is this chet and blemish which created the need for rectification, and therefore, reincarnation. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 3).
When Adam violated the Divine command against eating, not only did he not perfect Creation, he damaged much of it. (Drushei Olam HaTohu, Chelek 1, Ma’amar HaKlali, Os 4) He also damaged most of the nitzotzot (sparks) of his soul, causing them to become mixed with the klippot (literally translated as “peels” — the spiritual barriers between us and Hashem). In every generation, some of these sparks leave and come to this world to become rectified through gilgulim. Mashiach will come only once this process of tikun is finished. (Avoda Zara 5a; Rabbi Winston, Fundamentals of Reincarnation, pg. 57).
Various Details of Gilgulim: Techiat HaMeitim, Kareit, Tzadik vs. Rasha
A commonly asked question about gilgulim is — Which of the many bodies that the soul inhabited, in its various gilgulim, is the one that it will be resurrected with at the end of history, during Techiat HaMeitim (the resurrection of the dead)? The answer is that every body will be resurrected with whichever sparks it was able to repair, unless the gilgul of one particular body did the type of aveirah which is so terrible that it would actually block the soul from resurrecting. And in the case of yibum, specifically, virtually all of the accomplishment of the soul will be considered to have occurred from the point of the yibum and onward. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 4; Mishnat HaGilgulim, pp. 386–7).
As an example, a first body will resurrect with the 40 percent of the nefesh that was rectified in its lifetime, a second body (and first gilgul) with the 40 percent rectified in it, while a third body (and second gilgul) will receive the remaining 20 percent which it rectified. Therefore, during the time of resurrection (Techiat HaMeitim), many bodies will coexist while possessing sections of the same original soul. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 4).
What happens to a person who commits a transgression for which the punishment is kareit, meaning to be cut off from the Jewish people?
According to Sha’ar HaGilgulim (chap. 11), kareit does not affect the soul as much as it does the body. The body will be completely destroyed in such a case, while the soul will reincarnate into a new body, with which it will be associated during Techiat HaMeitim. It will, however, have a diminished degree of pleasure there since it will be aware that it is not in its own natural place. (Rabbi Winston, Fundamentals of Reincarnation).
Differences between the gilgulim of a Tzadik and a Rasha
A rasha (evil person) is given only three gilgulim (i.e., four different lifetimes) to rectify his nefesh. If he has not accomplished rectification by the third gilgul, he will be cut off completely. A tzadik (righteous person), however, can have a thousand gilgulim to rectify his nefesh. What is the essential quality which separates a tzadik from a rasha in terms of gilgulim? The one who did no rectification at all is called evil, while the one that even began to rectify his nefesh is called righteous. Therefore, as long as one began this process of rectification, even a small amount, he will not be cut off. Rather he will be able to continue for even a thousand gilgulim, if necessary. It seems that this is only relevant for the rectification of the nefesh. When it comes to the ruach and the neshama, which come from a much more elevated place, the person will certainly be given as many gilgulim as he will need to rectify them. (Ramak; Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 4; Mishnat HaGilgulim, pp. 383–5).
One who does not complete his rectification during one gilgul will need to return in another gilgul, even if he is only missing something small. All of the benefit of the Torah he learns and the mitzvot which he does in this new gilgul will then go to the previous body where he had accomplished the majority of what he needed to do. And the completed nefesh will be resurrected with the body of that earlier gilgul. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 4).
One may return in a gilgul immediately after burial, and sometimes only after some or many years (Ramak). Gilgul can even occur after one has had some degree of purification in Gehenom. One will not, however, return in a gilgul once one has entered Gan Eden, unless it is for the sake of benefiting the entire generation. (Chessed l’Avraham; Mishnat HaGilgulim, pg. 374).
Ibur and Gilgul in Terms of Tzadik vs. Rasha
There is also a concept known as an ibur (embedded soul), in which the nefesh or ruach of someone that had passed away becomes implanted within a host person during the lifetime of this host. The ibur from this guest soul can have one of two goals:
- To benefit the host, to help to purify him and bring him to life in Olam Haba. If, however, this improvement doesn’t happen, then the ibur will eventually leave and return to the upper place. In this case, the guest nefeshwon’t feel any of the yissurim (difficulties) that the host is going through.
- To benefit the guest nefesh (ibur) itself. The guest nefesh will benefit from the help which it (the guest) is giving to the host with the mitzvot and tikun of the host. This ibur within the host will benefit when the host does mitzvot, but will not be harmed if the host transgresses. This ibur to help the guest nefesh will only happen from when the host is at least 13 years old and fully able to do mitzvot. This guest nefesh will feel the yissurim that occur to the guf of the host, exactly as much as the nefesh of the host person itself does. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 5).
An example of an ibur for the sake of the guest nefesh can be someone who never did the mitzvah of divorce, or a non-Kohen who was unable to perform the mitzvot unique to Kohanim. He can accomplish this through coming back as an ibur in someone about to undergo a divorce, or in a Kohen who is going to perform a Kohen-type mitzvah. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 11; Mishnat HaGilgulim, pg. 390).
While an ibur is able to both come and go during the lifetime of the host, it will sometimes remain within the host body for the rest of its life, as long as the host person maintains the level of merit that brought it in the first place. Should that be the case, there is an additional and remarkable benefit for the host soul that goes way beyond its life in this world.
Should a person merit to keep his ibur until he himself leaves this world, and the guest soul is destined for a higher level in Olam Haba than the host soul, this guest soul can actually elevate the host soul to its higher level. The host person will then find himself on a level in the World-to-Come he could never have hoped to achieve with his personal soul alone. (Rabbi Winston, Fundamentals of Reincarnation).
An ibur can actually be a great soul from the past. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 2) This is the sod (secret) of what the Sages have written in the medrashim, and specifically Medrash Shmuel: There is not a generation in which there is not someone like Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe, Shmuel, etc. An ibur can even occur, in some cases, while the one giving the ibur is still alive, as happened with David, who was an ibur within Yehonasan. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 2; Mishnat HaGilgulim, pg. 381).
Not only could an ibur for good have one of two possible goals — to rectify itself or to help to rectify the host person; the soul of a rasha could also become an ibur for one of two different reasons. It could be for the sake of the ibur, if the host person is a tzadik who will help to rectify this ibur soul of the rasha. Or it could actually be to negatively influence the host person, if the host is a rasha. In this case, the evil guest soul will reinforce the evil of the host, until this evil host person is destroyed from the world, G-d forbid. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 22; Mishnat HaGilgulim, pg. 383).
Another ibur case would be if one person caused a second one to do an aveirah. The one who actually did the transgression may need to return in a gilgul to rectify what he did, while the one who caused this aveirah will have to return as an ibur within him to help this rectification to occur. This would even be in a case where the one who caused the aveirah did not violate it himself. And once the aveirah is fixed, the ibur will then be able to leave him. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 11; Mishnat HaGilgulim, pg. 383).
It is actually possible for there to be as many as three different gilgulim (i.e., from the time of birth) or three separate iburim (i.e., during one’s lifetime) that enter a single host body, besides the nefesh of the host himself. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 32).
The Reality of Gilgul is Virtually Universal
There is almost no one in the world who can escape gilgulim, even great tzadikim and talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars). Since their lofty Torah will shield them from the fires of Gehenom, they will specifically need to reincarnate in this world to eliminate any aveirah they committed, as the verse (Kohelet 7:20) says: “For there is no tzadik in the world who does good but does not [ever] transgress.” (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 22).
Even a tzadik, who is ready to ascend to great heights in Olam Haba, may initially be given an onesh (penalty), either involving gilgulim or something in the upper realm, to keep him out of Gan Eden for a certain period of time. This will eliminate his more severe aveirot, after which time he may be able to make it into the first level of Olam Haba. Before he goes to a higher level, however, he may need to return to receive some additional onesh to eliminate aveirot that were lighter than the first ones.
And finally, he may be brought back for even more of an onesh for unfulfilled specific details of the mitzvot, after which time he can elevate to the true area fitting for him. He may, therefore, require many different gilgulim to atone for and to rectify all of his aveirot. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 22).
Resha’im (Evil People) Go Straight to Gehenom and Avoid Gilgulim
Paradoxically, it is actually the resha’im (evil people) that may end up avoiding gilgulim. They will enter Gehenom and receive their onesh there to atone for their aveirot, for a period of twelve months. One could, therefore, imagine that it is a better situation for the rasha, who can go straight to Gehenom and clear up all of his aveirot right away, than for the tzadik who may need to return to this world in many different gilgulim.
The resolution of this is that Hashem, Who is all-knowing, understands that if this rasha returns in gilgulim, he will likely add to his aveirot, and they will become more and more numerous than his mitzvot. Therefore, once the rasha has done the minimal number of mitzvot that he needs for a basic rectification of his nefesh, Hashem will remove him from the world and place him into Gehenom. This is a kindness, which will clear him of his aveirot while leaving his few mitzvot intact. For a tzadik, however, whose mitzvot are greater than his aveirot, his aveirot can be eliminated through yissurim during gilgulim, while his mitzvot will likely keep increasing. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 4).
Gilgul vs. Gehenom
The Reishit Chachma (Sha’ar HaYirah, chap. 13), in the name of his Rebbe, the Ramak, discussed the fundamental difference between the process of gilgul neshamot and the tikunim that can happen in Gehenom. He explained that if some mitzvot were never done properly, the soul will need to return to complete them. This requires gilgul, since Gehenom is only able to purify, not to fill in what is lacking. And even in terms of repair and purification, gilgul can accomplish much more than what can be purified in Gehenom.
As a mashal (analogy), imagine a person with terrible afflictions on his body which can either be healed through a long and difficult therapy, or much more quickly with an amputation. While gilgul may take an entire new lifetime or lifetimes, it does give the soul the possibility of a complete healing; Gehenom is much faster, but it heals the “afflictions” with a type of amputation.
The Reishit Chachma also wrote that a person may [spiritually] damage a limb to such a degree that, if he goes straight to Gehenom, he will end up losing it and remain crippled [eternally] in Gan Eden. He may, therefore, need to return to this world in a gilgul to repair the damage. This may, however, entail being crippled in this world in that very limb that had been [spiritually] damaged in his previous existence. (Sha’ar HaYirah, chap. 13; Ma’amad HaNosaf, pp. 163–4).
There are, however, some very wicked people who don’t even merit to enter Gehenom after their deaths to eliminate their aveirot. Their souls will, therefore, need to go from one bad place to another in strange gilgulim until their aveirot have been partially rectified, so they can then enter Gehenom for twelve months to atone completely. There is no set time for this. Sometimes these gilgulim (prior to Gehenom) can continue for 20 years, or 100, or 1000 years, depending on the extent of the aveirot they initially did in this world. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 22).
Some of the souls of resha’im (evil people) who did not merit to enter Gehenom can occasionally enter the bodies of living people and speak about the torment they are enduring after having died, Rachmana litzlan (G-d should save us). This is called a dybuk (one that clings). After taking over the body of this living person, possibly as the result of an aveirah that this host person himself or herself committed, they usually require a talmid chacham (Torah scholar) to perform some type of a tikun (repair) on their behalf before they will completely leave the host body. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 22, 41).
Men vs. Women, Jews vs. Non-Jews with Gilgul
Rav Chaim Vital wrote in Sha’ar HaGilgulim (chap. 9) that the reality of gilgulim applies to men more commonly than to women. Women, who have no obligation to learn Torah, may be able to cleanse their transgressions in Gehenom, and will often have no need to reincarnate. Another factor for this gender difference is that women are exempt from most time-bound positive mitzvot. (Mishnat HaGilgulim, pg. 405).
Women will, however, return in gilgulim if they had not completed mitzvot which they were obligated to do, in order to marry their soul-mate, or through an ibur which could then become an actual gilgul. (Mishnat HaGilgulim, pp. 403–5). Some say that gilgulim are only for Jews. Others hold that even non-Jews could become gilgulim. And a third opinion is that non-Jews could sometimes become gilgulim, but only for a maximum of three times. Jews, on the other hand, have no limit to the number of their gilgulim as long as they are not evil. (Mishnat HaGilgulim, pp. 406–7).