Do Animals Have Souls?

It’s a frequently asked question, for Jews and Christians alike:

Do animals have souls?

The answer, according to the Torah, is unequivocally yes, with a small asterisk. 

What do we mean? 

It can be said with complete confidence and without any hesitation whatsoever that, in Jewish thought, animals have souls. 

In the Book of Genesis, both animals and human beings are referred to as “nefesh chayah,” as having a living soul. 

In Genesis 9—where we are given permission, as a concession, to eat meat—we are told that we cannot consume the blood of an animal. Why? Because, in Jewish thought, the blood contains the nefesh chayah

Affirmation that animals have souls also appears in the Book of Psalms, Chapter 150. There, we’re told, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” 

The Malbim—one of the most prominent and respected Orthodox rabbis of 19th Century Europe—addressed the issue squarely:
“Animals possess a soul and a certain spiritual superiority which in this respect make them similar to human beings, who possess intellect, and animals have the power of affecting their welfare and their food and they flee from pain and death.”

So why a small asterisk? 

The Jewish view of the soul is complicated. In Jewish thought, there are as many as five separate words for soul, all of which have different attributes. 

Are all five—nefesh, ruach, neshama, chaya, and yechida—considered characteristics of animals? Beyond nefesh and ruach, generally not. 

To sum up, animals certainly have souls, in Jewish thought. But human souls have additional attributes.

Perhaps more important is the second part of the Malbim’s statement: Animals flee pain and death. 

This is why the Torah instructed us, in Genesis 1:29, to eat plants, not animals.

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