Ruach & Being Prayed By The Whole Breath of Life: Judaism

…Continuing in my themed posts inspired by the phrase: “The Infinite Breathes Me”, here is a Jewish perspective, an article by Rabbi Waskow where he talks of being prayed by the whole breath of life, and YHWH as breath being a profound metaphor and theology of God. Stephanie.

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

For millennia, the Jewish convention has been to non-pronounce “YHWH” by saying instead, Adonai, “Lord.”  This fits with naming God as Melekh ha’olam, King or Ruler of the universe. Sometimes people (usually from other religious communities or influenced by academic teaching) try to pronounce the four-letter Name by adding vowels, so it becomes “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.” But what if we broke the rule and “pronounced” that Name with no vowels?

I have invited hundreds of people to experiment this way, and for almost everyone, what happens is a breath, or the sound of wind. Spiritus in Latin is “breath” and “wind.”  In Hebrew, Ruach=breath=wind=spirit. “Spirituality” is what celebrates the interbreathing that connects all life. (What we breathe in is what the trees breathe out; what the trees breathe in is what we breathe out.)

So we might begin our blessings, “Baruch attah [or Brucha aht] Yahhhhh elohenu ruach ha’olam”—“Blessed are You, our God, the Breathing Spirit of the world.”

For me, YHWH as Breath of Life is not just a neat understanding of the four-letter Name, but a profound metaphor and theology of God. God as the Breath of Life, in-and-out- breath, that which unites all life, that which is beyond us and within us.

Words are physical breathing shaped by our intellectual consciousness into emotional communication. Using words is one of the crucial aspects of being human (not absolutely unique to us, but by far best-developed among us).

So for me, what we do when we pray or study Torah or share words of compassion is breathe our selves into the Breath of Life. We shape one major aspect of what makes us human, and part of the Breath of Life, into a conscious weaving of our breaths into the breath of life.

So also when we consciously do lashon tov (speaking good).

What makes prayer distinctive, different from lashon tov or limmud (learning) Torah? (By “Torah” I mean all words that aim toward wisdom; torah [from the Hebrew vocabulary of archery, as in the word chet] means “aiming the arrow.” The process, not the aimer or the bull’s eye.)

What makes prayer distinctive is that we are not only using our breath to join the Breath, but in the very same breath are using our breath to praise the Breath.

So prayer is certainly aimed partly at our own breathing selves, as part of the Breath of Life. It is also aimed at all that breathes, kol nishmat chayyim, the breath YHWH blew into the adamah to make it adam. Even beyond that, prayer is aimed at what unites each separate breath into a unity of breathing, a con-spiracy of life. The process by which what we breathe out the trees breathe in; what the trees breathe out we breathe in.

Prayer is this at the physical (Asiyah) level, because it requires breathing; and it also affirms this in a cognitive (Briyyah) way, since its content is about the holiness of the Breath of Life; and at least communal prayer embodies this at the relational level (Yetzirah).

And there is a mode of prayer in which one opens one’s self to being prayed by the whole Breath of Life, within, among, and beyond—and that’s the Atzilut level of prayer. (Ideally, that is what the Amidah is supposed to be.)

With blessings of deep breathing, and restful time to catch your breath.

Breath Rabbi


Rabbi Arthur Waskow is recognized as one of the leading thinkers of the Jewish renewal movement. He has been at the forefront of creating Jewish renewal theory, practice and institutions. He founded and directs The Shalom Center, and is a Pathfinder of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, an international network. He is founder and editor of the journal New Menorah, and helped found the Fabrangen Cheder and the National Havurah Committee. His books include Godwrestling—Round 2: Ancient Wisdom, Future Paths, which was named “Best Religion Book of the Year”; Torah of the Earth, Volume 1: Exploring 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought—Biblical Israel & Rabbinic Judaism and Torah of the Earth, Volume 2: Exploring 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought—Zionism & Eco-Judaism; and the forthcoming Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness across Millennia (all Jewish Lights).

Breath of Life