Robert J. Foley of Wilmington, N.C., sends me a copy of an open letter written by author and rabbi Rami Shapiro to Pope Francis. In it, Rabbi Shapiro hopes that “ruach ha-kodesh, the Holy Spirit, has called a new pope from the new world to lead the Catholic Church,” and Mr. Foley writes:
“Rabbi Shapiro… is alluding to an expression often used by the conclave of cardinals [which chose the new pope], to the effect that the Holy Spirit will guide them in their deliberations. In my cursory look at the meanings and interpretations of the Hebrew words ruach ha-kodesh, I was indeed struck by some of the similarities between them and the concept of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity. In forming this concept, to what extent do you think the early Christian writers and Church Fathers might have been influenced by Judaism?”
They were influenced by it a great deal. Although neither biblical nor rabbinic Judaism has anything like the Christian Trinity in its thinking about God, there can be no doubt that the ru’aḥ ha-kodesh (literally, “spirit of holiness”) of the Bible and rabbinic literature was the direct antecedent of the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit — or, as it was more commonly known in the English-speaking Catholic Church until recent times, the Holy Ghost. (“Ghost” is an Old English word for “spirit,” just as “a spirit” is a now archaic way of denoting a ghost. A ghost is nothing but a disembodied spirit, and the expression “to give up the ghost,” which has survived from medieval times, refers to the body’s sundering from the spirit at the time of death.)
In Hebrew, starting with the Bible and continuing to this day, ru’aḥ has the two meanings of “spirit” and “wind.” Historically, wind is clearly the older of the two, spirit being derived from it by analogy: As the wind, that is, is invisible but has the power to move visible things, so the spirit is conceived of as that unseen force in human beings or the world — the breath of life, as it were — that activates all that can be seen.
The linking of wind, breath and spirit is widespread in many languages. Thus we have English ghost and gust, as well as breath and breeze; Greek pneuma — air (think of pneumatic), wind, spirit; Latin spiritus — breath (think of respiration, inspiration, expiration), spirit; Polish duch — spirit, and dech — breath, etc.