The Gemara (Beitza 16b, Taanit 27b) cites the famous comment of Reish Lakish, “The Almighty gives a person an extra soul on Erev Shabbat, and it is removed from him when Shabbat departs.” The source for this concept of the “extra soul,” as the Gemara notes, is a verse in Parashat Ki-Tisa (31:17) which tells that on the seventh day, after creation, “shavat va-yinafash” – God “desisted and rested.” Reish Lakish interpreted the word “va-yinafash” as an allusion for “vay aveda nefesh” – “Oh, the soul has been lost.” The conventional understanding of this remark is that the word “va-yinafash” alludes to the loss of a soul which occurs each week with the conclusion of Shabbat, and thus this term introduces the concept of the “additional soul” received on Shabbat and then lost after Shabbat.
The Kotzker Rebbe, however, advanced a much different understanding of the Gemara’s comment, which results, in turn, in a much different understanding of the entire notion of a “neshama yeteira.” He explains that the lament for the departed soul described by the Gemara refers not to the loss of an extra soul received on Shabbat, but rather for the symbolic “loss” of the soul we already have. When Shabbat sets in, the Rebbe said, and we have the opportunity to pause from our normal weekday routine and reflect upon our lives, we bemoan the “loss” of our “soul” – the opportunities we had squandered during the week, the time which should have been utilized for lofty purposes but which we instead wasted. We cry, “Oh, the soul has been lost” not on Motza’ei Shabbat, but at the beginning on Shabbat, when we are able to step back and take stock of our lives. And this, the Kotzker Rebbe explains, is the meaning of the notion of the “extra soul” we receive on Shabbat. The opportunity for reflection, contemplation and introspection enables us to replace the “lost soul.” By recognizing the time and opportunities that we have wasted, we become capable of improving ourselves going forward and to use our time and talents properly in the future.
The Rebbe’s reading of the Gemara represents the diametric opposite of the conventional understanding of the “neshama yeteira.” This concept is generally understood as referring to a spiritual “charge” that God grants us on Shabbat, the enhanced ability to elevate ourselves and refine our characters and conduct. According to the Rebbe of Kotzk, however, the “neshama yeteira” is not something given to us, but rather something we have to work to build for ourselves. Shabbat forces us to step out of normal workweek routine, which should, in turn, motivate us to build a “new soul,” through sincere resolve and hard work. The occasion of Shabbat does not “magically” elevate us, but rather challenges us by forcing upon us the disquieting recognition of our shortcomings and of the work we need to invest to grow and improve.