The idea of both nature and the human psyche being rooted in the 4 elements of fire, water, air, and earth is something you hear about from time to time because it was very popular among ancient Greek philosophers.
Later, I realized that ancient Jewish Sages also discussed the 4 elements, but I never paid much attention until reading Ahavat Kedumim (A Commentary on The Lost Princess) by Rav Ofer Erez.
That was around 2 years ago.
There, Rav Erez presents a brief discussion of the 4 elements as they relate to the human psyche and how to use that knowledge for middot work.
That's when I realized this was a big thing in Judaism.
This realization was strengthened upon encountering Rav Itamar Schwartz's writings of the Bilvavi organization. Rav Schwartz leans heavily toward using the 4 elements as a tool to do teshuvah and rectify one's soul at the deepest level.
Also, Rav Schwartz provides a list of where the 4 elements are rooted in Jewish sources: Torah Sources of the 4 Elements (Hebrew Only).
It's important to note that even if a Torah book was only printed later, most of its sources are rooted in even more ancient sources that were either transmitted orally or written down in a book that got lost over the millennia.
(For example, some authoritative sources state that Avraham Avinu wrote several books, yet only one is said to be in existence today, but we no longer have the rest of them. Please see HERE for mention of that.)
Also, in Hebrew, the 4 elements are often referred to in various sources as the 4 yesodot — but also the 4 yesodin, the 4 teva'im, or the 4 gufim, and maybe other terms.
If you look on page 3, section bet/2 of the above-linked pamphlet of sources, you'll see that Sefer Yetzirah Perek 3: Mishna 3 mentions the 3 amot (air, water, fire), stating that the heavens were initially created from fire, and the land (earth) was created from water, and that air is a type of defining buffer between the fire and the water.
The Torah Sources PDF explains other things about it too.
What Do the 4 Elements Represent?
Also, most people generally label the 4 elements as:
But Rav Schwartz uses the term "wind" (ruach) in place of "air." Ruach also means "spirit."
This makes good sense because "wind" captures the constant movement that element represents in a personality.
Two definitions of each element exist in traditional Jewish sources:
Early Sources in Chazal:
Rav Chaim Vital:
- Fire—conceit & anger
- Wind—excessive chatter
- Water—the pursuit of pleasure
Some of the definitions sound negative, but Rav Schwartz notes that there is also atzlanut d'kedushah (a holy side of laziness). Additionally, destructiveness can be used positively, like to destroy evil, including the evil middot within a person.
According to Rav Schwartz, our goals are:
- to use these elements for the good
- to balance the elements within ourselves
Using each of these elements for good purposes is clear enough, and a well-known concept within Judaism (using all middot for the good).
Will Balancing Our Inner Elements Make Us All Clones? (No.)
For example, different personalities overwhelmed by their fire element aren't clones.
Sure, there exist the battle-thirsty warriors who relish the physical destruction of their enemies (or whoever they THINK are their enemies).
History focuses on these fiery warriors who burned, plundered, and slaughtered their way through life—changing borders, societies, dynasties, and destinies.
On the other hand, artistic personalities overwhelmed by their fire element burn through relationships, are prone to emotional outbursts, can't seem to avoid tremendous emotional drama, and live lives full of emotional adventure (often accompanied by physical adventure, but not always).
Fire-filled sticklers-for-rules enact & uphold iron-clad frameworks. They also hunt down rule-breakers—with severe consequences for their quarry. Such people may manifest as parents, teachers, policemen, or politicians who, unlike their warring or artistic counterparts, often love uniforms & conformity.
The fiery artist may be a flaming liberal while the fiery stickler may be a flaming conservative.
If over-fired individuals balance their fire with the other elements, they still maintain their individuality, but channel their unique personality in a much healthier manner.
Furthermore, the 4-Elements system progresses with increasing complexity.
For example, maybe you realize your most dominant element is Fire.
But maybe your next most dominant element is Wind.
So you end up being a Wind-of-Fire.
If your next dominant element is Water, then you end up with a Water-of-Wind-of-Fire personality.
Interestingly, you can also have a "doubled" element, like being Earth-of-Earth-of-Fire.
I'm not sure exactly how...yet. Still working on it.
(You can see why I'm finding it complex. Invaluable, but complex.)
To see an example of the above idea, please read this:
Fixing Your Fire (Conceit)—Stable Growth
I admit I'm still getting used to the idea of balancing the elements—rather than only channeling a person's main element for the good, which is what other personality systems do.
But reading Rav Schwartz's material on the subject shows that we need to:
- balance the elements of our personality
- use each element for the good.
That provides invaluable help in doing teshuvah.
But to do this, you need to work out the elemental proportions of your particular personality.
And how can you figure out your personal composition of these 4 elements?
Figuring Out Your Individual Composition
This works, and even as he acknowledges the challenge of doing so, Rav Schwartz reassures us that's possible to figure ourselves out this way.
(Not to mention, the struggle to understand often contributes to the refining teshuvah process.)
For some of you, your composition might be very clear.
But for others? It's a head-scratching exercise.
For example, differentiating between Fire & Wind can prove challenging.
Differentiating between Water & Wind can also prove challenging.
Or differentiating between aspects of Water & Earth can prove challenging.
For example, Rav Schwartz says that depression emanates from either Water or Earth:
- Depression from the Water element derives from a lack of vitality in life.
- Depression from the Earth element derives from not wanting to exist at all.
See? Same emotional state, but 2 different (albeit similar) reasons.
Then Rivka Levy published a book on the 4 Elements personality system and included a 40-question quiz to help people figure out their composition.
(I think you can access the quiz HERE.)
In Rav Ofer Erez's book on the deeper meanings of Rebbe Nachman's The Lost Princess, Ahavat Kedumim, he works it out the following way:
Root: Arrogance & anger
Positive expression: "Tov l'hodot l'Hashem — It's good to thank Hashem."
- Bitachon (trust in God)
- Seeing the good in everything
- Being happy with what one has
- Investing spiritual efforts with enthusiasm
- Wisdom combined with healthy logic
- Interpreting reality correctly
Root: Corrupted speech
Positive expression: "V'amcha kulam tzaddikim — And Your Nation is comprised entirely of righteous people."
- Giving the benefit of the doubt
- Accepting others as they really are
- Precision (diyuk; I think this means avoiding statements of exaggeration and melodrama)
- Minimizing the amount of talking one engages in
- Holy speech for the sake of Am Yisrael
- The power of tefillah
- The power of private discussions with Hashem (hitbodedut)
- Wisdom emanating from a higher awareness that arrives on its own
Root: Earthly pleasures & envy
Positive expression: "Lev basar — a heart of flesh," "Lev tahor bara li Elokim — "O Lord, create within me a pure heart."
- Giving of oneself
- Doing things for others
- Being satisfied with little
- Spiritual pleasure
- Love of learning
- The ability to delve deeply into practical knowledge
- Taking an interest in all subject matters
Root: Indolence, laziness, heaviness
Positive expression: "L'hiot b'simcha tamid — to always be in a state of joy."
- Yielding (vatranut)
- The ability to rejoice
- The ability to become healed
- The ability to recover good health
- The ability to cause others to blossom
- The ability to revitalize others
- Alacrity in both practical and spiritual matters
- Emotional intelligence
- A high level of psychological wisdom
- Awareness of others' psychological state
Another insight offered by Rav Schwartz is how each element responds to an enemy:
- Fire wants to destroy the enemy.
- Wind wants to whoosh away the enemy or whoosh itself out of the interaction.
- Water wants to give something to the enemy to make peace.
- Earth wants to sit down & work out the issue.
You identify your FIRST response to a FIRST encounter with an "enemy."
For example, while a predominantly Water personality might wish to proffer a peace-offering, continued negative encounters with the same enemy might cause the Fire element to flame up as a desire to destroy the same enemy with whom the Water initially wished to appease & nurture.
But the predominance of Water is demonstrated by the person's INITIAL response.
Needless to say, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
A lot more information to help you figure out your elements (and how to both balance them & use them for the good) lies in Getting to Know Your Soul and the Bilvavi website. (This links to their recently created English-only website. It's a beautiful & smooth interface, a real pleasure to navigate. They still have English articles on their Hebrew website, but it's a lovelier experience to visit their English-only website.)
Understanding Your Middos (a PDF booklet of the 4 Elements personality system by Rav Itamar Schwartz)
Fixing Your Middos (the 1st article in a series, you can just keep pressing on "next" to go through the whole series)
Torah Sources of the 4 Elements (Hebrew only)
Rav Schwartz's English PDF ebooks
Rav Schwartz's English books in print
Rav Itamar Schwartz on: How Self-Awareness Leads to Love, How Inner Unity Leads to National Unity, the Quandary of Sensitive People, and a Simple 2-Word Meditation Exercise (a Myrtle Rising post)
Using the 4 Elements for Self-Awareness & Self-Improvement (a Myrtle Rising discussion of Rav Ofer Erez's book)
Here are Rav Schwartz's PDF booklets for special focus:
Fixing Your Fire
Fixing Your Wind
Fixing Your Water
Fixing Your Earth