This article originally appeared in Neshima.co and is shared here with permission.
Jewish Meditation consists of techniques like mindfulness, contemplation, and introspection, and has always played an integral part in Jewish spiritual tradition. The origins of Jewish meditative practices go back 2,000 years, to the time of the first Hasidim – the early generations of pious Jews. The Hasidic path focuses on loving-kindness (Hesed) and, like many other mystical traditions, looks for a connection with the Divine (Devekut). This path consists of elements such as ethical work on our middot (character traits) and various meditative practices that can bring us closer to God. Hitbodedut, one of the primary practices, can help us reconnect to our true selves, our Divine spark, so we may help make the world a better place.
What is Jewish Meditation
The English word “meditation” derives from the Latin meditari, meaning reflecting or contemplating. While meditation is often associated with eastern traditions, meditative practices exist in many spiritual traditions worldwide. While there are various definitions of meditation, one thing they all appear to have in common is the performance of a voluntary mental action aimed at changing our consciousness. Jewish Meditation aims at a closer connection with the Source of life (aka God); it consists mainly of elements like retiring from worldly matters, quieting the senses, and intense introspection. The verb most associated with meditation in Jewish tradition is lehitboded, meaning to retreat, to se
clude, or to self-isolate. Hitbodedut practice was primarily transmitted orally from master to student, but we can find much of the practice in various Jewish sources. There are two main types of Hitbodedut: inward (Hitbodedut Pnimit) and outward (Hitbodedut Hitzonit). Outward Hitbodedut refers to retreat or self-isolation in a quiet place, in order to calm the senses and allow for introspection. Inward Hitbodedut refers to the isolation of thoughts in order to reconnect with our true self, our Divine Source of life.
How to Practice Jewish Meditation
There are three primary meditative practices in Jewish tradition:
Shiviti – A mindfulness-based practice that brings awareness to the Divine Presence around us. Shiviti exists in many sources, from the ancient Talmud to the teachings of the Rambam (Moses Maimonides), the Ramban (Moses Nahmanides), and others.
Spoken Hitbodedut – Speaking with God, asking for His help reconnecting to our true selves, so that we can help make the world a better place. Some examples include the Hahkata Meditation and the famous Breslov Hitbodedut.
Contemplative Hitbodedut– Sometimes referred to as Hitbonenut (contemplation), an intense contemplation aimed at finding the Divine within us, and uniting with Him.
There are other, more advanced meditation techniques in Judaism. However, they involve deep mystical knowledge and experience that will not be discussed here.
The origins of Jewish Meditative Practices
The origins of Jewish meditative practices are associated with the first Hasidim, the early generations of pious Jews. According to Jewish tradition, they received mystical and meditative practices from the biblical prophets, and transmitted them to future generations. Quieting the Thoughts One of the oldest examples of a Hasidic meditative tradition is found in the Talmud, Berakhot, 30 b: "There is a tradition that the early generations of pious men would wait one hour in order to reach the solemn frame of mind appropriate for prayer, and then pray, so that they would focus their hearts toward their Father in Heaven." In his writings, the Rambam suggests that they would sit for an hour before prayer, focusing their minds and quieting their thoughts. Some traditions suggest that this means they were practicing Hitbodedut. Why isn’t Jewish Meditation Popular Many people are familiar with the mainstream side of Judaism, the one that deals with following the biblical commandments (mitzvot). A less-known aspect of Judaism is associated with Hesed (loving-kindness). The ancient pious Jews were referred to as Hasidim because they embodied Hesed. They believed our primary purpose is to get close to the Divine Source of life (Devekut) and that this can be achieved by combining emulation of Divine Attributes and deep meditative practice. Many people have never heard of Jewish meditative practices, mainly because they were passed orally from master to student and reserved for students walking the Hasidic path. Various sources teach the ways of Hasidism. Some of the most popular include Hovot Halevavot (“Duties of the Heart”); Hamaspik Le’ovdei Hashem (“The Guide to Serving God”); Sha’arei Kedusha (“Gates of Holiness”); and Mesilat Yesharim (“The Path of the Just”). More recent Hasidic teachings come from the Baal Shem Tov (founder of the 18th-century Hasidic movement) and his heirs. In fact, much of the 21st century revival of Jewish meditative practice is based on that of two Hasidic masters: Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (18th century) and Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, aka the Aish Kodesh (20th century