The Hebrew word for meditation is hithbodeduth (התבודדות) .The word occurs in this context in Judaic writings spanning over a thousand years, and is used for all the various forms of Jewish meditation. Yet, in most people’s minds, it is primarily with Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) that this word is associated.
Many types of meditation were used by Jewish saints and mystics. A vast wealth of ancient literature describes how the prophets of Israel used meditation to reach their high spiritual states. Similar methods were probably used in Talmudic times. They involved repeating a divine name many times to induce the meditative state.
Other schools made use of the meditative techniques found in the Book of Creation (Sefer Yetzirah). These meditative methods made use of the letters of God’s name, accompanied by controlled breathing and specified head motions.3 However, as the masters of these schools themselves warned, these were extremely powerful and dangerous methods.
The publication of the Zohar opened the path to another meditative method involving Unifications (Yechudim). This involved contemplating divine names, and manipulating their letters. These were meditations that, besides inducing a mystical state, would help unify and integrate the personality. The method of Yichudim was particularly favored by the Safed school of Kabbalah, and it forms the basis of the mysticism of the Ari (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, 1534-1572). However, these meditations were not for the average person either; without proper preparation, they could severely damage the mind.
An ancient method of meditation involved the formal prayers. One of the Baal Shem Tov’s most important accomplishments was to use the prayers as a safe method of meditation, which could be done by even the simplest person. The way of prayer, as taught by the Baal Shem Tov, involved nothing more than the regular prayer service, said three times daily by every Jew.
The focal point of the prayer service is the Amidah or Shemonah Esreh, a collection of eighteen (or actually, nineteen) blessings, which is repeated three times each day. This prayer was composed by the Great Assembly just before the close of the prophetic period. There is considerable discussion as to why a single prayer was prescribed to be repeated over and over each day. However, there is considerable evidence that the entire Amidah was meant to be used as a meditative device.
After a person has repeated the Amidah every day for a few years, he knows the words so well that they become an integral part of his being. It does not take any real mental effort on his part to recite the words, and thus, it is very much like repeating a single word or phrase over and over. If a person clears his mind of all other thoughts, and concentrates on the words of the Amidah, this prayer can induce an extremely high meditative state. This is borne out in practice. The same is true of the other parts of the service that are recited daily.
The Talmud notes that the Early Saints (Chasidim Rishonim) would spend an hour reciting the Amidah.4 Since the Amidah contains some 500 words; it comes out that they would have been reciting one word approximately every seven seconds. It is proven by experience that reciting even the first section of the Amidah at such a pace will induce a high meditative state.
In an important teaching, the Talmud states, "One who prays must direct his eyes downward and his heart on high."’ One of the important commentators, Rabbi Yonah Gerondi (1196 1263) explains, "This means that in one’s heart, he should imagine that he is standing in heaven. He must banish all worldly delights and bodily enjoyments from his heart. The early sages taught that if one wishes to have true concentration (kavanah), he must divest his body from his soul.”
A few decades later, this was expressed even more explicitly by the great codifier, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (1270-1343) in his Tur. Speaking of "saints and men of deed,” he writes, “they would meditate (hithboded) and concentrate in their prayers until they reached a level where they would be divested of the physical. The transcendental spirit would be strengthened in them until they would reach a level close to that of prophecy.” This passage is quoted verbatim by Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488-1575) in his Shulchan Arukh, the standard code of Jewish law.
The idea of using the prayer service as a meditative device thus did not originate with the Baal Shem Tov. But the Baal Shem Tov taught the way of prayer as a method that could be used by anyone, from the greatest Kabbalist to the simplest individual. Rather than concentrate on Kabbalistic concepts, a person would focus his entire mind on the words of the prayer, making them fill his entire consciousness. He would then rise from one level to the next, until he was in a deep meditative state.
Although this method was extremely effective and widespread, it was still difficult for many people. Since the formal prayers were said daily, it required a high degree of concentration to avoid allowing one’s mind to wander and to keep one’s thoughts focused on the words. As Rabbi Nachman puts it, since the formal prayers are a well traveled path, there are many destructive forces that lie waiting along it, ready to trap the unwary.
A great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachman extended the way of prayer to make it more universal and effective. He taught the importance of reciting the Psalms and other non-obligatory prayers to prepare oneself for deep meditation. The individual was to banish all thoughts from his mind, so that he would be completely alone with God. The next stage would be to banish the ego, so that all his awareness would be focused on nothing but God.
Most of the methods that had been used were externally directed, structured meditations. They depended on predetermined words or images, which constituted a meditative focus outside the mind. While they were effective for many people, the very fact that they were externally directed meant that they were not specifically geared to each person’s needs.
There is another basic method of meditation that is internally directed. Classically, this consists of meditating on thoughts, feelings or mental images that arise spontaneously in the mind. Usually, this is best accomplished by focusing on a general idea, around which these thoughts will be evoked. Since there is no formal or predetermined method of evoking such thoughts, this is most commonly an unstructured meditation.
Internally directed meditation can be practiced solely in thought, or, as in some systems, one’s thoughts can also be verbalized. One of the best methods of verbalizing such thoughts while keeping them concentrated on a single focus is to express them as spontaneous prayer. This method was to form the basis of the meditative system of Rabbi Nachman.
The tradition of spontaneous prayer has a long history in Judaism and was quite prevalent in Biblical and Talmudic times. Besides the formal services, Jews would always pray to God in their own language and in their own words, asking
Him for their needs. A constant prayer was that God should draw the supplicant close to Him, and help him attain closeness to the Divine.
The line between such prayer and meditation is often very blurry. It is obviously possible to pray in one’s words without entering a meditative state. Many people offer spontaneous prayers while in a normal, mundane state of consciousness. However, if one recites such prayers slowly and quietly, banishing all thoughts but those of the Divine, such prayer can bring a person into a deep meditative state.
Rabbi Nachman realized that such “conversations with God” were not always easy. For one thing, such a conversation requires a high degree of spiritual commitment. For another, a person initially confronted with the Divine, may easily be at a loss for words. Rabbi Nachman speaks of this “bashfulness" and discusses means with which it can be overcome.
Rabbi Nachman was aware of structured meditations, but he saw them primarily as a means of preparation for the internally directed method. Thus, he taught that if one could not find anything to say to God, he should merely take a word, and repeat it over andover during his meditative period each day. This same word could be repeated for weeks and months, until one found the right words with which to speak to God.
For those familiar with Eastern mantra meditation, this method may seem familiar. A particular phrase that Rabbi Nachman taught could be repeated was “Lord of the Universe,” Ribono Shel Olam (רבונו של עולם) in Hebrew. A “mantra” such as this, used over a long period, could be the gateway to deeper forms of meditation.
In order to clear the mind for meditation. Rabbi Nachman prescribed the silent scream. Many relaxation methods for the body involve the voluntary tensing of the muscles, and then a determined relaxation of each one. In a way, the silent scream is a voluntary tensing of the mind, which can then be followed by determined relaxation in meditation. It is an extremely effective method for initiating the meditative state.
Another meditative method taught by Rabbi Nachman involved speaking to various parts of the body. In Breslov tradition, this is seen as an important method of self- improvement. Thus, if one wishes to learn to control his tongue, he can speak to it, and literally tell it to practice self- control. The same is true of all other parts of the body. With this method, a person can learn to gain complete and absolute self-control. Here too, one does not merely speak to the part of the body; he does so while in a meditative state.
There are some who might confuse this with autosuggestion or self-hypnosis. However, many psychological and physiological studies have indicated major differences between the hypnotic and the meditative state. Where hypnotism often alters or blocks out awareness, the ultimate goal of meditation is to increase and expand awareness. Where the hypnotic state is usually a state of constricted consciousness, the meditative state is seen as a state of expanded consciousness.
Although hithbodeduth denotes meditation, as Rabbi Nachman saw it, it was also a form of personal prayer. Indeed, this is how most contemporary Breslover Chasidim see it. It is seen not so much as a means to attain higher states of consciousness, but as a path toward self-perfection. If a person is constantly conversing with God, he is certain to become more Godly. When he develops a strong bond with God, he is sure to have a greater desire to do God’s will.
Beyond that, consistent personal prayer is seen as a means to a good life, even here on earth. When a person discusses his problems with a friend, they no longer seem so formidable. If one can truly learn to discuss them with God, they virtually shrink into insignificance. As one Breslover Chasid put it, “When you bring your problems to God, they cease to exist. there is nothing in the world to worry about.” Or, as King David expressed it almost three millennia ago,
“Place your burden on God, and He will carry (it for) you" (Psalms 55:23).
Rabbi Nachman's major teachings regarding meditation were collected in a small book, known as Hishtap'khuth HaNefesh ( השתפכות הנפש ), literally, “Outpouring of the Soul.” The book was rewritten by Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Bezishianski, better known as Reb Alter of Teplik, and first published in Jerusalem around 1904. Reprinted numerous times, the book is the classic exposition of Rabbi Nachman’s system of meditation and prayer.
When the book was first published, the concept of meditation had virtually been forgotten in Jewish circles. However, with increased general interest in meditation, many ancient Jewish sources that discuss the subject have been rediscovered and studied with renewed interest. In this context, the Hishtap'khuth HaNefesh fits perfectly. It provides a path through which even the most unlearned Jew can find his way back to God.
18 Tammuz, 5780
Who is the person who desires life? Who is truly concerned about himself? Who is the one who wishes to be worthy of serving God through prayer, which is a person's main source of life, as it is written, “Prayer to God is my life” (Psalms 42:9). Through prayer, one can also bring life-force to all the spiritual universes.
Let such a person pay close attention to the lessons gathered in this book, which speaks of the importance of prayer and meditation, especially regarding “pouring out one’s soul and heart like water before God's presence.”’ He will learn how to ask God for all that he needs, both materially and spiritually. This is the only way that one can receive divine help at all times.
This holy path is an ancient one that has been walked by our patriarchs, prophets and sages.
Before Adam was created, the Torah states, “All the bushes of the field had not yet grown, and the plants of the field had not yet sprung up, because God had not brought rain upon the earth, and there was no man to work the soil” (Genesis 2:5). This is speaking of the sixth day of creation, and Rashi notes that this seems to contradict the verse which says that on the third day, “the earth brought forth plants” (Genesis 1:12). Rashi explains that the plants only emerged as far as the surface of the ground, and there they remained until Adam prayed for rain. The rain then fell and all the plants and trees began to grow from the ground.
It is also taught that when Noah left the ark and saw the terrible destruction all around, he began to weep and cried out, “Lord of the Universe! You should have had mercy on Your creatures!”
God replied to him, “Foolish shepherd! Now you are complaining! Earlier I told you, ‘I have seen that you are righteous in this generation’ (Genesis 7:1). I warned you, ‘I am about to bring a killer flood upon the earth to destroy all life’ (Genesis 6:17). I told you all that so you would pray for the world. Now that the world is destroyed, you are opening your mouth before Me with prayers and supplications!” When Noah realized his mistake, he offered sacrifice and prayed to God for the future. The “appeasing fragrance" (Genesis 8:21) that God smelled was the fragrance of Noah’s prayers.
We also find many examples of Abraham’s prayers. When God told Abraham, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is very great” (Genesis 18:20) and threatened to destroy the cities, Abraham immediately “drew near” (Genesis 18:23) and began to pray and plead to God that He would spare the cities if fifty, or, finally even if ten righteous were to be found within their borders.
Our sages also comment on the verse, "Abraham got up early in the morning, and went to the place where he had stood before God" (Genesis 19:27). They say that this alludes to the fact that Abraham instituted a daily morning prayer.’ We also find that God said to Abimeiech, “Return this man’s wife, since he is a prophet and he will pray for you" (Genesis 20:7). The Torah then relates, “Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech” (Genesis 20:17). The Midrash notes that when Abraham offered this prayer, the knot was unbound.
When Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, went to find a bride for Isaac, he expressed his thoughts to God in prayer, and said, “God, Lord of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and do kindness to my master Abraham” (Genesis 24:12). The Midrash states that he said, “Lord of the Universe! We are trying to complete what Abraham accomplished with his prayer when You granted him Isaac. Now complete that act of kindness and grant a wife for his son.”
Regarding Isaac, the Torah says, “Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening” (Genesis 24:63). The Talmud notes that this alludes to the fact that Isaac instituted a regular daily afternoon prayer.
The Midrash states that Isaac was totally involved in prayer, and Rebecca said, “This is certainly a great man!” She therefore asked, “Who is this man walking in the field to meet us?” (Genesis 24:65).9
Later when Isaac married Rebecca and found her to be barren, the Torah states, “Isaac prayed for the sake of his wife” (Genesis 25:21). The Midrash states that according to one opinion, he offered a wealth of prayer, while others say that he prayed so much that he was able to overturn the decree with his prayer.
The Torah says of Jacob, “He worshiped in that location” (Genesis 28:11). The Talmud states that from this we see that Jacob instituted a regular daily evening prayer.
Jacob also prayed at length to God and said, “If God will be with me and watch me... giving me bread to eat and clothes to wear...” (Genesis 28:20). The Midrash states that God took the meditation of the Patriarchs and made it into the key for their descendants’ redemption.
The Midrash also notes that during the twenty years that Jacob was with Laban, he did not sleep nights, but recited the fifteen “songs of ascent” in the Psalms (120-134).15 Jacob would spend entire nights meditating and praying to God.
When Jacob was returning to the Holy Land, he sent emissaries to Esau. However, his main weapon was prayer, and he said, “O God... Deliver me, I beg You. from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau” (Genesis 32:12).
We also find that all the Matriarchs were constantly involved in prayer. The Midrash says that God made the Matriarchs barren because He desires the prayers of the righteous.16
The Midrash also says that when Sarah was taken to Abimelech’s palace, she spent the entire night prostate on her face, saying, "Lord of the Universe. . .”
When Isaac was praying for Rebecca, theTorah says that he prayed, "opposite his wife” (Genesis 25:21).18 The Midrash states that Isaac stood in one corner and prayed, while Rebecca stood in the other corner and prayed.
The Torah notes that Rachel said, “God has judged me and has heard my prayer" (Genesis 30:6). She then said. “I have been twisted around with my sister through all of God’s roundabout ways” (Genesis 30:8). Rashi explains that Rachel did so with prayers that were precious to God.
When Rachel finally gave birth, the Torah says, “God heard Rachel’s [prayer] and He opened her womb” (Genesis 30:22). The Scripture later speaks of “Rachel weeping for her children” (Jeremiah 31:15).
In describing Leah, the Torah says, “Leah’s eyes were tender” (Genesis 29:17). The Talmud teaches that they were tender because she had wept and prayed so much that she would not become Esau's wife.20
Jacob’s sons were also involved in prayer. Thus, when Jacob sent Benjamin with them to Egypt (Genesis 43:13), he told his sons, “Here is the money, here are the tribute gifts, and here is your brother.”
“But it is your prayers that we need!” replied the sons. “Then here is my prayer,” said Jacob. “May God Almighty grant you mercy before the man (Genesis 43:14). May He who will eventually say ‘enough’ to all suffering now say ‘enough’ to my suffering.”
When Joseph was in prison in Egypt (Genesis 39:20), he also spent his time in prayer. We thus say the prayer, “May He who answered Joseph in prison also answer us!”
When Joseph took Benjamin, the Torah says, “Judah approached” (Genesis 44:18). The Midrash comments that Judah approached God in prayer.
When our ancestors were in Egypt, the Torah tells us that “The Israelites groaned because of their work, and they cried out, and their cry came up to God" (Exodus 2:23). At the Red Sea, it is similarly written, “Israel cried out to God" (Exodus 14:10).
Commenting on the verse, “My dove in the clefts of the rock,... let me hear your voice” (Song of Songs 2:14). The Midrash states that God is speaking to Israel, saying: "Let Me hear the same voice with which you cried out to Me in Egypt.” From here we see that God desires the Israelites’ prayers.24
Throughout the Torah and the works of our sages we find Moses constantly engaged in prayer and supplication, to God, both for himself and for Israel. When Israel sinned with the Golden Calf, “Moses entreated God” (Exodus 32:11). Moses later described his prayer, "I threw myself down in prayer before God for forty days and forty nights . . . (Deuteronomy 9:18).