Jewish Meditation


Alan Brill

Jewish spirituality encompasses a wide variety of experiences generally associated with meditation. The traditional texts expect the pious: to visualize God’s name continuously or constantly sense God’s providence; to commit to daily and weekly sessions of self scrutiny and outpouring of the heart to God; to sense the inner meaning of the Sabbath and holidays; and to picture before prayer that one is standing before the Divine. Many of these techniques were not originally considered special meditations because they were intended for daily practice or were considered goals of ordinary Jewish piety.

In contrast, the Jewish meditation which I will discuss is a hierarchical ladder of internal states. It provides in its earliest stages a tether to still of the mind, providing relaxation, and the ability to calm emotions. This level is useful in enhancing intention in the ordinary practice of prayer and in continuously focusing on God’s presence. In its higher stages, it leads to equanimity, freedom from emotions, and mind control; in modern terms it deals with creativity, pain, sickness, and trauma. Jewish meditation gives a sense of the Divine energies present in prayer, study, and performing the commandments. This level gives a sense of well being, wholeness. balance, and compassion. The next level is the development of an internal life in which one plays out contemplative dramas in order to enter the Divine. The highest levels are those of an influx of the Divine and prophetic inspiration.

Everyone is suited for Jewish meditation; however he/she needs to find the right teacher and techniques. Some people use their intellect, while others seek a path of the heart. Some need an active path engaged in this world, while others are otherworldly contemplatives. Those with a strong sense of sensory imagination will find the earthy images in the approach of the Piesetzna appealing while those with a scrupulous will can turn towards the introspection in the Mussar movement. Techniques for the Jewish meditation include: intellectual contemplation, visualizations, stillness exercises, imagination meditations, loving kindness meditations and mantras. There are focused meditations, free-form meditations within daily life, and meditations reserved for prayer.

In order to pray with intention, there is a spectrum of techniques from simple focus of the mind on the God’s glory (Kavod) to the complex Lurianic kavvanot. Most medieval legal commentators, especially those influenced by philosophy, including Maimonides, Nahmanides, and the students of R. Yonah of Gerona, assume that a person needs a meditative intention in prayer. These are not isolated opinions but are the codified legal requirements for prayer as found in the Tur, the accepted 15th century codification of Jewish Law. Therefore, one of the first goals of a Jewish meditative practice is to have a consciousness of God’s glory when one sits down to pray. The Shema has meditative intentions (kavanot) to help one sense the absoluteness of God’s kingship and unity. The silent Amidah, according to the Kabbalists, requires before starting an ascent and a binding with the higher will. Afterwards, one makes petitions and senses the divine presence by channeling the energy downward. Falling on one’s face (Nefilat Apayim-Tahanun) allows one to descend with the energy and offer up the self to God.

In addition to these required meditations, the Zohar, R. Moses de Leon, and R. Joseph Gikkatila have meditations on Divine lights and names in a variety of spatial configurations allowing an ascent into the higher realms of divinity. There is a lower level of Divinity immanent and embodied in this world receiving its light from above, as light shines into a prism. There is a higher realm of blue (or green, purple, and red) light that is God’s manifestation and power. And finally, there is an infinite realm of brilliant shining light that is the source of all light, energy and power. One is to slowly ascend to the infinite realm by creating the needed spatial map of the Divine. In order to successfully work with this map, one works on giving it clarity, breath, and depth and on creating secure mental ladders and safety nets. Then one can bind oneself in emotion, will, and intellect to this infinite light and it will bind its infinite emotion, will, and intellect to the meditator. One slowly descends and brings the infinite light down into the blue light letting it grow and give energy, Then it cascades into the prism, into one’s mind and visualization of the Divine name and into one’s body and room. One has to make sure that it is channelled slowly and safely to avoid feelings of being overwhelmed. Medieval Kabbalists used this meditation during prayer, ascending before the silent Amidah. There are many variants of this meditation using a candle flame, regions of different colored lights, divine names, sefirot, or parts of the soul. They each provide a ladder of psychic development which inversely parallels a ladder of God’s manifestation.

Maimonides presents the path for entering this hierarchy in his Mishneh Torah as the path of prophecy, but alludes to it in his discussions of prayer and the true method of worship. One is to have a breath and depth of knowledge, moral virtues, and complete control of one’s desires. Then one contemplates the higher realms and trains one’s mind not to have any distractions, and to be always focused on the celestial forms. This is a transformative process in which the practitioner becomes holy and angelic. While this discussion concerns the prophet, in the Guide to the Perplexed he shows that it applies to anyone who wishes to serve God truly. Many Kabbalists worked with this framework. Among the Kabbalists in Safed, there is a connection between mastering the techniques in the pietistic literature which consists of mediation techniques to achieve these spiritual ends, and the employment of the advanced techniques of contemplating Divine names or colors. The method of Maimonides was continued by many segments of the Hasidic tradition in requiring a contemplative approach to prayer. While, the Kabbalistic tradition of meditating on Divine lights and names both during and outside of prayer was carried forward into later centuries which created a complex contemplative tradition. R. Hayim of Volozhin in his Nefesh ha-Hayyim expects his readers during prayer to still the mind from thoughts and emotions, to visualize the Divine name and letters of the prayer, and for those on a high level, to perform the Lurianic Kavvanot.

When I teach meditation the first sessions are not on the Kabbalistic material, but on the basic skills that allow one to succeed in meditation. The first class is on how to sit properly, relax the body, and slow down one’s busy mind. One needs to learn how to tether the mind and focus. I introduce meditation on the Divine name, consisting of visualization of the tetragrammaton, as a means of giving the mind a focus. We work on developing a clear image in the mind and learning to control it. I tell the class that this image will be developed in later classes to the point of basic yihudim and as the base of ascent into the inner Divine lights. Essential for meditation is to learn how to let go of distractions and to gently let them flow away. I explain how difficult emotions which distract during meditation need slowly over a course of time to be confronted, worked through, and only then can one let go of the hurt. The traditional pietistic works, such as Bahye Ibn Pakuda’s Hovot HaLevavot or Moses Hayim Luzzato’s Mesillat Yesharim, which are usually read only for their moralistic content, give many directions on releasing emotions. These basic steps take months of practice to perform properly and I suggest taking one’s early steps in meditation outside of formal prayer.

The second level is to try various techniques of Jewish meditation and to develop the needed internal framework for actually using these methods. We do a simplified versions of the ascent called The Gate of Intention of the Early Kabbalists, and the light meditations in the Zohar. These give the ability to develop a spatial hierarchy in the mind from the visualization of the divine name in the mind to the Kavod above, and from there to God’s manifestation as the divine name, and the to the infinite recess of the Eyn Sof. We discuss colors, shapes, lights, bringing the Divine energy down and how to avoid other unwanted images which come to mind. We grapple with the reorientation away from the popular modern image of God to a Jewish view of God as a source of energy, and as a hierarchy of divinity. This hierarchal model once mastered allows further growth through other techniques.

The third level is an introduction to hasidic techniques of sensing the Divinity immanent in the world. We work on stillness, emptying the mind, and selflessness in order to quiet the mind further and gain openness to the world around us. Worship through corporeality in acts of eating or the routine of everyday life allows the sense of the Divine gained in the ascent meditations to be embodied in this world. Originally, Jewish meditation techniques were elite and qualitatively monastic. Hasidism, especially R. Shalom Baer and R. Yosef Yitzhak of Habad and R. Kalonymous Kalman of Piesetzna adapted or grappled with adapting many spiritual practices for common use. Their approaches help those still having problems in meditation practice overcome and deepen the sense of the divine in daily life.

I do not start with the hasidic approaches because I find that they are self contained. The Kabbalistic techniques need to be brought down into this world, but the worldly techniques do not need to ascend. The Hasidic approaches work well on the emotions, but, they do not train or anchor the mind. Once one uses the emotions as a mental anchor, then visualizing the Divine name seems unnecessary. While the advanced Habad techniques can accomplish the same higher levels as the intellectual visualizations, I have found greater success and user-friendliness in the medieval techniques. Personally, I also found that the formal Jewish prayers seemed redundant or reduced to a mantra when following a Hasidic approach. There was greater oneness in meditation before prayer than during prayer, and when there was a sense of oneness during prayer there was no anchor back to the prayer act. I instruct my class to practice prayer in both Hasidic and non-Hasidic ways. In the Hasidic way, one does the opening Psalms slowly and builds up to an emotional crescendo in the silent Amidah. In the non-Hasidic approach, one does the opening Psalms emotionally and quickly, and slows down to an intellectual contemplative silent amidah. Students differ in which approach overall works for them and whether to use to the other approach also.

Finally, we start with the basic techniques found in Kabbalistic works. It takes months of practice to reach the level which allows one to start performing the Lurianic techniques properly. We learn to combine various forms of the Divine name and use them for ascents to channel the Divine energy. While the approach of visualization on the lights continued into later centuries, the sixteenth century Kabbalists predominantly tended to replace the lights in the Divine hierarchy with Divine names. For many, the Lurianic intentions on Divine names seen baroque and unnecessary at first, but, after experience in the interior castles of the mind, they become a form of active imagination of the Divine energy. Their performance contains many acts and routines as in an epic mythic play. The transformative drama of unifying names, contemplating scriptural verses, and alternating ascents with descents releases much energy. They can also be simplified or single instructions can be used out of context in the same way as acting out only one scene of a play or reciting a soliloquy out of context.

For those who feel that there is to much emphasis on metaphysical structures and filling the mind, we ultimately, do meditations on dissolving the Kabbalistic structures through focusing on the nothingness. The nothingness obliquely alluded to in Aryeh Kaplan’s writings is a process of meditating on the space behind the Kabbalistic structures. It causes the fullness to fade away while leaving the path directing one to the infinite. One is left with the simultaneous Kabbalistic fullness and an emptiness of pure expanse.

The first obstacle to meditation is the cultural bias of the enlightenment and Protestant theology against meditation. In order to enter the modern world, the experiential traditions were rejected. Jewish philosophy and halakhah were read by the nineteenth century as abstract enlightenment knowledge, and traditional Jewish philosophic views on God, prophecy, providence, and eschatology were converted in modern scholarship from an ineffable Platonic encounter with the infinite Divine to a limiting negative knowledge or a supernatural theism. I find particularly vivid the account of this process in The Sins of My Youth of the Haskalah writer Moses Leib Lillenblum who on Rosh Hashanah 1861 during his meditation on the Divine name and his tremendous religious ecstasy started to question everything. His story shows how recently these techniques were still part of the accepted tradition. And despite his ability to achieve high religious levels, his meditative practice could not withstand modernity. He, like so many others, rejected meditative practice as worthless to the modern Jew. Modernity changed prayer from a mediative theurgic act into a communal service.

A second major obstacle is that most western Jews have trouble sitting still and releasing their tension. When I first started teaching meditation to my Talmud class and other groups that did not come to me to learn how to meditate, I discovered that most of the participants could not sit still, or not worry about their busy schedules or slow down their bodies. Even worse was that many would start complaining about their back and neck pains, have emotional pits in their stomachs, scrunch their eyes tight, contort their bodies or have various psychosomatic pains. This was something of a surprise to me because traditional Kabbalists and the various American and Israeli academics and yeshiva students attracted to meditation are able to sit still. I realized that most of those I met who are attracted to meditation are already a self selected group of those able to intellectually focus on one point, lead non pressured lives, and have a natural ability to use at least one technique of meditation. Therefore, in order to bring back the advanced levels of the tradition, I realized that I would have to cull the various statements of advice and direction from pietistic literature on how to start practicing. My only (conscious) modification of the tradition was to start the first class with everyone relaxing their bodies as done in a pain reduction or birthing class. These introductions became the first topics in my classes and afterwards I could proceed with the actual techniques of attaining Divine presence.

The third obstacle is the need to still the emotions and attain equanimity.

A sage once came to one of the Meditators (Mitbodedim) and asked that he be accepted into their society.

The other replied, “My son, blessed are you to God. Your intentions are good. But tell me, have you attained equanimity or not?”

The sage said, “Master, explain your words.”

The Meditator said, “If one man is praising you and another is insulting you, are the two equal in your eyes or not?”

He replied, “No my master. I have pleasure from those who praise me and pain from those who degrade me. But I do not take revenge or bear a grudge.”

The other said, “Go in peace my son. You have not attained equanimity…You are not prepared for your thoughts to bound on high, that you should come and meditate (hitboded). Go and increase the humbleness of your heart, and learn to treat everything equally until you have become tranquil (hishtavut). Only then will you be able to meditate. (Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and the Kabbalah 143).

Aryeh Kaplan produced great introductions to the world of Jewish meditation, but, he was negligent in leaving out the basic steps in meditation. A reader of Kaplan’s works would enter the meditative realm with too much self concern and personal desire. Basic steps are needed to allow one to work on the visualization techniques without the distraction of thoughts and emotions. These basic steps also provide the release of the tension and emotions to prevent the anxiety, depression, and other forms of potential psychic harm from these techniques. One would burn up in self-effacement or self- delusion if one used the advanced techniques in Kaplan’s books without preparation. The Kabbalistic techniques done by themselves increase both physical and emotional tension. R. Hayyim Vital had a horrible reaction the first time R. Isaac Luria gave him a yihud to perform. One needs to confront one’s emotions, pains, and traumas before one starts the advanced Kabbalistic techniques. Blocking pain and distracting thoughts or the Hasidic technique of raising them to their source is a slow and gradual process.

A third obstacle is knowing one’s limit in order not to attempt more than one is ready to handle, and the need for regular practice in order to integrate meditation into ordinary religious life. Maimonides suggests to start one’s meditative practice by having intention during Shema and then after several years to proceed to further advances in practice. Lurianic meditations and many other techniques take years of practice, piece by piece, in order to work successfully. One has to start slowly and integrate one or two lines of instruction at a time. In one’s mind, one needs to learn slowly to stabilize the images and avoid distractions of even the alluring visions (unless one is doing Kabbalistic creativity and dream work). One also needs to beware of self-destructive plunges into an annihilating nothingness. The goal of meditation is a mature growth of selflessness and wholeness, not a dissolution of one’s consciousness.

Integration of meditation in one’s daily life involves assessing one’s schedule and lifestyle and determining how to devote time daily to meditative practice. The week needs to become sacred time in which time is set aside either on Thursday night and/or on Friday for a week review and for meditating on the oncoming Sabbath; Saturday night is needed to channel the Sabbath into the week. A two hour welcoming the Sabbath service on Friday evening using various techniques of meditation and contemplative reading in addition to prayer transforms the Sabbath into an actual influx of the extra soul. Before the holidays, a similar process is needed to sense the presence of that holiday.

Ultimately, integration of meditation in one’s daily life involves overcoming the dualities between meditation and not meditating. R. Zadok HaKohen of Lublin describes religious life as a process of growth along a sliding scale in which one integrates ever greater parts of consciousness towards Divine knowledge and unity. Yesterday’s knowledge of God when one was first starting to meditate is today’s distractions and inability to focus. A spiritual Sabbath on one level is considered a non-spiritual Sabbath on a higher level. Temporarily, one cannot actively jump above one’s level because when one looks at the whole person the true level is revealed. One’s dreams and unconscious desires, according to R. Zadok, always reveal ones actual mental preoccupations. Therefore, focused concentration is only one part of attaining continuous consciousness of God. One’s entire life should be directed toward slowly becoming filled with the oneness of the Divine.

Excerpt from Meditation from the Heart of Judaism: Today’s Teachers Share their Practices, Techniques and Faith ©1997 Avram Davis. (Woodstock, VT, Jewish Lights Publishing) For ordering info visit



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