Meditation and Kabbalah

Meditation and Kabbalah

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by Aryeh Kaplan, Kaplan Aryeh

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Meditative methods of Kabbalah. A lucid presentation of the meditative methods, mantras, mandalas and other devices used, as well as a penetrating interpretation of their significance in the light of contemporary meditative research.


Meditative methods of Kabbalah. A lucid presentation of the meditative methods, mantras, mandalas and other devices used, as well as a penetrating interpretation of their significance in the light of contemporary meditative research.

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By Aryeh Kaplan

Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 1982 Aryeh Kaplan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60925-390-5




It is universally accepted by the Kabbalists that the first ones to engage in these meditative methods were the patriarchs and prophets, who used them to attain enlightenment and prophecy. Although there are many allusions to this in the Bible, the scripture is virtually silent when it comes to providing explicit descriptions of their methods. Still, if one looks at the appropriate texts, one can gain considerable insight into the methods that were in use in the time of the prophets.

The earliest direct statement regarding method comes from the First Century, from the early Talmudic period. Here we find some of the greatest Talmudists engaged in the mystical arts, making use of a number of meditative techniques to attain spiritual elevation and ascend to the transcendental realm. Many of these techniques consisted of the repetition of divine names, as well as intense concentration on the transcendental spheres. What little we know of their methods is preserved in a few fragments, as well in a remarkable complete text, Hekhalot Rabatai (The Greater Chambers), of which the main parts are presented for the first time in translation in this book.

It was during this period that some of the main classics of Kabbalah were written. These include the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation), the Bahir and the Zohar. These involved even higher levels than those described in the Hekhalot, and for the most part, only the barest hints are provided as to how these levels were reached.

With the close of the Talmudic period, these methods became restricted to a few very small closed secret societies. Both the Bahir and the Zohar remained completely unknown outside of these societies, and were not revealed until the late Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries respectively. The publication of the Bahir in particular gave impetus to the study of the mysteries, and a number of individuals began to openly teach the secret methods.

Most remarkable among these was Rabbi Abraham Abulafia (1240–1295). Having received the tradition from earlier sources, he was the first to actually put them in writing. For this, he weas condemned in many circles, although most Kabbalists consider his methods to be authentic and based on a reliable tradition. Several of his contemporaries, most notably, Rabbi Isaac of Acco and Rabbi Joseph Gikatalia, also speak of meditative methods.

Most of their work, however, was eclipsed by the publication of the Zohar in the middle 1290's. This great classic gripped the imagination of almost all Kabbalists of the time, and the teachings of other schools was virtually forgotten. It is therefore no accident that many books written before this were never published, and among those which have not been lost, a good number exist only in manuscript.

Since the Zohar has little to say about meditative methods, many important Kabbalists began to ignore the subject completely. They were too involved in trying to unravel the mysteries of this ancient book that had been concealed for many centuries. There were a few exceptions, however, and these Kabbalists made use of the methods of Abulafia, Gikatalia and Isaac of Acco. For over two hundred years, however, we find virtually nobody exploring the Zohar itself to ascertain the meditative methods used by its authors.

The main attempts in this direction occurred in the Safed School, which flourished during the Sixteenth Century. It reached its zenith in the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534–1572), commonly known as the Ari, who showed how the various letter combinations found in the Zohar were actually meant to be used as meditative devices. Although the Ari wrote almost nothing himself, his teachings were arduously copied by his disciplies, and fill almost two dozen large volumes. To a large extent, all this was an introduction to the methodology involved in his system of meditation.

Just as the Zohar had overshadowed everything when it was published, so did the writings of the Ari overwhelm the other schools three centuries later. His teachings were seen as the ultimate expression of the Kabbalah, and for the next two hundred years, the greatest part of Kabbalah literature devoted itself to their interpretation. Although the Ari's meditative methods were used by a few individuals, and possibly by one or two minor schools, for the most part the Kabbalists devoted themselves to theory rather than practice.

The next great renascence came with the rise of the Hasidic movement, founded by Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov (1698–1760). When their works are studied, it becomes obvious that the Baal Shem and his closest disciples were ardent students of the earlier meditative texts of the Kabbalah, and in the Hasidic classics, these texts are often paraphrased. During the second half of the Eighteenth Century, and perhaps the first decade or two of the Nineteenth, many people engaged in the classical meditative techniques of Kabbalah, often describing the high spiritual states that they attained.

The opposition to this, especially where it involved teaching these methods to the masses, was very strong. An entire group, known as the Mitnagdim (opposers), arose to combat the Hasidim, vigorously denouncing their methods. As a result, the Hasidim themselves began to de-emphasise their meditative practices, and eventually these were virtually forgotten.


Meditation is primarily a means of attaining spiritual liberation. Its various methods are designated to loosen the bond of the physical, allowing the individual to ascend to the transcendental, spiritual realm. One who accomplishes this successfully is said to have attained Ruach HaKodesh, The "Holy Spirit," which is the general Hebraic term for enlightenment.

The best-known contemporary method of meditation is that which involves a mantra, a word or phrase that is repeated over and over for a designated period of time. One concentrates on the mantra to the exclusion of all else, thus clearing the mind of all extraneous thoughts and divorcing it from the normal stream of consciousness. In this method, the mantra may be repeated verbally, or the repetition may be completely mental. This type of meditation is found in the Kabbalah, especially among the earlier schools. In the Hekhalot, for example, one begins his spiritual ascent by repeating a number of Divine Names 112 times.

Mantra meditation is an example of structured, externally directed meditation. It is externally directed, insofar as one concentrates on a word or phrase, rather than on the spontaneous thoughts to the mind. Since it involves a specific practice, repeated for a fixed length of time, it is considered a structured meditation.

Another example of structured externally-directed meditation is contemplation, where one gazes at an object, placing all of one's concentration on it. In occult practices, the best-known type of contemplation involves gazing into a crystal ball. Other types of contemplation involve mandalas, pictures or letter designs, where one gazes upon them, emptying the mind of all other thought. In Kabbalah meditation, the simplest contemplative device is the Tetragrammaton itself, and this is discussed even in non-Kabbalistic works. More complex forms are also used, and this method seems to have reached its zenith under the influence of Rabbi Shalom Sharabi (1702–1777).

Very closely related to this is the method of Yechudim (Unifications), which plays an important role in the system of the Ari. Here one does not contemplate a physical picture, but rather a mental image, asually consisting of various combinations of divine names. Since the structures and combinations of these names are predetermined, and do not arise spontaneously in the mind, this is also considered to be an externally-directed meditation.

The second basic method of meditation is that which is internally-directed. 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 area, 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 purely 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. It is this method that forms the basis for the meditative system of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

The third basic type of meditation is that which is non-directed. Such meditation strives for a stillness of the mind and a withdrawal from all perception, both internal and external. It plays an important role in the advancd states of many other methods, but at the same time, it can also be used as a method in its own right. Very little is expressly written about this method, but it appears to play a role in the teachings of such Hasidic masters as Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezrich (1704–1772) and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichov (1740–1809).

There is evidence that this method was used, at least for the most advanced, in the very terminology of the Kabbalah. Indeed, in a number of cases, it is only when looked upon in this sense that some terminology is comprehensible. Thus, for example, the Kabbalists call the highest level of transcendence Ayin, literally "Nothingness." Actually, this alludes to the ultimate level reached by non-directed meditation, where all perception and imagery cease to exist.

Besides being divided into these three basic methods, meditation can be classified according to the means used. The three basic means are the intellect, the emotions, and the body.

The path of the intellect is very prevalent among the theoretical Kabbalists, and was also used outside of the Kabbalistic schools. The most common method was simply to contemplate on various aspects of the Torah, probing the inner meaning of its commandments. It also included delving deeply with the intellect into the structure of the supernal universes, and, as it were, becoming a denizen of these worlds. For many, this method lead to a very high state of ecstasy, and this method forms the basis of the Habad system of Hasidism.

Another form of intellectual meditation involves the study of devotional works, carefully contemplating each concept in an effort to attain self-improvement. It was primarily this method that formed the basis of the Mussar Movement, which arose in the Nineteenth Century as a response to Hasidism. Such contemplation, or Hitbonenut, plays an especially important role in the devotional work Mesilat Yesharim (Path of the Just), by the great Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707–1747). In this remarkable book, the author outlines all the steps leading up to, but not including, Ruach HaKodesh the ultimate enlightment. The method of attaining these desired traits is that of Hitbonenut–contemplation on the teachings germain to that step and rectifying one's life in the light of these teachings. Incidentally, although it is not widely known, the ten levels discussed in this text clearly parallel the ten mystical Sefirot of the Kabbalists.

The path of the emotions also plays an important role in the systems of the Kabbalists. One place where it is particularly important is in Kavanah-meditation, the system that makes use of the formal daily prayers as a sort of mantra, especially in the Hasidic schools. Here one is taught to place all of his feelings and emotions into the words of his worship, thus attaining a divestment of the physical (hitpashtut hagashmiut). This path is also found in meditations involving music, which played an important role in the meditations of the ancient prophets of the Bible.

A path combining the intellect and emotions is the path of love, described in detail by the leading philosopher, Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1135–1204). He writes that when a person deeply contemplates on God, thinking of His mighty deeds and wondrous creations, he becomes profoundly aware of His wisdom, and is brought to a passionate love for God. He speaks of a level of love called Cheshek (passion), where the emotion is so intense that every thought is exclusively engaged with its object. This love for God can be so intense that the soul can literally be drawn out of the body by it, and this is what occurs when a saint dies by the "Kiss of God." This is considered to be one of the highest possible levels of enlightenment, usually attained only at very advanced age.

The third path is that of the body. It includes both the body motions and breathing exercizes that play a key role in the system of Rabbi Abraham Abulafia. The swaying and bowing that accompanies formal prayer also involves the path of the body, enhancing the meditative uuality of the worship.

One of the most important techniques of body meditation involves dancing. This is especially true among the Hasidic schools, where even after other meditative methods were abandoned, dance was still used as a means of attaining ecstasy and enlightenment. This, however, was not a Hasidic innovation, since even in most ancient times dance was an important method for attaining enlightenment.

The Talmud teaches that on the festival of Succot (Tabernacles), during the "Festival of Drawing," in Jerusalem, "saints and men of deed would dance before the assemblage, holding torches and singing hymns of praise." This festival was a particularly propitious time for attaining enlightenment, as the Jerusalem Talmud states, "Why was it called a 'Festival of Drawing'? Because it was a time when people drew in Ruach HaKodesh." So closely was dance associated with enlightenment, that the Future World, which is viewed as the ultimate place of enlightenment, is described as "A dance conducted by the Blessed Holy One, where each individual points a finger at Him."


One reason why so little is known about the various systems of Kabbalah meditation is that all of this literature is in Hebrew, and it has never been accurately translated. Since most of these methods are no longer practiced, the vocabulary associated with them has also been forgotten. So great is this confusion that even the very Hebrew word for meditation is not generally known. This has even led to the use of the wrong term in an article on the subject in a major Judaic encyclopedia. Once a basic vocabulary is established, however, one can gain an appreciation of how often meditation is discussed in classical texts, particularly in the Kabbalistic classics.

There is one word that is consistently used as a term for meditation by the commentators, philosophers and Kabbalists. The word which most often denotes meditation is Hitbodedut ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The verb, "to meditate," is represented by the word Hitboded ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).

The word Hitboded is derived from the root Badad ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), meaning "to be secluded." Literally, then, Hitbodedut actually means self isolation, and in some cases, actually refers to nothing more than physical seclusion and isolation. In many other places, however, it is used to denote a state of consciousness involving the isolation of the self, that is, the isolation of he individual's most basic essence.

Thus, when discussed in a Kabbalistic context, the word Hitbodedut means much more than mere physical isolation. It refers to a state of internal isolation, where the individual mentally secludes his essence from his thoughts. One of the greatest Kabbalists, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543–1620), often speaks of such mental seclusion, saying that "one must seclude himself (hitboded) in his thoughts to the ultimate degree." In doing this, one separates his soul from his body to such a degree that he no longer feels any relationship to his physical self. The soul is thus isolated, and as Rabbi Chaim Vital concludes, "the more one separates himself from the physical, the greater will be his enlightenment."

Excerpted from MEDITATION AND KABBALAH by Aryeh Kaplan. Copyright © 1982 Aryeh Kaplan. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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