MEDITATION


MEDITATION
MEDITATION (Heb. Hitbonenut), a term which first appears in kabbalistic literature, from the middle of the 13th century, referring to protracted concentration of thought on supernal lights of the divine world and of the spiritual worlds in general. Many sources, however, in this connection use the terms kavvanah , or devekut ("cleaving") of thought to a particular subject, and of "contemplation of the mind." The kabbalists did not distinguish between the terms meditation and contemplation – a distinction prevalent in Christian mysticism. In the kabbalistic view, contemplation was both the concentrated delving to the depths of a particular subject in the attempt to comprehend it from all its aspects, and also the arresting of thought in order to remain on the subject. The arresting and delving in spiritual contemplation do not serve, therefore, to encourage the contemplating intellect to advance and pass on to higher levels, but first of all to gauge to the maximum its given situation; only after having tarried in it for a protracted period does the intellect move on to a higher step. This, then, is contemplation by the intellect, whose objects are neither images nor visions, but non-sensual matters such as words, names, or thoughts. In the history of the Kabbalah a different contemplation preceded this one: the contemplative vision of the merkabah , for which the ancient Merkabah mystics of the tannaitic and amoraitic period strove, and which was described in the Heikhalot Rabbati of the heikhalot literature. Here the reference is to an actual vision of the world of the chariot which reveals itself before the eyes of the visionary. Therefore the term histakkelut is used here in the exact sense of the Latin term contemplatio or the Greek theoria. The contemplation of the Merkabah mystics, in the first period of Jewish mysticism, provided the key, in their opinion, to a correct understanding of the heavenly beings in the heavenly chariot. This contemplation could also be achieved by way of preparatory stages which would train those who "descend to the Merkabah" to grasp the vision and pass on from one thing to another without being endangered by the audacity of their assault on the higher world. Even at this stage, the vision of the Merkabah is bound up with immunization of the mystic's senses against absorption of external impressions and concentration through an inward vision. In the Kabbalah, the conception of the ten Sefirot, which reveal the action of the Divine and comprise the world of emanation, was superimposed upon the Merkabah world. This contemplation of divine matters does not end, according to the Kabbalah, where the vision of Merkabah mystics ended, but is capable of ascending to greater heights, which are no longer the objects of images and vision. The concentration on the world of the Sefirot is not bound up with visions, but is solely a matter for the intellect prepared to ascend from level to level and to meditate on the qualities unique to each level. If meditation activates at first the faculty of imagination, it continues by activating the faculty of the intellect. The Sefirot themselves are conceived of as intellectual lights which can only be perceived by meditation. The Spanish kabbalists in the 13th century knew of two types of meditation: one which produces visions similar in kind if not in detail to the visions of the Merkabah mystics, and the second which leads to the communion of the meditating mind with its higher sources in the world of emanation itself. moses b. shem tov de leon describes in one of his books how an intuition of the third Sefirah (Binah) flashes up in the mind through meditation. He compares this to the light which flashes up when the rays of the sun play on the surface of a bowl of water (MGWJ, 1927, 119). The instructions on the methods to be employed in performing meditation form part of the hidden and secret teachings of the kabbalists which, apart from some general rules, were not made public. The kabbalists of Gerona mention it in connection with the description of the mystic kavvanah in prayer, which is described as a meditation concentrating upon each word of the prayer in order to open a way to the inner lights which illuminate every word. Prayer, according to this idea of meditation, is not just a recitation of words or even concentration on the contents of the words according to their simple meaning; it is the adherence of man's mind to the spiritual lights and the mind's advancement in these worlds. The worshiper uses the fixed words of the prayer as a banister during his meditation which he grasps on his road of ascension so that he should not be confused or distracted. Such meditation results in the joining of human thought to the divine thought or the divine will – an attachment which itself comes to an end, or is "negated." The hour of prayer is, more than any other time, suitable for meditation. azriel of gerona said: "The thought expands and ascends to its origin, so that when it reaches it, it ends and cannot ascend any further … therefore the pious men of old raised their thought to its origin while pronouncing the precepts and words of prayer. As a result of this procedure and the state of adhesion which their thought attained, their words became blessed, multiplied, full of (divine) influx from the stage called the 'nothingness of thought,' just as the waters of a pool flow on every side when a man sets them free" (Perush ha-Aggadot, 1943, 39–40). In such meditation, which progresses from one stage to another, there was also a certain magic element, as can clearly be deduced from the detailed description in another piece by Azriel called Sha'ar ha-Kavvanah la-Mekubbalim ha-Rishonim. Meditation does not only ponder and penetrate its object; it has the power to bring about changes in its object and likely to cause transformations as it reaches the common root of opposing extremes. In most descriptions of the methods of meditation which were preserved from the golden era of Spanish Kabbalah, however, this magic element was concealed or completely glossed over in silence. A detailed elaboration of the doctrine of meditation is to be found particularly in the teachings of abraham abulafia . The whole of his Ḥokhmat ha-Ẓeruf was designed, he believed, to teach a lasting and safe approach to meditation. It consists principally of instruction concerning meditation on the Holy Names of God and, in a wider sense, meditation on the mysteries of the Hebrew alphabet. This meditation, which   is not dependent on prayer, was described in his more important manuals as a separate activity of the mind to which man devotes himself in seclusion at given hours and with regular guidance by an initiate teacher. Here again the point of departure is the mortification of the activity of the senses and the effacement of the natural images which cling to the soul. Meditation on the holy letters and names engenders pure rational forms in the soul, as a result of which man is able to comprehend the exalted truths. At certain stages of this meditation, there appear actual visions, such as are described in the work Ḥayyei ha-Olam ha-Ba for instance, but these are only intermediate stages on the road to pure contemplation of the mind. Abulafia negates from its very start the magical element which was originally attributed to such meditation. The difference between the Christian and the kabbalistic doctrines of meditation resides in the fact that in Christian mysticism a pictorial and concrete subject, such as the suffering of Christ and all that pertains to it, is given to the meditator, while in Kabbalah, the subject given is abstract and cannot be visualized, such as the Tetragrammaton and its combinations. Instruction in the methods of meditation were widespread in the works of early kabbalists and these methods continue to be found after the expulsion from Spain among several kabbalists who were influenced by Abulafia. An anonymous disciple of Abulafia has left (in Sha'arei Ẓedek, written in 1295) an impressive description of his experiences in the study of this meditation. The works Berit Menuḥah (14th century) and Sullam ha-Aliyyah by judah albotini , one of the exiles from Spain who settled in Jerusalem, were also written in the same spirit. The most detailed textbook on meditation into the mystery of the Sefirot is Even ha-Shoham by Joseph ibn Ṣayah of Damascus, written in Jerusalem in 1538 (Ms. National and University Library, Jerusalem; see G. Scholem , Kitvei Yad be-Kabbalah (1930), 90–91). The kabbalists of Safed paid much attention to meditation, as is evident from Sefer Ḥaredim (Venice, 1601) of eleazar azikri , from chapter 30 in moses cordovero 's Pardes Rimmonim (Cracow, 1592), and the Sha'arei Kedushah of Ḥayyim Vital , part 3, chapters 5–8, propounds his doctrine on the subject. Here the magic aspect attached to meditation is once more emphasized, even though the author explains it in a restricted sense. The last steps in the ascension of the meditating mind which seeks to bring down the influx of the supernal lights to earth require meditatory activities of a magic nature, which are known as Yiḥudim ("Unifications"). The practical importance of these doctrines, whose influence can be recognized throughout the whole of late kabbalistic literature, should not be underrated. The doctrines of adhesion and meditation in 18th-century Ḥasidism are also definitely based on the form given to them in Safed. This doctrine was not written down in its entirety in the writings of isaac luria 's disciples and its major part was preserved orally. In Jerusalem's kabbalistic yeshivah Bet El practical guidance on meditation was handed down orally for about 200 years and the initiates of this form of Kabbalah refused to make the details of their practice public knowledge. -BIBLIOGRAPHY: G. Scholem, Kitvei Yad be-Kabbalah (1930), 24–30, 225–30; idem, Reshit ha-Kabbalah (1948), 142–6; idem, in: KS, 1 (1924), 127–39; 22 (1946), 161–71; idem, in: MGWJ, 78 (1934), 492–518; R.J.Z. Werblowsky, in: History of Religions, 1 (1961), 9–36. (Gershom Scholem)

Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.

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