Rabbi Chaim Zwick
One of the Baal Shemtov’s most important accomplishments was to use Tefilla as a safe method of meditation, which could be practiced by even the simplest person. The focal point of Tefilla is the Shemonah Esreh, which 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 significant 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. At that point it does not take any real mental effort on a person’s part to recite the words, and thus, it is very much like repeating a single word or phrase over and over. Therefore, if a person clears his mind of all other thoughts, and concentrates on the words of the Amidah, this prayer has the potential to induce an extremely high meditative state. The same is true of the other parts of davening that are recited daily.
The Talmud notes that the Chasidim Rishonim would spend an hour reciting the Shemonah Esreh. Since the Amidah contains some 500 words, it comes out that they would have been reciting one word approximately every 7 seconds. It is proven by experience that reciting even the first section of the Amidah at such a pace can induce an extremely high meditative state.
The early sages taught that if one wishes to have true concentration – Kavanah, that he must divest his body from his soul, banishing all worldly delights from his heart. A few decades later, this was expressed even more explicitly by the greater codifier, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (1270-1343) in his Tur. Speaking of “men of deed”, he writes, “they would meditate (hisboded) 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 Aruch.
The idea of using Tefilla as a meditative device thus did not originate with the Baal Shemtov, rather the Chazal themselves taught prayer as a meditative 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 Tefilla, 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 difficult for many people. Since the formal davening was said daily, it required a high degree of concentration to avoid allowing one’s mind to wander and to keep one’s thought’s focused on the words. As Rabbi Nachman puts it, since the formal davening is a well travelled path, there are many destructive forces that lie ready to trap the unwary.
Our sages explain Tefilla is a service of the heart and the most powerful tool in the universe, with the ability to bring a person to the highest spiritual levels. However, this incredible power of Tefilla is slightly diminished firstly by the fact that it was written in a language (i.e. Hebrew) that is foreign to many people. Secondly, by the fact that it is not personalized and tailored to every individual’s needs, both of these factors make it very difficult for the heart, the main focus of Tefilla, to be awakened, aroused, inspired and drawn after the structured and organized words of the Davening as laid out by our sages.
To solve the inherent problems with conventional prayer the great-grandson of the Baal Shemtov, Rabbi Nachman extended the way of Tefilla making it more universal and effective. Until his time, most of the prayer techniques 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 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 Tefilla. This method was to form the basis of the meditative system of Rabbi Nachman.
The tradition of spontaneous Tefilla has a long history in Judaism and was quite prevalent in Biblical and Talmudic times. Besides the formal services, Jews would always pray to Hashem in their own language and in their own words, asking Him for their needs. A constant Tefilla was that Hashem should draw the supplicant close to Him, and help him attain a closeness to the Divine.
The line between such prayer and meditation is often very blurry. It is obviously possible to pray in one’s own words without entering a meditative state. Many people offer spontaneous prayer 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 Tefilla can bring a person into a deep meditative state.
Rabbi Nachman realized that “such conversations with Hashem” 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 of words. Rabbi Nachman speaks of this ‘bashfulness’ and discusses means with which it can be overcome.
Although Hisbodedut denotes meditation, as Rabbi Nachman saw it, it was also a form of personal prayer. Indeed, this is how most Breslover Chassidim 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 Hashem, he is certain to become more Godly. When he develops a strong bond with Hashem, he is sure to have a greater desire to do Hashem’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 discuss them with Hashem, they virtually shrink into insignificance. As one Breslover Chossid put it, “When you bring your problems to Hashem, they cease to exist.” Or as Dovid Hamelech expressed it almost three millennia ago, “Place your burden on Hashem, and he will carry it for you.” (Tehillim 55:23)
Fundamental principles of Hisbodedut: Heart-felt spontaneous prayer
- The first step is designed to awaken in a person the attribute of Hakoras Hatov (giving thanks), which is fundamental and paramount to all prayer. In this step a person verbally expresses thanks to Hashem for everything he has blessed him with. For example : Health, Wealth, Relationships, Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Blessings etc
When a person expresses in detail all he has to be thankful for – it brings him to a great sense of appreciation, sensitivity and humility before Hashem, and lays the foundation for the next level, forgiveness.
- The second step is to ask Hashem forgiveness for everything that we may have done wrong. Similar to Yom Kippur when we ask for forgiveness in detail for all our transgressions.
This also awakens in a person a level of humility – as we recognize Hashem’s greatness relative to our weaknesses and inadequacies.
- The third and final step is seeing Hashem as a loving father as we offer heart-felt, spontaneous prayer sharing with Hashem all of our needs, wants, desires, goals, aspirations, tests, challenges, obstacles etc – and most importantly our burning desire to fulfill Hashem’s will and come close to him.
- Hisbodedut requires complete focus and concentration with no interruptions. Therefore, a private, quiet, isolated place is essential.
- Hisbodedut at night time is preferable to day, since at daytime people are busy with their mundane concerns, it brings with it great confusion and interference, preventing our Tefillos from rising unencumbered.
- During Hisbodedut, a person should focus on nullifying the ego, and perfecting any bad Middos. He should proceed from one Middah to the next until he has totally banished all negativity – thoroughly cleansing his mind and heart.
- The Arizal recommends to devote an entire day per week to Hisbodedut. However, the generally accepted approach is to set aside 1 hour each day for Hisbodedut. Since this is also difficult for most people, we recommend starting with 10 minutes a day and slowly building yourself up according to your capacity and comfort level.
- Since our native language is not Hebrew, and since we are not accustomed to expressing ourselves in a foreign language, and because Tefilla is a service of the heart – and our hearts are only drawn after words we understand, it is imperative that the words of Hisbodedut be expressed in our native language, making it easier to articulate our inner most feelings.
- Many of our greatest Tzaddikim explain Hisbodedut as the best advice, the greatest practice, and the most effective tool is Ahavas Hashem. They attribute the great heights they were able to reach to this practice alone.
- Hisbodedut, provides us a unique opportunity to take an accounting of our life. To calmly review and consider what life is about, and our unique purpose in this world. We can ponder what we are doing, and our special contribution to humanity. Is our life worthwhile and meaningful, or do we have to contemplate change? Hisbodedut provides us the fundamental foundations to greatness and is the springboard to a life of significance.