Rebbe Nachman's Yahrzeit: AZAMRA

The Yahrzeit  of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov is the fourth day of the week of the festival of Sukkos (Chai Tishrei- which this year falls on Sunday October 8th 2017).

To celebrate this day, and in honour of Rebbe Nachman (may the merits of the Tzadikim shield us) I am posting  the score of a short musical composition which I wrote many years ago for the Breslov community, together with a few thoughts relevant to the texts used.


However successful we may be (or appear to be)-  there are always times when we fail to do what we aspire to do. We often fail to approach “perfection” let alone attain it.  We may also fail because we do not have the abilities or skills we wish we had. 

But failure and disability are not always what they seem and if we have done our very best in the spiritual life, it really is not just “second best”. 

In the contemplative life, our intention and our effort are more important than all else. Being able to see the potential of whatever we are blessed with (and making the best use of it) is the greatest gift we can be given.

One of the favourite expressions of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was   “I will sing to G-d with the little I have left”.    It is actually a psalm text (Psalm 146:2).   You can read his interpretation of that text in Likutei Moharan 1:282. 

I am not qualified to make comment on his exposition there—  but I can tell you what the phrase meant to me at the turn of the millennium:  I had, just then, finally begun to realise that my encroaching deafness meant that I could no longer function as a performing  and teaching musician.

I had been a school music teacher for over twenty years and that realisation took some getting used to. It actually took me four years, but I am well over it now and see the whole development as Providential— for if it had not happened I might not have been quite so compelled to listen  to the Still, Small Voice in contemplative prayer. 

The song I needed to sing was an internal one. We all have such a song written in the notation of our genes--and each person has their own melody—though it can often take an entire  lifetime to discover it.

At that time, the shock of becoming deaf helped me to become  aware that the "little time I had left" was diminishing rapidly, and that I had been given a wake-up call to make good use of it.  

As an expression of this realisation in teshuvah,  I resurrected an old composition I had written setting the text of Azamra in conjunction with a poem written by "Motele", an eight year old Jewish child during the Holocaust.  Its message was one of unquenchable optimism and a determination to make the most of things:

"From tomorrow on I'll be sad, not today.Though stormy  winds may blow today,Tomorrow's sun may drive them all away. And every day,no matter how bitter, I will say:From tomorrow on I'll be sad, not today."


            Here then is the musical score:
- To see each page clearly you will need to click on each separate page in turn.
- Click on each page to open them in a new window.
- Click  again to  enlarge to full size..

(Notes: The musical reference to the klezmer song “Spieltshe mir a liedele” is deliberate.  The work has yet to be performed:- I am totally flexible with regard to instrumentation, but would always recommend that the melody is sung by a child and not an adult. Metronome marks are just guidelines and may be over-ridden.)

Azamra l’Elohai b’odi  
(I will sing to G-d with the little I have left)

At those times when we are examining our response to the Divine call to  contemplative prayer,  “The little we have left” may refer to the years of life we have but it may also refer to our “abilities” in prayer or to the amount of time in a day or week or month that we are able to devote to developing an intimate relationship with Hashem in hisbodedus and hisbonenus.

To overcome any lack of fervour in our lives of dedication we should dig deep to awaken and raise up even the smallest , dormant spark of devotion which might lie buried in the lower reaches of our soul. Such sparks can be roused and fanned into a blaze of  life if we are prepared to make the effort.

We can beat back laziness, anxiety, and ingratitude by declaring “Azamra!”--however short our prayer sessions, however rare our retreats in solitude, however wrapped up in our families, or jobs, or secular studies we may be--what matters most is not the quantity of our contemplative actions and practices, but the dedicated and contemplative quality of our lives themselves. G-d sees the heart.

V’taheir libeinu l’ovdecha be’emes.
O, purify our hearts that we may  truly serve You.

Nachman Davies
Oct 8 2017

Yom Kippur: All of us Together, Each of us Alone

In the Jewish liturgy, there is a dynamic fluctuation between communal and private prayer. On Yom Kippur,we are  reminded that each of us is alone before G-d, yet we are standing before Him as one united body: Kehal Yisroel.

 In many of the commentaries on the workings of the Yom Kippur "process", the lack of genuine teshuvah (return in repentance) of just one community member can be seen as crucial to the acceptability of the prayer of the group. Fortunately, we believe in a G-d who is compassionate  and merciful to all of us.  

We also believe  that the merits of the Tzadikim can shield us from the rigours of strict Justice.   Similarly, the merits of the righteous tzaddikim in an apparently insignificant  small congregation  have the potential to elevate the spiritual standing of the entire community of Israel.  

  The inter-relationship between the individual and the collective is dotted throughout the Torah.    In Parshas Ahare Mos, for example, we read of the detailed instructions for the liturgy of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, the Day for Atonement.  The proximate Parshas Kedoshim speaks of the ways we are enjoined to “love our neighbour as ourselves” (Vayikra 19:18).  The two are, not surprisingly, very closely related: The ritual act of atonement consists in the three steps of (i) praying for oneself; (ii)praying for one’s  near ones; and (iii) praying for the wider community (Vayikra 16:17).  This process begins with a prayer for oneself but then moves on to two further prayers for others.  The first flows into the other two because that first self-focused prayer exists primarily to make our subsequent prayers for the community acceptable.

Prayer is one of the deepest and most selfless forms of caring for others that we are privileged to exercise as human partners in the Divine Plan.

It is a hidden activity which does not draw attention to the ego, and it can be exercised not just by Leviim and Kohanim, but by anyone with a good and pure intention. Such profound and atoning prayer may be performed in physical solitude or in the midst of a congregation— It is a paradox of Jewish prayer that it is always communal and (at its most profound) always a matter of an individual’s intimate communion with G-d.

 When it is performed in solitude one never prays “outside” the community, and when one prays in the company of other daveners, the real “business” still takes place in the sanctuary of one’s own heart.

In Vayikra we read the instructions for the High Priest on Yom Kippur:

“And there shall be no man in the tent of meeting when he goes in to make atonement for the holy place, until he comes out after having made atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel.”
Vayikra 16:17

Though the vast majority of halakhic commentaries on the liturgy place communal prayer in a firm position of superiority over individual prayer, and though the strictest and most physical conception of  “ minyan ” is the one which has prevailed to this day—the fact remains that the principal prayer in our principal liturgical ceremony, on our most holy day is  performed by a single individual in clearly commanded isolation.

He enters and prays alone, but (as his vestments underline) the High Priest takes the whole community on his shoulders and bears them on his heart.  So do we if we bind ourselves to the whole Community of Israel and to those we pray for.  We may pray alone, but if our prayer is to be true—we never pray without this awareness of the community.  It is for this reason—according to Rebbe Nachman of Breslov—that the Arizal recommended that one begin the daily services with the declaration.

“Hareini mekabel 'alai mitsvat asei shel ve-ahavta le-re'akha kamokha”
(I hereby accept upon myself the positive commandment to love my fellow as myself.)

If we pray with and in the community— we are remembering that our solitary prayers are always for the benefit of all.

We too can stand before the ark in that place of solitary pleading and encounter if G-d should choose that we might be admitted. We are not high priests and yet we are invited to stand in The Presence whenever we enter into liturgical or contemplative prayer with a whole heart—with burning deveykus and the intention to draw close our G-d.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev said that a person who prays with sincerity is actually standing in the Holy of Holies when they pray, and that such a person’s upheld hands are like the wings of the keruvim above the ark.

Before davening, we bind ourselves in hiskashrus to the merits of those greater than ourselves in the hope that we may ourselves be elevated. Thus strengthened, our prayers may be of more use to those for whom we pray, and for those who may need our assistance.   In this context, it is said that Rebbe Mikhal of Zlotchov used to begin his davening with the prayer:

"I join myself to all of Israel:
To those who are more than I,
that through them I may rise-
and to those who are less than I,
so that they may rise through my thought."
(M. Buber "Tales of the Hasidim" p150)

  In such a broad community of saints and sinners, we are never alone in prayer and we have a duty to make our contemplative lives an activity of community-focused chesed and atonement worthy of one such as Aharon the High Priest.

Nachman Davies
Erev Yom Kippur 5778
(September 29  2017)

Purim: Treasuring the Concealed

HaShem hides Himself in the beauty of Concealment.
His  Wisdom is hidden from all human analysis.
                                       Avraham Maimin (1522-1570)

The festival of Purim is a celebration of the hidden action of  G-d in our lives. It is  often pointed out that His Name is never mentioned in Megillas Ester, and yet the entire tale is a demonstration of the power of Hashgachah Pratis (Divine Providence) in the lives of those who trust Him yet do their part with gratitude—and  even bravery. The name of the principal protagonist  “Ester” is itself related to the hebrew “hester” (hiddenness). Goodness hides in the midst of evil and what seems like “A” turns  out to be “B”. Expectations  are turned “v’ na hafoch Hu” (upside down) and outcomes are seen to be part of a Divine Plan—but  in retrospect.

The life  of a Jewish Contemplative is also a celebration of the concealment  of the Hidden One.

Contemplatives are seekers who are engaged in a continuous process of discovery and not an elite who have somehow "arrived". A Jewish contemplative is ever engaged on a journey towards G-d and yet, as a Jew, he or she realises that the journey can never end. How could it when it leads to the One who is “eternally ever-present”? Such infinity is not something we can ever grasp or possess.

 The Jewish Contemplative hopes to be granted an experience of the Eternal One but accepts that this experience can only ever be partially understood. It is an encounter with a deeply veiled awareness of a Presence whose actual Being is beyond our comprehension. Most Jewish mystics experience only the very merest hint of this veiled Presence, and yet the memory of that fleeting moment is often sufficient to inspire a whole lifetime of contemplative yearning for further contact.

Such a motivating experience is an experience of devekus (cleaving and attachment to G-d). It is not a superior state of human perception and understanding achieved by any practice or method of our own devising and it cannot be taught. It is a form of moral and spiritual contemplative bonding which simply makes us useful to the Creator. Its purpose is to show us that we are in a relationship with One who requires our effort, our loving compliance, and our determination to be made more “in His image” as each day passes.

In a nutshell, when we cease to see ourselves or focus on our own needs, but look in G-d’s direction and hope to meet Him in some way, we will find ourselves looking back through His eyes. This is perhaps the closest we can come to “enlightenment” and experiencing it is a process which never ends.

If there is to be any enlightenment on a Jewish mystical path, it does not consist in arriving at an all-encompassing grasp of the Divine master-plan- rather it is something which is most usually encountered in moments of semi-prophetic or inspirational intuition which can then nourish our otherwise transient and changeable experience. As Jewish contemplatives, we are expected to draw nourishment from the deeply buried memory, the muffled echo, and the glimmering after-glow of Sinai as it presents itself to us in the ordinary but often synchronous events of each and every day. To see and hear the unbearable thunder of the Voice of Sinai in every moment was beyond us then and it is beyond us now. Our blessing is to be spoon fed digestible measures of spiritual manna and to hear the message of that Voice as a still small whisper, a barely distinguished hint, a kol d’mama dakah.

When we daven or meditate, when we spend time with our G-d in discursive hitbodedus or reflective hitbonenus, we do not do so because we want to achieve something for ourselves-we pray because we are commanded to and because we wish to take our observance of the commandments to   “cleave to G-d” and to “love Him with all our heart, soul, and strength” to their fullest and most authentically Jewish levels. Not as an act of philosophy, spirituality, or mysticism per se, but as an act of religious service.

The effectiveness of this realistic and humble approach to the spiritual and mystical journey has its root in the process known as bittul haYesh: There is no point in demanding that our thirst for total control over the wildness of existence be quenched at all costs.  Our desire for certitudes and a clear vision of a spiritual “G-d-particle” is certain to miss the “target” as the Target is simply beyond our reach and skill. It is an approach which reminds Jews of their own place as the devoted servants of a commanding and loving G-d.  The concealment of G-d is not a barrier to be breached, nor is it a negative situation which we ought to try to “remedy”.  It is the Kevod of HaShem made partially accessible.  It is a gift to be treasured.

In Tehillim we read:

“Wonderfully concealed are your testimonies,
Therefore my soul has treasured them.”
Psalm 119: 129

The words of the Living G-d are pathways to walk on, shining lights to inspire us or guide our choices; flowing rivers to nourish our seminal hopes and growing thoughts; and they are a Tree of Life which is planted in heaven yet intended to bear fruit on this earth. In other words, they are a process not contained by tangible items or mental conceptualisation and the One who makes them has made them as ultimately beyond our full comprehension as His own Being is and always will be.

This in itself is a treasure, and being aware of it enables us to be both the beneficiaries and the transmitters of the Hidden  Light we are then freed to hold  in our embrace despite never being able to grasp it as a hoarded  possession.

One who treasures the concealed word of HaShem in the Torah haNistar in their prayer and meditation and who seeks to live the Torah haNigleh in their daily study and work knows that this Torah cannot ever be used as a spade to dig with, nor as a crown to be hoarded away for personal pleasure.

All  of a Jew’s relationship with HaShem is for the sake of the outflowing of the Divine into our world. The reward of a mitzvah is another mitzvah, and even the blessings which are granted specifically to Israel are ultimately for the sake of all nations and for the sake of all creation.  As the Berditchever Rebbe reminds us:

“When one nullifies oneself completely and attaches one’s thoughts to Nothingness, a new sustenance flows to all universes. This sustenance did not exist previously.”
Quoted in Aryeh Kaplan’s “Meditation and Kabbalah p.305

These words are most encouraging for those of us who make their prayers their main contribution to the tikkun (healing) of the world’s woes yet often wonder if their endeavours are of any use.  Jewish Contemplatives then, are both the beneficiaries and the transmitters of the Hidden Light. The transmission is most effectively brought about when we are as observant and as whole-hearted in yiddishkeit as we possibly can be.

That Psalm 119 verse I quoted (Wonderfully concealed are your testimonies, therefore my soul has treasured them) - tells us that G-d’s “decrees” for our life-history are not known to us, yet we ought to rejoice that our “fate” is in such good care. We make our own choices and face our trials, that is true, but He is our watchful and guiding shepherd at every moment.

The messages hidden in the “testimonies” of G-d are often very well hidden indeed. They are beneath the surface of the ordinary events in our lives. They are in the familiar texts of our prayer-books and bibles. They are in the often bewildering insights and intuitions which we receive in contemplative prayer. They are also in the insights of our prayerful study of Torah in meditation: Often, such insights are at first dimly perceived, but they can dazzle us when we suddenly “see” what we are being told/shown, each of us individually seeing something personally spoken to us in intimacy.

Our father Isaac goes out at dusk to meditate in the field.
At dusk, ordinary things are often bathed in a soft focus
And we can see their inner light more accurately.
At dusk ordinary things can sometimes fade into the half-gloom
And we turn inward to see our inner light in a more heightened way.

The growing darkness is sometimes our best friend and not an annoyance or an enemy.
It often leads to the place where we can see that our clouded perception of G-d is not just the adoption of a realistic approach-
The cloud of darkness prevents us making G-d in our own image.
It is actually closer to the Truth of G-d’s nature than any detailed theology ever could be.
The Divine which is concealed will always elude our attempt to grasp it.
But we can let G-d, the Hidden, grasp us
Through our loyalty as servants
And hold our hands as friends,
Thus, we can be held by the Hidden and know some of the power and beauty of our G-d.

When we experience an ecstatic sexual or sensual feeling
We reflexively close our eyes to improve our mind’s savouring of the physical event.
In contemplative prayer our eyes are metaphorically shut,
But we may discover that we actually “see” better in the dark.
We may not be able to see G-d’s plans for us
But being “kept in the dark” is not always a negative thing.

A contemplative is happy to know that the answer is not (necessarily) “42”.
A contemplative is not looking for answers but is allowing G-d to lead—to wherever.

Being in a Divine/human relationship in which we are informed on a “strictly need to know” basis does not  indicate that we are being kept in a subservient state of ignorance. As contemplatives, we are enlightened by a form of loving revelation whose brilliance we could never bear without the embrace of the Cloud of Unknowing.

This is the treasure of the Hidden One.
Our task is to make sure we don’t hoard it for ourselves,
But allow G-d to make us into transparent conductors of its Light.

Nachman Davies
Ta'anit Ester 5777
March 9 2017

The Burning Bush: Take off your shoes

 In Parshas Shemos, Moshe Rabeinu is commanded to remove his shoes on approaching the ground from which the Burning Bush has sprung. (Shemos 3:5)

The Nefesh HaChayim (1749-1821) interpreted the foot and its shoe as images for the soul and the body—the "shoe" being the physical vehicle for a person’s soul. To remove one’s shoes could therefore be taken as an image for divesting oneself of one’s physicality in order to focus on the spiritual. 

Judaism goes to great trouble expressing the view that the physical is not something to be quashed because of some perceived inferiority, rather it stresses that the physical and material should be uplifted and transformed by the spiritual. The two are partners and not opposites.

Nevertheless, in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 98:1) we read that prayer and meditation can produce a spiritual transformation (hispashtus ha-gashmius) by which the physical is left well behind and, as it were, temporarily forgotten.

Why is Moses commanded to take off his “physicality” ? 

Perhaps he is being commanded to forget “himself” in order to encounter the Other. 

Whenever we enter a House of Prayer to daven in community— and whenever we create our own private “house of prayer” by intention during private davening or in hisbodedus— we are acknowledging each  to be a place of personal encounter with HaShem. In both situations, the holiness of these acts requires that we should take off our shoes metaphorically.

 There are many who meditate  for the sake of personal development or health and wellbeing. There are many who study Jewish mysticism because of its profound humanistic or psychological benefits. But the contemplative encounter of Moses at the Burning Bush teaches us that the Jewish meditator or mystic has one purpose:  To encounter G-d  and engage in a relationship with Him. 

The One who reveals His Name when we are prepared to leave the “shoes” of our personal concerns and needs behind us, frees us from a self-centred kind of focus and introspection, so that he can open up a prophetic kind of focus and introspection in our souls.

Our aim, our “tachlis” as Jewish contemplatives is not to attain (or even pursue) some kind of personality development. Our aim is to encounter, to communicate with, and to converse with the One who is beyond all human understanding - To allow the Presence of G-d to pray and  act in and through us.

In our hisbodedus (informal solitary prayer) may we strip ourselves of any false sense of intellectual understanding in His Presence.  May we leave our self-focus at the door on entry into His sanctuary in our souls.  May we focus on the One we have come to find, and may He find us waiting for Him alone, ready to serve Him in our single-minded attentiveness.

Nachman Davies

Hanukah: Two Trees Feed the Lamp

Each year, we read the Joseph narrative during the Hanukah season.  People often comment that the tale is not so much a story of man’s relationship with G-d as one which focuses on family relationships. It does not seem to focus on the notion of “Divine intervention” unless we choose to see it at work through the various dreams. Thanks to a brilliant commentary on Mikeitz by Nehama Leibowitz I can see that this is not really the case. She highlighted that perfectly when she pointed out the emphatic re-iteration in the following verses from Bereshis 41:

In verse 25:  “What G-d is about to do he hath declared to Pharaoh”
In verse 28:  “What G-d is about to do he hath shown to Pharaoh”
In verse 32:  “and G-d will shortly bring it to pass”.

Similarly, in the following parshah,  Vayigash  we read that, though the brothers had sold Joseph into slavery, Joseph ascribed the real authorship of this action to G-d when he said:

“G-d has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival and to save your lives by a great deliverance.”
(Bereshis 45:4-7)

The extent to which we should rely on “G-d’s action” and the extent to which we should rely on “human action” is at the heart of the history of the festival of Hanukah too.

In the festival Haftarah, the menorah vision of Zechariah (Zech.4:3) describes two trees which flank the candelabrum and which provide the oil. One is taken to be Zerubabel- a messiah figure for the secular and physical, and the other is taken to be Joshua - a messiah figure for the priestly and spiritual. They are two complementary forces seen as separate in methods of action but united in purpose.

In the written history of the festival’s origin, the tale of the Maccabees ended up in apocryphal documentation and not in the Bible. The first book of Maccabees focuses on the Rebel/Zealot movement’s victory which was attained by physical force, while the second book focuses on the ideological cause and martyrdom of the Pietist movement’s faith in the spiritual or supernatural.

Again, we see here two very distinct attitudes sharing a common purpose.

Perhaps the Haftarah’s message is not so much that action and prayer are complementary but that they both need something else, something more, in order to be “in-spired” - in order to have the “Breath” or “Spirit” of G-d in them - namely an explicit connection with G-d Himself. Taking that point of view, the text might be read as:

“Not just by the might of political action
Nor just by the power of spiritual faith
But by the spirit of G-d which joins them together
in effective and complementary balance.”

In the developing and rather confused history of the festival of Hanukah, it was not so much the Maccabees’ victory or the Pietists’ martyrdom that was placed centre-stage: The rabbis of the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) placed the miracle of the long-lasting oil in that prime position. In doing so they were choosing the “spiritual and miraculous” emphasis. I think that is also the intended meaning of the Haftarah quote. Might and Power are predictable yet fallible. Breath and Spirit, inspiration and revelation, can be wildly unpredictable, but they can sometimes act as their beacon: a ner tamid which lights the way forward. It might also be a beacon which warns of a way not to be taken—and it can, at times, be a reminder of being ever in the present in spiritual constancy.

Despite Jacob’s vow in Bereshis 28:20, I do not know to what extent I should rely on God to provide for me, I do not know to what extent we should believe that our prayers have a direct effect on the progress of the cosmos (from assisting our friend’s struggles in illness, to world politics), I do not know to what extent we should fight wars to achieve anything believed to be “good”. Despite choosing to walk a comparatively quietist path, the working out of this “Maccabean enigma” is a work still very much in progress for me, and no doubt for you too.

But I do feel that it is the specific duty of the dedicated Jewish Contemplative to be the “Joshua”, the “Pietist”, above all else and to declare explicitly that all is in the hands of heaven. It is unrealistic for anyone to think that all Jews be both Joshua and Zerubabel, some specialisation is both inevitable and beneficial.

Both trees feature in the vision that feeds the lamp.

A contemplative’s special task is to pray… and if that is done, it is my hope that “action” will be done:
by G-d as a “miracle of inspiration”;
by G-d through “human hands”;
by G-d through the miracles of His Providence.

As the daily Modim prayer reminds us, those miracles are not confined to the festival of Hanukah but are with us at every moment of every day.

Nachman Davies
December  22 2016

(Updated from a previous article  on this website)

Solitude in Jewish Contemplative Practice

In the tractate of the Mishnah known as the “Ethics of the Fathers”, we are strongly advised “not to separate ourselves from the community” (Pirkei Avos 2:5). Anyone attempting to lead a Jewish solitary life has to come to terms with this directive, yet there have always been Jews who have felt inspired to make solitary lives of prayer and study their main spiritual discipline and a major part of their contribution to the life of the Community of Israel.

If you consult a modern Hebrew dictionary, you will discover that the word for solitude is “b’didut”. In Jewish mystical theology the related term “hitbodedut” (often transliterated as “hisbodedus”) has been used for centuries to denote interior and exterior seclusion for contemplative prayer and meditation. Despite this history, a non-Jewish observer might find it hard to see evidence of physical or spiritual solitude in Jewish practice—and many Jews might even declare that there is no place for it in Judaism at all. In this short essay I hope to shine a little positive light on that gloomy misconception.

The two main reasons for the apparent dearth of solitary practice in Judaism are its insistent focus on communal activity and its objections to life-long celibacy. Judaism does not generally encourage physical withdrawal from society, it encourages the pursuit of justice and mercy through social action. Judaism does not encourage monastic celibacy as a way of expressing devotion, dedication, or as a spiritual technique. Instead, Judaism regards procreation (Genesis 1:28) and the education of children by the family unit (Deuteronomy 6:7) to be positive mitzvos—commandments to be observed. It also insists that communal liturgical prayer is the ideal form of Jewish worship, and it makes the presence of a minyan (ten worshippers) the condition for many full liturgical usages in order to assert this directive somewhat forcefully.

Nevertheless, if we look at the lives of Jews with a leaning towards meditation, contemplation, and meticulous religious observance we may find surprising and highly significant anomalies in the practice of religious solitude. I am not merely referring to fringe pietist groups or minority eccentrics here, but towering figures like Moses our Teacher, Elijah the prophet, Rabbi Isaac Luria the eminent kabbalist, and the Baal Shem Tov, founder of “modern” chassidism. These are not Jews on the fringe. They are the generators and exemplars of quintessential Jewish spiritual practice.

What is even more remarkable—given the usually universally observed commandment to procreate—there are even Tzaddikim who have practiced celibacy as an exceptional form of Jewish spiritual dedication. Examples of lifelong celibates in Judaism include the prophets Elijah and Elisha (see Zohar Chadash 2,1; Midrash Mishlei 30; and Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 33), as well as the Talmudic sage Rabbi Simeon Ben Azzai (see the Bavli tractate Yevamot 63b and also the remarks on religious celibacy in the Shulchan Aruch, Even ha-Ezer 1:4).

Moses and Elijah were both advocates of religious solitude by example. Moses spent two very long retreats on top of Mount Sinai in deep solitude. He also left his wife and family behind and lived in celibacy for many years. Elijah appears to have been unmarried and childless yet, in a sense, his progeny are the contemplative Jews in each era. In every generation, each contemplative Jew follows Elijah into the cave of solitude to refine his/her spiritual attentiveness to the inner voice of the divine, and our tradition declares Elijah to be the archetypal mentor of those blessed to receive the gift of “his” mystical instruction. To be “under the mantle of Elijah” is to receive a profound contemplative awareness—a change in perspective— which is brought about by God’s inspiration.

When Moses went “into the Cloud” (Exodus 24:18), it was for a solitary retreat of forty days. Elijah’s encounter with the “still small voice” in the cave on Horeb (I Kings 19:9-18) was the climactic event which concluded a long solitary journey of forty days (I Kings 19:8). This was a biblical “zen walking meditation” par excellence. These experiences were not the biblical equivalent of a short “weekend retreat”. They were significantly long periods of isolated meditation intended, I would suggest, as models for future Jewish practice.

The giving of the Torah at Sinai was a unique religious event in that it was not an individual but a communal revelation. All of Israel experienced this event and yet, in a sense, the Torah was received by each individual in their own heart—in a spiritual solitude which is deeper than any mere physical solitude ever could be. It is “solitude within a crowd” and it is reflected each and every day in the traditional Jewish liturgy. Each communal service has periods where congregation members recite the central prayer of eighteen blessings (the Shemoneh Esreh) silently. At this and at other times during communal worship, they pray in secluded privacy under their tallisim ( prayer shawls), often at their own pace while absorbed in a text on the pages of their own prayer-book. They are worshipping in community, yet praying alone in interior solitude.

Elijah was only able to hear the “still small voice” when he had ignored the hustle and bustle of normal existence. The earthquake, and the wind, and the fire of our frenetic business and social lives can sometimes obscure a call to experience a deeper level of daat (religious encounter) or a more profound revelation of God’s will (ratzon). The messages of the “still small voice” are often the very ones which we are trying to avoid confronting, receiving, or putting into practice ourselves. Perhaps it is in a combination of external and internal solitude that we can best be aware of this tiny and hidden spark of inspiration (ruach ha-kodesh). Elijah was a Jewish mover and shaker, for certain—but even he went on a retreat. His is a Jewish example of religious solitude which many Jews ignore.

In chapter thirteen of his manual for Jewish pietists (Sefer Ha Maspik, in Rabbi Wincelberg’s English translation, “The Guide to Serving God”), Rabbi Abraham Maimonides (1186-1237) considers the biblical use of solitary meditation and suggests that we might follow the examples of Isaac meditating in the field (Genesis 24:63); of Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:3) and in his “Tent of Meeting” outside the camp” (Exodus 33:7); and Joshua during his long retreat there ( Exodus 33:11). He also gives us one of the most comprehensive definitions of Jewish solitary practice in existence when he writes:

“Outward retreat (hisbodedus) might be total, such as to separate from the city to isolate oneself in deserts, mountains, or other uninhabited places. It might be partial, such as to isolate oneself in houses. It might be frequent, or occasional, for long periods, or for short periods. But it is impossible in this world for one to retreat for an entire lifetime.”
(from the “Sefer HaMaspik” Chapter 13 trans Rabbi Yaakov Wincelberg in “Guide to Serving God” p 495)

Rabbi Abraham’s definition holds good for every Jewish solitary from the biblical era to the present day.

It is worth noting that attempts to incorporate solitude into Jewish life have most often been a case of a single Jew practicing a temporary hermit lifestyle rather than the communal monastic one. Christian solitaries have usually chosen to live as anchorites (confined in a building); as hermits (living in physical solitude); or as communal but eremitical monks ( sharing some aspects of religious life but spending the majority of time in isolation in a cell). Yet even these forms were not without some representation in Jewish practice. For example Rabbi Chaim Vital (1542-1620) writes when speaking of the “early saints” (chassidim rishonim) mentioned in the Talmud:

“These individuals would travel to rocky caves and deserts, secluded from the affairs of society. Some would seclude themselves in their homes, as isolated as those who went into the deserts. Day and night, they would continuously praise their Creator, repeating the words of the Torah, and chanting the Psalms, which gladden the heart.”
From “Sha’arey Kedushah” trans Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan on p94 of “Meditation and Kabbalah.”

There is, however, one notable example of a Jewish “communal eremitic monasticism”: the Order of the Therapeutae. The sole surviving historical source for knowledge of this Jewish religious order is Philo’s “De Vita Contemplativa” written early in the First Century C.E. (A.D.) Some scholars suggest that the community must have been formed of elderly “retired parents” and temporarily dedicated young pre-nuptual assistants. They were each secluded in a small hermitage with a private garden and prayer room with the cells grouped around a communal building, rather like the arrangement used by the Carthusian monks of the Christian religion. Each of the “communal hermits” of the Jewish monastic order of Therapeutae (both female and male) lived in solitude during the first six days of the week, but on the Sabbath, the entire community would gather for communal meals and services.

By combining Sabbath assembly with weekday solitude, perhaps the Therapeutae were attempting to reconcile the need for community observance with the countervailing impulse to lead solitary contemplative lives. It was this “Sabbath/weekday compromise” that was most often taken up by those later kabbalists and chassidim who felt particularly drawn to solitary practice— though almost exclusively in a solitary eremitical rather than a monastic form.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) writes:

“As a young man, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the founder of the Lurianic Kabbalah, removed to the banks of the Nile. For seven years he secluded himself in meditation, visiting his family only on the Sabbath, speaking seldom and then only in Hebrew, which was not commonly spoken in his time. Chassidic lore tells us that as a young man the Baal Shem Tov spent many years alone in the Carpathian Mountains.

Solitude was a common practice among mystically inclined Jews. Even the non-mystical Jewish writers of the Middle Ages seemed to agree that solitary living was indispensable to the attainment of spiritual purity. This view may be found in the writings of Abraham Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Badarshi, Falaquera, Gersonides, Albo, Crescas, and Abravanel among others.”
(from “A Passion for Truth” p 214, Rabbi A.J.Heschel)

The subject of that essay, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), spent no less than nineteen years secluded in a single room adjacent to his shul, only venturing out when called to the reading of the Torah. Rabbi Joseph Horwitz of Novhardok (1848-1919) spent eighteen months as a “Jewish anchorite” in solitary retreat in a room with a bricked-up door and holes in the wall for delivering his food. He agreed to marry, but only on condition that he be allowed to spend all the weekdays in solitude in a forest hermitage. He lived like that permanently for twelve years. In the Breslov community, kabbalist-ascetic Reb Avraham ben Reb Nachman Chazan (1849-1917) also spent his weekdays in solitude in the woods outside Uman for many years, returning home each week only on the Sabbath.

But these, one must admit, are exceptional examples of an extreme practice of seclusion. In many ways, the more typically Jewish use of solitude as a religious discipline is one which is practiced in comparatively short retreats, or in regular periods of secluded meditation whose duration is measured in just hours, or even minutes. Rabbi Abraham Abulafia (1240-1291) writes:

“Choose a special place for yourself where your voice will not be heard. Meditate alone with no-one else present. If you engage in this by day do so in a darkened room. It is best if you do this at night.”
(“Chayei Olam HaBah,” trans. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in “Meditation and Kabbalah,” p. 107)

The same practice is recommended by Rabbi Chayim Vital (1542-1620):

“You should be in a room by yourself...It should be a place where you will not be distracted by the sound of human voices or the chirping of birds. The best time to do this is shortly after midnight”
(“Shaarei Kedushah,” trans. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in “Meditation and Kabbalah,” p. 197)

The practice of such solitary prayer is especially dear to the followers of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1811) who used the word hisbodedus to denote a form of informal prayer in solitude to be practiced on a daily basis by Jews of every type and spiritual capability. Here are three short examples of his advice on this:

“It would be good if we could spend our entire day in hitbodedut. However, not everyone is capable of this. Therefore, we should spend at least one hour each day alone, meditating and speaking to God.

However, if a person's heart is strong, and he wishes to accept upon himself the yoke of Divine service, in truth he should aspire to practice hitbodedut all day long. Thus, our Sages declared: "Would that a person could pray all day long!” (Berakhot 21a)
(Likutey Moharan 11, 96, trans. Rabbi David Sears in “The Tree that Stands beyond Space,” p. 78)

“It is also necessary that you should meditate in an isolated place. It should be outside the city, or on a lonely street, or some other place where other people are not found. (...) You must therefore be alone, at night, on an isolated path where people are not usually found. Go there and meditate.”
(Likutey Moharan I, 52, trans. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in “Meditation and Kabbalah,” p. 310)

Hitbodedut meditation is the best and the highest level of worship. Set aside an hour or more each day to mediate, in the fields or in a room, pouring out your thoughts to God .... Every person can express his own thoughts, each according to his own level. You should be very careful with this practice, accustoming yourself to do it at a set time each day.”
(Likutey Moharan II, 25, trans. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in “Meditation and Kabbalah,” p. 309)

In his Sefer HaMaspik, Rabbi Abraham Maimonides tells us that the “great sages” (gedolim) used to pronounce the following blessing:

“May God enable you to feel companionship in solitude and loneliness in a crowd”
(op.cit. p 529)

This is perhaps the most perfect Jewish way to practice the spiritual discipline of solitude. Most contemplative Jews do not seek withdrawal from society for too long, yet  they all appreciate that physical solitude is often necessary for spiritual health and growth. A contemplative Jew is like Jacob in Genesis 35: He is one who wrestles with both God and Humanity in the privacy of his own heart. But in that solitary struggle he is not simply a “Jacob,” an individual in solitude. He is also “Israel,” - a spiritually generative and essential part of his greater religious community. As Rabbi Moses Cordovero (1522-1570) writes:

“All Israel is related one to the other, for their souls are united, and in each soul there is a portion of all the others.”
("Tomer Devorah" 4:6)

When Jews practice solitude as a spiritual discipline, they take the Community of Israel with them into their own personal “desert”—they have not withdrawn from Jewish or global society at all, but have chosen a particularly deep form of spiritual engagement with them. Their seclusion and solitude is not a form of self-regard or a method of character development because, above all else, they cleave to the Solitary One in order to become useful as conduits of His Light. Whether physically isolated or not, they have withdrawn into the cave of the heart—and from there they hope to draw down the compassion of the God of Israel on all creation.

©Norman R. Davies
January 1 2012
(re-posted September 3 2013)


For those interested in a more advanced study and practice of “hitbodedut”, I highly recommend the online archive of classical Jewish texts to be found on the website “Solitude-Hisbodedus” which can be accessed HERE