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)



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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



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Sinai in our Hearts (May 2013)

The visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel have provided Jewish sages, mystics, and scholars with profound material for philosophy, theology, and countless methods of contemplative prayer. They have inspired esoteric mystical associations and entire schools of Jewish mysticism.

But there is nothing in the visions of Isaiah or Ezekiel which surpasses the experience of every Jew present at Sinai.
( Exodus 19:9)

At Sinai our nation was betrothed to its G-d.  All the souls of Israel past,present,and future stood there, and we all consented to receive the Torah even though we did not know its details.

 At Sinai we all saw the Voice of G-d as He laid Torah on our hearts.

Some of it was heard but has not been verbalised. Some of it was seen but has not risen into our consciousness. All of us heard it in our own way and each of us is commanded to write our own torah as a result of what we heard. We are all invited to listen to that Voice. All of us.

There are those who go down in the Chariot and there are those who are engaged in the Work of Creation. There are those who climb Sefirotic Trees and those who manipulate the Holy Letters. But there is a simple path for simpler people.

 There is one essential process to arrive there: Stand still.
 There is one essential activity to perform: Listen.

We stand still whenever we take time-out for a while: silencing the clamour of restless over-activity in order to offer the prayer of silence itself.

We listen by making that special time the opportunity to come into contact with the "still small voice" that may sometimes bear with it an echo of the Divine. 

 ......................... 

On Shavuos we say
 “Na’aseh v’nishmah” 
 (We will do, and we will hear)
 with all our heart and soul— 


May we accept the yoke of Torah anew and thus begin to listen out for the Voice of Sinai as it speaks its universal yet individuated message to each and every one of us, each and every day....if only we would listen. 


(from Kuntres M'arat Ha-Lev)

The Communal Prayer of the Solitary (April 2013)

Parshas Ahare Mos describes the detailed instructions for the liturgy of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, the Day for Atonement. Parshas Kedoshim speaks of the ways we are enjoined to “love our neighbour as ourselves” (Leviticus 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 (Leviticus 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 which 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” takes place in the sanctuary of one’s own heart. In Parshas Ahare Mos 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.” (Leviticus 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 one’s fellow as oneself.)

 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 the sincere person in prayer was in that very “place” and that such a person’s upheld hands were 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.



 NRDavies
 April 18 2013

Shabbos HaGadol: The Great in the Small (March 2013)

Shabbos HaGadol takes its name from the phrase “Yom HaShem hagadol v’hanorah” in Malachi 3:23. (the day’s haftarah). The verse declares:

 “Behold, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the coming of the great and awesome Day of HaShem.” 

The Jewish mystical tradition connects the experience of enlightenment and revelation with the archetypal symbol of Elijah. When “he” is sent, “Eliyahu” is the revelation of gevurah and chesed in balance. He is both destructive zeal and healing comfort, the visitor at all circumcisions and (we hope) the guest at our seder. His zeal assists us in the burning out of our chametz and his encouragement overflows in the enheartening wine which we pour into his special cup at the seder. We open the door to him by remembering the poor in practical acts of tzedekah in the days before Pesach, and we hope that we have thus prepared a place in our lives for his visiting presence.

 The “great and awesome day” which we expect is actually always present, but in a few days time we will celebrate Passover , and on that festival we will attempt to connect the past in Egypt to the future in the rebuilt Jerusalem. We will be attempting to make that “Day” shine its reflection on our domestic celebration of Pesach.

 If we take Pesach as the celebration of the “reflection of the ultimate redemption” which is to come— that means that these last days of Passover preparation, and especially Shabbos HaGadol itself, might also be the time spoken of in the verse. If so, then now is the time for us to expect the spirit of Elijah to descend.

Shabbos HaGadol is a special opportunity to open the door to “Eliyahu” privately and personally in our contemplative thoughts so that we may share a double portion of Elijah’s spirit: The gevurah we need to cast out narrow-minded cynicism and proud self-importance—together with the gentle and healing chesed that shows us how to love HaShem and all His creations with all our heart, soul, and wealth.

This will enable us to see beyond appearances and realise that the “Great” is sometimes hidden in the small. (see I Kings 19:12)

Just as the great day of the final redemption is mirrored in the celebration of the apparently “smaller” festival day(s) of Pesach, and just as the flavour of the Olam HaBa is tasted in every Shabbos— so Shabbos HaGadol reminds us that our meeting with the “spirit of Eliyahu” may be hidden in smaller epiphanies.

Shabbos HaGadol is “great” because it is a chance to encounter Eliyahu "privately" (as it were) as he walks towards us on his way to our seder and it is a chance to see that his tutelage is often a kind of seed concealed in the “small” and apparently mundane and insignificant.

This year, Shabbos HaGadol coincides with our reading of Parshas Tzav— and one of the passages in that parshah describes the ritual of taking out the ashes from under the altar. Basically this is just a very menial task, but it was so coveted that certain priests in later days used to race and fight for the privilege. Many commentators have pointed out that the deep message of this section of the parshah is that the ordinary events in our life are JUST as valuable as the apparently "Holy" ones.

The apparently insignificant progress we make in our ordinary observance of the mitzvos may achieve more than we can dream, and our positive and generous responses to the Providential events which we encounter may be much more than just small acts of devotion,worship, and charity: They may actually be the keys which open the door to the great expanse of Gilui Eliyahu, the Revelation of Elijah. In the days before Pesach, the door of this opportunity is right before us. We are told that Elijah is to be sent to us before this great day - May we meet him, and greet him, and be greeted in return. 


N.R.Davies
March 21 2013

Shabbos: The Shelter of Encounter (March 2013)

Parshas Ki Sissa contains the revelation of G-d's Compassion to Moses in the Cleft in the Rock (Exodus Ch.33:21 to Ch.34:9), and it also reminds us that Shabbos is a sign of eternal remembrance. (Exodus 31:13). The two are forever linked in my mind because Shabbos is like a special shelter amidst the six days of the work-week, and it is also a special time of encounter between G-d and our souls.

 As the most elevated symbol of our Covenant with G-d, the Sabbath is a “sign” which involves complementary action on both sides: G-d gives it to all Israel as a sort of “Tent of Meeting” which is spread over us as a Shelter of Peace; and we engage with Him in a special “Shabbos” mode of being in which our contact with the Divine is intensified or “doubled”.

 As a covenantal “deal”—it involves a priceless gift from on high and a dedicated commitment of observance from below, and together these produce a form of Divine revelation which is (stunningly) available to us every single week.

 “The closer we get to God the more we realise how little we understand what or who “He” is. The closer we try to get, the deeper our awe. Describing even a “back” view is futile. In our attempts to “connect” with God in contemplative prayer we experience a need to withdraw to a protective enclosure….a “cleft in the rock” away from the bustle of work or crowds, a metaphysical “cave” in which to focus our attention, or a large prayer-shawl under which we can feel God’s protective embrace.” 

Shabbos is a “protective enclosure” and a place where we may “feel G-d’s embrace” too. 


 Each Shabbos, we are given the opportunity to revisit the Cleft of Moses/the Cave of Elijah afresh. In Parshas Ki Sissa (Exodus 33:23) Moses saw the “back” of HaShem’s Glory. On Shabbos, though our own perceptions are blunt, we are all thoroughly immersed in its protective Cloud of Glory.    To us, it may be a cloud of  “unknowing” but Shabbos is nonetheless a time of true and intense encounter.

Shabbos displays the boundless compassion of G-d in that we are permitted to experience it each week. It recurs each week in the manner of a point on a spiral: we encounter the same moment-out-of-time, but our experience of it is an ever evolving ascent through its holiness.  

 Though each Shabbos is (in some sense) identical, each Shabbos is also experienced as new. This is because Shabbos exists in the eternal present. The Eternal Present is also one of G-d’s names. In the light of this, we can be sure that on Shabbos, we may not see the Face of G-d—but we are certain to be in the core of His Embrace.



Norman R Davies
Havdalah
March 2 2013

The Prayer of Nearness - (Feb 2013)

 Here  is a simple re-posting of an essay which I wish to highlight. It was first published in February 2011 (for Shabbos Terumah). 

 The root krv in Hebrew refers to "nearness" or "intimacy" and it gives us the word korban. Although it has a different root, we may also hear an echo of it in the word keruv.   A korban (sacrifice) is the means by which we attempt to draw near to the divine and a keruv (cherub) is either an angelic being which lives near to the presence of G-d or a symbol of that “nearness”. When we are close to someone we say that they are our “nearest and dearest”- a phrase which usually denotes one’s family and friends. This terminology of intimacy is not out of place in a discussion of the intimacy experienced in contemplative prayer, for G-d is both our Parent and our Friend.  The Jewish Contemplative is a Mitkarev: someone who wishes to "draw near" to G-d.

For contemplatives it is an especially apt vocabulary. A religious contemplative is one of those who simply cannot find rest unless they are involved in an active and intimate relationship with the divine- in other words, a person who literally craves nearness with G-d. Of course, it does not always follow that a desire for such “nearness” makes the supplicant also one of G-d’s “dearest”.

There are many who crave to be near the divine who are just well wrapped-up in a religious cloak, or who are lost in the labyrinths of magic or superstition which are sometimes the fore-courts of religious experience and sometimes their heavily disguised prison-block. Some of us slide temporarily into such prisons and sometimes try on that cloak for size, but we are rescued (usually by common sense though sometimes by Revelation) before we are utterly lost. Aaron must have been like that. My guess is that he remembered the golden calf and his bitter infidelity at all the subsequent times when he stood before the ark of the covenant. Similarly all of us are capable of being “pious” in our behaviour and yet devoid of the “righteousness” which combines with and extends such religious piety into becoming the practical and selfless love of others.

Yet the fact remains, some of us are most definitely aware of a call to be “near” G-d which does not elevate us over others, does not lead us into power-games with the spiritual world, and which is not an escape from community but an expression of profound involvement in it. Such contemplatives have the single-mindedness which is expressed in the cry:

"One thing do I ask of the Lord, and only that shall I seek:
To dwell in the house of The Lord all the days of my life,
To behold G-d’s beauty,
And to meditate in His Sanctuary."
Psalm 27:4

All contemplative Jews aspire to this, but a Dedicated Jewish Contemplative is a Jew with a monastic single-mindedness to devote every moment of their existence to the practice of such nearness. Not as a form of self-perfecting asceticism, but as act of religious and community service. A “sacrifice”of prayer and devotion which envelops all creation. It is not an escape from society or responsibility. It is an embrace.

I have not seen this better expressed than in the following passage from the writings of Rav Avraham Kook which I came across last year :

“Whoever feels, after many trials, that the soul within him can find repose only when it is occupied with the mysteries of the Torah, should know that for this has he been destined. May no obstacle in the world, fleshly or even spiritual, confuse or turn him from the pursuit of the fountain of his life, his true fulfillment.
And it is well for him to know that not only his own self-fulfillment and salvation wait upon the satisfaction of this tendency within him... The saving of society and the perfecting of the world also depend upon it. For a soul fulfilled helps to fulfill the world. True thoughts, when they flow without hindrance into any one of the corners of life, bless all of life.”
Abraham Isaac Kook
(quoted on page 575 of the Study Anthology in Siddur Tefilot)

I would go further than Rav Kook and state that to discourage the minority of Jews who wish to live like this from doing so- might actually be preventing the light of tikkun olam from reaching all the nooks and crannies it is intended to reach. The responsibilities of the contemplative (and of the full-time yeshivah and kollel student) are, in my account book, as needed and as valuable as are the more pragmatic or more easily quantified aspects of Jewish philanthropy and tzedekah.

Putting this in a nutshell, I am saying that if a Dedicated Jewish Contemplative (or any contemplative Jew) wants to be one of G-d’s “dearest” practitioners of Justice and Good Deeds, the most direct path for them is to focus exclusively on becoming “near” to G-d.

Becoming “one of G-d’s intimate friends” (to use Avraham Maimonides’ term) in a highly spiritual or “consecrated” lifestyle is not a path which attracts all Jews...but some are specifically called to use it. Some for a short time. Some for much longer. (ask Isaac Luria and Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, both of whom spent many years in contemplative and solitary isolation.)

The paradox is that this apparently solitary, withdrawn, and highly spiritual path to G-d leads simultaneously to a deeper and more dynamic practical community life. A community life expressed through the sacrificial performance of contemplative prayer and liturgy.

The Mitkarev, the one who draws near, is alone but always in community.

I’ll try to explain that statement a little as this commentary unfolds, but first I’d like to look at the “prayer of nearness”. The type of contemplation during which G-d engages a Jewish Contemplative in mental prayer.

Sometimes we pray with words. Sometimes we pray with our silence.
That silence may be the silence of deep awe as we realise before Whom we stand,
That silence may be that of one who is listening with rapt attentiveness.
Perhaps waiting for inspiration or enlightenment,
But when a Jewish Contemplative prays in such silence:
They are always praying in this way to express service and availability.
The ultimate aim is to be of use to G-d.
This puts service, avodat ha-kodesh, above any self-based motive or concern.

It is possible to be in the presence of the Lord of All Worlds and yet to call Him “Tateh” (Father). We have lost none of our awe and respect when we do this. We are profoundly aware of the stunning intimacy we are granted in our prayerful relationship with G-d. He is both El Elyon -beyond our understanding- and yet also Yedid Nefesh (Our soul’s lover and friend) and thus within our human experience. Our G-d is Avinu Malkeinu (our Father and our King). The Sovereign of the Universe is our Parent and Friend.

Sometimes our prayer is like sitting in companionable silence with the One who is closer to us than our own thoughts are to our words. Closer than we can express. But we know in our hearts that G-d is that close. We know the rabbinical dictum which reminds us that “G-d is the Place (HaMakom) of the world but not confined or wholly contained by the World”. But we know from our intuitive contemplative experience that G-d’s Place is (also) the cave of the heart- in our deepest soul.

Sometimes our silence is like a wordless gaze of love, compassion, hope, sorrow, deep joy or deep despair. Sometimes it is not we who are doing the looking: there are times when we are momentarily aware of G-d’s gaze and attention on us. That itself becomes a moment of contact which might happen only once in our lives, but which can feed a whole lifetime of faith and hope. The sort of “nearness” I am referring to here is thus not the nearness of one who cleaves to G-d in the midst of all their activities...the kind of devekus which all Jewish mystics aspire to....but it is the sort of momentary or very rare kind of connection which all religious people cherish as special treats. They are not necessarily emotional (nor intellectual), but they are always special.

If they are genuine moments of a special contact with G-d, their effects will last as creative and action-generating events to be called up into the memory long after they were first experienced. If they are simply the works of an overactive imagination or hormonal activity, they will splutter out like a lamp-wick drowning in too much oil. If they are the result of a humble approach to a G-d who wants to be encountered, then yes, imagination and our body chemistry is most certainly involved, but something will have entered the heart/consciousness of the one praying to make the encounter a numinous/spiritual one and not just a psychic/cerebral one. Perhaps the experience of the mystic is some sort of internal conversation between those two areas of human thought and experience? Perhaps it is from out of that internal conversation between the two “keruvim of our human spirituality” that the divine Voice is generated?

In Parshas Terumah we are told

"And there I will meet with you
and I will speak to you, from above the ark cover,
from between the two keruvim."
(Exodus 25:22)

The words are addressed to Moses and Aaron and so they applied in the first instance to prophets and priests. But to quote Rabbi J.H.Hertz (commenting on the priestly investiture recounted in Parshas Tetzaveh):

“The ear was touched with the blood that it might be consecrated to hear the word of G-d; the hand, to perform the duties concerned with the priesthood; and the foot, to walk in the path of righteousness. In a “kingdom of priests”, the consecration of ear, hand, and foot should be extended to every member of that kingdom.”
Hertz Chumash p 346

We read also:
“And there I will meet with the Children of Israel”
Exodus 29:43

In other words, the Divine promise to meet us in the “prayer of nearness” is made to the entire People of Israel, and not just with its leaders, clergy, or officials. Consequently, all of us are invited to “draw near”, stand in that place before the ark, and listen the Voice which speaks from between the keruvim. Thus, in this prime way, all Jews are called to be “contemplatives” and contemplatives in community. The High Priest alone entered the Holy of Holies, but the entire people were “present there” in spirit. They stood outside the veil but were as focussed on the concealed Presence in the Most Holy Place as any High Priest.

Thus, all Jews are invited to practice the “prayer of nearness”, whether they are living lives of dedicated contemplation or not. There is a balance here. Just as the full time Torah Scholar or Jewish Contemplative engages in a form of tikkun olam which is for the benefit and the service of the “social group”- So the Jew whose life is predominantly one of social activity and secular business is called to remember that attention to “the spiritual” is not to be overlooked. Having said this, it is very rare and perhaps impossible to find that the “spiritual” and the “secular” are perfectly balanced in any particular individual... most of us choose a point along the spectrum between the two which is more medial than extreme. But in a healthy community there will always be room for those whose calling is on the fringes, and as we Jews know, “fringes” (tzitzit) are often more significant than they might seem at first glance.


 The nearness of G-d is something we can experience in private prayer. In that sense it is a bit like standing before the ark in our interior Sanctuary with nobody else present to disturb the intimacy of the moment. The nearness of G-d is also experienced in Community. In that sense, maybe it’s a bit like the silent dialogue of the keruvim we read of in the Talmud:


There is a saying -originating in Bava Batra 99a and Yoma 54a -that the two keruvim seemed to embrace and touch wings when the Israelite community was in harmony with G-d’s will and that they seemed to disconnect and turn their faces away from each other in times of discord.

Though it is possible that the design or placement of the carvings may have made the figures appear differently when viewed from differing perspectives..the details are not as important as is the symbolic thought behind this Talmudic notion.

Some commentators have seen the facing/facing away as a reference to inter-personal behaviour within the community itself:- that the keruvim seemed to face each other when the community was solicitous for the needs of its weaker members and that they turned away when Jews were being selfish.

I find the idea of the two keruvim facing each other but looking “down” at the ark very reminiscent of the monastic practice of performing the liturgy in antiphonal choirs. Christian monks face each other during the liturgy but never look directly at each other.

The monastic liturgical seating arrangement is one whereby the community members are simultaneously facing each other in two lines but are individually engrossed in prayerful contact with G-d. It is a seating arrangement that some think originated in Levitical practice and which is also reflected in older Spanish synagogues where the congregation line three of the four walls of the building.

Each Jewish Contemplative is engaged in the activity of “Cleaving to” G-d in devekut, but somehow “bears” the community in his/her heart while doing so. We are closest to each other when we are close or “near” to G-d.

When we cleave to G-d and (in doing so) hold our brothers and sisters in our own communities (and in the community of all Creation) in the Light- we are, in a way, being keruvim ourselves: Each of us “facing” in the sense that we act as a community, but each of us “focused on the ark” so that the Divine Presence may rest and maybe even speak or act in the “space” our prayer creates.

The embrace of the keruvim is the union of the individual and the community, of the practical and the spiritual, of the rational and the intuitive, of joy and sorrow. They are like two flames which want to burn as one. That union is a flame which only you can light when you stand before the ark and listen. 



N R Davies
Feb 1 2011