Solitude in Jewish Contemplative Practice - February 2012

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 hitbodedus 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 hitbodedus 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.

©Nachman Davies
January 1 2012


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