The Solitary Retreat of the Arizal

(An island on the Nile)
In celebration of the Yahrzeit  of The Holy Ari (5th Menachem Av)

There are those who claim that there is no place for solitary contemplative living in Judaism. The example of the Arizal (Rabbi Yitzchok Luria Ashkenazi 1534–1572) would  suggest that this is far from being the case.

In many ways this giant of Jewish mysticism is actually one of the  greatest  exponents of meditation in solitude and a true exemplar of the  immense  value of a life of prayer and extended silent retreat undertaken  for the  sake of the  entire Community of Israel.

 The Arizal’s devoted disciple, Rabbi Chayim Vital (1543–1620), gives us  the  facts:

After he  was married, he spent seven  years meditating…with his  master, Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi. He then meditated alone for six years.  He then added to this, meditating…for two years straight in a  house on the Nile. There he  would remain alone, utterly isolated, not speaking to any human being.  The only time he  would return home would  be  on the eve of the Sabbath…But even at home he would  not speak to anyone, not even  his wife.[1]

This period of extended retreat produced a Kabbalistic system that revolutionised many aspects  of Jewish mysticism, but it also produced a man who saw prayer as a form of action that was  community-based.  Two famous quotes from his  teachings (again recorded by Rabbi Chayim Vital) should  serve  to make this clear:

Before beginning the recitation of any liturgical  prayer service, The  Ari  encourages all Jewish contemplatives to bear in mind  their place within the Kehal Yisroel by making the following declaration of intent:

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.)[2]

The second quote  from the teachings of the Arizal reads:

Even though a person may not have committed a [particular]sin, he must beg forgiveness and confess it...for if another Jew has committed this sin it is as if he himself had done it. For this reason, the confession is written in the plural. [3]

This concept is  a development of the Talmudic principle of “kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh” (all of Israel is  responsible  one for the other),[4] but in the Lurianic context it is stated as part of  his insistence  that the whole of Israel is  like One  Body.  For the Arizal, the contemplative  at prayer is engaged in a form  of tikkun to heal ailing parts of that body. One who feels  the suffering of the Community will merit seeing  the salvation of the Community.[5]

It is impossible for the authentic Jewish Contemplative  to separate from the community—even in solitary retreat we are always at its heart.

If we bind ourselves to the whole Community of Israel and to those individual souls that we pray for, our prayer in solitude becomes a community act.   When someone requests our prayers for a cause or asks us to daven for a particular person, and when we stand in deepest  liturgical prayer and beg for the union of The Name: all our praying is an act of love for the community.

Jewish Contemplative meditation is neither an anti-stress therapy nor an exercise in self-focussed escapism. It is a form of community service.     

When we pray with kavanah, we make an act of deveykus that binds us to each other  as well as to G-d. 

Nachman Davies
Menachem Av 5/ July 17 2018


[1] translated  by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and quoted on p159 of “The Way of The Jewish Mystics”, ed.Perle Besserman,Shambala, Boston &London 1994

[2] Pri Eitz Chayim,Olam Ha –Asiyah 1:3:2.

[3] Likutei Torah, Taamei HaMitzvos (Vayikra 19:18)

[4] Shavuos 39a

[5] Ta’anit 11a