There is evidence that Judaism has had meditative practices that go back thousands of years. For instance, in the Torah, the patriarch Isaac is described as going “לשוח” (lasuach) in the field—a term understood by all commentators as some type of meditative practice (Genesis 24:63), probably prayer.
Similarly, there are indications throughout the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) that meditation was used by the prophets. In the Old Testament, there are two Hebrew words for meditation: hāgâ(Hebrew: הגה), which means to sigh or murmur, but also to meditate, and sîḥâ (Hebrew: שיחה), which means to muse, or rehearse in one’s mind.
The Jewish mystical tradition, Kabbalah, is inherently a meditative field of study. Traditionally Kabbalah is only taught to orthodox Jews over the age of forty. The Talmud refers to the advantage of the scholar over the prophet, as his understanding takes on intellectual, conceptual form, that deepens mental grasp, and can be communicated to others. The advantage of the prophet over the scholar is in the transcendence of their intuitive vision. The ideal illumination is achieved when the insights of mystical revelation are brought into conceptual structures. For example, Isaac Luria revealed new doctrines of Kabbalah in the 16th Century, that revolutionised and reordered its teachings into a new system. However, he did not write down his teachings, which were recounted and interpreted instead by his close circle of disciples. After a mystical encounter, called in Kabbalistic tradition an “elevation of the soul” into the spiritual realms, Isaac Luria said that it would take 70 years to explain all that he had experienced. As Kabbalah evolved its teachings took on successively greater conceptual form and philosophical system. Nonetheless, as is implied by the name of Kabbalah, which means “to receive”, its exponents see that for the student to understand its teachings requires a spiritual intuitive reception that illuminates and personalises the intellectual structures.
Corresponding to the learning of Kabbalah are its traditional meditative practices, as for the Kabbalist, the ultimate purpose of its study is to understand and cleave to the Divine. Classic methods include the mental visualisation of the supernal realms the soul navigates through to achieve certain ends. One of the best known types of meditation in early Jewish mysticism was the work of the Merkabah, from the root /R-K-B/ meaning “chariot” (of God).
In modern Jewish practice, one of the best known meditative practices is called “hitbodedut” (התבודדות, alternatively transliterated as “hisbodedus”), and is explained in Kabbalistic, Hasidic, andMussar writings, especially the Hasidic method of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. The word derives from the Hebrew word “boded” (בודד), meaning the state of being alone. Another Hasidic system is the Habad method of “hisbonenus”, related to the Sephirah of “Binah”, Hebrew for understanding. This practice is the analytical reflective process of making oneself understand a mystical concept well, that follows and internalises its study in Hasidic writings.