Festivals, Prayers & Services
– AND OFT-FORGOTTEN –
ISRAELITE WAY OF MEDITATION
In ancient Hebrew, the two verbs used for ‘meditate’ were haga’ (he-gimel-alef) and śiah (sin-yod-cheyt). The two words were synonymous with each other, and implied “speaking with oneself, murmuring in a low voice or under the breath”. One thing that Israelites in ancient times commonly meditated on was God’s teaching and commandments. They would read a passage from Torah to themselves, and then think about its meaning.
Unfortunately, in modern Orthodox Judaism, true meditation has been replaced by incantation. The saying of a formula of words – even if it is in our own language – without giving any thought to their meaning is, in effect, like chanting a pagan mantra. Many Orthodox simply read aloud rhythmically to themselves, without stopping to give themselves time to think properly about what they are reading.
The Journey Within
The essential difference between prayer and meditation, is that, whereas prayer is communication with God, in a sense, meditation is communion with one’s inner self. While God remains our guide, meditation is essentially the journey within, asking questions, and seeking answers. One may still ask of God, “What does this mean?” But one also asks of oneself, “How can I fulfil this mitzvah?” or “How shall I honour and respect God’s wonders?” or “How shall I remember God’s deeds?” Meditation is therefore a process of self-questioning.
In modern times, meditation has become confined to pagan-inspired Kabbalism and its exclusive type of mysticism. In this form, meditation is put out of reach of the ordinary man and woman, and confined to people who are trained in the mystical Kabbalistic arts – which are essentially pagan in origin. True Jewish meditation, as practised by the ancients, was a discipline open to all – an important principle for Talmidis, who believe that all men and women are capable of spiritual ascent to greatness, from the most learned to the least.
The Results of Meditation
In the Book of Joshua, chapter 1 verse 8, God says to Joshua son of Nun, “Do not let this Book of Teaching depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you will be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” The ancients believed that meditation brought understanding, wisdom and insight, leading to right action, and thereby to prosperity and a successful life.
Meditating puts everything into perspective. It has been said that we dream so that our brains can have some downtime to put the day’s events into some kind of order – into a rational format that we can use. In a way, meditation is a form of waking dreaming, a way of making sense of whatever we are contemplating, thereby putting it into a logical format so that we can remember it and make it a part of ourselves.
How To Meditate
In ancient times, when meditating on the Torah, the common practice was either to sit on the ground with a scroll on one’s lap, or stand at a reading desk with a scroll opened on it. Nowadays we have chairs we can sit on, and besides, I think it’s more comfortable on some people’s bones!
When you are comfortable, read just one line. If you are able to, read it first in Hebrew, then in English. Feel the rhythm of the Hebrew, and contemplate the meaning of the English. What does it mean to you? Why do you think this was given? What effect do you think it has on the person who manages to fulfil this mitzvah, this commandment? How can I fulfil this teaching?
In meditation you can have your eyes open or closed, ’though some passages in the psalms imply that most Jewish meditation is done with the eyes open (Ps 119:148). I find it helps to focus on something blank, like a wall or the sky.
Meditating On God’s Works and Deeds
Many passages in the psalms show that we can also meditate on what God has created, or on what God has done. In this, the object matter of meditation is endless. For God’s deeds, we can pick out a story in the Miqra (bible) and cause ourselves to be amazed at what God did for the people of Israel. Meditating on God’s deeds might give us understanding of God’s Nature, and meditating on God’s commandments might give us a better understanding of God’s will, God’s purposes, or our part in God’s plan.
For God’s works, we can go to an area of natural beauty, or sit under the stars, and just be blown away at the might and glory of God. We ask ourselves, “How shall I honour God’s works?” or “How can I show my respect and admiration for what God has made?” To me personally, the obvious end result of this is respect for God’s Creation, and a desire to protect and preserve it.
According to Gods’ own words, in the Book of Joshua, meditating on God’s teachings brings understanding, wisdom, prosperity and success. It brings insight and right action. Meditating on the message of God makes it a part of our very own soul. Meditation does not replace prayer; it compliments it, and makes an essential and indispensable contribution to Jewish spiritual life.
Passages in the Miqra where Meditation is mentioned
Now I would like to bring together those passages in the Miqra where the writer speaks about meditation, to give you a better insight into the nature of Jewish meditation.
“Do not let this Book of Teaching depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you will be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Josh 1:8)
“Oh how I love your Teaching! I meditate on it all day long. Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever with me. I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statues.” (Ps 119:97-99)
“My mouth will speak words of wisdom; the meditations of my heart will give understanding.”(Ps 49:4)
“Blessed is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers. But whose delight is in the teaching of YHVH, and on God’s Teaching that person meditates day and night.” (Ps 1:2)
“With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth; I rejoice in following your statues, as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts, and consider your ways; I delight in your decrees, I will not neglect your edicts.”
“I reach out my hands for your commandments, which I love and I meditate on your decrees.” (Ps 119:48)
“Though princes may sit together and slander me, Your servant will meditate on your decrees.” (Ps 119:23)
“May the arrogant be put to shame for wronging without cause; but I will meditate on your precepts.” (Ps 119:78)
“I remembered you O God, and I groaned; I meditated, and I grew faint.” (Ps 77:4)
“On my bed I remember you; I meditate on you through the watches of the night.”
“My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, so that I may meditate on your promises.” (Ps 119:148)
“I remember the days of long ago; I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done. I spread out my hands to you – my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.” (Ps 143:5-6)
“Let me understand the teaching of your precepts; then I will meditate on your wonders.” (Ps 119:27)
“I will remember the deeds of YHVH; indeed I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works, and consider all your mighty deeds.”
“I remember the days of long ago; I meditate on all your works, and consider what your hands have done.” (Ps 143:5)