From Moshe Hallamish, “An Introduction to the Kabbalah,” State University of New York (SUNY) Press, 1999 (trans. Ruth Bar-Ilan), Chapter 4. (End notes not included.)
It has been noted by the scholars that on the whole, membership in Kabbalist circles did not manifest itself in outward appearance, such as special attire. Nor were the Kabbalists required to abstain from family life and adopt a monastic lifestyle. In this respect, the Kabbalists differed from their Christian and Muslim counterparts. Kabbalistic writings nonetheless tend to make references to mystical seclusion. The question whether solitude is a common kabbalistic practice, or even a technique specifically designed for attaining secrets, is crucial.
First of all, it should be noted that even in the writings of those close to the world of Kabbalah, the word hitbodedut, in the sense of "solitude with God," is suggestive of moralistic manuals rather than of strictly kabbalistic works. For instance, in his Sefer Haredim, R. Eleazar Azikri states in the name of Beit Middot that a scholar who devotes his life to the Torah should refrain from tormenting himself, but, instead, "should withdraw from the company of people once a week to be alone with God, binding his thought to Him as if he were standing before Him on the Day of Judgment." In another well-known moralistic manual, which is much influenced by the Kabbalah, "a counsel is offered to anyone who is called by the name of 'Israel' to subdue his hardened heart and make time to seclude oneself in some hidden place ... and meditate upon the bygone days and years of his life" (Kav ha-Yashar I, 6). Similarly, 'Alim li-Terufah cites a letter that Rabbi Nathan of Bratslav addressed to his son, R. Isaac, in 1831. Among other things, this letter makes the following exhortation: "Do not lose even one single day by forgoing solitary meditation, and ponder on your purpose in life every day…”
Sometimes one's seclusion in a special room or a "house of solitary retreat" is instrumental for employing a technique of mental concentration. This state involves other concomitant practices, such as wearing special clothes, sitting in a particular position, breathing scented air, and singing melodies while pronouncing or writing down the Names of God. This technique was elaborated in the kabbalistic circle presided over by Abraham Abulafia, which thrived in Spain in the thirteenth century. Some contemporary books provide full or partial descriptions of this technique. Written testimonies of these practices, some of which have parallels with Sufi writings of the fourteenth century.
At other times, solitude lends itself to communication with the higher spheres. Occasionally, the purpose of solitude is to enable the Kabbalist to devote himself to the study of Kabbalah without environmental disturbances. For example, R. Hiyya recounts that on his way to Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, he noticed some fissures in a mountain rock, through which he overheard two tradesmen (!) debating about R. Simeon bar Yohai's words. These individuals used to go into retreat two days a week.' Elsewhere in the Zohar it is told about some men who used to spend the weekdays in the mountains, where they occupied themselves with the Torah while surviving on nothing but a few herbs, and returned home just before Sabbath eve.' Similarly, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav says: "Whoever wishes to taste of the Hidden Light, namely the secrets of the Torah that will be revealed in the future to come, must often practice solitude with God.”
Whoever wishes to climb the mystical ladder must withdraw from the world and detach himself from its physical manifestations. "The root of everything is solitude, for it is a lofty and exalted matter to experience the sequence of sanctity.... When one isolates himself, he cleaves to God even as far as his bodily needs are concerned." It is told about the ARI (in the beginning of Shivhey ha-ARI) that after he got married, for seven years he practiced solitary meditation together with R. Besal'el Ashkenazi and then continued doing so on his own for the next six years. "Then he led the life of a recluse, sanctifying himself exceedingly for two years in some house on the Nile, where he stayed all by himself, with no one around ... and there he was gifted with the Holy Spirit." One generation after the ARI, R. Eleazar Azikri "projected" this situation on Noah: "It is written (Gen. 6:9) 'And Noah walked with God.' This signifies that he secluded himself with his Maker and avoided human company. Or else, it may signify that he was advanced in the practice of solitude so that even when he was among men, these did not distract him, for they were as nonexistent in his eyes."
It should be noted that Azikri raises two possibilities: (1) seclusion as a deliberate act of retreat, as indicated above; (2) a higher state, in which an individual lives in society, but mentally detaches himself from it. Whether by physical or social isolation, then, he psychologically manages to transcend the bounds of time and place.
In this context, it is appropriate to cite what is written in Sefer Ma'aseh Hasidim: "[A] certain Hasid was one of the recluses who withdrew from the affairs of the world, for he was always cleaving to the Blessed One. In the course of time, this Hasid came back to his town, and, not being recognized for what he was, he was appointed as the beadle of the synagogue, Now, when he poured the oil for the candles, he would spill it, because his intense devotion made him miss the candles. . . ."" This Hasid was so absorbed in binding himself to God that his hands were shaking, making the oil spill out. The Hasid's solitary meditation raised him to the exalted state of devekut, communion with God. The famous Maggid, R. Simhah of Zalozhtsy (also known by his description of his journey to the Land of Israel in 1765, which he documented in his treatise, Ahavat Ziyyon), used the above story as supporting evidence when he wrote: "And though we were concerned with corporeal matters, nonetheless our heart was set on our Father in heaven." The isolation characterizing the devekut was already described five hundred years earlier by Nahmanides, in his commentary on the biblical phrase u-le-dovkah bo (and cleave to Him) (Deut. 11:22): "It is possible that the term 'cleaving' includes the obligation that you remember God and His love always, that your thought should never be separated from Him 'when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up' to such a degree that during his conversation with people by mouth and tongue, [a person's entire] heart will not be with them, but instead be directed towards God.”
The trembling of the above-mentioned Hasid is not accidental. As Sefer Haredim instructs us, "We find in the ascetic writings of the ancients that the pious used to practice ascetic solitude and devekut, which means that when they were alone they withdrew their minds from all worldly things and bound their thoughts on the Lord of all. And so my master, R. Isaac the Kabbalist [= the ARI], taught that this is seven times more efficacious for the soul than studying. And according to one's strength and ability, one should withdraw from the world and seclude himself one day a week or once in fifteen days or once a month, but no less frequently."
The author proceeds to explain in the Mishnah (Berakhot 5:1) that "the early Hasidim used to wait [i.e., prepare themselves] one hour before praying [and one hour afterwards] in order to concentrate their mind on God" as follows: "They daily took off nine hours from the study of Torah and devoted this time to solitary contemplation and devekut. Then they would imagine the light of the Shekhinah above their heads as though it were flowing all around them and they were sitting in the midst of the light.... And while in that state of meditation, they are all trembling as a natural effect, but rejoicing in trembling."
Another important passage is found in the conclusion of his book, where Azikri lists various remedies for mental ailments: "The fifth condition [for the attainment of the state of devekut] is the practice of solitary contemplation as described above.... At the appropriate times one should withdraw to a secluded place where one cannot be seen by others, lift up one's eyes on high to the one King ... ; 'as in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man' (Proverbs 27:19), and similarly, as man turns his face to his God, so also will He turn to him and they will cleave together [in mystical communion]. This I have heard from my master and teacher, the holy and pious Rabbi Joseph Sagis, and this was also his practice. Similarly, I have found in the writings of Rabbi Isaac of Acre that this was the practice of some pious men in his time.” The beginning of this paragraph is anchored in moralistic literature, but the text proceeds in the direction of mystical practice, dwelling on the reciprocal relationship between man and God.
It should be added that solitary meditation involves various physiological phenomena and frequently entails a special psychic phenomenon, generally known in Jewish literature as hishtavut (equanimity).