March 27, 2009


This is an excerpt from Naftali Loewenthal, “Communicating the Infinite: The Emergence of the Habad School” (University of Chicago Press), from Chapter 5: “Contemplation and Reality,” pp. 147-153. The author’s end notes, while extremely informative and well-researched, were omitted for this online version.

“Tract on Contemplation”

The emphasis on contemplation as preparation for or accompaniment to prayer had been, as we have seen, a central theme in R. Shneur Zalman's system of Hasidism. The second section of his Tanya, entitled Gate of Unity and Faith, comprises a twelve-chapter tract elaborating the twin themes that existence is absorbed in the Infinite and the Infinite is expressed in existence. These concepts, termed the Upper and Lower Unity respectively, are the basis of the scheme of contemplation which should precede and culminate in the Shema prayer, the declaration of the Unity of the Divine which constitutes the central statement in the Jewish daily prayer service. Thinking through the ideas expressed in this tract before beginning to pray, and sensing their reality and depth in the course of the morning service in the synagogue, was the basic substance of the system of contemplation propounded by R. Shneur Zalman. In addition, in the first section of Tanya he provides a number of brief outlines of contemplative patterns of thought. Over the years these were supplemented by the discourses, most of which could function not only as mystical expositions on themes from the Bible and Talmud, but also as source material for the contemplative process. In chapter 3 we discussed the way these discourses gradually changed in style, becoming ever more accessible, both for the scholar in the study house and for the intellectualist contemplative in prayer. As we saw in chapter 4, while R. Shneur Zalman made allowance for those who, during the week, did not have the time for contemplation, he insisted that the Habad prayer meeting should proceed at a slow, meditative pace. He also prohibited talking at any part of the prayers, a rule which emphasized the serious nature of prayer and protected the contemplative atmosphere. On the Sabbath, all his followers were expected to recite their prayers slowly and to utilize the Habad teachings for contemplation.

This system was inherited by R. Dov Ber. In the previous chapter we considered his directives in Tract on Ectasy concerning the psychological effect of contemplation: whether, ideally, it should lead to emotional enthusiasm or to what he considered the higher, unfelt ecstasy of self-abnegation. Here we will focus on R. Dov Ber's teachings concerning contemplation, his provision of suitable source material, and discuss the extent to which he expected a meditative approach to prayer from every member of the fraternity.

Not long after he assumed leadership, a letter from R. Dov Ber complains about the confusion among the Hasidic followers with regard to contemplation. Although they have heard many discourses “they do not know what to do with them. Many wise and scholarly people have asked: what should one do in prayer with all the Hasidic teachings one knows?” While the discourses of R. Shneur Zalman were comprehensible as Torah teaching and as guidance for various areas of life, their use as a basis for contemplation in prayer was insufficiently understood. In response to this need, in 1814, the year of publicization in manuscript of his Tract on Ecstasy, R. Dov Ber also issued another work in manuscript entitled Tract on Contemplation.

Both works circulated among the Lubavitch Hasidic followers. The Tract on Ecstasy, which is primarily an exhortation to seek, through contemplation, utter bitul rather than easy emotional enthusiasm, was not printed in R. Dov Ber's lifetime. It is likely that this work was considered directly relevant only to a small elite: the inner circle of R. Dov Ber's following. By contrast the Tract on Contemplation (also called Gate of Unity) was printed by the Habad printer in Kopys in 1820, suggesting that the author intended its teachings to be studied by a wider audience. Necessarily the readership of the book would have been scholars. Considering its subject matter, its style, and the directive which the work expresses, it is clear that it is intended for men of high intellectual capacity. Indeed, the frontispiece to the first edition emphasizes that it is for those “whom G-d has graced with intellect.” However, for contemporary Jewish society, in which study of advanced talmudic and halakhic works was commonplace, the demand for high intellectual ability was not unusual. The innovative aspect of Tract on Contemplation was that it sought to communicate the process of mystical contemplation to this relatively broad section of society.


At the beginning of this book R. Dov Ber states that he has already explained in a special tract (namely Tract on Ecstasy) the various levels of ecstasy or enthusiasm caused by contemplation. “Now,” he writes, “one must explain clearly the nature of contemplation: what it is, essentially, and what should be the subject of the contemplation.”

The opening chapters of the tract comprise a remarkable analysis of the process of contemplative thought. While in earlier Habad teachings we encounter discussion of the cognitive and contemplative process, R. Dov Ber's exposition at the beginning of Tract on Contemplation is unique for its classification of the possible directions of thought in the mind of the contemplative. Employing the image of a river, R. Dov Ber defines the parameters of “width, length, and depth.”
The source of the river, described as a swiftly flowing spring, is the initial concept on which the person is contemplating. This might be, for example, the way all existence emerges from the Divine void. The “width” of the contemplative flow of thought is the exploration of this concept in a private, noncommunicative way. The thinker finds or creates a variety of images and conceptual models expressing the various aspects of the central theme. While this is a rich and satisfying process intellectually, it also carries the danger of straying away from the point.

A second mode, termed the “length” of the river, is contemplative thought of a different kind. The thinker tries to find imagery or conceptual models which render the initial concept more communicable. If carried to its full extent, this process of thought would enable the contemplative to find a way to explain the most esoteric idea in terms which would be meaningful to a child.

Both the “width” and “length” modes of thinking add to the sense of “depth.” This third aspect of contemplation means a return to the source of the river, enriched by the contemplative discoveries which have been gained. Due to an enhanced sense of the real nature of the concept, the thinker is able to enter the source to a greater “depth.”

Interesting for us is the significance of the faculty of communication, here termed “length” in this contemplative process. The thinker applies this faculty within his own being in order to plumb the depths of the spiritual concept at the center of his thought. As R. Dov Ber explains further stages of his system of contemplation, we again encounter this idea. R. Dov Ber states that in order for the contemplative process to be effective, the thinker must aim for something more than the structure of intellectual exploration which has been described. The goal is a total focus on and bonding with the initial concept, as something of permanent and wide reaching significance. While the contemplative process in itself is called Binah (understanding), this bonding (hitkasherut) is termed Da’at (knowledge). A child is weak in this faculty, states R. Dov Ber; hence, although he seems to care very much about something, he can easily be persuaded to want the opposite. In order to reach mature bonding, a further dimension of contemplation must be attained.

This is described in the second chapter of the tract. R. Dov Ber employs an obscure Lurianic term (Tevunah) to express this further aspect of the contemplative process, but his explanations make clear what is meant. It is the ability to make the entire body of one's contemplative achievement relevant to a hypothetical second person. Continuing with the image of the source of a river, R. Dov Ber states that the man who has this ability has the power to draw the water from the depths and make it available to others. Without this faculty, even though he may have achieved profound understanding characterized by “width, length, and depth,” his knowledge remains abstract. It cannot be shown to be relevant to others and cannot be applied in any realm beyond the world of intellectualist thought. As an example of this failure in communication, R. Dov Ber cites the example of a person studying a talmudic pilpul. Despite his grasp of its intellectual subtlety, he is unable to apply it in real terms of practical law. At this stage of comprehension it is just abstract scholarship, a potential force (hylos) which has not yet been actualized.

At this point, we note, the critique of contemporary talmudic scholarship expressed by the early Hasidic movement seems to reappear in another format. The breakdown of the connection between extravagant pilpul and the reality of practical halakhah becomes a paradigm for a lack of relevance and real significance in the stream of thought of a contemplative hasid. It is noteworthy that R. Dov Ber's program of Torah study for his followers which we discussed earlier was decidedly halakhic in direction rather than pilpulistic. The same structure of values is pertinent in the world of meditative contemplation. R. Dov Ber's aim was that the esoteric focus of contemplative thought, the kernel of teaching drawn from the Merkavah realm, should be seen as meaningful on lower levels of existence. If this step takes place in the mind of the thinker, then his contemplation in prayer will be effective and he will internalize and affirm the spiritual world-view implicit in the Hasidic teachings. R. Dov Ber complains that inability to reach this stage of inner communication characterizes many of the hasidim, both new followers and men of experience: they grasp the intellectual constructs but do not understand how to apply them within their own inner world.

R. Dov Ber now defines two different kinds of contemplation. One is “general,” the other “detailed.” The general form of contemplation concerns basic perspectives on existence as propounded in Habad teaching. Two examples are: all is a flow of radiance emerging from the Infinite; all existence is maintained by a stream of sacred Hebrew letters flowing from the Divine. Each of these perspectives could be the basis of the general contemplative process. By contrast, the detailed mode of contemplation is defined as “contemplating each world, each created thing, on each of the different levels of the order of the downchaining of worlds.” R. Dov Ber describes the step-by-step progress of this form of contemplation, beginning on the lowest level of the Lurianic world order and ascending level by level through each of the Sefirot in each of the Four Worlds. A higher form of the same type of contemplation starts in the realm of Azilut and ascends to the most exalted reaches of the Lurianic spiritual cosmology.

Discussing these two methods, R. Dov Ber indicates that while the general method is easier, and more suitable for the beginner, it also can lead to self-deception: one can imagine one is very close to the Divine, when in fact one is still very remote. The detailed method, however, leads to the greater immediacy of each stage of the Lurianic schema, and when, after climbing mentally from level to level, one finally reaches the Divine Essence, the general perspective which one then attains has more veracity and a greater quality of reality.

R. Dov Ber emphasizes that the fulfilment of the detailed mode of contemplation is when it merges with the general perspective. The powerful general teachings expressed in the second section of Tanya on the absorption of existence in the Infinite and the expression of the Infinite in existence remain the goal of the contemplative. However, the addition of structured detail from the Lurianic teachings, explored by the Habad methods of analysis and analogy, provides more opportunity, so to speak, for the rational intellect itself to be suffused by the Divine. The directive ultimately to merge the two methods of contemplation is quoted by R. Dov Ber in the name of his father, R. Shneur Zalman, and the Maggid of Mezeritch.

This directive also has bearing on another question concerning Habad contemplation. How do the broad radiant perspectives revealed by this contemplative system relate to the specific wording of the daily prayers? This is an important question, particularly for a system which, we believe, was intended to be applied not by a small elite but by the general membership of an expanding fraternity. We will see below further indication of R. Dov Ber's attention to this issue. In Tract on Contemplation he makes the point that, given the basic directive that the detailed mode of thought should ultimately merge with the general perspective, the specific wording of the prayers--when analyzed in kabbalistic terms--aids rather than hinders the general realization that, say, all is subsumed in the Essence of the Divine. However, Tract on Contemplation itself provides little information on the way the very wording of the prayers can itself become part of the detailed contemplative process; this was left for later works by R. Dov Ber.


The opening, psychological section of Tract on Contemplation concludes with discussion of the inner effect of the contemplative process. Grappling with the theme of the emergence of existence from the Divine void, on the one hand, there is some comprehension of the abnegation of all reality before G-d; on the other, there is a reaching for that which lies beyond understanding “but nonetheless flashes in his mind like a lightning flash” for a moment, giving the person a near visionary perception of the nature of the Divine. These two modes of knowledge produce contrasting effects: from comprehension is born joy, while the reaching for the unknowable provokes a sense of bitul, self-abnegation, and a spiritual form of melancholy. Paradoxically, both the joy and the melancholy can coexist in the heart of the contemplative and, indeed, taught R. Dov Ber, should do so. In our discussion of Tract on Ectasy in the previous chapter we encountered the concept of this melancholy, termed tsubrokbenkeit (being broken). We will return to this theme when we examine the way R. Dov Ber employed ethical concepts to transmit what is fundamentally an esoteric teaching.

We thus see that in this first section of Tract on Contemplation R. Dov Ber provided his followers with a brief but clear manual on the technique of contemplation. We see too how the central ethos of Habad, communication, was applied internally. The contemplative followed an ordered cerebral path which both made tangible that which is elusive and also reached with ever more yearning for that which cannot be known.


This brief manual is followed by the comparatively lengthy main section of Tract on Contemplation. This provides a step-by-step exposition of the Lurianic schema of the clownchaining of worlds. It starts well before the [tzimtzum] the initial veiling of the Divine radiance which preceded the emanation of the highest Sefirot, and flows the process right down to the lowest levels of existence, including, kabbalistically surveyed, the realms of evil (kelipot). One aspect of this section of the book is that it provides source material for the Hasidic follower to study and utilize in the detailed method of contemplation. The elite in the Lubavitch fraternity were probably expected to know the entire schema by heart and have the ability to think through at least part of it as preparation for and accompaniment to their daily prayers. Others would focus on just one or two of the brief chapters. At the same time, this section of the tract gives continuous guidance on various other aspects of the contemplative process. Repeatedly, the detailed and general perspectives are drawn together, for example through the concepts of unity (yihud) and integration (hitkalelut). “Unity” here means the idea that corresponding aspects on each of the different levels of the Lurianic cosmology arc all unified together. Thus the opening chapters of this section of the tract expound the theme that all levels of Keter, Hokhmah and Malkhut respectively, from the highest realm to the lowest, are unified. This idea facilitates ready access from the particular to the general which, as we have seen, is an important axis in R. Dov Ber's system. “Integration,” the contemplative absorption of all in the One, is a closely related theme which has the same effect. The concept of this mystical movement is found repeatedly throughout the tract and is in many ways its central teaching. R. Dov Ber states:

And this is the main aim in all contemplation of whatever detail, throughout the downchaining [of the worlds], from before the first Veiling (tzimtzum) to the lowest level of the realm of Action--that everything should be [perceived as] absorbed in the simple Unity which is the Essence of the radiance of the Infinite.

This leads, conversely, to the complementary perception that every detail of the lower realms is itself an expression of the “Simple Will” of the Essence of the radiance of the Infinite. Thus, in effect, All is G-d, and G-d is All: the Upper Unity and the Lower Unity respectively.