The following is an excerpt from Dr. Moshe Idel’s seminal essay, “Hitbodedut as Concentration in Ecstatic Kabbalah,” which was first printed in his pioneering “Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah” (SUNY). Footnotes have been omitted from this online version.
Hitbodedut and the Shutting of Eyes
One of the practical techniques advocated by the Kabbalists in order to attain a state of concentration—that is, hitbodedut—was the shutting of one’s eyes. This technique is well known to us from Sufism and in connection with achieving kawwanah (direction, concentration) in prayer and for purposes of contemplating colors which become revealed in one’s consciousness among the Kabbalists.
An anonymous Kabbalist saw “the essence of hitbodedut” in the act of closing one’s eyes:
"And what is the essence of hitbodedut? By closing the eyes for a long time, and in accordance with the length of time, so shall be the greatness of the apprehension. Therefore, let his eyes always be shut until he attains apprehension of the Divine, and together with shutting his eyes negate every thought and every sound that he hears." (MS Paris, Alliance, 167 VI.B)
The connection between shutting one’s eyes and hitbodedut here is in the shutting off of the person from the senses. This enhances concentration and facilitates the possibility of apprehension: the meditator enjoys Divine providence in accordance with the degree or level of comprehension. This connection between apprehension and providence indicates a possible influence of Malmonides’ approach (Guide 3:51) to the relationship between them. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Rabbi Judah Albotini wrote in his book Sulam ha-‘Aliyah:
"That those who practice concentration, when they concentrate upon some subject or some profound interpretation, close their eyes, and nearly obliterate their own powers, in order to remove their hidden mind from potential into actualization, and to make that interpretation firm and to hew it out and impress it upon their souls."
Here, as in the anonymous quotation, the shutting of the eyes is associated with those who practice concentration, on the one hand, and the capability of apprehension, on the other. Elsewhere Albotini adds the following sentence to the material copied from Rabbi Abraham Abulafia’s Hayyey ha-‘0lam ha-Ba: “Then, in that situation, he shall strongly shut his eyes and close them tightly, and all his body shall shake, with trembling and fear, and his knees. . . .”
The practice of preceding the concentration necessary for apprehension by closing one’s eyes found its way into one of the most famous works of Rabbi Hayyim Vital, namely, Shaarey Qedushah. According to the author, the fourth and final stage of the process of purification, whose ultimate purpose is the attainment of prophecy, includes seclusion in a special house:
"And he should shut his eyes, and remove his thoughts from all matters of this world, as though his soul had departed from him, like a dead person who feels nothing.... And he should imagine that his soul has departed and ascended, and he should envision the upper worlds, as though he stands in them. And if he performed some unification—he should think about it, to bring down by this, light and abundance into all the worlds, and he should intend to receive also his portion at the end. And he should concentrate in his thought, as though the spirit had rested upon him, until he awakens somewhat.... And after a few days he should return to meditate in the same manner, until he merits that the spirit rest upon him." (3:8)
We find here a bold step, compared with its predecessors: the purpose of closing one’s eyes in hitbodedut is now to merit the Holy Spirit, and no longer merely the realization of the intellect. Vital again suggests this practice for the purpose of yichud along the lines of Lurianic Kabbalah: “At the beginning you must shut and seal your eyes and concentrate for one hour, and then concentrate upon this—namely, the name MeTeTRoN—and divide it into three portions, each portion consisting of two letters, thus, MeT TeR ‘ON” (Sha’ar Ruah ha-Qodesh 7, 52). Again, in a magical formula in the possession of Rabbi Hayyim Vital, or written in his hand, we read: “To ask [a question] while awake: Enwrap yourself in tallit and tefillin and shut your eyes in concentration and recite: blessed memory…” (from a manuscript of our master, R. Hayyim Vital, quoted in Sefer Meqor ha-Shemot of M. Zaccuto, MS Laniado fol. 682).
One may clearly argue on the basis of these quotations that the suggestion of closing one’s eyes to enable one to concentrate was adopted for various and peculiar reasons, which characterize systems of thoughts remote from one another. It is possible, by its means, to augment the intellect, to receive the Holy Spirit, or to ask waking questions or to perform mystical unifications.
In contrast to the understanding of hitbodedut as concentration and the shutting of the eyes as an earlier stage, which repeats itself in Rabbi Hayyim Vital, one finds also the opposite outlook in this Kabbalist. He advises:
"Meditate in a secluded house as above, and wrap yourself in a tallit, and sit and close your eyes and remove yourself from the material world, as if your soul had left your body, and ascended into the heavens. And after this casting off, read one mishnah, whichever one you wish, many times, time after time, and intend that your soul commune with the soul of the tanna mentioned in that mishnah." (MS British Library 749, fol. 162)
In another formula, which appears immediately thereafter, Vital advises:
"Meditate in a secluded house, and close your eyes, and if you wrap yourself in a tallit and wear tefillin this shall be better, and after you turn your thoughts completely and purify them, then do combinations in your thoughts, using any word that you wish in all its combinations. For we are not strict as to which word you combine, but in whichever one you wish, for example: ‘RZ, ‘ZR, R’Z, RZ’, Z’R, ZR’...."
These descriptions of hitbodedut fit in many details the technique suggested by Rabbi Abraham Abulafia: that is, concentration in a secluded place, the wearing of tallit and tefillin, shutting one’s eyes, and letter-combination. However, there is no doubt that to these details were added later approaches, including the attachment of the soul of the meditator to the soul of the tanna connected with the mishnah which is recited, or the ascent to the heavens. Despite this, we can state that Vital’s descriptions give evidence of a continuation, with some changes, of the prophetic Kabbalah of the school of Abulafia. As this statement also holds true of other suggestions, which precede shutting one’s eyes to concentrate, one may conclude that, with regard to hitbodedut, Rabbi Hayyim Vital was influenced by the various different versions of prophetic Kabbalah. His discussions of this subject, together with the material we have described above found in Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, indicate an impressive penetration of prophetic Kabbalah into theurgic Spanish Kabbalah, which had come to Safed without having been previously markedly influenced by Abulafia’s teachings.