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 in the Writings of Rabbi Moses Cordovero
As we have seen, several motifs relating to hitbodedut which originated in the circle of Rabbi Abraham Abulafia, reappeared at the beginning of the sixteenth century in the writings of two Kabbalists who were among the exiles from Spain and Portugal: Rabbi Judah Albotini and Rabbi David Ibn Zimra, both of whom lived and were active in Jerusalem. One must ask whether it is merely coincidence that interest in hitbodedut reemerged in sixteenth-century Palestine, after it was associated with Kabbalists active in the late thirteenth and the early fourteenth century who had a certain relationship to the land of Israel. This question becomes more serious in the light of the fact that the Spanish Kabbalists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries almost completely ignored the teaching of Rabbi Abraham Abulafia, and even during the generation of the Expulsion he was still regarded as the “black sheep” of Kabbalah in the eyes of many Spanish Kabbalists. The renewed interest of Palestinean Kabbalists of Spanish origin in the Kabbalah of Abulafia and its offshoots points toward their encounter with the Eastern kabbalistic heritage, which combined prophetic Kabbalah with Jewish-Sufi pietism. The presumption that such a kabbalistic tradition, whose traces were lost for a period of slightly less than two hundred years, did exist may also explain the interest of the Safed Kabbalists during the latter half of the sixteenth century in Abulafia and Rabbi Isaac of Acre’s doctrine of hitbodedut, I would conjecture that we are speaking here not only of the preservation and study of Abulafia’s writings but also of a living kabbalistic tradition-which may explain the origins of Albotini’s Sulam ha-‘Aliyah and the centrality of hitbodedut and letter-combination among the Kabbalists of Safed from the middle of the sixteenth century on. In contrast, Spanish Kabbalah on the eve of the Expulsion, such as the circle of the author of Sefer ha-Meshiv, was much involved with techniques of revelation, including incantations for dream questions and formulas for automatic writing—concerns that were continued in the Kabbalah of Safed. However, as opposed to Abulafia, they did not emphasize the relationship between hitbodedut and letter-combination. In the writings of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, we hear for the first time of an integration of Abulafia’s doctrines within an overall summary of Spanish Kabbalah—namely, in his book Pardes Rimmonim. As opposed to the comprehensive work of Rabbi Meir Ibn Gabbai, which is based almost entirely on Spanish Kabbalah, Cordovero includes themes and quotations from the writings of Abraham Abulafia, giving them a standing unknown among the Spanish exilic Kabbalists active outside the land of Israel. This incorporation is quite clear in the discussion of hitbodedut, and its implications for the development of Kabbalah will be treated later in our discussion. There is no doubt that the Safed Kabbalists had copies of several of the most important writings of Abulafia and his disciples. Thus, for example, we read in Rabbi Moshe Cordovero’s commentary on the Zohar passage known as “the Sabba (grandfather) of Mishpatim”:
“And as ADaM (man—i.e., the letters DM— follows alphabetical order, [its letters symbolizing] world [i.e., location] year [i.e., time], soul [i.e., personhoodl, until he attaches himself to the secret of neshamah, ruah, nefesh [i.e., the three levels of soul], that is NRN, the secret of ShN, in the secret of the letters which are transmuted in his mouth, and the secret of the vocalization signs, and the secret of the hitbodedut brought down to man by them, as is written in the book Shaarey Zedeq by Rabbi Abraham Abulafia, author of Sefer Hayyey ha-‘Olam ha-Ba.” (MS Cincinnati 586, fol. 45b)
This passage indicates that Cordovero had before him two of the principal works of prophetic Kabbalah; from them he learned, among other things, the secret of hitbodedut, which, as we have seen above, is connected with the combinations of letters and of vowels. Through hitbodedut, the soul becomes attached to the supernal hypostases known as neshamah, ruah, nefesh. We have here a Neoplatonic formulation of the understanding of devequt, influenced not a little by the approach of the author of Sha’arey Zedeq. A closer examination of the meaning of the word hitbodedut in this text would be worthwhile. It is clear that the stage portrayed here is one reached by the practitioner of concentration after the process of zeruf and not before it, which differs from the texts discussed until now. Here, hitbodedut is transformed into the final stage before devequt. One should compare Cordovero’s unique use of this term with that of his disciple, Rabbi Hayyim Vital, who writes in the book Sha’arey Qedushah, apparently in the name of his teacher:
“ ‘The sons of prophets, who had before them drum and pipe, etc.’ [I Samuel 10:5] for by the sweetness of the sound of the music hitbodedut rests upon them, by the pleasantness of the sound, and they cast off their souls. And then the musician ceases his playing, but the prophetic disciples remain in the same supernal state of devequt, and they prophesy.” (MS British Library 749, fol. 15b)
In this quotation from Vital, as in Cordovero, hitbodedut occurs as a result of the use of a certain technique, and in the wake of this concentration the soul attains the state of devequt, This intermediate situation may signify a kind of abnegation of the senses or isolation of the soul from objects of sensation, which enables it to attach itself to a higher level.
In Pardes Rimmonim (v. 2, fol. 97a), Cordovero paraphrases a very important passge from Rabbi Abraham Abulafia’s book Or ha-Sekhel defining hitbodedut as retirement to an isolated room and letter-combination. However, beyond these quotations one finds here an interesting discussion based upon the doctrines of Abulafia’s school:
“Several of the early ones explained that by the combination and transmutation of the seventy-two-letter holy name or the other names, after great hitbodedut, the righteous man, who is worthy and enlightened in such matters, will have a portion of the Divine Voice (bat qol) revealed to him, in the sense of ‘The spirit of God spoke in me, and His word was on my lips’ (II Samuel 23:2). For he combines together the potencies and unites them and arouses desire in them, each to its brother, as the membrum virile of man and his companion [i.e., the female], until there is poured upon him a spirit of abundance—on the condition that he be engaged in this thing, as a vessel prepared to and worthy of receiving the spirit, for if such is not the case, it will become cruel to be turned into ‘a degenerate wild vine’ ” (cf. Jeremiah 2:21). (Pardes Rimmonim, v. 2, fol. 69b)
Thus, hitbodedut in the sense of concentration advances the process of letter-combination, whose purpose is the attainment of the holy spirit, in the spirit of Abulafia’s Kabbalah. The conclusion of this quotation favors the approach of Rabbi Isaac of Acre, in which combination enables the soul to receive the abundance or the spirituality. This expression is interpreted elsewhere as well in connection with hitbodedut: “The prophets, of blessed memory, used to acquire, by means of those letters, through great concentration and by virtue of their pure soul, that spirit embodied in the letters” (Pardes Rimmonim, v. 2, fol. 69b). The letters combined by the Kabbalist are transformed here into a sort of talisman, which absorbs the supernal abundance. After the spirituality is absorbed by means of the letters, it becomes attached within the soul, which is prepared for this by concentration. Hitbodedut is described as a process by which the soul is transferred from the world of matter to the world of spirit, on the one hand, or as a technique of spiritual elevation, through contemplation of sensory data and its stripping away, in order to understand the spiritual element within it. The mystical aspect of hitbodedut is clearly expressed in another book by Cordovero, namely, Shiur Qomah:
“The sons of the prophets, when they used to prepare themselves for prophecy, brought themselves [to a state of] happiness as in the verse, ‘Take me a musician, and when the musician plays. . .’ (II Kings 3:15). And they would concentrate in accordance with their ability to do so, in attaining the wondrous levels and casting off the material, and strengthening the mind within the body, until they abandoned matter and did not perceive it at all, but their mind was entirely in the supernal orders and subjects. And they concentrate, and cast off the physical, and go away—and this matter is man’s preparation on his own part.”
According to Cordovero, the “sons of the prophets,” that is, the ancient Jewish mystics, had special methods of concentration: “according to their knowledge of concentration,” which showed them how to cast off materiality and to prepare the dematerialized mind to apprehend the structure of the sefirot: “the sublime levels,” “those supernal levels.” We learn about the necessary transition between the physical and the spiritual from Sefer Or Yaqar.
“If one wishes to take pleasure in the understanding of his Creator, let him concentrate according to the accepted premises which he has learned, and let him look at a particular physical form, so that he may learn from it that which is alluded to in the spiritual worlds, and he will see the detailed organs of it, and the varied matters, and its lights. And from there he will come to understand the innermost secrets of the spirituality of that form, and he shall attain devequt Such was the way of Adam in the Garden of Eden. Now, if the cherubim were physical-spiritual beings, he may gaze at them and come to contemplate and to apprehend from what is pictured here, in terms of the visual, that which makes sense to the mind—[proceeding] from the physical to the spiritual.” (v. 10, p. 7)
The Kabbalist is able to acquire “knowledge of his Creator” through contemplation of the form of his own physical organs, by means of hitbodedut. This statement reminds us of Rabbi Isaac of Acre’s story of the princess, which was quoted in the work of Cordovero’s pupil, Rabbi Elijah de Vidas. Furthermore, according to Rabbi Isaac, “from the sensory you shall understand the intelligibilia, for from your flesh shall you know God [after Job 19:26].” We have here a Kabbalistic variant of the saying “Know yourself and know your God,” according to which concentration plays a central role in the transition between one’s self—that is, one’s body—and the Divine. Hitbodedut is a means of uncovering the supernal source of material being; the cessation of hitbodedut is likely to bring about a distorted understanding of phenomenon. Thus, we hear of Moses that:
“Because he turned his heart away from prophetic concentration, in fleeing from the Creator’s mission, turning his head in thinking that it was Amram, his father, who was calling him at that moment. For had he concentrated at that time, he would have understood how that voice was descending from the [cosmic] world of Creation to that of Formation, and from that of Formation into that of Action.... And the same happened to Samuel, at the beginning of his prophecy, that he did not concentrate, to understand the way of the voice, even though he was worthy of prophecy. So he thought that that voice was a human voice, that is, that of Eli, until he finally said, “Speak, for your servant hears” (I Samuel 3:10)—that is, that he concentrated and apprehended the stages of prophecy, and understood the descent of the divine voice” (Reuven Margoliot, Mal’akhey ‘Elyon, Appendix, p. 21).
Here, hitbodedut is understood as a combination of concentration and meditation at one and the same time; it is the means enabling the human intellect to restore the essence of things to their supernal source, by apprehension of their essence. This is the way by which one turns to the upper world:
“There are two aspects of hokhmah: the supernal aspect is turned towards the divine crown (keter), which aspect does not face downwards.... The second, lower aspect turns downwards.... Likewise man has two aspects: the first is that of his concentration upon his Creator, to add and acquire wisdom, and the second that by which he teaches others” (Tomer Devorah, 3).
It seems important to me to dwell upon a certain change in the use of the term hitbodedut in Cordovero’s thought: concentrated thought enables one to uncover the hidden essence of the object of contemplation, through which one comes to understand the supernal source and the way in which the spiritual emanates down into the material world. According to Cordovero, the human intellect must cast off its physicality only in order to penetrate, by means of its concentration, beyond the physicality of other things, to uncover their spiritual nature and to arrive in the final analysis at God Himself. According to another text, Cordovero seems to state that there are certain subjects whose apprehension cannot be guaranteed even by hitbodedut:
“For the Torah is the secret of the upper Being which has come into existence below, and is not separated from the sefirot, but it nevertheless is present for those who exist below, while connected to the spiritual existence of the sefirot. When man concentrates in order to understand this mystery, he shall be astonished and be silent to his mind and not find it, for the Torah is not a separate being below” (Or Yaqar, Tiqqunim, MS Modena fol. 196b).
We find here an interesting approach, reminiscent of Rabbi Isaac of Acre’s opinion that the mystic is unable to penetrate the secrets of the Torah.