The essay below is from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, “Meditation and the Bible” (Simon Weiser or Jason Aronson), pp. 69-73. Most end notes have been omitted from this online version, although a few have been restored to the text.
The Prophetic Meditative Position
For the most part, there is relatively little mention of body positions with relation to prophetic meditation and the attainment of the mystical state. The Amidah, the “Standing Prayer,” which plays an important role in Kabbalistic meditation, is recited with the feet together, emulating the stance of the angels. Other texts often speak of sitting and meditating.
Another classical position found in the Bible involves kneeling with the hands outstretched. Such a position is found in the case of Solomon’s prayer: “He kneeled on his knees ... and spread his hands toward heaven” (II Chronicles 6:13). Ezra likewise said, “I fell on my knees and spread my hands toward the Lord my God” (Ezra 9:5).
Rabbi Moses Cordovero (1522-1570), a leader of the Safed school of Kabbalah, comments that spreading the hands alludes to the fact that one is receiving a spiritual influx from on high. According to the Kabbalists, this is also the reason why Moses lifted his hands when he wished to channel spiritual energy so as to defeat Amalek in battle.
The position of uplifted hands also plays an important role in the Priestly Blessing, and later literature actually calls this the “Lifting of the Hands.” The Bahir, one of the most ancient Kabbalistic texts in existence, states that the reason for this is because the ten uplifted fingers parallel the Ten Sefirot, and can therefore draw spiritual energy from them. This same position is also used by Rabbi Abraham Abulafia in one place in his meditative system. Besides this, however, very little mention of this position in a practical sense is found in the Kabbalistic meditative texts.
There is, however, one position that is mentioned by several writers. This is the “prophetic position,” and it involves placing the head between the knees. This position is mentioned explicitly with regard to Elijah on Mount Carmel: “Elijah went up to the top of the Carmel, and he entranced himself on the earth, and placed his face between his knees” (I Kings 18:42). One of the major commentators, Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel, states that he was engaged in meditation (hitbodedut) while in this position.
This position was used for the intense concentration of spiritual energy. Elijah used it in order to bring rain, which had been previously withheld from King Ahab. In the Talmud, we find it used in a similar sense when Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa placed his head between his knees when praying for the son of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (Berakhot 34b). Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was the leading sage of the first century, and ben Dosa had come to be his disciple. When Rabbi Yochanan’s wife asked if Rabbi Chanina was the greater of the two, the former replied, “I am like a nobleman before the king, but he is like one of his servants.” Rashi (ad loc.) explains that a servant can come and go before a king without any appointment.
Another place where we find this position is in the case of Elazar ben Dordaya. The Talmud relates that he had visited every prostitute in the civilized world, and now wanted to repent (Avodah Zarah 17a). After trying every other means, he finally placed his head between his knees and wept until he died. From the context, it is obvious that his repentance contained mystical elements, since we find him conversing with the sun, moon and mountains, asking them to intercede for him. What he finally did was pour spiritual energy into his soul to purify it of its sin, and he continued in this manner until he died.
The fact that he used this position is repenting for a sexual offense is of particular significance since the Midrash states that one reason for this position is that it places the head in conjunction with the mark of circumcision (Vayikra Rabbah 31:4). One of the reasons for the commandment of circumcision is to channel sexual energies along spiritual lines, and, as we shall see, this is one reason why it is performed on the eighth day. When one places the head in proximity to the mark of circumcision, one is better able to channel this spiritual energy to the mind, this being the point of prophecy.
It is significant to note that another allusion to this position may be found in the Paschal Lamb, which had to be roasted, “with its head on its knees” (Exodus 12:9). The great Hasidic leader and mystic, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichov (1740-1809), explains that in the order of the Sefirot, the two knees represent the Sefirot Victory (Netzach) and Splendor (Hod), and that placing the knees in conjunction with the head releases the spiritual energy of these Sefirot to the mind (Kedushat Levi, ad loc.). It is well-established in Kabbalah that Netzach and Hod are the sources of prophecy, and therefore, this position is especially effective when one wishes to transmit prophetic energy.
We often find counterparts of prophetic methods in idolatrous practices, since in many cases, the idolators attempted to emulate the prophetic schools. A possible hint that this position was used among the idolatrous prophets is found in the Talmudic teaching that certain pagan Arabs used to “bow down to the dust of their feet” (Bava Metzia 86b). The commentaries wonder at this strange practice, and find it difficult to explain the wording. However, it would appear that some pagans viewed the prophetic position, where the great mystics sat with their head between their knees, and assumed that they were contemplating their toes or the like. They adopted this practice and it gradually degenerated to the worship of the “dust of their feet.”
This position was favored by at least two post-Talmudic schools. Hai Gaon (939-1038), head of the Babylonian academy at Pumbedita, describes the practices of one such school: “One must fast for a certain number of days. He must then place his head between his knees and chant many songs and hymns known from tradition. From his innermost being and its chambers, this individual will then perceive the Seven Chambers, and it will be as if he is actually seeing them with his own eyes. In his vision, it is as if he is entering one chamber after another, gazing at what is in each one” (responsum cited in HaKotev, Ein Yaakov, Chagigah 14b, #11).
Some five hundred years later, we find this same position used by a school led by Rabbi Joseph Tzayach, a prominent Kabbalist and mystic who served as rabbi of Jerusalem and Damascus in the mid-sixteenth century. In the introduction to his main work, he speaks of individuals who meditate (hitboded), saying, “These individuals bend themselves like reeds, placing their heads between their knees until all their senses are nullified. As a result of their lack of sensation, they see the Supernal Lights, with true vision and not allegory” (Even HaShoham, Introduction).
In general, Tzayach’s meditative system is highly complex, involving magic squares and complex arrays of luminaries and chambers. His main works deal with these systems in almost microscopic detail, but, in general, the author is very reticent in describing how it can be used. In one place, however, he outlines the method, and this too involves the prophetic position. He writes, “If you wish to enter into their mystery, concentrate on all that we have said, and contemplate the chambers that we have discussed, together with their lights, colors and letter combinations. Meditate (hitboded) on this for some time, either briefly or at length. Begin by placing your head between your knees” (She’eirit Yosef 168a).
He then provides a remarkable prayer that should be said while in the prophetic position [Divine Names below should not be pronounced]:
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, Crown me (Keter).
Yah, give me Wisdom (Chokhmah).
Elohim Chaim, grant me Understanding (Binah).
El, with the right hand of his Love, make me great (Chesed).
Elohim, from the Terror of His judgment, protect me (Gevurah).
YHVH, with His mercy grant me Beauty (Tiferet).
YHVH Tzava’ot, watch me Forever (Netzach).
Elohim Tzava’ot, grant me beatitude from his Splendor (Hod).
El Chai, make His covenant my Foundation (Yesod).
Adonoy, open my lips and my mouth will speak of Your praise (Malkhut).
The reader will immediately notice that this chant includes the Ten Sefirot, as well as the Divine Names associated with them in the Kabbalistic tradition. This is the only place where we find an actual meditative practice involving the prophetic position. Most of these methods were restricted to small secret societies, and it is possible that this method was in the possession of the same school since the time of Hai Gaon.