The rabbis used to meditate, here's how you can start too

An introduction to meditating the Jewish way


As a teacher of Jewish meditation, I am often asked: what exactly is Jewish meditation? While there are many valid responses to this question, my own approach is one that highlights the meditative aspects already present within Jewish tradition, texts and practices. 

In other words, learning or practising Jewish meditation is not distinct from learning or practising Judaism. Let me offer a few examples of how someone seeking to grow in Jewish meditation can do so largely through investing greater intention into well-known Jewish practices.

A good starting point is to consider what, exactly, is meditation? Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan provides a very helpful definition at the beginning of  his classic work, Jewish Meditation: “deciding exactly how one  wishes to direct the mind for a period of time, and then doing it”. 

I would add to this, that meditation is defined by our attempt to direct our attention, rather than our success in doing so. Failure is a crucial part of meditating, and this is one of many reasons that it is so good for us, physiologically, psychologically and spiritually. 

As we repeatedly experience our own inability to focus on our chosen object, but nonetheless persist in the attempt, we become more aware of, and more compassionate towards, ourselves and life in general. 

Seeing the messy, beautiful, painful truth of our own inner lives and all life with greater clarity, we see deeply how much we do not know, control or understand. We loosen our grip on the stories and assumptions to which we often cling, allowing ourselves to shed what no longer serves us, and to open ourselves to greater vitality, growth and renewal.

So what is Jewish meditation? A helpful reference point is the Hebrew word for intention or direction, kavannah. Before doing anything, particularly a ritual act such as lighting a candle or saying a blessing, it is worthwhile to consider setting a kavannah. What is the direction we would like this activity to lead us in? Would we like to invite a particular quality into our lives, or perhaps be more open to deepening our relationship with, or understanding of, someone or something?

The Mishnah, the first layer of rabbinic legal code, teaches that our early sages “would wait an hour before praying, in order to direct their hearts to the Omnipresent”. The word for “direct” used here is from the same linguistic root as kavannah. 

Unfortunately, we do not know exactly what they were doing during this hour, but given that whatever they did cultivated kavannah, it was, by definition, a form of meditation.

This is a practice that anyone can experiment with, whether you are new to Jewish prayer or you are an experienced davener. Give yourself the gift of a little time before you enter into prayer, and do your best to focus on one thing during that time. (For more detailed instructions, see the Practices section of my website Try it for ten minutes and see what happens. 

The Talmud, discussing the Mishnah cited above, teaches that those same early sages would wait an hour, recite the Amidah prayer for an hour and then wait another hour afterwards. Rabbi Kaplan points out that reciting the Amidah for an hour would involve saying one word approximately every seven seconds, which offers us another practice to experiment with. 

Seven seconds may be too long, especially for someone new to this. But even saying one word every three seconds, or perhaps one word with each breath, is a radically different practice to how the prayers are usually recited, and its effects will be felt accordingly. In all matters of meditation, quantity is not the key. Start with a few minutes or even just a few words, and any effective practice will naturally develop.

The above examples of meditative techniques from the Mishnah and Talmud are merely the tip of the iceberg. Every generation of Jews has innovated meditative practices, leaving us a vast legacy to experiment with and benefit from. 

Among those most relevant for us today are those favoured by the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Chasidic masters who followed him. In their works, we find instructions for transformative practices that can bring us greater access to awareness, equanimity, joy, insight and love. 

Rabbi Daniel Raphael Silverstein co-founded London’s first Moishe House, and received rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat  Chovevei Torah in New York. 

He is the founder of, an online platform for exploring Jewish spirituality, which is currently hosting a six-week online course in Revolutionary Ideas and Practices from the Chasidic Masters, in partnership with UK-based organisation Hamakom. He will be teaching on the inaugural Romemu Yeshiva summer programme in New York

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