“Hitbodedut:” Prayer From The Heart

Hitbodedut is self-secluded, spontaneous prayer from the heart in one’s own words and vernacular. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772 – 1810) believed It to be the most powerful form of Jewish prayer.

The Ba’al Shem Tov and other renowned Jewish mystics were devout practitioners.

Our greatest Tzaddikim have attributed their achievements to Hitbodedut, but it’s for everyone equally and anyone can reap supreme value through it, attaining the greatest closeness to God. Hitbodedut rises up to a very high place.   

Rebbe Nachman, Likutey Moharan II, 25

Rebbe Nachman not only believed Hitbodedut to be the highest level of Jewish prayer, he saw inherent dangers in formulaic prayers.

Jewish prayer originally began with each person pouring out his heart to God in his own words and language. According to the law, the original form of prayer remains primary. Speaking to God from the depths of your heart in the language you know best is the essence of prayer. This is how all the great mystics attained their high levels.

There’s another advantage as well. When one recites scripted prayers, there are maligning forces lying in wait along the pathways of these prayers, for like highway robbers, they know the road all too well. But when a person takes an uncharted and spontaneous path that springs directly from the heart, they cannot ambush.

REBBE NACHMAN, SICHOT HARAN #229 / LIKUTEY MOHARAN II, 97

I’ve always been intrigued by the last paragraph. What did he mean? Why did he say it? There are many riddles in Judaism that are akin to Buddhist koans. It’s up to each of us to interpret the meaning and pursue the enlightenment within.

Hitbodedut opens our minds to seeing GD as a loved one and confidant. It’s simple and uncomplicated, as the most powerful things in life often are. When we have our heart-to-heart with GD nothing is too silly, small or trivial to pray for and express.

Pray for everything. If your garment is torn beyond repair, pray for a new one. Do this for everything, large or small. Speak to God the way you would speak to your friend.

Rebbe Nachman

R’ Nachman recommended practicing Hitbodedut alone in mother nature with a minyan of helpful foliage, trees and critters.

“When one goes out to the woods and meadows to pray, every blade of grass, every plant and flower enter his prayers and help him, putting strength and force into his words.”

Rebbe Nachman

Jewish mysticism tells us the Nitzutzei Kedusha ניצוצי קדושה (Holy Sparks) are in everything animate and inanimate: trees, rocks, the tools of one’s trade, plants, rain drops, blades of grass.

The “middle of the night,” when the world is quiet, was considered to be an ideal time to practice Hitobdedut.

What if you don’t feel safe going out in the woods or a secluded area at night? I get it. Who wants to be in the woods at midnight where a Jason or Freddy Kruger might be lurking about?

No worries! Any indoor or outdoor space where you can pray in solitude will do. You can cover head completely with a tallit (prayer shawl) or burrow under your bed covers. King David wrote the entire Book of Psalms in bed, beneath the covers, like a child! (Sichot Haran #68).

If you find yourself tongue-tied, Rebbe Nachman’s remedy is to say one word repeatedly and emphatically.

One word mantras are considered to be powerful connectors to Source. For instance, Om is a one word mantra in Hinduism that connects one to consciousness, Divinity and the cosmic world.

What is my take on Rebbe Nachman’s vision of maligning forces waiting along the formulaic pathways of prayer? Maybe speaking to GD intimately from your heart, is speaking to your own self-compassion. Maybe the saboteurs along your familiar pathways of prayer, are the result of religious trauma or the voices of toxic shamers echoing in your head.

Praying in solitude, spontaneously from your heart, creates a space that is inherently safe and self-caring. I think Hitbodedut is a vehicle for healing and reconnection with Source in self-created safe space. In doesn’t necessarily preclude traditional prayers in a House of Worship, but it’s a way to restart or jumpstart an intimate conversation with Source.

In closing, I’ll include a delightful cat tale. 

A well-known Rebbe would pray in his private room adjacent to his shul. Hearing sounds outside his door, the rebbe prayed with increased enthusiasm, thinking it was his congregants inspired his devotions. Later he discovered the sounds he heard were coming from a cat right outside door. “For nine years he prayed to a cat!” Rebbe Nachman exclaimed.

😹 I’m sure the cat, unobstructed by human dogma (pun intended), helped to amplify his prayers.

©️2020 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Shiur 11.09.19

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32 thoughts on ““Hitbodedut:” Prayer From The Heart

  1. “There’s another advantage as well. When one recites scripted prayers, there are maligning forces lying in wait along the pathways of these prayers, for like highway robbers, they know the road all too well. But when a person takes an uncharted and spontaneous path that springs directly from the heart, they cannot ambush.”

    I sit here stunned, Avigail. Why? Because I pray spontaneously. I pray from an attitude of Gratitude thanking Source that what I pray for is already done. When we “ask” as if we “need” something, that is showing the Universe a lack, so that is what we receive. My simplest prayer is during the day when my energies are required to help others, I will look out my kitchen window and quietly say, “thank you” several times for that moment or for the beauty I see in one of our trees. Then I sigh quietly, close my eyes, and “feel” that Gratitude which in turn brings great solace to my soul.

    I also sing and speak in my “light language” that is straight from my heart. This I “feel” as the sounds I make lift me so high, transporting me at times into a higher place. I don’t like formalized prayer and in fact get very uncomfortable when around it. People don’t actually even realize what they are intoning most of the time and if they did, and understood that in many cases they were imprisoning their spirit more then anything, it would horrify them. Words are powerful.

    There are so many similarities between Jewish mysticism and the way I live life. I am very fond of prayers that begin with “I AM” for in saying that immediately you are speaking with God. OH how I enjoyed this post, Avigail, and I thank you so much for sending me the link. I am not associated with any religion or any following, for many years ago I heard my “Guidance” tell me not to listen to man but only to Spirit. So I did. Those years taught me a church is anywhere where a person is and lives. It is living from a foundation of love and peace, we turn our life into a prayer. Amazing!!!

    • We are resonating on the same wave length.
      Rebbe Nachman was a very spiritual person and I often ponder his “highway robbers” comment in regards to formulated prayer.

      I love light language…it’s a very elevated form of connection with the Divine Light. You are wise to listen to Spirit and not man. Abundant thanks for sharing your prayer practices and lived experiences.

      When I prayed with the Quakers I found it to be a similar experience to Hitbodedut. No clergy, no sermons, no bibles (unless you wanted one), nothing formalized. We all just sat together in the sanctuary and everyone prayed silently in their own way to connect with the Divine.

      • You’ve gone and put feely good tears in my eyes, Avigail. My husband doesn’t understand how powerful light language is and actually either mocks me or shows me he is afraid. Hubby is on his own journey, one where he has made great progress I would like to add, yet, he is very left brained, and does not grasp living a life of spirit-filled flow when he requires answers to everything. Logic versus knowing. Facts versus faith. One reason I elected to be with this man, is to show him through example how to live by flowing.

        Thank YOU and God bless you for understanding me. Not many people do and I do not make a habit of telling others this very core of my existence, for they would not understand. I intuitively knew you did. You made my day!! I’m going into a forest today with my cameras to commune with Mother in all Her Divine Glory.

        Much love to you, soul sister! xoxoxo

        • I see light language workers on YouTube and TikTok. You’ll find many kindred spirits there. A lot of it is hand motions accompanied by singing sounds or words that we can feel energetically but not understand. 😎 Sometimes we are on different planes than our spouses…right brain vs left brain, spiritual vs pragmatic. Abundant love, light and hugs…🙌

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  5. Nature is the most powerful teacher. In my childhood I learned so many thing that Torah teach us.
    God will listen to anyone on your own language.
    I believe the goal could for us Jews is to become a walking Torah.

    • Thank you for sharing and reflecting upon this post! Nature is a powerful force. I would be interested in hearing more about what it means to you to be a “walking Torah.” 🖖😊

    • I talk to Ha-Shem all the time. I do not feel as lonely when I do this. It is an abstract concept for me. IT is sort of like an imaginary friend.

      • I like the thought of GD as an imaginary friend. It’s important to see GD as our friend. Thanks for being here and sharing.

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  8. I find it very meaningful to pray in my own language because G-d knows all languages. it is very intimate to pray with my own words. I am not a person who likes to pray in rote because it hinders my relationship with G-d. When I pray to G-d in my own language, it means that I am working something out with G-d. I am able to comfort myself by having a personal relationship with G-d. Sometimes when doing Shacharit and Musaf it makes me crazy, because after doing Shema and Amidah once, I am done and don’t feel the necessity of doing it again within the same service.

    • …”working something out with G-d” — love that! Yes! We are also working through something with ourselves. The intimacy of secluded prayer creates a safe space where we don’t feel judged for not knowing the words or pronunciation…or safe space to express our innermost thoughts without judgment. I remember when a friend of mine was criticized by her parents and made fun of by her peers for praying for something they deemed as trivial, silly and unimportant. Sometimes we just need private time with God or Source. Thanks a bunch for commenting!

  9. I have always prayed on mountaintops as a perpetual hiker. That is the only thing that has ever made sense to me. On L’eil shabbat I enjoy the intricacies and the comfort of the traditions and prayers. Our 4000 year history is comforting as well as consistent. It is a balance to do my own prayers. I am from the school of thought that Martin Buber was correct when he presented the “I thou” relationship with G-d. Rabbi Nachman and Martin Buber have been inspirational in personal relationships with G-d. So, it is a matter of balance. It is a life long process. It is worth it to me.

    • Thank you for sharing and bringing in Martin Buber. What a fantastic experience you had, praying on a mountain top! Much gratitude for this sweet comment. 🥰

  10. Wow! Quite a topic! As usual for your midrash, you stimulate a great deal of thought and introspection. I so agree with the part about using your own dialect and prayers to talk to G-d. I think formulaic prayers are good for encouraging people to pray and giving an example of what an how to pray. But, I have seen far too often that they are just said in rote, and not with any real emotional connection. In fact, it seems a practice to say them as fast as possible, just to say you have said them. The Rabbis and Cantors seem to condone this practice because they are the ones who most set the example. You are saying the Amidah at Synagogue and suddenly realize that you are the only one still standing. The Rabbi then says if you are not finished please feel free to continue, but, starts into the next section with you being left behind. I don’t think that this type of prayer by rote, and speed really encourages connection with G-d, plus, I have always believed that saying prayers in another language than the one that is used in common every day speech, feel pretentious and for show, not coming from the heart. Fewer and fewer people see the value of studying for long periods to learn the intricacies of another language and especially biblical Hebrew, which is even more difficult. To me, my real heart connection with G-d, comes when I set aside a moment and just talk to him in my language, as if talking to an old friend, telling Him everything I am feeling. When saying rote prayers, you are mouthing someone else’s words. They may contain words that you are really feeling. But, many times, they address general things and not the issues of the moment. If I want to make a real connection with G-d, then He needs to hear from my heart and soul what the real issues are, not what someone else wrote for me.

    The other idea, of finding a spot, such as out in the woods, etc. is a great one. Life is very distracting and I have enough trouble concentrating on things as is. When I deliberately find an isolated spot without distraction, I can think more clearly and can have a conversation with G-d uninterrupted by distraction and life around me. I love to ride a motorcycle. For me, the idea of getting away is perfect for me, when I climb on my motorcycle and ride off into the beauty of G-d’s creation, smell the fresh pine, see the majesty of G-d handiwork in front of me. It feels to me like I am a part of it, and at one with G-d. It is a special kind of Shalom.

    Lastly, I greatly understand the various struggles to identify G-d. I think we all go through those. David, in Psalms, and Proverbs, addressed his own feelings of isolation from G-d and trying to figure out his relationship, and where he stood. At times, he was a great warrior, and at others, discouraged and feeling very distant from G-d. I think that we all go through those periods in our lives. If David had been perfect or had a perfect connection at all times with G-d, then we would have trouble identifying with him. But, he had all of the struggles common to man, but, still, G-d called David a Man After G-d’s Own Heart. So, we can have hope that this imperfect, and sometimes troubled person, was loved by G-d and therefore, we can have hope as well. I have struggled at times to identify who or what G-d is. But, after much ruminating over this subject, I have come to the conclusion that G-d is really incomprehensible to us. We cannot fully grasp what he is. Nor is this really required for a relationship. When we settle that issue in our mind, knowing that we cannot grasp this concept, then we find peace in just simply trusting, as a baby trusts his parents, and simply just accept the relationship. In Isaiah, 55: 8-9, it pretty much defines this idea: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as high as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. Again in Psalm 145:3 Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and His greatness is unsearchable. We, as mankind, like to define things and be able to have a picture or clear definition of things. This is the great mystery of G-d, that only a handful of humans have ever interacted directly with G-d, like Moses, but, we are admonished many times to just trust. This aspect has given me peace, when I understand that I will never comprehend G-d and that in order to have a relationship, I simply just have to trust. I don’t have to understand, just be still and know that He is G-d. He has never, ever, let me down through the most trying circumstances of my life. Those who know me, know that I have had tremendously trying circumstances, yet, He has been with me and never failed me. There were times I wondered where He was or what exactly He was doing, but, as time passed, I was able to comprehend and see that His plans for me, and His path were far better than my own plans or my chosen path. Proverbs 3: 5: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your path!”

    • “…You are mouthing someone else’s words. They may contain words that you are really feeling. But, many times, they address general things and not the issues of the moment.” Very true. Great insight!

      I know that many people feel intimidated and self-conscious in synagogue when they aren’t fluent in or familiar with the Hebrew prayers. I imagine it’s the same at the Mosque or the Catholic Church, when Latin was the primary prayer language.

      A bike ride in the country sounds divine. Thank you for being here! Your reflections are always appreciated.

    • I used the word Transliteration instead of translation. It should read “Often the translation of Hebrew leaves much to be desired…….”

    • I do pray, both traditional prayers and prayer in my own words. Got all my bases covered. 😊

  11. I’ve practised hitbodedut for many years, but lately it’s been hard. The words aren’t coming and I find it hard to trust God. I’ve had trust issues with God for some time now (not sure exactly, months or possibly years). I’m not sure what to do about this. I stopped for a few days, and tried to do it only when I wanted to, but then I ended up going back to doing it daily. I’ve tried decreasing the time. Nothing really helped.

    I’ve heard the cat story before; I see it as part of R’ Nachman’s arguments against people who he considered “false” rebbes acting from impure motives. Have you read Arthur Green’s biography of him?

    • I love the cat story! 😻 It’s so pure and sweet. It brings me joy. I would follow a rebbe that prayed with a cat, dog, bird or any other precious being from the animal world. I have yet to read Green’s biography.

      Hitbodedut can be very challenging and difficult at times. I suggest taking a break and revisiting it another time.

      I find it helpful to use it as a tool to achieve clarity and process things. I also find it peaceful to just commune with flowers, plants and trees. 😊 I hope you find another approach that is helpful to you.

      • I’d like to be in nature more (as a general thing, not just re: hitbodedut), but it’s not really possible where I live. 😦 It would be nice to live on a farm and keep goats or something.

        I think I have a lot of anger with God that I need to work through… Also, paradoxically, part of me sees God as absolutely abstract and infinite (Ein-Sof) and I struggle to connect.

        If I feel that I’m not talking to God in hitbodedut (i.e. I’m just thinking things through to myself), that feels wrong somehow, like I’m ignoring Him. This is probably theologically incoherent.

        Hitbodedut on Shabbat (Friday night) is usually fine, though and I can sometimes talk for nearly an hour, whereas during the week I struggle to speak for ten minutes.

        • I’d love to live on a small farm! That’s my dream life. I am not happy with biblical GD, that’s why I’m glad we have so many other Hebrew names and definitions of GD in Judaism. I like Friday night the best — it’s very spiritual and soothing to me. Sending lots of peaceful thoughts your way! 🌷

          • I don’t think I really believe in the biblical God. Not the literal sola scriptura reading, which is not a Jewish way of reading. Midrash reads everything so differently, and I can’t get away from that. (I think there is an idea somewhere that the Written Torah is the aspect of judgment and the Oral Torah is the aspect of kindness.) OTOH, I don’t really have a huge problem with the text. It says what it says, and it’s there for a reason, although I struggle to understand why sometimes.

            My problem is more… I can’t connect with God. Perhaps I’m too abstract in my thinking. I believe in a personal God, but I struggle to see God as a person. I think I have a very abstract idea of God as Infinity and Love and Justice, but not as a parent or even a king. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan says that God is in some ways like a person and in other ways like a mathematical formula; I think I get stuck in “formula” mode.

            At the same time, and paradoxically, I feel angry with God, not from the Torah text, but from the bad things that happened to me and other people. I can believe there’s a reason and a purpose to them, but I still get annoyed that God brought that purpose about through suffering rather than another way, even though I could write an essay justifying suffering in the abstract.

            I guess the bottom line is (as I just hinted on my own blog), that I’m so, so scared that I’m going to die alone and unloved because God wants me to die alone and unloved for some plan.

            Sorry, I shouldn’t dump all this on you, it’s just that people I know wouldn’t “get” this and I think you might.

            • I get it. Loneliness is a scary thing. I do wonder why everyone can’t find their b’shert. It seems so unfair. 😢

  12. A beautiful and poetic reflection on the subject matter submitted to me by Robin! 💖

    🦋🦋🦋🦋🦋🦋🦋

    Reb Nachman told a disciple, We have come into being to praise to labor and to love.

    And this mantra, which I am only able to pray in English,

    Speaks GD to me.

    The Rebbe also urged his followers to call out to GD in their own language.

    I pray in English again when I write poetry, whatever the topic may be.

    Nachman spoke of seeking the divine in nature. I seek it in the roots

    Not of trees and flowers but of darkest night

    When whatever comes to breath is both pure and romantic.

    I sit on my bed and though my words have specific meaning

    They are my ninguns. Perhaps poetry is really vocalization and the love of GD,

    Our actual words less important than the act of calling.

    Hours pass as I write a short free verse,

    Just as Reb Nachman allowed the fact of questing after GD in conversation

    Would often be arduous.

    It is a great gift that we can speak of anything at all to GD

    And be heard in mystic peace

    Because everything thus offered is a song of praise.

  13. When we met under the chuppah, the rabbi said to my bride, “Your obligation is to bake challah. Bobbie did not know how to cook. Nevertheless, from the first time we ate together in our new home until today, she has made the dinner meal. When I sit down at the table, I wait for her to join me; I do not start eating while she is preparing the salad dressing. We have repeated the mitzvah of coming together to eat for 54 years. On Shabbat, we recite the prayers. On other nights we just are together in the small space around the table.

    • Very moving! Thank you for sharing your beautiful story of the prayer from the heart you have created with your spouse!! It’s a good reminder that prayer from the heart can be a heartfelt tradition and our creation of sacred space. 🖖

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