Updated: Mar 15
Hitbonenut (contemplation) is a meditative technique that has been used for thousands of years. It consists of reconnecting with the Source of life through contemplating creation.
The contemplation of creation is a central technique in Jewish meditative traditions, as it is the primary method we have with which to cleave to the Divine (Devekut).
The most detailed accounts of Hitbonenut meditation can be found in the teachings of Medieval Jewish sages, such as Maimonides in the 12th century.
However, contemplation of creation as a means to approach the Divine is already referred to in the Book of Psalms. It is even mentioned in ancient traditions that describe the origins of Abraham, the first patriarch.
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What is Hitbonenut
Hitbonenut is Hebrew for contemplation, and in a spiritual context, it refers to a meditative technique: Contemplating Nature as a means of connecting to the Source of life.
Anything we can perceive with the senses can be used for contemplation: from outer space, galaxies, and stars; to trees, flowers, and the ocean.
We can also contemplate living beings: the sociology of animals such as ants, wolves, and dolphins; the intelligent design of Nature, its perfection and precision; how all elements in Nature fit together perfectly.
We can also dive into contemplating the beauty and complexity of a DNA double helix; the maternal instincts of mammals; or the way plants communicate.
Hitbonenut is the tool we can use in order to connect with the Divine. By contemplating creation we can be closer to the Source of life, and eventually express feelings of love and reverence towards God. Such expression is a primary element of Judaism.
Contemplation of creation is at the core of Jewish spiritual tradition, Hitbonenut is therefore a primary technique in Hitbodedut, one of the central meditative practices in Judaism.
How to Practice Hitbonenut
There are many ways to practice Hitbonenut. Here’s a classic one:
1. Find a quiet place to practice Hitbonenut calmly and quietly.
2. Find a comfortable position you can maintain for a while, without moving.
3. Close your eyes and observe the stream of thoughts in your mind. By observing them, you may quieten the stream, and even allow space within to become an observer.
4. Direct your attention towards contemplating a natural phenomenon, such as the beauty and complexity of the ocean. Try to visualize it.
Visualize how big it is; how deep it can get (as deep as 11 miles/36km); visualize the tiny fish, the huge blue whale; the jellyfish, and the squid; the seahorse, and the eel; the corals, and all the life underwater.
You may zoom in on one of these creatures – and notice how unique it is compared to all the other animals around it; or how perfectly synchronized everything is.
5. Bringing your awareness to the Intelligence of creation, to the Source of all life, you may realize how unique we all are, but also how small we are, compared to the greatness of the entire universe.
6. See how this contemplation can ground you, and provide a fresh view on life.
7. Gently bring yourself back to the here and now, and try to imagine how it would feel to maintain within you this sense of perspective, awe, and connection to the Force of life.
The Origins of Hitbonenut
The history of contemplating creation as a means of connecting to the Creator is as old as Judaism. It started with Abraham, the founder of the Jewish nation, and continues throughout the Bible.
The philosophers of the Middle Ages transmitted the most detailed descriptions of Hitbonenut techniques.
Abraham, the First Contemplator of Creation
The origins of Hitbonenut date back to the days of Abraham, the founder of Judaism.
According to the Hebrew Bible, before he received God’s calling to walk the earth, Abraham lived in a pagan family.
Jewish tradition teaches that what brought him to the realization that there is a Creator of the universe was his observation of Nature.
Abraham wondered who created the universe, and after observing Nature he decided to pray to the sun.
Later, the sun disappeared and the moon came out, so he prayed to the moon. In the morning, the moon disappeared and the sun came out again.
Thus Abraham deduced that there must be another Being that controls both the sun and the moon, and that is when he started contemplating God.
In the Psalms, there are many references to creation as the subject of contemplation of the Divine Source of life.
Psalm 104 is probably the best example of this:
You water the mountains from Your lofts, the earth is sated from the fruit of Your work.
You make the grass grow for the cattle, and herbage for man’s labor, that he may get food out of the earth;
wine that cheers the hearts of men, oil that makes the face shine, and bread that sustains man’s life.
The trees of the LORD drink their fill, the cedars of Lebanon, His own planting, where birds make their nests; the stork has her home in the junipers.
The high mountains are for wild goats; the crags are a refuge for rock-badgers. He made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows when to set.
You bring on darkness and it is night, when all the beasts of the forests stir.
The lions roar for prey, seeking their food from God. When the sun rises, they come home
and couch in their dens.
Man then goes out to his work, to his labor until the evening.
How many are the things You have made, O LORD;
You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of Your creations.
There is the sea, vast and wide, with its creatures beyond number, living things, small and great.
There go the ships, and Leviathan that You formed to sport with. All of them look to You to give them their food when it is due.
Give it to them, they gather it up; open Your hand, they are well satisfied; hide Your face, they are terrified; take away their breath, they perish and turn again into dust.
Send back Your breath, they are created, and You renew the face of the earth…
Philosophers of the Middle Ages
The most detailed practices of Hitbonenut can be found in the teachings of Bahya ben Joseph ibn Paquda, one of the first to revive the concept of Hasidut (loving-kindness) in 11th century Spain.
In his book, Duties of the Hearts, there are many meditations that utilize the contemplation of creation. In fact, the entire second chapter is dedicated to this practice, as in this extract:
Therefore, contemplate God's creations, from the smallest of them to the largest, and reflect on those matters which are at present hidden from you; and, with the help of the Almighty, you will find that they are as I have told you. And because these marks of Divine Wisdom vary in created things, it is our duty to contemplate them and think on them until the whole matter becomes established in our souls and abides in our consciousness.
Another great example of Hitbonenut practice can be found in the teachings of Moses Maimonides (aka the Rambam).
The second chapter of his great life’s work, the Mishneh Torah, opens with a description of the practice of Hitbonenut:
“What is the path to attain love and reverence of Him? When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His Infinite Wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify Him, yearning with a tremendous desire to know God's great name, as David stated: ‘My soul thirsts for the Lord, for the living God."
Being the main way we can relate to God and strengthen our connection with Him, Hitbonenut as the contemplation of Nature is also at the core of the larger category of Hitbodedut (self-seclusion or retreat).
The practice of Hitbodedut focuses on quieting the senses, in order to “turn off” the ego and the self, and achieve total self-negation (Bitul Ha Yesh).
After attaining self-negation, we can gently direct our awareness toward the Divine Source of life, by contemplating His creation.
This practice, if accompanied by the appropriate ethical work of emulating Divine Attributes, can bring us to Devekut, cleaving to God, being absorbed in, and becoming one with the Divine.
This is a very advanced and high-level technique, and probably the most central meditative practice in the Jewish tradition.