Mystical Prayer: Kavanot

The term kavana in Kabbalah and in Judaism in general had a number of meanings, but the central one was that of intention and mental focus. Yitzkhak Luria used the term to refer to specific Kabbalistic meditations accompanying the traditional prayers.

In pre-Lurianic Kabbalah the kavanot (plural of kavana) that were prevalent were focused on the Sefirot. In other words, specific prayers would be used as meditations to connect the person praying with the Sefira associated with that prayer. Kabbalistic prayer was generally very meditative and probably the major means of attaining union with God. The seminal Kabbalist Azriel of Gerona spoke of Kabbalistic prayer as penetrating to the nothingness of each word. Each word had the potential to connect you directly to God.

Lurianic Prayer Books

Luria's system of kavanot changed the focus of kavana to the use of mystical names of God associated with particular words throughout the prayer book. There are many Kabbalistic prayer books, which are manuals of mystical prayer. After Luria the publication of such siddurim (prayer books) increased. A prayer book based on Luria's teachings often contained specific names of God written into the expanded letters of words. Another element was taking the ultimate name YHVH and giving it different vocalizations by putting a particular set of vowels under each letter of YHVH, each set of vowels having a specific significance. These methods had much in common with Abulafia's meditational system.

Kabbalistic prayer with kavanot combined the communal aspect of prayer with the highly individualized meditations added to it. Though there were Kabbalistic prayer groups, individual Kabbalists could also practice their kavanot in the context of a larger community.

In earlier Kabbalistic kavanot the main focus was on achieving a state of devekut with the Omnipresent, but in Luria's system the goal of raising the divine sparks in ourselves became an additional important element.

Unifications: Yikhudim

Isaac Luria's relationship with his disciples was unique. He would give them a “reading” of their soul and its gilgulim (reincarnations). When walking through the hills surrounding Tzfat he would point out to them the burial places of ancient Tzaddikim (saints) with whom they would commune. Luria would individualize the meditations of his disciples based on his perceptions of the roots of their souls.

The Ari had a system of yikhudim, which were meditations on various letter combinations of YHVH or variant vocalizations of the name. For example, the name could be written out spelling each of the letters individually in different combinations. The letter hey could be spelled as a hey alone or as hey aleph, or hey yud, etc. Each of these possibilities would spell the name of the letter and each had its own significance. These meditations were believed to help effect a Tikkun (a healing, repairing) in the upper and lower worlds.

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