Hasidic literature contains no systematic manual of contemplative prayer. The texts below appear in a collection of passages culled from the records of the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the Maggid Dov Baer of Miedzyrzec, and their immediate disciples in the latter part of the eighteenth century. They have been meticulously and sensitively translated into English by two prominent scholars, one a specialist in Kabbalah and the other a scholar of Jewish literature and Jewish education. Excerpted from Your Word Is Fire by Arthur Green and Barry W. Holtz (Jewish Lights Publishing).
We Do More Than Pray to God
People think that they pray to God.
But this is not the case.
For prayer itself is of the very essence of God.
—Rabbi Pinhas Of Korzec
The Power of Your Prayer
It is possible to be so humble
that your very humility
keeps you far from God.
A humble person may not believe that his own prayer
can cause the Presence
to flow through all the worlds.
But how then can you believe
that even angels are nourished
by your words?
Know the power of your prayer
And serve your God in fullness.
–Ya’akov Yosef of Polnoye, Toledot Ya’akov Yosef 172c
Preparing the Way
A person of spirit may begin his prayer
in awe and trembling,
saying to himself:
"Who are I, a poor clod of earth,
to stand before the King of Kings in prayer?"
He speaks only a partial truth.
He does not yet know the higher truth, however—
the truth that all things,
even the material world,
are filled with God’s presence.
Indeed he cannot speak the words of prayer—
better that he remain silent before the Lord.
Thus scripture says:
"God is in heaven and you are upon the earth;
do not rush to speak, and let your words be few."
As long as you believe that God is only in heaven
and does not fill the earth—
let your words be few.
Only when you come to know
that you too contain His Presence-
only then can you begin to pray.
—Rabbi David Shlomo of Tulczyn, HitorerutHa-tefillah 3a-b (The quotation is from Ecclesiastes 5:1)
Meet God in the Word
A person should put all his strength into the words,
proceeding from letter to letter
with such concentration
that he loses awareness of his bodily self.
It then seems to him that the letters themselves
are flowing into one another.
This uniting of the letters is his greatest joy.
If joy is felt as two human bodies come together,
how much greater must be the joy
of this union in spirit!
—Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov, quoted in Keter Shem Tov 72b
Beyond the Walls of Self
There are times when you are praying
in an ordinary state of mind
and you feel that you cannot draw near to God.
But then in an instant
the light of your soul will be kindled
and you will go up to the highest worlds.
You are like one who has been given a ladder:
The light that shines in you is a gift from above.
–Liqqutim Yeqarim 3d
Prayer is union with the Divine Presence.
Just as two people will move their bodies
back and forth as they begin the act of love,
so must a person accompany
the beginning of his prayer
with the rhythmic swaying of his body.
But as he reaches the heights of union
with the Presence
the movement of his body ceases.
—Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov, quoted in Tzawa’at RIVaSH 7b
In God’s Presence
Be joyful always.
Know that God’s Presence is with you,
that you are looking directly at your Creator
and your Creator at you.
Know that the Creator can do all that He desires:
that in an instant
He could destroy all the worlds
and in an instant renew them.
In Him are rooted all powers, both good and harmful:
His flowing life is everywhere.
Only Him do I trust!
Only Him do I fear!
—Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov, quoted in Tzawa’at RIVaSH 18a
The Way of the Simple
One who reads the words of prayer with great devotion
may come to see the lights within the letters,
even though he does not understand
the meaning of the words he speaks.
Such prayer has great power;
His mistakes in reading are of no importance.
A father has a young child whom he greatly loves.
Even though the child has hardly learned to speak,
the father takes pleasure
in listening to his words.
–Liqqutim Yeqarim 2a
After the Hour of Prayer
A person at prayer is like a bed of coals,
As long as a single spark remains,
a great fire can again be kindled.
But without that spark there can be no fire.
Always remain attached to God,
even in those times
when you feel unable to ascend to Him.
You must preserve that single spark—
lest the fire of your soul be extinguished.
–Liqqutim Yeqarim 15b;
Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov, quoted in Keter Shem Tov 37b-38a
Pronounced: kah-bah-LAH, sometimes kuh-BAHL-uh, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish mysticism.