Printer Friendly

Meditation, the Brain, and Judaism.


Meditation is a cognitive activity that has been discussed, written about, and practiced in various forms across multiple cultures and traditions. The role of meditation in the practice of Judaism is a fascinating topic for which there is, in my opinion, limited understanding. Part of the difficulty may be due to lack of agreement about the definition of the term. While definitions abound, I define meditation as a conscious, voluntary, and self-caused wakeful cognitive state (or state of mind) characterized by the temporary channeling of most of our attentional resources to focus on a specific point, while suppressing or modifying competing non-voluntary cognitive activity (such as extraneous thoughts, external sounds, and so on). In keeping with this definition there are two distinct aspects of meditation. The first is the "process," the series of neurobiological, bodily, and cognitive steps utilized to reach a meditative state. The second is the content contained within the meditative experience. The content could be phenomenal (an entity that can be described through the senses, such as the visualization of a flame on a candle) or non-phenomenal, where the entity cannot be described through the sensorium (including a thought, idea, or concept, such as the greatness of G-d). As we shall discuss, this distinction is important in order to understand the neurobiology of meditation.

Meditation is practiced mainly in the context of religion or "spirituality," self-improvement, or physical and mental health. Meditation is a "metacognitive function." Metacognition is a "step above" cognition. It implies the act of cognizing about other lower cognitive abilities. For example, memory is a cognitive activity. Directing memory to purposefully remember a specific event is a metacognitive activity. Another example of metacognition is "thinking about our thoughts" and "controlling their content." To paraphrase Rebbe Nahman of Breslov (Likutey Moharan I:21), we are where our thoughts are. Successful meditation involves total control over our mental activity and cognitive state (including our thoughts), making it the metacognitive ability par excellence. This concept is in accordance with the introductory definition of meditation by one of the most important modern writers on the topic, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, who wrote that "in its most general sense, meditation consists of thinking in a controlled manner" (KAPLAN 1985, p. 3). Kaplan later becomes more specific in his writings on meditation and demonstrates that Judaism contains one of the more important systems of meditation.


The relationship between prayer and meditation in Judaism is also an issue of debate. To explore this issue we need to define the meaning and practice of prayer. Rabbi Dr. Nissan Mindel writes:
G-d has commanded us to pray to Him, and to Him alone. In times of
distress, we must turn to G-d for help; in times of comfort, we must
express our gratitude to G-d; and when all goes well with us, we must
still pray to G-d daily that He continue to show us His mercies and
grant us our daily needs.
                              (MINDEL 2004, p. 1)

Our daily prayers consist almost entirely of selections and readings
from our sacred literature... The selection and order... of these
prayers are the creation of our Divinely inspired Prophets and Sages.
Thus our prayers echo the eternal and infinite word of G-d. We address
ourselves to G-d in His own words, inasmuch as human language is too
poor and too limited to convey the sublime outpouring of the Divine
soul--for this is the essential meaning of Tefilah, "service of the
                               (MINDEL 2004, p. xi)

Our prayer book
... was designed to be not only the vehicle for the "service of the
heart" but also to be a vehicle for the "service of the mind." This is
where kavanah--attunement of both the heart and the mind--comes in.
Indeed, it has been said that kavanah is the very soul of prayer, and
that "prayer without kavanah is like a body without a soul."
                                        (MINDEL 2004, p. xii)

The source for "prayer without kavanah is like a body without a soul" comes from medieval commentators, beginning with Rabbi Bahya ibn Paquda in Hovot Ha'Levavot (Shaar Heshbon Ha'Nefesh, perek 3), continuing with Abarbanel, and then Rabbi Yaakov Emden in the seventeenth century.

Many authors suggest that meditation and prayer are one and the same, while others argue that they are different processes. Perhaps we can attempt to answer this question by utilizing a neuroscience approach.

Verbal versus Nonverbal Processing

The brain processes two modes of information: verbal and nonverbal. Verbal information is expressed through words or symbols, regardless of the modality that is utilized (oral or written). Communication between two individuals talking to each other is a verbal process. Thinking is largely verbal, because our thoughts are expressed both internally and externally through use of words. Written material is also verbal. Music is also verbal, since notes and other musical attributes are "symbols," much like letters making up a word. Semantic knowledge is verbal; much of what we learn is acquired, expressed, and transmitted through words.

To highlight the importance of verbal language we can discuss aphasia, a clinical syndrome characterized by a loss of the ability to utilize verbal language. It can be due to various lesions on the brain caused by strokes or tumors. There are many different types of aphasia, but all have in common impaired verbal communication (both spoken and written). The level of distress demonstrated by aphasia patients highlights the importance of verbal language for day-to-day functioning, including the ability to think in an efficient manner.

In contrast, nonverbal information is that which is not learned, expressed, or contained within words or symbols. The seemingly random flow of images and feelings that enter our consciousness without our control is nonverbal. For example, the inherent knowledge necessary to ride a bicycle is not verbal; one cannot acquire that knowledge with words, but instead, by "doing it." The experience and transmission of emotions is nonverbal.

Both verbal and nonverbal information are processed in different areas and networks in the brain. Much is known about the processing of verbal data, much less about the nonverbal process.

Much of our cognition is a mix of verbal and nonverbal data. Creativity, a function shared by both G-d and man, can be expressed verbally (such as writing a poem) or nonverbally (such as painting a work of art). It is interesting that according to the Torah (Genesis) G-d creates through words, highlighting their magnificent importance.

How does this relate to the difference between prayer and meditation? As stated above, much or all of Jewish prayer utilizes a verbal mode; whether we praise or "ask" of G-d, we use words. While words are the conduit of kavanah, they are still words. Jewish prayer is, therefore, highly verbal.

Realizing the importance of verbal content in the act of praying, can we pray without the use of words? What is "left" of prayer if we take away the words? Prayer without kavanah is like a body without a soul. Is kavanah attainable without words? Furthermore, are individuals who lose the ability to speak capable of prayer? Are aphasic patients able to converse with G-d? It could be argued that G-d knows our thoughts even when we are stricken by a neurological injury. We have thoughts and feelings regardless of whether we express them verbally, but Judaism attributes tremendous importance to words.

Jewish prayer, of course, does not only consist of words; it also includes music. The music is not merely an accompaniment to the verbal prayers but carries its own message, at times complementing or even independent of the associated words. Furthermore, melodies or nigunim can also, especially in the hasidic tradition, be conceptualized as a reaching out to dialogue with G-d.

We do not know whether wordless prayer is possible. No research has examined whether people with language disorders (such as aphasia) are able to pray, or whether they utilize a different type of prayer.

Meditation, on the other hand, can be a nonverbal process, although this depends on the type of meditation. An excellent example of meditation in the context of Jewish practice is included in the Tract on Prayer, a Hasidic Treatise by Rabbi Shalom DovBer, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, at the turn of the nineteenth century. In this magnificent treatise, Rabbi DovBer discusses the process of "gazing at the King's glory." He writes:
Indeed, any thorough and genuine meditation on the particular aspects
of any G-dly concept especially regarding His greatness and loftiness,
and the wondrous quality of the blessed infinite light--can be
considered to be "gazing at the King's glory," i.e., that one's G-dly
intellect "gazes" at the preciousness and the excellence of the Divine
light, and at the precious beauty of His greatness and exaltedness.
When all one's senses are nullified by virtue of this "gazing," a
person experiences great delight. This is the pleasantness, sweetness
and delight that the soul senses when taking pleasure in G-dliness, as
it is written, "Then shall you delight in G-d..." However this type of
pleasantness and delight is an inward and essential one; a person's
whole essence is nullified by this delight to the point that actual
expiration of the soul is possible.
                                        (SCHNEERSON 2007, pp. 28-30)

I believe that Rabbi DovBer refers to a wordless cognitive activity, different from prayer, that best fits with the aim of Jewish meditation, including the contemplation of G-d's greatness, and that results in a supremely unique and intense emotional response. There are, of course, other definitions of meditation. For instance, see the survey of 75 articles compiled by Alberto Perez-De-Albeniz and Jeremy Holmes (PEREZ-DE-ALBENIZ and HOLMES 2000).


A different perspective which magnificently delineates the difference between prayer and meditation, and yet, their harmonious relationship, can be found in the discussion on Mishnah Brakhot 5:1 in the Talmud:
[phrase omitted]

Mishnah Brakhot 5:1.

The ArtScroll translation of this Mishnah reads as follows: "The early pious ones would tarry for one hour and then pray in order that they may direct their hearts to their Father in Heaven." Shohin (in Aramaic, or shohim in Hebrew) is often translated as "tarry." Other translations include "hesitate," "wait," or "delay." The root of the word shohim is shin-heh-heh.

What does "tarry" mean? I believe that here shohin carries the image of a person being at the portal of a "holy space or place." The person is to stop, pause, reflect, step away from the outside world in an effort to prepare for entry into the realm of prayer before the King of Kings. This opinion is supported by Maimonides' commentary on our mishnah. He defines shohin as meaning:
[phrase omitted]

To settle their mind and quiet their thoughts, and then start to pray.
                                        (VILNA TALMUD BRAKHOT, p. 113)

There are a number of issues pertaining to this period of "waiting." First of all, it is a period separate from prayer. The discussion on this mishnah in Talmud Brakhot 32b states that shohin both preceded and followed prayer itself. It could be conceived as a preparatory state, "setting the proper mood," and "part of the prayer experience" and a "lingering on after" so as not to appear that the prayer was a burden.

In fact, the above citation by Rabbi Shalom DovBer on "gazing at the King's Glory" would constitute, in my opinion, a likely activity by the early pious Hasidim during the shohin period. Even though Rabbi Shalom DovBer lived hundreds of years afterwards, he is describing a meditative experience separate from prayer.

It is interesting that our mishnah indicates that it was only the early Hasidim, the extremely pious ones (on the level of healers and miracle workers), who waited for a period of one hour before praying. (Moreover, some commentators say that "an hour" was a metaphorical "while," and not necessarily sixty minutes. See the Steinsaltz Talmud Brakhot 32b.) For the less pious, it is sufficient to pause for the time it would take to walk eight tefahim. A tefah is a measurement of distance or length and corresponds to four finger-breadths. Thus, for the less pious who lacked the spiritual discipline, it was sufficient to wait the time it would take to walk thirty-two finger breadths. It would seem that in the case of an individual with no difficulties with gait, walking thirty-two finger breadths should take only a short period of time. The purpose of this brief interval, however, was the same: to prepare the heart for prayer. There should be a meditative pause to clear the mind before one focuses on addressing the A-lmighty in prayer.

In keeping with our previous discussion of the brain processing both verbal and nonverbal information, I submit that the state of shohin preceding prayer was a meditative, preparatory, and nonverbal activity; it contained the "cleansing of words" necessary to reach a nonverbal contemplative state.


Another emerging perspective on the study of meditation and prayer also stems from neuroscience. It has to do with the relatively recent discovery of "functional networks." It is beyond the scope of this paper to dwell on this topic at length, but the discussion of certain neuroscience concepts could be beneficial. The brain is organized into functional networks. A network is the assembly of cellular and non-cellular brain components that forms the neural substrate necessary to perform a specific task. There are distinct functional networks for written and verbal language, musical performance and interpretation, riding a bicycle, and for the virtually infinite number of functions performed by every human being. Because a particular neuron can participate in multiple functional networks and the human brain is estimated to contain 100 billion neurons, it would seem that the number of functions that the brain can perform approaches infinity.

In recent decades a number of networks have been identified that pertain to our discussion of the neuroscience of meditation. Perhaps the most pertinent are those of the default mode network (DMN) and the salience network (BREWER 2011).

The Default Mode Network

The default mode network is made up of brain cells in multiple areas of the brain, including the parietal cortex, frontal lobes, and multiple others. The DMN is activated when a person is not voluntarily attending to an external or internal stimulus and instead "allows" his or her mind to "roam" or "wander" unchecked. Such is the case with daydreaming and spontaneous involuntary thoughts. It is also activated when one thinks about oneself. There is data suggesting that brain metabolism and consequently glucose utilization is quite high during activation of the default mode network. In recent years it has become clear that intactness of the DMN is of supreme importance for neurological and psychiatric health. For example, an abnormality in the DMN architecture has been postulated to be one of the earliest findings in Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative disorders, as well as in patients with traumatic brain injury (JILKA, SCOTT, HAM, et al. 2014).

The Salience Network

The default mode network is "deactivated" or literally turned off when a person attends to a specific stimulus (such as a sound). Deactivation of the DMN correlates with activation of a second network, denominated the salience network. This network is also made up of brain cells in various areas of the brain (DOWNAR, CRAWLEY, MIKULIS, et al. 2002; LAMICHHANE and DHAMALA 2015). The salience network is activated when we "pay attention" to a specific stimulus, especially those stemming from "outside of us." If we are attentively involved in conversation or listening to a symphony, the salience network becomes active.

We can conceive of the default mode network and the salience networks as two opposing cognitive states, the former being involved with "inner or intrinsic cognition" and the second one with interaction with the outside world. Applying these concepts to meditation, we can conceive the following scenario. As the meditator settles into the meditative experience, a sort of transition occurs between networks. With the initial preparation for meditation, it is likely that the DMN is activated. As the person assembles his or her attention towards a specific content, the DMN is deactivated and the salience network becomes active (GARRISON, ZEFFIRO, SCHEINOST, et al. 2015). As long as the person maintains attention on the content, the salience network remains activated. When that attention is lost due to, for example, an extraneous noise, then the salience network is deactivated. This "network shifting" is an area that has received much attention in neuroscience research of the last few years (GOULDEN, KHUSNULINA, DAVIS, et al. 2014). There is also data suggesting that different networks are activated in distinct types of meditation, such as those practiced in Buddhism versus Hinduism (TOMASINO, CHIESA, and FABBRO 2014).

Recent fascinating studies performed with Buddhist monks, for whom daily meditation is an important component of their tradition, has shown that experienced meditators are much more efficient in the process of network shifting (FINGELKURTS, FINGELKURTS, and Kallio-Tamminen 2016). Furthermore, changes in brain activation during meditation in certain types of meditation are correlated with years of meditation. This data strongly suggests that meditation is a cognitive activity which requires practice (THOMAS, JAMIESON, and COHEN 2014; OPHIR 2012-2013; TOMASINO, CHIESA, and FABBRO 2014).

Salience refers to a cognitive process that facilitates attention and perception. We cannot perceive the world in its entirety at all times. We need to place objects in the foreground or background. A salient entity is one that stands out from its surroundings. It is thus in the foreground of perception, while all else is in the background. However, this is an extremely dynamic process; the brain can "choose" to switch between putting an object in the background or the foreground. This concept makes up part of Structural Information Theory.

Judaic writings frequently make reference to the concept of foreground/background switching. For example, Mishnah Avot 1:6 states that one should judge every person favorably. I interpret this to mean that one should put what is good about a person in the foreground. The background (what is negative about the person) cannot be eliminated, but it should stay in the background. Salience should be given to the "favorable" foreground.

Is the period of shohin in Mishnah Brakhot 5:1 a state of salience, preparing a person to concentrate on G-d when praying? In Hebrew a state of intense concentration during prayer is called kavanah (described in the Mindel excerpt above). I believe that salience is necessary for kavanah. Maybe when we daven with true kavanah we put G-d in the foreground and all else in the background. I think that this circumstance would require dedication and practice. "Successful prayer" means giving salience to the Divine foreground in full force. Although we address the A-lmighty in our prayer (and thus in the terminology of meditation G-d is our focal point), we are required to give our total concentration while reciting the six words of the Sh'ma. Perhaps this is the maximum salience that the average person without extensive practice in meditation can maintain.


We have utilized both a Talmudic and neuroscience approach and perspective to argue that meditation and prayer are two distinct but complementary activities present in the practice of Judaism. However, our experience is that meditation is not given its due importance in day-to-day Jewish practice today. While there are many reasons for this situation, I believe that greater practice of meditation could enrich the "religious experience." Thus, further research in this area is urgently needed. In fact, the erroneous perception that meditation does not play a part in the Jewish tradition has led to many Jewish individuals seeking it in other faiths. There is a saying that we search the entire universe for what we can find in our own home.


BREWER, J.A., P.D. WORHUNSKY, J.R. GRAY, et al. 2011. "Meditation Experience Is Associated with Differences in Default Mode Network Activity and Connectivity." Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, vol. 108, pp. 20254-20259.

DOWNAR, J., A.P. CRAWLEY, D.J. MIKULIS, et al. 2002. "A Cortical Network Sensitive to Stimulus Salience in a Neutral Behavioral Context across Multiple Sensory Modalities." J Neurophysiol, vol. 87, pp. 615-620.

fingelkurts, andrew a., alexander a. fingelkurts, and T. KALLIO-TAMMINEN. 2016. "Long-Term Meditation Training Induced Changes in the Operational Synchrony of Default Mode Network Modules during a Resting State." Cogn Process, vol. 17, pp. 27-37.

GARRISON, K.A., T.A. ZEFFIRO, D. SCHEINOST, et al. 2015. "Meditation Leads to Reduced Default Mode Network Activity Beyond an Active Task." Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci, vol. 15, pp. 712-720.

GOULDEN, N., A. KHUSNULINA, N.J. DAVIS, et al. 2014. "The Salience Network Is Responsible for Switching between the Default Mode Network and the Central Executive Network: Replication from DCM." Neuroimage, vol. 99, pp. 180-190.

JILKA, S.R., G. SCOTT, T. HAM, et al. 2014. "Damage to the Salience Network and Interactions with the Default Mode Network." J Neurosci, vol. 34, pp. 10798-10807.

KAPLAN, ARYEH. 1985. Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide. New York: Schocken Books.

LAMICHHANE, B., and M. DHAMALA. 2015. "The Salience Network and Its Functional Architecture in a Perceptual Decision: An Effective Connectivity Study." Brain Connect, vol. 5, pp. 362-370.

MINDEL, NISSAN. 2004. As for Me--My Prayer: A Commentary on the Daily Prayers. New York: Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch.

Ophir (Offenbacher) Natan. 2012-2013. "The Lubavitcher Rebbe's Call for a Scientific, Non-Hasidic Meditation." B'Or Ha'Torah, vol. 22, pp. 109-123.

PEREZ-DE-ALBENIZ, A., and J. HOLMES. 2000. "Meditation Concepts, Effects and Uses in Therapy." International Journal of Psychotherapy, Mar., vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 49-58.

SCHNEERSON, SHALOM DOVBER. 2007. Tract on Prayer: A Hasidic Treatise. Trans. Y. Eliezer Danziger. New York: Kehot.

THOMAS, J., G. JAMIESON, and M. COHEN. 2014. "Low and then High Frequency Oscillations of Distinct Right Cortical Networks Are Progressively Enhanced by Medium and Long Term Satyananda Yoga Meditation Practice." Front Hum Neurosci, vol. 8, p. 197 on. Full article available at:

TOMASINO, B., A. CHIESA, and F. FABBRO. 2014. "Disentangling the Neural Mechanisms Involved in Hinduism- and Buddhism-Related Meditations." Brain Cogn, vol. 90, pp. 32-40.

See also

LANDES, YEHOSHUA P. 2014-2015. "The Inside Story of the Founding of Jewish Meditation." B'Or Ha'Torah, vol. 23, pp. 171-188.

In this volume of B'Or Ha'Torah:

GOTTLEIB, SIMCHA. "Knower, Knowledge, and Known: Maimonides' Nutritional Science, the Cultivation of Consciousness, and the Future of Medicine."

WALLEN, RUS DEVORAH. "My Response to the Lubavitcher Rebbe's Call for Kosher Therapeutic Meditation."


Presented at the Eleventh Miami International Conference on Torah and Science at The Shul of Bal Harbour, Surfside, Florida, December 13, 2015


DANIEL DRUBACH, MD, completed training in neurology and psychiatry at the University of Maryland and went on to complete a fellowship in neurorehabilitation there. He was head of the Traumatic Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program and codirector of the Coma Emergency Program at the University of Maryland for several years. He then joined the Behavioral Neurology Division at Mayo Clinic, where he has worked for the past seventeen years. He is active in the training of medical students as well as residents and fellows. He has written extensively on the neuroscience of music, meditation, language, religion, and many other topics. He also has published several articles discussing how the application of newly discovered neuroscience concepts can help us answer existential questions about free choice, empathy, mystical experiences, and other phenomena. He has lectured on this subject at multiple academic facilities. His main interest, however, is the interface between Judaic precepts and neuroscience. He is deeply convinced that the study of Judaic works can help us understand the brain, and vice versa.

[Please note: Some non-Latin characters were omitted from this article]
COPYRIGHT 2017 Jerusalem College of Technology
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2017 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Drubach, Daniel A.
Publication:B'Or Ha'Torah
Date:Jan 1, 2017
Previous Article:The Second Creation Narrative in the Second Chapter of Genesis: A New Approach.
Next Article:Knower, Knowledge, and Known: Maimonides' Nutritional Science, the Cultivation of Consciousness, and the Future of Medicine.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters