The Kabbalah Series - Part 2
Hisbonenus - Kabbalistic Contemplation
Rabbi Joseph Markel

All the powers and depth of Kabbalah come from Hisbonenus, Kabbalistic contemplation. Hisbonenus is often mistaken to mean meditation or concentration but that is not so. In Hebrew, Concentration or Meditation is Haamokas HaDaas. Hisbobenus comes from the root Binah - Understanding and means deep, intensive study.

And now we shall explain the actual workings of Hisbonenus - what it is, and what is the subject matter of this Hisbonenus.


Hisbonenus is essentially the idea of looking intensely into the depths of a topic and going over it a lot and examining it from different perspectives until one understands it clearly with all its parts in particular detail. And this is the innerness of Binah (understanding) which is called in the language of the Talmud Iyun as it says in Tractate Succah "there's a type of study called Girsah (fast superficial study) and a type called Iyun (deep intensive study).


The explanation of Girsah is to just understand the topic at first glance which without stopping to go over the subject matter at all.

For instance someone who looks with his eye at some object but only in a superficial manner, so that after some time he will certainly forget about it completely and will not be able to tell someone else about it other than vague generalities.

Analogous to this is the passing of the mind's eye over some logical theory at first glance and without any stopping or waiting to look into it properly. Thus he will not he will not have knowledge into the limits of the theory at all and certainly not be able to explain it to someone else.


And Iyun is a deep looking into the concept. That is, that he goes over the conceived thing and looks into it a lot. He studies it over and over and looks at all the different available explanations which shed light on various aspects of the subject matter. This is a process of slowing down, the opposite of going over a subject fast, in order to come to the depths of the concept as it is in its essential self innerness.

As one who looks at something with his physical eye and not just glancing over it but with an open eye and deep looking for a long time till he knows this (physical object) well with all its inner parts and inner innerness (like inside workings).

And this is what's called Hisbonenus with a double Nun specifically. (two N's -hisboNeNus the same root as Binah) that is, that he thinks into the thing and looks at it a lot. And like Rash"i explains on the meaning of the word "Iyun" : - to go over the thing until it is understood clearly etc.

So, Hisbonenus, which is synonymous with Iyun, is repetitive intensive analytical study, as is explained above, which is to analyze the subject matter into all of its parts with detailed identification of each. And this is called Binah of Binah, another reason for the two Nun's in Hisbonenus.

To summarize: Iyun which is synonymous with Hisbonenus and is called Binah of Binah is to go over the matter and analyze it clearly into all its parts. That is, to analytically examine the subject matter totally into all its various separations and definitions of both the internal and external aspects of the topic.

To understand why the Kabbalah approaches the mystical experience with Analysis rather than Meditation, we first have to understand the three powers of the mind, Chochmah, Binah, and Daas and how they interact. (To be explained in subsequent articles.)

Does Hisbonenus work?

A couple of stories from my own experience.

One of my favorite people was Reb Yankel, an old gentle Russian Chossid. He used to come to our city sometimes and prayed at our Synagogue. He would come early in the morning, go to the Mikvah (a ritual immersion pond) and then sit the whole day with his Tallis (prayer shawl) over his shoulder, staring at the ceiling and stroking his white beard. If you looked closely at his eyes it was obvious that it was not the ceiling he was seeing.

Another favorite, Reb Avrohom. Also an old Russian Chossid.

One day Rabbi N., a young Russian Rabbi and I had to go to meet with a big contributor. Rb Avrohom whom I had just met, was in the corner of the Synagogue praying. Before we went out, Rb. N told a young American man who worked for the Synagogue "Please watch Rb. Avrohom, he is praying." The young American said "Yeah, sure."

When we came back, about an hour and a half later, Rb Avrohom was not there. Rabbi N. freaked out. "Where is Rb Avrohom ?" he shouted in panic.

"I don't know," said the American guy, "I went to the washroom for a minute and he was gone. What's the big deal?

"You don't understand! He was davenning! (praying)" shouted Rb. N


"You don't understand! He was davenning! We have to look for him!"

We searched the street and found Rb Avrohom about a block from the Synagogue, wandering around in his Tallis and Tfillin (Phulacteries). He was totally oblivious to the outer world. We gently led him back to the Synagogue and put him back in his corner.

A Question and an Answer

In an e-mail I was asked: Are you aware, however, that Iyun/Hisbonenus is itself a recognized form of "meditation" (in the common sense of that term)--practiced by the Arizal, for one?

My answer: I was going to get to that. The term Hisbonenus is used as a "shem hamushal", a borrowed term, i.e. a coloquialism for Meditation. The actual name for Meditation should be Haamokas HaDaas - Concentrative Focusing of the Mind. Hisbonenus is root Binah and literally means "the process of making oneself understand. That is Studying. This has nothing to do with Meditation, which is a process of Daas - the strong connection of the entire attention span to a single focus.

The Kabbalists use the colloqialism rather than the proper name on purpose. The reason is that they want to get across that a Haamokas Hadaas is only valid when it is preceded by Hisbonenus and the meditation is on the various points of the Iyun. The meditation is just a vessel to hold the Hisbonenus. That is, we disagree with meditative systems that use a sound or form etc. as a focus as being a Vessel without contents.

Also, many people mistake what it was that the kabbalists meditated on. For instance the meditation on the Tetragramaton: people think it means they should imagine the letters YKVK (k=h) and just concentrate on that in a meditative manner. However OS, besides meaning letter also means sign. Like tying a string to your finger to remember something. The letters represent vast amounts of Iyun. This will be discussed later in the series.

Copyright 1997 - 1998 Rabbi Yossi Markel, who has two web sites you can visit: Moshiach and Kabbalah on Line

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