Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
The Rabbinic concept of kavanah refers to one’s intention, concentration, directing the mind to the meaning of words uttered or acts performed. The question of kavanah is also discussed with regard to prayer and with regard to the performance of mitzvot. In connection with the mitzvot, the Talmud, in a number of places, records a debate among the teachers about whether kavanah is essential. All agree that the ideal is to have the intention of carrying out a mitzvah when one is about to carry it out to demonstrate that the act is not a mechanical one but is carried out in order to do God’s will. The debate is with regard to the de facto situation where the mitzvah has been carried out unwittingly.
Kavanah in Performing Mitzvot
An example, referred to in the Mishnah (the first work of Jewish law and legal theory) tractate Rosh Hashanah 3, is where a man passing by outside the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) at a time when the shofar (the ram’s horn) was being sounded, heard the shofar sounds but did not listen to them with the intention of carrying out the mitzvah. Is he obliged to hear the shofar sounds again with full intention to carry out the mitzvah or does it suffice that he has heard the shofar sounds after all, albeit without intention? In other words, is a mitzvah carried out without the intention to carry it out, no mitzvah at all or, de facto at least, is the act counted as a mitzvah since it is the act in itself which ultimately counts?
The Codes (written by medieval authorities) are divided on the question and the usual advice given is that the mitzvah should be carried out again but without the prior berakhah (blessing), “Who has commanded us to . . . .” It would seem, indeed, that the main purpose of the blessings recited before the performance of the mitzvot is to direct the mind to the act by stating beforehand that it is done in obedience to the divine command.
Kavanah in Prayer
Kavanah in prayer involves chiefly proper concentration on the meaning of the words uttered. A saying of Bahya Ibn Pakudah (an 11th century moral philosopher) has often been quoted, “Prayer without kavanah is like a body without a soul.” But here too, the ideal is one thing, its realization in practice quite another.
The medieval thinkers were fully aware of how difficult it is, especially since the prayers are in Hebrew, to concentrate adequately all or even most of the time. Although, strictly speaking, where kavanah was absent, the prayers have to be recited again with kavanah, this stringency was relaxed so as to apply only to the first verse of the Shema (the primary biblical reading of a Jewish service) and the first paragraph of the Amidah (the primary prayer of a Jewish service ). A passage from the Zohar (i. 243b-244a) states that when a man is in trouble and unable to concentrate on his prayer, he should not refrain from prayer on that account. Even Maimonides, who is very insistent on the need for kavanah in prayer, can still acknowledge the need for long and arduous training. Maimonides writes (Guide of the Perplexed [3.51]):
The first thing you must do is this: Turn your thoughts away from everything while you read the Shema or during the Prayer [the Amidah], and do not content yourself with being devout when you read the first verse of the Shema or the first paragraph of the Prayer. When you have successfully practiced this for many years, try in reading the Torah or listening to it, to have all your heart and all your thought occupied with understanding what you read or hear. After some time when you have mastered this, accustom yourself to have your mind free from all other thoughts when you read any portion of the other books of the prophets, or when you say any blessing, and to have your attention directed exclusively to the perception and the understanding of what you utter.
Later religious teachers continued to grapple with the problem of kavanah in prayer. Hasidism in particular is much concerned with the techniques of kavanah in prayer and with how to cope with distracting thoughts. A main reason that early Reform Judaism preferred that many of the prayers should be recited in the vernacular, rather than in the traditional Hebrew, was because of the conviction that proper concentration is only possible when prayers are recited in a language with which one is familiar from birth.
The Kabbalists (Mystics) and Kavanah
Among the Kabbalists (Jewish mystics), especially in the Lurianic system, the whole ideal of kavanah in prayer is given a new turn. The Lurianic Kabbalists use the plural kavanot, by which they mean not concentration on the plain meaning of the words, but on the map of the Sefirot (the Kabbalistic concept of the various manifestations of God) and the numerous combinations of these. Every word of the prayers hints at one or another of the details in the unfolding of the worlds on high, and the mystic adept is expected to have these kavanot in mind as each stage of the prayers leads him from higher to ever higher world.
A somewhat different type of mystical “intentions” is found in the very popular manual of devotion called Yesod Ve-Shoresh Ha-Avodah (The Foundation and Root of Divine Worship) by Alexander Süsskind of Grodno (d. 1793). Alexander’s “intentions” are directed to the deeper meaning of the prayers in which the liturgy is used, in Alexander’s words, “to enflame the heart in the service of God.” For instance, in his comment on the quotation in the Prayer Book of Psalm 30:3, Alexander gives this intention:
For example, when a man has suffered some pain or has been sick. God save us, or when, God forbid, such has happened to a member of his family and, with God’s help he has been healed, then when he recites the verse: “I cried unto Thee, and Thou didst heal me,” he should give thanks and offer praise, with full concentration, to the Creator, blessed be He, who has sent him or his family healing from that pain or illness. God save us.
This type of “intention” is found at the foot of each page in some of the older prayer books.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronounced: roshe hah-SHAH-nah, also roshe ha-shah-NAH, Origin: Hebrew, the Jewish new year.
Pronounced: shuh-MAH or SHMAH, Alternate Spellings: Sh’ma, Shma, Origin: Hebrew, the central prayer of Judaism, proclaiming God is one.
Pronounced: sho-FAR or SHO-far, Origin: Hebrew, a ram’s horn that is sounded during the month of Elul, on Rosh Hashanah, and on Yom Kippur. It is mentioned numerous times in the Bible, in reference to its ceremonial use in the Temple and to its function as a signal-horn of war.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.