Today’s daf marks the conclusion of the first chapter of Berakhot and the start of the second. In the first chapter, we dealt with externalities — with issues of time and structure, of where, when and how to recite the daily prayers.
The second chapter begins with a question that focuses on the internal: Do we need to have intention during prayer or is it sufficient to just recite the words? In Hebrew, the word for this is kavanah, which literally means direction, but also implies intention or focus. Today’s daf begins to probe this concept — do you need kavanah in prayer and, if so, how do you get it?
Immediately, the Gemara records a dispute:
The Sages taught that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and the Rabbis disagreed with regard to the language in which Shema must be recited:
Shema must be recited as it is written, in Hebrew — this is the statement of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.
And the Rabbis say: Shema may be recited in any language.
Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi is here saying that you achieve kavanah by saying the actual Hebrew words of the Shema. But the rabbis disagree — you have to say the words in a language that you understand. The first word of the Shema is normally translated as “hear,” but in this case the rabbis read it to mean “understand.” To achieve the proper intention around the words of the prayer, you must understand the words you are saying. And in fact, the practice among observant Jews today is in accordance with the rabbis: the Shema may be recited in any language a person understands.
The daf goes on to record another practice of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi that remains common today: placing a hand over one’s eyes when reciting the first verse of the Shema. Here again we see an external action intended to foster an inner change. Covering the eyes seals us off from the distractions of the world around us and enhances our inner focus.
Of course, the desire for inward focus is not an absolute value. And we shall see in the next daf that there are limits to how far one must take the obligation to remain focused on one’s prayers.