Talmudic pages

Rosh Hashanah 28

What did you mean?

The following ruling was sent from the land of Israel to Shmuel’s father: If one was forcibly compelled to eat matzah on Passover, he has fulfilled his obligation. 

Who compelled him to eat the matzah? Let’s say that a demon forced him.

Today’s daf revisits one of the thorniest and highest-stakes issues in all of observant life: Does the performance of mitzvot require intent (kavanah)?

The issue flows naturally from yesterday’s daf, on which we established that fulfilling the mitzvah of shofar is dependent on the listener and not just the blower. Today the Talmud extends the conversation to its logical conclusion: Is it possible that, even after the sounds have arrived at the listener’s ear, the listener can mess things up because they have misinterpreted what they have heard? What if the blower did not mean to perform a mitzvah at all?

The answer, at least initially, seems to be “no” — intention isn’t essential. Shmuel’s father relates, incredibly, that a person who has been force-fed matzah — perhaps by demons, perhaps by Persians — has nonetheless fulfilled the mitzvah to eat matzah. This leads Rava to rule that a person can fulfill the obligation to hear the shofar even if the blower is, say, just trying to make music.

The Talmud then takes things one crucial step further: Perhaps, Rava does not think intent is required to perform mitzvot at all? This explodes the discussion because it cannot possibly be true. We know from the mishnah, for example, that a person who happens to be reading the Shema isn’t “praying” unless they intend to do so, and we also know that a person who overhears the shofar or the scroll of Esther (on Purim) still needs to “focus their heart” in order to fulfill those obligations. In other words, there’s good evidence that intention matters in some circumstances.

The Gemara tries to finagle its way out of this debate by lowering the bar for “intent,” so that it doesn’t require any kind of spiritual intent at all. For example, what if “intent” for the shofar can be as simple as being aware it’s a shofar that you’re hearing? Or what if a person reading the Shema is actually proofreading the text and they’re just sort of mumbling along, so “intent” just requires saying the actual words? What if a person playing the shofar as music is actually making atypical shofar sounds, so “intent” just requires making normal shofar sounds?

These strategies are interesting, but they point to deeper problems. It’s possible there wasn’t supposed to be a global rule about intent at all. But more importantly, the very concept of intent starts to fall apart the more you look at it, because human awareness is not a yes/no sort of affair. Outside of criminal cases, in which intent is a legal determination made on the basis of evidence, it is often true that the only person who can determine your intent is — you.

Among some observant Jews, this can lead to self-guessing one’s own mind: Did I really have the proper focus while lighting candles, laying tefillin, or making a blessing over my food — and if I didn’t, how would I know? The Jewish mystical practice of reciting kavanot, in which a person audibly and elaborately articulates their intent before performing a mitzvah, is one solution — but of course, who is to say that a well-trod kavanah will not simply become another rote and mindless practice? We might call this “kavanahcreep,” and ultimately until the mind-body problem is solved it may have no solution.

This is not just a Jewish problem either. The medieval Muslim philosopher Al-Ghazali (d. 1111) declared that all ceremonial acts (idabat, what Jews would call “mitzvot between a person and God”) require verbal or mental intent (niyyah), but this position was heavily disputed by others, except around prayer where all agreed that it was required. 

Ultimately, human beings often find themselves wishing that they could pay a little more attention, and inevitably the realities of life and the nature of consciousness always get in the way — no demons or Persians required.

Read all of Rosh Hashanah 28 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 6th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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