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Kavana During Keriyat Shema

  • Rav David Brofsky


            In previous shiurim, we studied the halakhot relating to Keriyat Shema.  We discussed the obligation itself, as well as when it can be fulfilled, the berakhot, and interruptions.  This week, we will question whether Keriyat Shema requires specific kavana (intention), as well as the halakhot which govern its recitation.


Kavana and Keriyat Shema:


            Must one have any specific intention during the recitation of Keriyat Shema?


            The Mishna (Berakhot 13a) teaches:


If one was reading the Torah and the time to recite [Shema] arrives, if one focused one's heart (i.e. had the proper intention) one fulfills the obligation…"


The Gemara (13a-b) questions the type of kavana required by the Mishna. 


"We can deduce from this [the Mishna] that mitzvot require the proper intention (mitzvot tzerikhot kavana), for if not so, what does the Mishna mean 'If one focused one's heart,' if he is already reading! Alternatively, we can explain that he was reading to make corrections (le-hagi'ah)."


            The Gemara presents two interpretations of the Mishna. According to one interpretation, the Mishna is merely noting that one must have the proper intention to fulfill the mitzva, known as "mitzvot tzerikhot kavana." 


            However, according to the second peirush, apparently the intention described DOES NOT refer to intention to fulfill a mitzva, but rather, to the intention "to read."  While kavana is not necessary in order to fulfill a mitzva, apparently some type of intention may be necessary.


            This point is debate by the Rishonim, who offer different explanations of "to read" as opposed to "le-hagi'ah." 


            Rashi (13a), for example, explains that one who is reading in order to check for mistakes does not truly have intention "to read," and therefore has not fulfilled the mitzva.  In other words, even if "mitzvot einan tzerikhot kavana," one must still have the proper intention to read. 


            Tosafot (s.v. ha-kore), on the other hand, argues that the Gemara was not referring to the TYPE of reading, but rather to its QUALITY.  Intention "to read" implies that one read correctly, with the proper pronunciation.  If so, Tosafot claims that "einan tzerikhot kavana" means that one does not need any kavana at all, as long as one reads properly. 


            Incidentally, this question, whether kavana plays any role at all in the performance of mitzvot, may yield another interesting ramification.  The Rishonim debate whether explicitly intending NOT to fulfill the mitzva is affective.  The Ritva (Rosh Ha-shana 28a), for example, argues that even if one "stands and screams" that he has no interest in the mitzva he still fulfills his obligation.  Rabbeinu Shmuel (cited by Rabbeinu Yona Berakhot 6a) disagrees.  Apparently, while kavana is not necessary for the performance of a mitzva, it may still impact upon its fulfillment. 


            In any case, this debate, whether mitzvot require kavana, appears several times throughout the Talmud (see Pesachim 114b and Rosh Ha-shana 28a).  The Amoraim, as well as the Rishonim and Acharonim, debate this issue at great length.  While a full survey of this topic is beyond the scope of this shiur, let us mention that some Rishonim (Rif R"H 7b, Rosh R"H 3:11, Behag) rule that mitzvot DO require positive intention; others (Rav Hai Ga'on, Rashba R"H 28b, Ra'a) disagree. 


            Some even distinguish between different types of mitzvot.  The Rambam, for example, MAY distinguish between mitzvat shofar (Hilkhot Shofar 2:4), in which he requires the proper intention, and akhilat matza (Hilkhot Chametz U-matza 6:3).  He apparently distinguishes between PASSIVE mitzvot, which lack a specific "action," such as shofar, which may require kavana, and an active mitzva, like akhilat matza, which may not (Maggid Mishna Hilkhot Shofar).  Others (Rabbeinu Yona Berakhot 6a) explain that even those who argue that mitzvot do NOT require proper intention, do so because the action is clear and apparent.  Mitzvot which are fulfilled by speaking, however, may need intention in order to define them as a ma'aseh mitzva.


            Regardless, our Gemara, so far, offers two interpretations of "focuses his heart," which are dependent upon the broader debate of whether mitzvot tzerikhot kavana or not. 


            The Gemara, however, continues, presenting three opinions.  According to Rabbi Akiva, one should have kavana for the entire first paragraph of Shema.  Rabbis Eliezer and Yoshiya maintain that one should focus until "al le-vavekha."  And finally, Rabbi Meir argues that must have kavana only for the verse "Shema Yisrael…"


            This section of the Gemara is not clear.  Do these rabbis believe that mitzvot DO require kavana, and merely debate for how much of the Shema must one focus? Or, do they agree that mitzvot do NOT require intention for their fulfillment, and they are referring to a different type of intention.


            The Ramban (Milchamot Hashem Rosh Ha-shana 7a) argues that they all hold that mitzvot tzerikhot kavana.  Rabbi Meir, for example, who requires intention for the first verse, believes that, mi-de'oraita, Shema only includes the first verse.


The Rashba (Berakhot 13b) however, suggests that while the halakha may indeed be that mitzvot einan tzerikhot kavana, these rabbis are referring to a different question.


"These opinions are NOT related to the question of mitzvot tzerikhot kavana, which refers to the intention to fulfill the mitzva.  Rather, here, they require one to focus, and not to think about other things, in order to accept upon one's self the yoke of heaven with a full heart… other mitzvot, even if one does not have the intention to fulfill the mitzva, one has fulfilled it, just not in the optimal way… but here [and Tefilla] which are fundamentally an acceptance of the yoke of heaven or organizing one's praise [of God], it is inconceivable that one's heart would be turned towards other things…"


The Halakha:


            The Shulchan Arukh (60:4) writes:


"Some say that mitzvot do NOT need kavana, and some that they DO need kavana in order to fulfill the mitzva, and such is the halakha…"


            The Mishna Berura (60:10) discusses whether this applies only to mitzvot of Biblical origin, as the Magen Avraham suggests.  Interestingly, whether a mitzva is of rabbinic or biblical origin may be of great importance to this ruling, as one who did not have the proper intention must repeat the mitzva.  We discussed in a previous shiur that the Rishonim debate whether only the first verse is mi-de'oraita, or the first paragraph, or the first two paragraphs, or even all three!


            The Gr"a argues that mitzvot tzerikhot kavana would apply equally to mitzvot of rabbinic origin.  The Mishna Berura concludes one who did not have kavana should repeat the mitzva, but WITHOUT a berakha, as "safek berakhot le-hakel." 


            Must one have explicit intention to fulfill the mitzva, or, may we assume that one who recites the Shema, or performs any other mitzva, has the proper intention?


            Some prove from the beginning of Massekhet Zevachim (2b) that just as one must explicitly express one's intentions regards a get, so too one should have explicit intention to fulfill a mitzva.  Partially based upon this idea, the custom developed to recite a "henneni mechuvan u-mezuman" or "le-Shem yichud" before performing a mitzva.


            The Chayyei Adam (68:9) writes that one would only need to repeat a mitzva if there is reason to believe that one did not have the proper intention.  However, one who reads Shema or Tefilla as part of one's prayers, or listens to the shofar or Megilla in synagogue, certainly has the proper intentions.  In other words, the CONTEXT offers proof for ones' intentions. 


            The Noda Bi-Yehuda (YD 1:93) argues even further, that just as korbanot do NOT need explicit kavana, as "setama lishma," so to "our mitzvot are like sacrifices… and one can assume that they are performed with the proper intentions (setama lishma omdim)…" He therefore harshly criticizes the practice of reciting "le-Shem yichud" before performing mitzvot. 


            The Chayyei Adam (21:15) notes that one should ALSO have in mind to fulfill the mitzva of remembering the Exodus from Egypt during the third paragraph of Shema.  In fact, in some communities, the Rav will read the third parasha out loud, in order to arouse the congregation's kavana (see Da'at Torah 61:3).


The Shulchan Arukh continues (60:5):


"One who reads Shema and does not have kavana for the first verse, 'Shema Yisrael,' has not fulfilled his obligation.  Regarding the rest of Shema, however, even if one did NOT have intention, even if one was reading the Torah or correcting parshiyot during the time of Keriyat Shema, he has fulfilled his obligation as he had kavana during the first verse…"


            The Acharonim (see Mishan Berura and Arukh Ha-shulchan), most likely based upon a later passage (63:4), explain that here the Shulchan Arukh refers to the kavana of "kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim."  The Mishna Berura notes that while one should still have kavana for the mitzva during the entire Shema, this kavana is crucial only for the first verse. 


The Proper Kavana for Shema Yisrael:


            We learned above that during the first verse, one should set aside other thoughts, and have in mind to accept the yoke of heaven (Rashba).  In fact, the Gemara (Berakhot 13b) relates that Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi would cover his face during the first verse of Shema, in order to accept upon himself the yoke of heaven.  The Shulchan Arukh (61:4) even cites a custom to say the first verse loudly, to arouse the proper kavana.


            What specifically should one think about while reciting the first verse of Shema?


            Certainly, one should pay attention to the meaning of the words.  "Israel! God who is the Diety we believe in, is One and All-powerful."  Therefore, one should lengthen the last chet in "echad," as the form of the chet alludes to the heavens and the earth.  Also, one should also lengthen the last dalet of "echad," alluding to the four corners of the earth over which God rules (61:6).


            The Arukh Ha-Shulchan suggests, based on Rashi (Tzefanya 3), that one should focus one the eternal oneness and uniqueness of God.  Some suggest that one should focus one our willingness to sacrifice for kiddush Hashem.


            As for the names of God, the Shulchan Arukh (5:1) writes that in general, when pronouncing God's name during berakhot, one should focus on the meaning of the four letter "shem Hashem" as it is SAID, implying the "adnut," i.e. the mastership of God.  In addition, one should also focus on how the name is SPELLED, implying the past (haya), present (hove) and future (yihyeh), i.e. the eternal nature and rule of God.  He adds that when saying "Elokeinu," one should think of the all powerfulness of God.


            The Gr"a (Siman 5 s.v. yekhaven) writes that essentially one need only focus on the way the name is pronounced, and not how it is written.  However, when reciting Keriyat Shema, as the shem Hashem appears twice, one should think of both meanings.


            As mentioned above, if one did NOT have kavana for kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim during the first verse, one should repeat the entire Shema.  However, some Acharonim point out that the Gemara (Berakhot 33a) teaches:


"[One who says] 'modim modim' is quieted… Rabbi Zera says one who says 'shema shema' is equivalent to one who says 'modim modim'"


            In other words, one should not publicly repeat the verse (or phrase) Shema Yisrael, as it implies multiple deities.  Therefore, if one must repeat Shema, when praying privately there is no problem.  When praying publicly, one should whisper the second Shema, to avoid the problem posed by the Gemara (see Mishna Berura 61:22).  Interestingly, some contemporary poskim prohibit publicly singing Shema, when sung as a song, based on the above Gemara. 


            As we discussed in an earlier shiur, we say "barukh shem kevod" silently after the first verse of Shema.  One should focus on the acceptance of the yoke of heaven during these first two lines.


            The Levush (see Magen Avraham 61:11) writes that one who omits "barukh shem kevod," or says it without the proper intention, must re-read Shema.  The Mishna Berura (Bi'ur Halakha 61:13) agrees with the Shiltei Ha-Giborim and Bach who rule that one who omits "barukh shem kevod" need not repeat Shema, as the Gemara (Berakhot 13a) rules that one is reading the Torah, and recites Shema, has fulfilled his obligation, apparently even without saying "barukh shem kevod"! The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (61:6) agrees with this ruling, although writes that if one has not begun the first paragraph of Shema, one should repeat it with kavana (see also Mishna Berura 63:12). 


Other Instructions for Reciting Keriyat Shema:


            The Gemara (Berakhot 10a) concludes, contrary to Beit Shamai's opinion, that Shema may be recited sitting OR standing.  However, when traveling, by foot or animal, one should remain still for the first verse of Shema, in order to focus upon kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim.  One should also refrain from signaling with ones hands or mouth during the first paragraph of Shema, where we concentrate on kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim (Shulchan Arukh 63:6). 


            Furthermore, one should not recite Shema while lying on one's back or stomach (Berakhot 13a and Shulchan Arukh 63:1), as it is a disrespectful way to fulfill the mitzva.  A heavy or sick person should lean to their side. 


            The Gemara teaches (Berakhot 15b) that one who recites Keriyat Shema and is careful to properly pronounce its letters, Gehinom is "cooled off" for him.  Therefore, the Shulchan Arukh (61:14-23) describes how one should strive to perfectly read the words of Shema.  For example, one should pronounce every letter, and ensure that words are pronounced separately.


            The Mechaber (61:24) even argues that one should read Shema with its ta'amim.  The Rema records that Ashkenazic lands, the custom is NOT to read it with its ta'amim, although the meticulous are careful to read it this way.


            The Shulchan Arukh (62:3) also rules that preferably one should read Shema loudly enough, that one could hear it being said.  Bedi'avad, however, even if one did not hear the words, as long as they were enunciated orally, it is valid. 


            The verses and paragraphs of Shema should be recited in their proper order (Berakhot 16b).  The Rambam (Hilkhot Keriyat Shema 2:11), and subsequently the Shulchan Arukh (64:1) write that bedi'avad, if one reads the PARAGRAPHS out of order, he has fulfilled the obligation.  The Biur Halakha questions this ruling. 


            If one errs during a verse, one should return to the beginning of that verse.  If he is unsure where the mistake was made, he should return to the beginning of the paragraph.  And continue in order (64:2).


            Finally, the Behag (see Rosh Berakhot 3:14) writes that if one enters a Beit Kenesset as the tzibbur is saying Shema, one should recite the first verse with them.  The Shulchan Arukh (65:2) cites this, and explains that one recites the first verse in order not to appear as if he does not wish to accept upon himself the yoke of heaven with his neighbors.  He adds that if even if one finds the tzibbur saying "divrei tachanunim oh pesukim," one should join them if he is at a place where he is permitted to interrupt. 


            The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (65:6) records that our custom is to say the first verse of Shema, as well as Aleinu (especially during the bowing of "va-anachnu kore'im," like Modim of Chazarat Ha-shatz) with the tzibbur, during Pesukei De-zimra (although Sefaradim are more stringent), but NOT during Birkhot Keriyat Shema.


            Next week we will conclude our study of the laws of Keriyat Shema.