The Laws of the Shemoneh Esrei - "Kavanna" (3)

  • Rav David Brofsky




            The Gemara (Berakhot 31a) teaches that one must have the proper intentions during Tefilla.


"Our Rabbis taught: When a man prays, he should direct his heart to heaven. Abba Saul says: A reminder of this is the text, 'You will direct their heart, and You will cause Your ear to listen… (Tehillim 10:17)"


The requirement for kavanna poses a serious challenge, and dilemma, for one who prays. On the one hand, even the great Amora Shmuel, as we shall see, testified, "I count young birds (during prayer)… (Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:4)." Most find great difficulty in concentrating during Tefillot, especially those Tefillot whose meaning isn't always clear! On the other hand, what is the value of Tefilla without intention? Is there significance in reciting words without attending to their meaning? Isn't Tefilla without kavanna, as the Abarbanel writes in his sefer Yeshu'ot Meshicho, like "as body without a soul"?


This week, we will explore different approaches to this problem, and attempt to define the definition of, as well as the necessity to properly concentrate during prayer.


Minimal Kavanna:


            There are a number of sources which seem to indicate that while preferably one should maintain the proper intention for the duration of the Shemoneh Esrei, bedi'avad, even a minimal amount, if at all, suffices.


For example, the Shibolei Ha-Leket (Inyyan Tefilla 17) writes:


"…I heard from R. Yaakov of Gortzbork that … even though many times a person prays without kavanna, according to the position which holds that prayer was instituted in place of sacrifices, he has still fulfilled his obligation. As we learned (Zevachim 2a), 'All sacrifices which were offered with the improper intention (she-lo lishman) are valid yet the owner has NOT fulfilled his obligation… if they were offered stam (without explicit intention) they ARE valid and fulfill the owner's obligation.' Here too regarding prayer one should say that praying without intention is akin to stam, and one should fulfill one's obligation. However, praying with kavanna is preferable, and is a mitzva min ha-muvchar, and he is assured that his tefillot with be answered, as it says, 'You will direct their heart, and You will cause Your ear to listen… (Tehillim 10:17)'"


Furthermore, the Shibolei Ha-Leket cites the Yerushalmi (Berakhot 2:4), which relates:


"Rabbi Chiyya said: most days I don't concentrate during Tefilla… Shmuel said: I count young birds (during prayer). Rabbi Bun bar Chiyya said: I count rows of bricks (during prayer)…"


Interestingly, the Sefer Chareidim, in his commentary to the Yerushalmi, disagrees with the Shibolei Ha-Leket's literal reading of this text, and insists that they must be referring to their difficulty to concentrate for the ENTIRE Shemoneh Esrei, but certainly they prayed, generally, with the proper kavanna.


This approach MAY stand behind the opinion of the Maharam Mi-Rutenberg, cited by the Tur, who rules that since in our time we find it difficult to concentrate during Tefilla, one who prays without intention, even for the first berakha, need not repeat the Shemoneh Esrei.


            Interestingly, Rav Chaim Volozhin, student of the Vilna Gaon and founder of the Volozhin Yeshiva, formulated an extreme version of this approach.


"… Not only is the ACTION the primary component of the mitzvot which entail actions (mitzvot ma'asiyot), but even prayer, which is referred to as 'service of the heart'… the primary obligation is to pronounce with one's lips every word of the prayer, as the rabbis learned, 'And only her lips were moving'… from here we learn that one who prays must move his lips … and certainly its not just preferable … one who 'thinks' the words of Tefilla in his heart alone has not fulfilled he obligation of Tefilla…" (Nefesh Ha-Chayyim Sha'ar 3 Chapter 5).


While his actual halakhic stance regarding kavanna isn't clear, fundamentally, he argues that one achieves the mystical impact of prayer through the words which one says, and not through one's intentions.


            In other words, not only may minimal intention suffice, but fundamentally, we should categorize Tefilla as a "mitzva dependant upon one's limbs" (an action), and not as a "mitzva dependant upon one's heart."


            This, of course, stands in contrast other sources, such as the Gemara in Eiruvin (65a), which imply that not only is praying with kavanna preferable, but God punishes the world for those who pray without proper kavanna. Furthermore, the Semak (mitzva 11), among others, lists Tefilla as a mitzva "dependant upon the heart."  Furthermore, some Rishonim (Rabbeinu Yona Berakhot 6a, as well as the Rashba Berakhot 13b and Teshuvot 344) explain that even those who argue that mitzvot do NOT generally require proper intention (mitzvot einan tzerikhot kavanna), because the action makes this apparent, regarding mitzvot which are fulfilled by "speaking," however, they may indeed require intention.


            If so, what type of kavanna would we require, even minimally, for Tefilla?


Required Kavanna:


The Gemara (Berakhot 30b) teaches:


"It has been stated: …R. Chiya b. Abba prayed once and then prayed again. Said R. Zeira to him: Why does the Master act thus? Shall I say it is because the Master did not concentrate (kavanna)? Has not R. Eleazar said: A man should always take stock of himself: if he can concentrate his attention he should say the Tefilla, but if not he should not say it…"


This Gemara implies two points. Firstly, before praying, one should assess whether or not one will be able to properly focus on one's Tefilla, and if not, he should not pray! Secondly, if one prayed without the proper intention, he should repeat the entire prayer.


            The Meiri cites an opinion, learning from here, that one who does not concentrate for the entire Tefilla has not fulfilled his obligation, and must repeat the Shemoneh Esrei! Most Rishonim disagree, in light of the following Gemara (Berakhot 34b).


"…When one says the Tefilla he must say all the blessings attentively, and if he cannot say all with kavanna he should say ONE attentively. R. Chiya said in the name of R. Safra who had it from a member of the School of Rebbe: This one should be the blessing of Avot (the first berakha)…"


In other words, this Gemara implies that while preferably one should concentrate for the ENTIRE Tefilla, bedi'avad, one should at least concentrate for the first berakha. 


            Seemingly, this Gemara contradicts the previous passage, which required one to concentrate for the entire Tefilla!


            Tosafot (34b), as well as the Ritva (34b) and Rosh (5:24), write that even the first Gemara (30b) referred only to the first berakha of the Shemoneh Esrei, but one who concentrated for the first berakha but not the rest need NOT repeat the entire Tefilla.


            The Semak (11) adds that one should also try to concentrate on the berakha of Modim. The Beit Yosef (101) questions how the Semak arrived at this conclusion. Yet as we noted last week, apparently the Talmud's insistence that one bow during the first berakha, as well as the berakha of Modim, is intended to inspire one to concentrate during these berakhot. Therefore, apparently the Semak derives the need to concentrate for the berakha of Modim from the Talmud itself.


            The Shulchan Arukh (101:1) rules in accordance with the Tosafot and Rosh. He writes:


"One who prays should concentrate for ALL of the berakhot. If he is unable to concentrate for all of them, he should at least focus on the berakha of Avot. If he didn't have kavanna for the berakha of 'avot,' EVEN if he focuses for the rest of the prayer, he should go back and repeat the prayer…"


We will return to the practical ramifications of one who doesn't concentrate for the first berakha.


The Rambam's Position:


            As we mentioned, one can point to three levels of kavanna (see Ritva Berakhot 34b). Optimally, one should focus for the entire Tefilla. If not, one should at least concentrate for the first (and seventeenth) berakha. Finally, it one didn't even concentrate for the first berakha, he should repeat the Shemoneh Esrei.


The Rambam, however, seems to present a different view.


In one place (Hilkhot Tefilla 4:1), he writes:


"Five things may prevent one from fulfilling (the mitzva of) Tefilla, even though it's proper time has arrived:… kavvanat ha-lev."


This source indicated that without the proper intention one does not fulfill the mitzva of Tefilla.


Elsewhere (5:2), he adds:


"How does one fulfill Amida? One should only pray while standing… a sick person… as well as someone who suffers from hunger or thirst… if they are able to concentrate they should pray. And if not, they should NOT pray until they eat or drink…"


Once again the Rambam implies that kavanna plays in central role in Tefilla, so much so that one who cannot concentrate should not even pray at all!


Furthermore, the Rambam (4:15-16) writes:


"What role does kavannat ha-lev (intention of the heart) play? Any Tefilla which lack kavannat ha-lev is NOT a Tefilla, and one who prays without intention should repeat his prayer with kavanna… And what is kavannat ha-lev? One should remove his thoughts from is heart and view himself as if he is standing before the Divine Presence…"


Once again, the Rambam emphasizes the centrality of kavanna to Tefilla.


However, elsewhere (10:1) he writes:


"One who prayed and didn't focus his heart should pray again, unless he concentrated during the first berakha in which case that is sufficient…"


Here, the Rambam rules in accordance with the Gemara (Berakhot 34b) which limited the necessity to repeat the Shemoneh Esrei to one who didn't concentrate during the first berakha. Yet, this still seems to contradict the above citations, which indicate that the Rambam requires one to concentrate for the ENTIRE Tefilla!


            Rav Chaim Ha-Levi Soloveitchik, in his Chiddushim al Ha-Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 4:1) points to the apparent contradiction between the Rambam in 4:1 and 10:1.


            He explains that the Rambam refers to two different types of kavanna (intention). On the one hand, preferably one should concentrate on and understand the meaning of the entire Shemoneh Esrei. However, bedi'avad, one who is attentive to the meaning of the first berakha had fulfilled his obligation. On the other hand, throughout the entire Tefilla, one must be CONSCIOUS that he is standing before the presence of God. Reciting the Shemoneh Esrei WITHOUT this awareness, according to the Rambam, is "NOT a Tefilla" (4:15).


            Furthermore, one might suggest that Rav Chaim's two types of kavanna function differently. One who lacks awareness of standing before God has simply NOT prayed. However, one who consciously stood before God and prayed, yet didn't focus on the meaning of the first berakha, seemingly, HAS prayed, yet should still repeat the Shemoneh Esrei.


            If so, one might understand the Maharam Mi-Rutenberg in light of Rav Chaim's insight. Since one was not attentive to the meaning of the first berakha actually did pray, but merely didn't recite the Shemoneh Esrei in its proper form, should not risk trying again, as nowadays we find it extremely difficult to concentrate during prayer.




            As noted above, the Shulchan Arukh (101:1) rules that one who did not concentrate on the meaning of the first berakha should repeat Shemoneh Esrei. The Rema cites the Maharam Mi-Rutenberg, insisting, somewhat pessimistically, that since chances are that he will not concentrate properly the second time, why bother praying again.


            Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yabi'a Omer 3:7-8 and Yalkut Yosef Tefilla I) argues that despite Rav Yosef Karo's clear ruling, even Sefaradim are accustomed NOT to repeat Shemoneh Esrei. He insists that the halakha, bedi'avad, is in accordance with the Shibolei Ha-Leket, cited above.


            Furthermore, he cites the Rashba (Teshuvot 423), regarding the value of prayers offered by those who cannot pray with the proper (i.e. mystical) intentions, who makes the following observations:


"Regarding Tefilla… there are many kavannot, which are varied by different levels, corresponding to one's knowledge and attainment, from the smallest of people to Moshe Rabbeinu, and according to each person He will find grace… and the first level of intentions that all of Israel stand upon is acknowledging that there is a God… and that He gave the Torah to the Jewish people at Sinai, a true Torah and just laws and statutes and we are His and we worship Him… and we thank Him and pray to Him because all is from Him… and He watches our actions and to reward us and this is the intention that every Jew should have… and even one who cannot concentrate on each word, and confuses words with others, received reward for his general intention… and chas ve-shalom we should not discourage those who don't know the kavannot taught to us by our Sages from praying… because if you do so the children, women and simple people will refrain from Tefilla and mitzvot… and not only them, but even the masses, aside from one or two people per generation…"


The Mishna Berura (101:4 and Biur Halakha) points out that one who finishes the first berakha, but has NOT concluded the berakha, should return to the beginning of the berakha, "Elokei avoteinu, Elokei Avraham…"


Next week we explore the laws of the actual recitation of the Shemoneh Esrei.