Siman 101 Intention in Berakhot

  • Rav Asher Meir
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Mishna Berura
Yeshivat Har Etzion


SHIUR #56: Simanim 101-103

Pages 260-263


by Rav Asher Meir


            A procedural note: Until now I have been indicating paragraphs in the Bi'ur Halakha with the initials "s.v.," which stands for the Latin term "sub verso."  From now on, I intend to use the abbreviation "d.h." for the familiar "dibbur ha-matchil."






R. Eliezer said, A person must always evaluate himself: If he will be able to have intention he should go ahead and pray, and if not he should not pray. (Berakhot 30b)


One praying [the Amida] needs to have intention in all [of the blessings], and if he can not have intention for all of them, he should have inner intention for one.  R. Chiya said in the name of Rav Safra in the name of one of Rebbe's household: In Avot. (Berakhot 34b)


            As the BH (d.h. Ve-im) points out, the beraita seems to indicate that even if one knows in advance that he can only concentrate on one blessing, he may still proceed.  Only afterwards does the gemara indicate that this refers specifically to the first blessing, Avot.  This suggests that the importance of Avot is not that it is first, rather intention is most important in this blessing because of its content.  This also seems to be the assumption of the M.B. - s.k. 3.




            We learned in an earlier shiur [on siman 59] that even though one may not alter the wording of a blessing even slightly, "bedi'avad" a LONG blessing is valid even if the wording is changed slightly, and even if part is omitted, as long as the main elements of the berakha are said.  Logically, the requirement for intention should not be more stringent than the requirement for speech: If the berakha is valid if certain parts are omitted altogether, certainly it should be valid if these same sections are said without intention.  Since Avot is a "long" blessing - both the opening and closing begin with "barukh ata HaShem" - "kavana" in the critical sections should be enough.


            Does the MB agree with this logic?  See BH d.h "ha-mitpalel."  Is the logic altered if the importance of intention is not to give validity to the particular berakha being said with intention, but rather to give validity to the Amida as a whole, by having complete devotion in one defined section?


            (In Michtavei Marom, Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlap writes to his son to be sure for at least five mintues a day to study Torah, with great joy and devotion.  It seems amazing Rav Yaakov Moshe could have imagined that his son, also a tremendous scholar, would ever have considered studying less!  The editor, a grandson of Rav ??, explained to me that the intention is that of ALL his Torah study, at least five minutes should be studied in the exalted manner described.  These five minutes can give a "push" to the whole day's learning.)


            The SA states that if there is no intention even in Avot, then the Amida is invalid.  The inference makes sense: If the obligation to pray is fulfilled by praying without intention in any blessing, why shouldn't one be allowed to start even if one will have no intention at all?  Even so, this inference is not explicit in the beraita, and the Rema seems to understand that even though le-khatchila one should not daven if one will have no kavana at all, even so bedi'avad one's obligation is fulfilled even it there was no intention in ANY berakha.


            The Arukh HaShulchan on our siman connects this ruling to a number of other situations in which it used to be common to refrain from the Amida (for instance, returning from a trip) and which nowadays do not stop us.  It seems that the fear is that if today we would not pray without proper intention, there would be no prayer at all.  According to this view, nowadays even lekhatchila one would start knowing that one would not have full concentration.




            Are there cases where even the Rema agrees that one should go back and start over?  See Shaar HaTziun (the MB's own sources) 96:2.  We have previously mentioned that the particular distraction mentioned there is not unique, and any other removable distraction, material or psychological, has the same status.


            My own feeling is that MOST cases where a person lacks concentration in Avot can be traced to some distraction or preoccupation.  If a person finds himself saying the words "magen Avraham" or even worse the words "Ata gibor" and suddenly realizes he was not paying attention in the first blessing, he should not hastily assume that he has no hope and go ahead anyway, or adopt the suggestion of the BH (d.h. Ve-ha'idna).  Rather he should carefully analyze the situation and identify which preoccupation hindered his concentration, remove this preoccupation from his mind, and then start over with determination to have proper intention.




1. One who raises his voice in his prayer is of small faith.  Rav Huna said, that is only if he can concentrate silently, but if he can't concentrate silently, it is permissible [to raise one's voice].  That is, when he prays by himself, but with the congregation, he will come to disturb the congregation [if he raises his voice]. (Berakhot 24b)


2. Could it be that one praying should make his voice heard? [The verse] says explicitly regarding Chana (Shemuel I 1:13),  "And Chana was speaking in her heart, [only her lips were moving but her voice was not heard]." (Tosefta Berakhot 3:6)


3. It is taught [in a beraita]: One who prayed inaudibly even to his own ear, fulfills his obligation. (Yerushalmi Berakhot 3:4)


4. One who prays before his Master, must not makes his voice heard in prayer, and one who makes his voice heard in prayer, his prayer is not heard [on high].  Why is this?  Because the prayer is not the audible sound - the voice that is heard is not the prayer!  And what is the prayer, it is another voice which hangs on the audible voice.  The audible voice is [spelled kuf-vav-lamed] with a vav, whereas the one which hangs on it is [kuf-lamed] without a vav.  Therefore, a person does not need to make his voice heard in prayer but should pray silently with the silent voice, and this is the prayer which is always accepted.  And the sign, "and the voice [kuf-lamed] was heard [in the house of Pharaoh]" - the voice without vav is heard.  This is a prayer which is said silently, as it is said of Chana "and her voice was not heard," and this was a prayer which God accepted, for her desire was fulfilled.

(Zohar Vayigash 98-100, pg. I:98-99.)


            What have we learned?

1. It is definitely better not to pray so loud that others could hear - unless one can not concentrate otherwise.  Even then, one may not do so if it will disturb others.


2. This Tosefta is brought as a source that one's voice shouldn't be audible even to the one praying himself.  (See Arukh HaShulchan.)  But perhaps the intention is only that others shouldn't hear - as in the previous source.


3. This seems to indicate that one's voice SHOULD be audible to one's self, only bedi'avad if it was not - one's obligation is still fulfilled.


4. This source from the Zohar is brought, like the Tosefta, as evidence that one's voice should be completely inaudible.  However, one could interpret as we suggested in the Tosefta, that it is only necessary that others shouldn't hear, however the one praying can pray so that he can hear himself.  See the Sha'arei Teshuva (printed in the MB) who interprets similarly.


            Many Rishonim say that it is better that one's voice should be audible to oneself, as the Yerushalmi seems to suggest.  The evidence that complete silence is better is really inconclusive.




            Should these be said aloud?  See MB s.k. 7.  See Igrot Moshe II:23 for a different point of view.




            The main sources on use of vernacular in general are in the shiur on siman 62.  Here we will focus on issues specific to tefilla.


Rabba bar bar Chana said: When I used to accompany R. Elazar to visit the sick, sometimes he would say, "HaMakom yifkadkha le-shalom" [May God visit you with peace, in Hebrew], and sometimes he said, "Rachmana yadkirach lishelam" [the same in Aramaic].

How could he do that - did not Rav Yehuda say, One should never ask his needs in Aramaic, and R. Yochanan said, the ministering angels [mal'akhei ha-sharet] don't take care of someone who asks his needs in Aramaic, because the angels don't recognize Aramaic!

A sick person his different, because the Shekhina [divine presence] is with him.  (Shabbat 12b)


            This gemara is the source of the MB in s.k. 15.  The idea, a common motif in piyutim (liturgical poems), is that our prayers are carried to God by serving angels.  Their good offices are unnecessary in cases where God pays direct attention to our prayers; one example is a sick person as mentioned in the gemara; another example is brought in the MB in order to explain the SA's quandary.


            This concept is not as controversial as it sounds, and is certainly not as controversial as a related subject: Is it permissible to address these angels directly?  A controversy has raged since the early Rishonim (early medieval times) whether the congregation may say the Selicha prayer "makhnisei rachamim" which begs the angels to bear our prayers to God.  Shemoneh Esrei is definitely not addressed to anyone but God himself, so this problem does not arise.


            Even so, a few words of explanation are in order.  After all, does not God know everything that happens on earth - in addition to understanding all languages (including the language of the heart)?  Furthermore, we pointedly emphasized in the last few shiurim that the Amida prayer has the unique property that the one praying has an actual "audience" with God, and is not merely observed by Him.


            This question can be approached from many different angles; I will give one.


            A very important part of judgement is procedure.  Failing to appear in court really has no bearing on whether a person is liable or not, but missing a court date can be a very expensive error.  Likewise, a defendant is no less guilty if the evidence against him was illegally obtained, but such evidence is inadmissible in court (in the US).  Part of the function of procedural rules is that justice should not seem arbitrary - the context of judgement is always similar.


            One of these procedures is that there are court transcribers; officially, judgement is based on the court records.  The Demjanjuk trial was a polyglot [multilingual] trial conducted before polyglot judges, but officially everything was in Hebrew.  One of the many  bizarre features of the trial was that the judge was often compelled to wait for the court translator to complete her rendition before replying to a witness whom he understood perfectly well.  (A private discussion between witness and translator would definitely have been in contempt of court, with obvious ramifications for the "makhnisei rachamim" controversy according to this particular analogy.)


            HaShem also established "procedures" in judging mankind.  The gemara very often refers to "prosecutors" and "defenders" - angels who have the role of pleading our guilt or innocence.  Such angels are mentioned even in the Bible (prosecutor in Zekharia 3:1, defenders in Iyov 33:23).  The gemara explicitly says that "earthly sovereignty is like heavenly sovereignty" (Berakhot 58a).  One explanation for this is that His judgement should not seem arbitrary - everyone gets a fair hearing.  Divine judgement is based on the prayers which are brought to HaShem via His appointed servants - even though HaShem himself is present and aware.  And His court is also conducted in Hebrew!


            However, God does not conduct the world only by judgement, but also by mercy.  Some petitioners have "protektzia" - they merit special treatment.  One such "protected" supplicant is a sick person; another is a congregation of Jews.


            Languages other than Aramaic are discussed in MB s.k. 18.




            The MB 122:8 permits saying personal requests which are additions to the tefilla in vernacular.  See also Igrot Moshe OC III:8 who forbids mixing the Hebrew with words of English translation, and rules that even bediavad one must go back and pray. (Even though this can augment one's kavana. Example: Refaenu HaShem vehirafeh - Heal us Hashem and we'll be healed - hoshienu ve-nivashe'a - and save us, then we'll really be saved!)  This actually is a very effective technique - awesome - for developing deep intent, but it shouldn't be done while reciting the Amida.  A better idea is to use this trick in zemirot and nigunim.




            Many siddurim (including ArtScroll) point out that a person praying without the congregation should only say the first "yekum purkan" which is for the leaders of the Jewish people all over the world, but not the second one which is a blessing for the congregation present.  Compare this with what the MB says in s.k. 19.


            Har Zvi OC I:64 points out that the minhag is according to what is brought down in the siddurim, but he thinks the point of view brought in the MB (which he does not cite) makes more sense.