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Kavvanah


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‘Intention’, ‘concentration’, directing the mind to the meaning of words uttered or acts performed. The question of Kavvanah is discussed with regard to prayer and with regard to the performance of the precepts. In connection with the precepts, the Talmud, in a number of places, records a debate among the teachers about whether Kavvanah is essential. All agree that the ideal is to have the intention of carrying out a precept, mitzvah, when one is about to carry it out to demonstrate that the act is not a mechanical one but is carried out in order to do God's will. The debate is with regard to the de facto situation where the mitzvah has been carried out unwittingly. An example, referred to in the Mishnah (Rosh Ha-Shanah, 3. 7), is where a man passing by outside the synagogue on Rosh Ha-Shanah at a time when the shofar was being sounded, heard the shofar sounds but did not listen to them with the intention of carrying out the mitzvah. Is he obliged to hear the shofar sounds again with full intention to carry out the mitzvah or does it suffice that he has heard the shofar sounds after all, albeit without intention? In other words, is a mitzvah carried out without the intention to carry it out, no mitzvah at all or, de facto at least, is the act counted as a mitzvah since it is the act in itself which ultimately counts? The Codes are divided on the question and the usual advice given is that the mitzvah should be carried out again but without the prior benediction: ‘Who has commanded us to…’. It would seem, indeed, that the main purpose of the benedictions recited before the performance of the mitzvot is to direct the mind to the act by stating beforehand that it is done in obedience to the divine command.

Kavvanah in prayer involves chiefly proper concentration on the meaning of the words uttered. A saying of Bahya, Ibn Pakudah has often been quoted: ‘Prayer without Kavvanah is like a body without a soul.’ But here, too, the ideal is one thing, its realization in practice quite another. The medieval thinkers were fully aware of how difficult it is, especially since the prayers are in Hebrew, to concentrate adequately all or even most of the time. Although, strictly speaking, where Kavvanah was absent the prayers have to be recited again with Kavvanah, this stringency was relaxed so as to apply only to the first verse of the Shema and the first paragraph of the Amidah (see EIGHTEEN BENEDICTIONS).

Later religious teachers continued to grapple with the problem of Kavvanah in prayer. Hasidism in particular is much concerned with the techniques of Kavvanah in prayer and with how to cope with distracting thoughts. A main reason why early Reform Judaism preferred that many of the prayers should be recited in the vernacular, rather than in the traditional Hebrew, was because of the conviction that proper concentration is only possible when prayers are recited in a language with which one is familiar from birth.

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Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.


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