Kavvanah & Intention

The role of Kavvanah in Jewish liturgy.

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The concept of kavvanah (literally "direction") generally deals with one's state of mind, including one's intention to perform a mitzvah (commandment) or one's intention (or lack of it) in causing damage or injury. In liturgical terms, kavvanah refers to concentration on the meaning of the words recited, the act performed, or the theological goal (such as the acceptance of the sovereignty of God). Jacobs' description focuses on these aspects, as well as the efforts by some Jews to create additional "preparatory" liturgies in order to achieve a state of intention for the primary liturgical texts and acts. Although Jacobs does identify the role of kavvanah in demonstrating that an "act is notů mechanical," he does not identify the primary conflict between kavvanah and the fact that Jewish liturgy is largely defined by fixed texts (keva). Thinkers like Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (the "Maharal"), have expressed this conflict more explicitly. The Maharal recognizes the subtle role that the fixed text of the siddur (Jewish prayer book) plays in potentially preventing a state of real sincerity while allowing for a basic level of focus during prayer. Reprinted with permission from Louis Jacobs' The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford Univ. Press.

The Rabbinic concept of kavvanah refers to one's intention, concentration, directing the mind to the meaning of words uttered or acts performed. The question of kavvanah is also discussed with regard to prayer and with regard to the performance of mitzvoth. In connection with the mitzvot, 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 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 (the first work of Jewish law and legal theory) tractate Rosh Hashanah 3, is where a man passing by outside the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) at a time when the shofar (the ram's horn) 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 (written by medieval authorities) are divided on the question and the usual advice given is that the mitzvah should be carried out again but without the prior berakhah (blessing), "Who has commanded us to . . . ." It would seem, indeed, that the main purpose of the blessings 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.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.