Kavvanah & Intention

The role of Kavvanah in Jewish liturgy.

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Kavvanah in prayer involves chiefly proper concentration on the meaning of the words uttered. A saying of Bahya Ibn Pakudah (an 11th century moral philosopher) 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 (the primary biblical reading of a Jewish service) and the first paragraph of the Amidah (the primary prayer of a Jewish service ). A passage from the Zohar (i. 243b-244a) states that when a man is in trouble and unable to concentrate on his prayer, he should not refrain from prayer on that account. Even Maimonides, who is very insistent on the need for kavvanah in prayer, can still acknowledge the need for long and arduous training. Maimonides writes {Guide of the Perplexed (3.51):

The first thing you must do is this: Turn your thoughts away from everything while you read the Shema or during the Prayer [the Amidah], and do not content yourself with being devout when you read the first verse of the Shema or the first paragraph of the Prayer. When you have successfully practiced this for many years, try in reading the Torah or listen­ing to it, to have all your heart and all your thought occupied with understanding what you read or hear. After some time when you have mastered this, accustom yourself to have your mind free from all other thoughts when you read any portion of the other books of the prophets, or when you say any blessing, and to have your attention directed exclusively to the perception and the understanding of what you utter."

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 that 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.

Among the Kabbalists (Jewish mystics), especially in the Lurianic system, the whole ideal of kavvanah in prayer is given a new turn. The Lurianic Kabbalists use the plural kavvanot, by which they mean not concentration on the plain meaning of the words, but on the map of the Sefirot (the Kabbalistic concept of the various manifestations of God) and the numerous combinations of these. Every word of the prayers hints at one or another of the details in the unfolding of the worlds on high, and the mystic adept is expected to have these kavvanot in mind as each stage of the prayers leads him from higher to ever higher world.

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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.