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Is Kavanah Necessary?

We reach out to G-d with prayer. But when we say the same thing three times a day, it is hard to mean every word. For some of us, the words are foreign, just a formula we recite. Is this prayer?

I. The Problem of Kavanah

The Semak (11) sees kavanah (intent) as so important that his description of the mitzvah to pray is not just prayer but “prayer with kavanah.” What is kavanah? The Semak says that it is to think about what each word means and to make sure not to skip any words.

The struggle for kavanah is not new with our generation. Tosafos (Rosh Hashanah 16b s.v. ve-iyun) quote Rabbenu Tam who explains the Gemara (Bava Basra 164b) as saying that every person suffers from lack of kavanah every day. Tosafos in Bava Basra (ad loc.) say that “there is no person at all who can have kavanah properly in his prayers.”

The Gemara (Berachos 34b) says that you should have proper intent (kavanah) for all of the nineteen blessings in the Amidah. But if you cannot, you should at least have kavanah for the first blessing, Avos. Based on this, the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Tefillah 10:1) says that only if you fail to have kavanah in the first blessing, you must repeat the entire Amidah. Semak (ibid.) says that if you cannot have kavanah for all the blessings, you should try to have it for Avos and Modim. If you can’t have it for both, then focus on Avos.

The Mabit (Beis Elokim, Tefillah ch. 3) says that many people do not understand the words of the prayers. But even those who understand cannot possibly have kavanah the entire time they are praying. That is why the last of the middle blessings in the Amidah is “Shema Koleinu, listen to our voices.” We ask G-d to listen to the prayers we have said even if we did not have kavanah. In His great mercy, G-d listens to prayers even if we lack proper intent.

The Tur (Orach Chaim 101) goes even further. After quoting the rule that if you lacked kavanah in Avos you have to repeat the Amidah, the Tur adds: “Nowadays, we do not repeat due to lack f kavanah because it is likely that you will lack kavanah even in the repetition.” The Rema (ad loc., 1) rules likewise.

I do not quote these sources to justify prayer without intent. Full kavanah is a goal to which we should strive but we should not consider ourselves failures for not reaching that ideal. Many have tried and we continue in that tradition.

II. Underlying Kavanah and

Rosh Hashanah

The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Tefillah 4:2) also writes that prayer without kavanas ha-lev (intent of the heart) is not prayer and must be repeated. Rav Chaim Soloveitchik (Chiddushei Rabbenu Chaim Ha-Levi Al Ha-Rambam, ad loc.) points out the contradiction. Above, the Rambam says that you only repeat prayer if you lack kavanah in the first blessing. Here he makes no distinction and seems to require kavanah throughout. Rav Soloveitchik explains that there are two types of kavanah. One, which we discussed above, refers to thinking about what each word means. The other is about knowing that during prayer you are standing before G-d. If throughout the Amidah you do not even recognize that you are praying before the King of kings, then you must repeat the prayer. If you do recognize this throughout and only think about the words during Avos, then you do not have to repeat the prayer.

Rav Gershon Zaks (Mo’adei Ha- Gershuni, Rosh Ha-Shanah ch. 3) says that the Brisker Rav (Rav Chaim Soloveitchik’s son) once told him that this explanation of his father was a “gevaldige chumra, a huge stringency.” Rav Zaks says that the common practice does not follow this chumra and we do not repeat the Amidah if at any point we lacked awareness of standing before our King.

However, adds Rav Zaks, this is during the year. The entire theme of the Rosh Hashanah is crowning G-d as our king. Unlike throughout the year, if on Rosh Hashanah we fail to think about our prayer as if we are standing before the King, our words do not constitute a prayer. Presumably, Rav Zaks would require repeating the Amidah in such a case. Ask your rabbi before putting this into practice (and anything you read in the newspaper or online). Given the unique context of Rosh Hashanah prayers, hopefully this is not too much of a gevaldige chumra.