Struggling to Pray with Intention
Should I pray even if I don’t know if my heart will be in it?
Ideally, prayer is a pouring out of the soul. When people prayed in the Torah, there was no question that they were sincere: it was an unscripted moment in time when they had an urgent need to connect with God.1 Indeed, if prayer is fundamentally a way of addressing God by expressing emotion, how could you even imagine saying words to God that are rote? But in Jewish practice today, people don’t only pray when they feel moved to pray. We are mandated to say the Amidah multiple times a day, and we can’t guarantee that each of those moments will be characterized by intention, or kavanah.2
This trade-off—the guarantee of regular prayer, without waiting for a specific urgent reason to address God—is a dangerous one to make. After all, prayer might become an entirely rote recitation of words, with no emotional valence at all. We risk a world in which, as R. Abraham Joshua Heschel complained, we “recite the prayer book as if it were last week’s newspaper.”3
But imagine a world in which you were violating the Second Commandment if you didn’t have proper intention for prayer. This is indeed the position of one midrash:
ילקוט מדרשי תימן עמוד קד
לא תשא את שם ה' לשוא – מיכן אמרו חכמים שכל… המתפלל בלא כונה… מעלה עליו כאלו אומר כי לא ינקה ה'...
Yalkut Midreshei Teiman, p. 1044
“Do not take the name of YHVH in vain” (Exodus 20:7)—from here our sages said that anyone… who prays without kavanah… we attribute to them as if God said: “…for God will not forgive [those who take God’s name in vain]” (20:7).
This understanding of the commandment not to take God’s name in vain is unusual, although it makes a certain amount of sense: if we recite God’s name in prayer, but don’t really feel the intention we are supposed to have when reciting that name, aren’t we violating the prohibition on taking God’s name in vain?5
This certainly raises the stakes of prayer. Indeed, a logical conclusion is that one should simply not pray the Amidah if one cannot achieve kavanah. This seems to be the position of some sages, such as R. Eleazar:
תלמוד בבלי ברכות ל:
אמר רבי אלעזר: לעולם ימוד אדם את עצמו, אם יכול לכוין את לבו - יתפלל, ואם לאו - אל יתפלל!
Talmud Bavli Berakhot 30b
R. Eleazar said: A person should always take stock of themselves: If they can direct (lekhavein) their heart, then pray the Amidah; and if not, then don’t pray.
R. Eleazar says one should be honest with oneself: if you think you can pray with kavanah, then pray; but if you can’t, you shouldn’t risk trying.
Later rabbis suggested that one should forego praying the Amidah if one’s emotional state was not conducive to kavanah, whether because of feeling troubled (המיצר), distracted (דעתו לא מיושבת עליו), or angry (רתח).6 Some rabbis would wait three days after returning from a journey to pray the Amidah, presumably because of ongoing distraction.7 Rambam exemplifies this approach with a succinct formulation: “whoever does not have kavanah for the Amidah, it is not considered an Amidah.”8
And yet, this is not the standard we follow today. Already in talmudic times, certain rabbis gave voice to their struggle with kavanah, while nevertheless continuing to pray:
תלמוד ירושלמי ברכות ב:ד דף ה טור א
א"ר חייא רובא אנא מן יומיי לא כיונית אלא חד זמן בעי מכוונה והרהרית בלבי ואמרית מאן עליל קומי מלכא קדמי ארקבסה אי ריש גלותא.
שמואל אמר אנא מנית אפרוחיא.
רבי בון בר חייא אמר אנא מנית דימוסיא
Talmud Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:4; 5a
R. Hiyya Ruba said: I never had kavanah in my life. Once I tried to have kavanah, and I thought in my heart and said, “Who will enter before the King first: the tax collector, or the Exilarch?”
Shmuel said: I count clouds.9
R. Bun bar Hiyya said: I count rows of bricks.
R. Hiyya admits that he never was able to achieve kavanah. The one time he tried, his mind ended up drifting to a random thought about proper royal etiquette. Shmuel and R. Bun bar Hiyya would stare up into the sky, or at the wall, and mindlessly count. And yet, they continued to pray the Amidah.
Later authorities made room for praying the Amidah without the high bar of kavanah:
ספר הבתים תפילה וברכת כהנים שער ז אות כ
כתב רב נטרונאי גאון שכל זה נאמר בדורות הראשונים שהיה לבם נכון בתפילה… אבל בזמן הזה שרבו הצרות אין מבטלין את התפלה מפני הטרדה, שמתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה
Sefer Ha-Batim of R. David Ha-Kokhavi, Beit Tefillah, Sha’arei Tefillah, Sha’ar 7, #2010
Rav Natronai Gaon11 wrote that all this [= the specific exceptions to reciting the Amidah] is in the early generations when their hearts were prepared for tefillah… But in our day we do not cancel tefillah because of distraction, for it may come from a place of “not for its own sake” to a place of “for its own sake.”12
R. David Ha-Kokhavi, who wrote a commentary to the Rambam’s laws of prayer, notes in the name of Rav Natronai Gaon that all the limitations on praying because one cannot achieve kavanah are limited to an earlier time, when there was a regular possibility that people could in fact achieve kavanah. But nowadays, if we were to cancel prayer simply because we couldn’t achieve kavanah, there would be no prayer!13 So Ha-Kokhavi says that we do not cancel prayer. And he holds out hope that even if we do not begin with kavanah, perhaps we will get there eventually.
To me, it is a tragedy when people say that kavanah is not possible in prayer. Granted, it may not be achievable in every instance. But to give up entirely on the possibility of focus and connection, and to abandon the consequent effort, is a step too far. Sure, we don’t want to violate the Second Commandment by praying without kavanah, and that bar needed to be lowered. But holding on to some of that ideal of striving for kavanah seems to me an important opportunity for those serious about their prayer life.
How might we inch back from Rav Natronai’s permission to disregard kavanah and toward a renewed commitment to intention in prayer? There are many pathways, and in my writing this year, I hope to return to a number of methods. For now, I want to propose one which is closely related to the receiving of the Ten Commandments: the experience of standing before God.
The model of seeing oneself as standing before God in prayer derives, in part, from the experience of the children of Israel standing at Sinai.14
What can we learn about kavanah from that moment of receiving the commandments?
רש"ר הירש שמות י"ט
העם למד שבשעה שאדם נכנס לעבודת ה' במלוא הידיעה וההכרה, הוא מתעלה למדרגה נשגבה שאין כמותה בעולם, ומעמדו לפני ה' הוא של קירבה בלתי אמצעית... כל איתני הטבע משמיעים קולם – קולות הרעמים, הבזקי הברקים, חרדת ההרים, קול השופר הולך וחזק מאד – אך ישראל מטה את אזנו להקשיב רק לשיחת ה' עם משה.
R. Samson Raphael Hirsch to Exodus 19:16-19
The nation learns that when a person enters into the service of God, with full knowledge and consciousness, they rise to a heightened level of which there is none in the world, and their standing before God is one of closeness without intermediary…. all the forces of nature are making noise—the noise of earthquakes, thunder, shaking mountains, “the sound of the shofar getting louder (Exodus 19:19)”—but Israel is inclining its ear to listen only to the speaking of God with Moshe.
Hirsch describes the moment of revelation: a scene filled with noise all over, distractions from the main event: God’s speaking. But in Hirsch’s envisioning of the scene, Israel is not distracted by any of the other noises. They can concentrate on the essence: God’s presence.15
In describing how to take the first step toward kavanah, Rambam describes something similar:
רמב"ם הלכות תפילה ונשיאת כפים ד:טז
כיצד היא הכוונה שיפנה את לבו מכל המחשבות ויראה עצמו כאלו הוא עומד לפני השכינה
Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Tefillah 4:16
How does one achieve kavanah? One clears one’s heart from all thoughts, and sees oneself as if one is standing before the Shekhinah.16
In today’s world, there are so many distractions, so much noise. The first step to achieving kavanah is to work to tune out the noise – both literally and figuratively. How do we do this? Rambam, based on Mishnah Berakhot 5:1, suggests sitting for a little (צריך לישב מעט) before praying. Perhaps music helps tune out the distractions.17 Maybe it is as simple as turning off one’s buzzing phone or closing one’s eyes.18
When Israel received the Torah, they were overwhelmed by the presence of God. Today, it is harder to experience that feeling. But the moment of prayer offers an opportunity to attempt to experience God’s presence before us, and to tune out the distractions. And even if we can’t always achieve kavanah, we shouldn’t forego the opportunity to try.
2 I will define this as “intention,” even though there are a host of other valences to the word. See Seth Kadish, Kavvana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1997), pp. 362-367; Joseph Tabory, “The Conflict of Halakhah and Prayer,” Tradition 25 (1989), p. 24; Ruth Langer, To Worship God Properly (Cincinnati: HUC Press, 1998), p. 23. Heschel proposes: “inner participation.” See Man’s Quest for God (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954), p. 12.
9 Compare Bavli Ta’anit 9b; Michael Sokoloff, A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of the Byzantine Period (Ramat Gan, Bar-Ilan University Press, 2002), p. 444. Saul Lieberman, Mehkarim be-Torat Eretz Yisrael (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1991), pp. 95-96.
10 13th-14th century Provence. Quote from ed. Moshe Blau, p. 82, available here: https://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=16242&st=&pgnum=85
14 As noted previously (in my essay to Parashat Shemot, “Rethinking the Amidah: Standing Like Moshe at the Burning Bush,” available here: https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/rethinking-amidah), God’s revelation at Sinai is foreshadowed by God’s revelation to Moshe personally at the burning bush. Indeed, God tells Moshe at the burning bush that Israel will later worship God “on this mountain” (3:12). The scene of the burning bush, a precursor to the scene of the revelation to Israel, is textually linked to the experience of saying the Amidah.
16 R. Shimon Hasida says (on Bavli Sanhedrin 22a) that one who prays the Amidah must see themselves standing before the Shekhinah, God’s presence. R. Yehoshua ben Levi says (Berakhot 31b) that one should not sit within four cubits of someone saying the Amidah, which was understood to mean that they are standing before God’s presence. See Rav Hai’s explanation in Otzar Ha-Geonim Berakhot #190-192, p. 74: “אסור לאחד לישב בצד ארבע אמות סמוך לזה המתפלל לפי שמקום שכינה הוא / It is forbidden for a person to sit within four cubits of the one who prays the Amidah, because it is the place of the Shekhinah.” Rav Hai goes on to say that this is the reason one steps back three steps at the end of the Amidah: to actively signal stepping away from the presence of God.