Kavvanah (Concentration) for Prayer in the Mishnah and Talmud
The common definition of the term kavvanah is "intention" or "concentration" during prayer or another ritual.(1) A precise definition of this word has been elusive because it refers to an intangible inner state of mind, an abstract concept of thought, and not a physical or tangible action. In this study we analyze several sources in the Mishnah and the Talmud which use the term kavvanah in reference to the recitation of the Prayer of Eighteen Blessings and the recitation of the Shema`.
Obviously, the Talmud predates by centuries the development of the rich conceptual expressions of the modern disciplines of social science, especially of psychology and sociology. Accordingly, rabbinic texts use more indirect and primitive terminology and conceptualization to describe the inner states of a person's mind and the social aspects of prayer and ritual.
Even though rabbinic idiom was constrained by a limited terminology, rabbinic sources express sophisticated notions regarding inner states of consciousness. When we examine several rabbinic texts and translate into more contemporary terms some concepts of the rabbinic rules and interpretations regarding inner states of mind, we discover strikingly mature attitudes towards those aspects of consciousness, intention or concentration during prayer, called in the texts, "kavvanah for prayer."
In addition, an historical analysis of the concept of kavvanah in early rabbinic sources shows that the idea does not remain static within rabbinic thought but evolves in the various documents. Let us proceed to pursue these issues concurrently.
Although the Mishnah, Tosefta, Babli and Yerushalmi use the same term, one finds contrasts in the usage and understanding of the term within the distinct compilations, according to the preferences of each textual source, locale or historical context.
The earliest of our rabbinic texts, Mishnah, sets forth clear distinctions between the concepts of kavvanah associated with the recitation of the Shema` and with the recitation of the Prayer of Eighteen. These differences represent several separate substantive elements inherent in the rabbinic concept of kavvanah.
The first of the major relevant sources in Mishnah offers several rules relating to aspects of the disruption of kavvanah for the recitation of the Shema` and the Prayer of Eighteen. According to Mishnah, one who engages in these rituals must have kavvanah. But Mishnah speaks of two levels of kavvanah--a lower level, for one who recites the Shema`, and a more intense level for one who engages in the recitation of the Prayer of Eighteen.
Mishnah Berakhot 2:1 says, "One who was reciting from the Torah [at Deuteronomy 6:4] and the time for the recitation [of the Shema`] arrived, if he directed his attention [to the goal of fulfilling the obligation of reciting the Shema`], he fulfilled his obligation."
Mishnah here uses the phrase "kvn 't lbw, directed his attention"--a clear reference to kavvanah. This suggests that one may simply concentrate and change one's state of mind at will to reach the desired level of thought and attention for the recitation of the Shema`.
In a text relating to the recitation of the Prayer of Eighteen, Mishnah presents a different picture of what is required for kavvanah. At M. Berakhot 5:1 we find, "One may stand to recite the Prayer [of Eighteen Blessings] only out of a solemn disposition. The early saints used to tarry for a while and then recite the Prayer, so that they might direct their hearts [i.e. their thoughts] to God."
The choice of the words "sykwnw 't lbm, so that they might direct their hearts," implies that kavvanah is essential for the recitation of the Prayer. The added requirement of a solemn disposition(2) prior to such recitation presupposes that the framer of this Mishnah stipulated the need for a higher level of concentration and attention for the Prayer Service than for the recitation of the Shema` referred to in the text cited previously.
In the continuation of M. Ber. 2:1, Ushan Tannaim engage in a dispute regarding the ramifications of various interruptions in one's concentration while reciting the Shema`. According to R. Meir, if one encounters a fellow to whom he must show respect during the recitation of the Shema` he may extend a greeting to him if he pauses in his recitation between the paragraphs of the Shema` or return a greeting out of respect for him. But only if one encounters a figure of authority whom one fears while in the middle of reciting one of the paragraphs, may a person interrupt to extend or return a greeting. Meir stipulates that a more rigorous form of intention and concentration must be maintained when one is in the midst of reciting of each paragraph of the liturgy.
Judah agrees in principle with Meir but disputes with him on the details of the law. When one pauses between paragraphs he may greet a fellow to whom he owes respect and may return the greeting of any individual. When one is engaged in the middle of the recitation of a paragraph of the Shema` he may extend a greeting to a figure of authority whom he fears, and he may respond to greeting extended to him by a person to whom he owes some measure of respect, but not to just anyone who comes along.(3)
The Tannaim argue here about the nature and significance of the social encounter for which one may intentionally disrupt his concentration for the recitation of the liturgy. The views in Mishnah exhibit some subtle differences in the understanding of the nature of concentration and interruption in the recitation of the Shema`. Both masters agree though that if an individual speaks to his fellow during the performance of the ritual, it does not invalidate the fulfillment of the commandment to recite the Shema`.
Mishnah's rule regarding the interruption of one's recitation of the Prayer of Eighteen is significantly different. Mishnah stipulates, "Even if a serpent were coiled to strike at his heel [while he was standing and reciting the Prayer of Eighteen], he may not interrupt (M. Ber. 5:1)." Clearly, as we proposed above, the rabbis envisioned the need for a more intense level of concentration for the recitation of the Prayer of Eighteen.
Mishnah makes several other less explicit references to disruptions of a person's kavvanah. According to M. Berakhot 2:4, a workman may recite the Shema` while atop a tree. A householder may not. Moreover, fear of heights prevents a person from attaining the proper concentration for the recitation of the Prayer of Eighteen. Even the craftsman who is used to working high up must come down to recite the Prayer.(4)
Other emotions interfere with one's concentration during recitation. Mishnah elsewhere specifies, "A bridegroom is exempt from the recitation of the Shema` from the first night [after the wedding] until after the Sabbath, if he did not consummate the marriage (M. 2:5)." In this case, M. intimates, the anticipation or apprehension of the occasion diverts one's attention and prevents effective concentration.
The sorrow of mourning also disturbs kavvanah according to another Mishnaic source. From the time of the death of a relative until after the funeral, a mourner does not have the capacity to concentrate sufficiently for the recitation of the Shema` or the Prayer of Eighteen: "He whose deceased relative is lying before him [not yet buried], is exempt from the obligations to recite the Shema` and to wear tefillin (M. 3:1)." According to a conventional rabbinic explanation, the reason for the exemption is based on a general principle: one who is engaged in fulfilling a commandment (in this case, burial of the dead), is free from the obligation to fulfill another commandment (in this case, recitation of prayers). Nevertheless, we may add that the inner state of mind of a grieving individual prevents him from attaining the concentration necessary to properly recite the liturgy.(5)
To recapitulate, in Mishnah's rules for the recitation of the Prayer and the Shema`, we may distinguish two levels of kavvanah (one for the Shema` and one for the Prayer of Eighteen) and three different forms of disruption of kavvanah (the emotional states of fear, desire, grief).
Tosefta, a later rabbinic compilation which serves as a complicated appendix to Mishnah, adds the notion that another form of intrusion disrupts one's concentration for prayer. In contrast to the "solemn disposition" required in M. Berakhot 5:1 as a requisite before reciting the Prayer of Eighteen, Tosefta says that lightheartedness disturbs one's ability to concentrate.(6) In Tosefta's words (Berakhot 3:21), "They may not stand to pray after conversation, or after laughter, or after lightheartedness [or after any idle matters], but only after [speaking] words of wisdom."
Tosefta offers here not a rigorous rule for recitation, but some sage guidance to a person as he prepares to pray each day. In order to properly concentrate in prayer, immediately before prayer, one must avoid moods and motivations which distract his attention.
This source extends the concept of kavvanah beyond the elementary stages set forth in M. M. stipulated that certain emotional states disrupted kavvanah. Tosefta adds that swings of mood also may interfere with an individual's state of kavvanah. Tosefta's shift in emphasis is slight but significant.
Sources in the two Talmuds, postdating and sharing knowledge of Mishnah and Tosefta, build on and extend this conceptualization. In the view of these later texts, other kinds of distracting thoughts and moods, not of a deep and pervasive nature, may unsettle a person enough to prevent him from attaining kavvanah for prayer.
In a pericope in the Yerushalmi, with a close parallel in Babli, the Talmud develops the proposal that one may start to pray only after engaging in "words of wisdom." The source gives us the following:
The passage opens with an apparent explanation and addition to the Baraita in the Tosefta-passage cited which says that one may pray after "words of wisdom." The Talmud extends this to include the suggestion that one may pray after "a decision of the law" or involvement with communal needs." Yerushalmi then continues with specific examples of rules that illustrate the principle of praying after speaking of a rule of law:
The Babylonian Talmud has a slightly different version of this pericope:
Putting aside the minor variations between the two versions,(14) the renditions in Babli and Yerushalmi represent a common approach to kavvanah. That is, one should turn to ponder certain legal rulings in order to reach a more intense level of concentration for the recitation of prayer.
We will be better able to analyze the theory inherent in this passage after we consider two additional pericopae in Yerushalmi which deal with other aspects of kavvanah for prayer.
The passage cited above from chapter 5, Mishnah 1 [IV] of Yerushalmi Berakhot continues as follows:
A previous text in the tractate gives us a related tradition:
Ostensibly, Yerushalmi speaks here of various means to enhance one's concentration, to modify a person's state of consciousness, perhaps to induce a special state of consciousness, close to what we might call a simple form of trance.
In light of this latter passage in Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:4, we may explain more amply the questions attributed to Abdan in the former text from Y. Berakhot 5:1. That brief exchange between Abdan and rabbi regarding the number of levels of holy things and of heave-offering, also served as an alternative means of focusing one's thoughts in preparation for prayer.
With the main texts now before us, the following additional explicit issues concerning the Talmudic conception of kavvanah for prayer present themselves:
Let us return to the first issue. The connection between kavvanah and the act of speaking about an undisputed legal ruling makes sense within the context of rabbinic culture. The Talmud in general addressed itself to the average "disciple of the sages." The ideal scholar within a rabbinic circle of learning was expected to occupy himself throughout the day with the study of Torah. This meant that his mind was expected to be constantly busy with the questions and answers, the give and take of the Talmudic argument. No doubt, for this ideal rabbinic Jew it was a difficult task to desist from the intricate deliberations of such study and to turns one's perspective to thanksgiving and praise in prayer.
The remedy prescribed by the Talmud to divert one's thoughts from rabbinic debate and logical analysis was the "undisputed legal ruling." A scholar could turn his thoughts to a ruling which led him to contemplate to further debate, no questions and no answers, just a decided law. And through reflection on that law one could suppress further deliberations of study and clear his mind for kavvanah for prayer.
This then is the first basic concept in the main Talmudic passage which we have cited. To address the remainder of our issues we must advance more deeply into the theory behind the Talmudic dispute regarding which legal ruling one recites before he turns to prayer. Let us unpack the logic of each succinct rabbinic statement in the pericope.
The examples of undisputed laws given in the Talmudic passage are not chosen arbitrarily. Each is carefully selected to illustrate a specific point. Abaye in the name of R. Zeira suggests that a person ponder the stringent rule regarding a woman who discharges blood leaving a stain as small as the size of a mustard seed. To interrupt thoughts of legal give and take, Abaye posits, one must think about an especially strict rule. This breaks one's train of thought in learning and enables a person to turn his attention to prayer out of a humble spirit.
Raba differs. He perhaps believed that one should not come to prayer out of humility triggered by reflection over a stringency of rabbinic restrictions. Rather he recommended another avenue to enhance kavvanah. He advised the sage to consider a significant lenient rule such as an artifice to avoid tithes, a "tax loophole." Out of the delight associated with thinking of such a benefit, one can more easily divert his thoughts from learning and turn to prayer.(17)
The third alternative of the Talmudic source provides us with another perspective on preparation for prayer. Neither the excessive lowliness associated with contemplating a strict rule, nor the abundant joy connected with cogitating about a lenient precept, prepares a person's mind for prayer. Only meditating over an highly abstract principle of law such as the regulation that one is not permitted to let blood from an animal of the Temple, brings a person to the proper state of correct kavvanah for prayer.
Still, even if these interpretations of the views expressed in the Talmudic passage are correct, we have yet to explain why those three specific legal rules appear in the text. There are numerous stringent, lenient and abstract undisputed rules in the Talmud. By selecting these illustrations the rabbis expressed additional elements of their conceptions of kavvanah for prayer.
Abaye and Raba apparently saw the disciple's personality segmented by the tensions of everyday life. Ideally he lived in the world of Talmudic ideas and arguments in the study hall. In reality he also lived in the world at large, confronted by its many distractions.
From Abaye's perspective, concern over the everyday relationships between men and women constituted the primary distraction to concentration for prayer. To alleviate this one might turn his thoughts to a stringent ruling that inhibits contact between the sexes, such as we have in Babli's text.(18)
In Raba's view, mundane monetary worries were the chief sources of interference with a person's kavvanah for prayer. The average person, scholar or householder, rich or poor, had some measure of anxiety about money or taxes.(19) To mitigate this disquiet one could turn his thoughts to a great leniency in the law, the notion that a person may free himself of the obligation to give tithes, a burdensome fiduciary responsibility. After reflecting upon such a concept, one more easily might turn his attention to prayer.
According to the third alternative opinion in the Talmud, another more complex realm of daily interaction perturbed the individual and disrupted his kavvanah. This opinion proposed that the confrontation between a person and sources of authority might have created situations of frustration and helplessness and detracted from a person's ability to focus his thoughts for kavvanah for prayer.
In our text, the Temple stood as a symbol of a source of authority, the priests represented all bureaucracy, and the rule cited in the Talmud suggested the futility of trying to combat the system. One who let blood from a Temple offering, did so in order to benefit the animal, not for his own personal gain. Nevertheless, the Temple administrator saw only the minute requirements of the law. Accordingly, he declared such an action forbidden, and condemned a person who engages in it to be liable under the law.
According to this third view, out of pessimistic thoughts of despondence, one might more easily turn his attention away from the distractions of the material world and its complex structures of authority and look with kavvanah towards the more spiritual realms of prayer.
In the Mishnah (early third century) we found the distinction between two kinds of kavvanah, one level designated for the recitation of the Shema`, and the other deeper form for the recitation of the Prayer of Eighteen. We also observed that Mishnah describes several situations which disrupt kavvanah, such as the states of mind associated with intense emotional experiences of fear, grief and affection. Mishnah also dealt with the conditions under which one might interrupt the recitation of the Shema`.
Tosefta expanded upon these basic ideas and added to them that everyday states of mind, such as discussion, mirth, and levity may affect one's concentration.
In two sources, Yerushalmi turned to the other side of the issue. It gave conventional suggestions for enhancing concentration, artificial means to aid in intensifying kavvanah.
Finally we found in another source in Yerushalmi and its parallel in Babli a completely rabbinic expression of ways to achieve correct kavvanah: thinking about or reciting undisputed legal rulings. We suggested several levels of explanation for the content of this pericope and a larger theory to account for the three-way dispute in the text.
Our analysis reveals that kavvanah cannot be reduced to a simple one-dimensional abstraction. Rather we have described several of the stages in the development of the concept of kavvanah for prayer from Mishnah through the Talmud, the formative ages in the history of Judaism. This idea continues to expand through history as rabbinic thought encounters mysticism and philosophy in the middle ages,(20) and as modern Jewish thought grapples with psychology and social science in contemporary times.(21)
1. The term appears for instance several times in Mishnah referring not only to prayer but also to the performance of other rituals, such as the slaughter of sacrifices in the Temple and the offerings on the altar.
2. The term in Mishnah is kbd r's which suggests a form of deep concentration.
3. The text is as follows [M. Berakhot 2:1-2]:
4. The text reads: "Craftsmen may recite [the Shema`] from atop a tree or atop a scaffold--something which they are not permitted to do for the [recitation of the] Prayer."
Tosefta adds: "[Workers may recite [the Shema`] from atop a tree,] and they may recite the Prayer from atop an olive tree or from atop a fig tree. But from all other kinds of trees one must come down to recite the Prayer below. And the householder must always come down and recite the Prayer below [Tos. 2:8]." [Though craftsmen are accustomed to the height, they are not as adept as fruit pickers who work in the trees and so may not recite the Shema` while up in a tree.]
5. The Mishnah indicates that others who directly share in the grief of the funeral are included in the exemption from reciting: The [first set of] pallbearers, and the [next people] who replace them, and the [next people] who replace their replacements--whether they go [in the procession to the cemetery] before the bier, or they go behind the bier--
If they are needed to [carry] the bier, they are exempt [from reciting the Shema` and wearing tefillin].
And if they are not needed to [carry] the bier, they are obligated [in the Shema` and tefillin].
Both are exempt from [reciting] the Prayer [of Eighteen blessings].
(3:2)Once they [the mourners] have buried the deceased and returned [from the grave site]--...
those who stand in line--the innermost [closest to the mourners] are exempt [from the recitation of the Shema`] and the outermost are obligated [to recite].
6. The Hebrew terms highlight the contrast between these dispositions. For "solemn disposition" is the phrase is kwbd r's (literally: heavy headedness) and for lightheartedness it is qlwt r's (literally: light headedness).
7. Babli's version omits this rule. Mareh Hapenim suggests that it may be because in Babli Niddah there is an explicit dispute over the rule between R. Yohanan and Resh Laqish. It therefore may not be an appropriate rule on which to reflect to divert one's attention from the distractions of study before turning to prayer.
8. In Babli's version, he may mix the grain together with its own husks. In that case the rule refers to grain that has not been winnowed which is not liable yet to tithes. From Yerushalmi's version here we may infer that the ruse to avoid tithes works even for grain that has been winnowed and has become liable to tithes. Even in that case one may mix the grain with straw and bring it into the house to avoid the obligation of tithes.
9. Rashi explains that if one deals with an undisputed law he will not be distracted to delve into it or ponder over it during his recitation of prayer.
10. They observed the more stringent law as required for a zabah who had seen discharges of blood on three consecutive days during the eleven day period between one menstrual cycle and another. See B. Niddah 66a, B. Meg. 28b.
11. According to R. Ephraim in the commentary of Tosafot to B. Menahot 67b, s.v. kdy, this is the language the householder uses for the artifice, even though he intends to use the grain for himself.
12. The obligation to tithe produce begins when one brings the grain into storage after it has been winnowed. See B. Pesahim 9a, B. Menahot 67b, B. Niddah 15b.
13. See B. Me`ilah 12b.
14. Notably, Babli omits Bar Qappara's view. His opinion in Y. [E] is similar to Huna's statement in Y. [C]. Both refer to strict laws regulating sexual relations. It appears that rather than to duplicate the point, Babli's editor simply omitted Bar Qappara's lemma.
15. The traditional commentators naturally mitigate this statement. Pene Moshe explains that he was involved deeply in his study. Sefer Haharedim observes that it is unthinkable that such holy masters did not properly concentrate on their prayer. This must refer to instances of unavoidable disruptions of concentration.
16. See M. Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Babli, Yerushalmi, and Midrashic Literature, N.Y., 1967, p. 73.
17. Another form of happiness is associated elsewhere with preparation for prayer. A baraita says, "One stands to pray . . . only out of the joy of [fulfilling] a commandment."
18. The same may be said of Bar Qappara's view in Y.
19. Maimonides (in the Guide for the Perplexed, part 3, chapter 51) expresses this point directly: "Do not pray moving your lips with your face to the wall [as if you are engaged deeply in prayer] and all the while you are thinking of your business transactions. . . Do not think you have achieved anything [by doing these things]."
20. In rabbinic thought, especially as developed in the works of the medieval authorities, kavvanah was essentially understood to be an issue of turning one's thoughts towards a specified objective. This notion often took on strongly spiritual and even mystical connotations.
More recently the Israeli theologian Rav Kook expressed an acute formulation of the mystical notion of kavvanah. As he put it, people are always in a state of kavvanah. The problem a person faces is how to remove that substance which obscures the essence of concentration, how one may overcome that which infects the mind and diverts a person from true kavvanah.
This last point is cited by Rabbi Norman Lamm in his essay, "Nowadays we do not repeat [prayer] because of a lack of kavvanah." Rabbi Lamm suggests that the concept may also be found in medieval Jewish thought in the writings of Judah Halevi and others. See Sepher Yevul Hayovloth, New York, 1986, p. 241.
21. Examples of recent works include Paul Bindler's two studies, "A Psychological Analysis of Kavvanah in Prayer," in Proceedings of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, ed. Fred Rosner, 3/4, Jerusalem, 1976, pp. 133-143, and "Meditative Prayer and Rabbinic Perspectives on the Psychology of Consciousness: Environmental, Physiological and Attentional Variables," in Journal of Psychology and Judaism, 4/4, Summer, 1980, pp. 228-248.
Also of interest are M.H. Spero, "Dream Psychology in Talmudic Thought," in Proceedings of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, ed. Fred Rosner, 3/4, Jerusalem, 1976, pp. 123-132; R. Schatz, "Contemplative Prayer in Hasidism," in Studies in Mysticism and Religion Presented to Gerschom Scholem, Jerusalem, 1967, pp. 209-226; H.G. Enelow, "Kawwana(!): the Struggle for Inwardness in Judaism," in Phillipson, Newmark and Morgenstern, eds., Studies in Jewish Literature in Honor of Kaufman Kohler, N.Y., 1980, pp. 82-107; Riv-Ellen Prell-Foldes, "The Reinvention of Reflexivity in Jewish Prayer; the Self and the Community in Modernity," in Semiotica, 30, 1/2, pp. 73-96.