Beit Midrash

  • Prayer
To dedicate this lesson
Chapter one- part three

The Kavanah in the prayer

What should I do if I can't concentrate at the prayer?


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

8. Kavanah and Those Who Find It Difficult to Concentrate
Prayer is considered avodah shebalev (service of the heart); therefore its essence is dependent upon kavanah (intent). There are two kinds of kavanah in prayer: one, a general kavanah, that the person praying is standing before the King of Kings and is filled with fear and love; and the second is a personal kavanah, that he concentrates in his heart on the words he is saying.
People are innately different from one another. Some can concentrate effortlessly, and though they repeat the same words every day, it is easy for them to recite all the words and mean them. Others, by nature, find it difficult to concentrate, and the more familiar a subject is to them, the harder it is for them to concentrate on it. Try as they might to have kavanah, their thoughts wander from one matter to the next. Despite great effort to have kavanah in Birkat Avot, their reveries take over, and to their surprise they are already saying Birkat Selach Lanu. Again, they attempt to concentrate for another berachah, but their minds fly off on another journey, and suddenly they find themselves bowing at Modim.
Even in the time of the Talmud there were Amora’im who complained about the difficulty of having kavanah while praying. The Yerushalmi (Berachot, chapter 2, halachah 4), teaches that Rabbi Chiya said of himself that he was never able to have kavanah throughout his entire prayer. Once, when he tried to concentrate during his prayer, he began to ponder who is more important before the king, this minister or that one. Shmuel said, "I counted newly hatched chicks while I was praying." Rabbi Bon Bar Chiya said: "While I was praying I counted the rows of the building." Rabbi Matanyah said, "I am grateful for my head, for even when I am not paying attention to what I am saying, it knows by itself to bow at Modim." The commentary Pnei Moshe explains that these rabbis were busy learning Torah and therefore had trouble concentrating. In any case, we learn that it is difficult to have kavanah from the beginning of the prayer service until the end. Even though we must try as hard as we can to concentrate, one should not feel dispirited when he does not have the proper kavanah. Even a person who dreamt throughout most of his prayer should not despair; rather he should strive to have kavanah while reciting the remaining berachot.
A person should not say, "If I do not have kavanah, perhaps it is better not to pray." The very fact that he came to pray before Hashem expresses something very profound – his sincere desire to connect to Hashem and to pray before Him. Every person is measured according to his nature, and at times, someone who finds it difficult to concentrate, yet struggles and succeeds in having kavanah for a number of blessings, is more praiseworthy than someone who easily succeeds in concentrating throughout the entire prayer service. Additionally, people who find it easy to concentrate on the routine prayers generally pray without any particular passion, even on special occasions, or when a tragedy befalls them. However, those individuals who find it difficult to concentrate on the routine words usually succeed in attaining higher levels of kavanah in exceptional circumstances.
It is said in the name of the Ari HaKadosh that kavanah is like wings upon which prayer soars heavenward and is accepted. When a person prays without kavanah, his prayer lacks the wings with which to fly upwards and it waits until the person prays with kavanah. When he succeeds in doing so, all the prayers that he recited without kavanah ascend to Hashem together with the prayer that achieved kavanah. The reason for this is clear: the very fact that the person initially came to pray demonstrates that he wants to connect to Hashem, praise Him, and asks Him for his needs. He simply failed to have kavanah. However, the moment he succeeds in having kavanah, he opens the gate for all his prayers to ascend.
According to halachah, anyone who has kavanah in his heart while saying the first verse of Shema and the first berachah of the Shemoneh Esrei fulfills his obligation, even if he does not have kavanah while saying the rest of his prayers (Shulchan Aruch, 63:4, 101:1; further in this book 15:6 and 17:9).

9. Hearing the Words One Utters and the Law of Hirhur
Some mitzvot are fulfilled through dibur (speech), such as prayer, the recital of Shema, and Birkat HaMazon. The Amora’im are divided on the question of whether one can fulfill these mitzvot b’dieved (after the fact), via hirhur (thought). According to Ravina, hirhur k’dibur (thought is like speech) and one who thinks the words of the prayer or berachah in his mind has fulfilled his obligation. In contrast to him, Rav Chisda asserts that thought is not equivalent to speech (Berachot 20b). Although some poskim maintain that hirhur k’dibur, (Rambam, Smag, Riaz), in practice, most Rishonim hold that the halachah follows Rav Chisda’s opinion that thought is not like speech (Rach, Talmidei Rabbi Yonah, Or Zarua, Rosh, Raavad, and more). This is also how the Shulchan Aruch rules regarding the recital of Shema (62:3) and berachot (185:2 and 206:3). 2
If a person mouthed the words, even though he did not hear the words he said, he fulfilled his obligation b’dieved because he moved his lips. However, l’chatchilah (from the outset), concerning every mitzvah that is fulfilled by speech, the person speaking must hear what he is saying.
There are parts of prayer which are said by the whole congregation, such as the answering of Amen and the Kedushah, in which the congregation responds to the chazan. These sections of prayer are, l'chatchilah, said aloud. We must be especially careful to answer to the Kaddish out loud because when everyone says Amen in unison, kevod Shamayim (the respect of Heaven) is magnified (Shulchan Aruch 56:1). The Chachamim tell us that by answering "Amen, yehei Shemei rabba…" out loud, harsh decrees are erased. Similarly, it is customary to recite the first verse of Shema out loud, in order to arouse kavanah (Shulchan Aruch 61:4).
We say the rest of the prayers, such as Pesukei d’Zimrah, the recital of Shema, Birkot Keriat Shema, and the remaining mizmorim (songs), in a regular voice, or at least in a volume that we are able to hear. However, even if a person only mouthed the words, and he did not hear what he was saying, he still fulfilled his obligation.
The Amidah prayer, which is private and intense, is recited silently. According to most poskim, even the silent Amidah, l'chatchilah, must be heard by one’s ears, but one must be careful that the person praying next to him does not hear him (Shulchan Aruch 101:2; Mishnah Berurah 5-6). However, the custom of most Kabbalists is that l'chatchilah, a silent prayer must be recited only by mouthing the words and not by hearing them even with one’s own ears (Kaf HaChaim 101:8).
It is possible to learn from this law a general concept: that thought alone is not sufficient, that good intention without action is not enough. For the soul, deep within the heart, is pure, and the challenge is to project its goodness outwards in order to mend the world. Therefore, it is necessary to say the prayers out loud, or at least to mouth the words (Maharal, Netiv HaAvodah, chapter 2).

2 The poskim are divided regarding whether or not the Rambam and the Smag hold that hirhur k’dibur (thought is like speech) also concerning the recital of Shema or just regarding other mitzvot. (See Bei’ur Halachah 62:4, s.v. "Yatza.")
The Shulchan Aruch 62:4 states, "If, because of sickness or circumstances beyond his control, a person thought the Shema in his heart, he has fulfilled his obligation." The Acharonim disagree as to what he means. According to the Pri Chadash and many other poskim, one who merely thinks the words does not truly fulfill his obligation, and this is what is written in Bei’ur Halachah, s.v. "Yatza." Therefore, if the circumstances beyond his control have passed and the time to recite Shema has not yet passed, he must go back and verbally recite the Shema. However, the Birkei Yosef and the Pri Megadim are of the opinion that one who finds himself in circumstances beyond his control (annus) does fulfill his obligation by just thinking the words of Shema, and, even if the circumstances pass, he is not required to repeat them (the Hashlamah and Michtam hold this way as well). The Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim, part 5, 4, explains that the Shulchan Aruch means to say that we rely on the minority opinion which states that hirhur is k’dibur, only in extenuating circumstances, but if the person is no longer in circumstances beyond his control, the situation is no longer extenuating and one must repeat the Shema (Yabia Omer, part 4, 3:19 agrees).
Concerning the recital of Shema, which is a biblical commandment, one who mistakenly thought the words in his heart, is most certainly required to go back and verbally recite them. Regarding blessings, the Bei’ur Halachah writes that those who rely on the majority of the Rishonim and repeat them do not lose out. The Yalkut Yosef, part 3, 106:11, writes, safek berachot l’hakel (if there is doubt regarding the recital of blessings, we are lenient) and if, for example, he thought Birkot HaShachar, but did not say them, he need not go back and repeat them. However, regarding the blessing upon food, if he recited the words in his thoughts, he should think the words "Baruch Shem kevod malchuto l’olam va’ed" ("Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity,") and then go back and say the berachah verbally.
From the library of Yeshivat Har Bracha
את המידע הדפסתי באמצעות אתר