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Praying With Kavana


In this week’s parasha we learn that Yitzchak went out in the late afternoon to pray in the field. Chazal teach us that at this point Yitzchak instituted the Mincha prayer – one of the three daily prayers. This week’s article will focus on the essence of Tefilla, and attempt to answer the gnawing question that bothers us all – how do we remain focused on our prayers? What is kavana (commonly translated as mindfulness)? Is it open expression of emotion? Can one experience full and regular mindfulness in prayer? And what’s the connection between kavana and the Beis Hamikdash? How can we increase our kavana and when is it paramount? Of this, and more, in the coming article.

Mindfulness in Prayer

In this week’s parasha we read (Bereshis 24:63): “And Yitzchak went forth to pray in the field towards evening.” Here, Chazal teach us, Yitzchak instituted the Mincha prayer. In this week’s article we will focus on kavana, or mindfulness. How do you do it? Why are some people always able to pray mindfully while others get lost in daydreams, coming back to reality only upon reciting “Aleinu” at the end of services? Why does our kavana fluctuate, and what can we do about it?

When Prayer Doesn’t Pray

There’s a Yiddish song by Rabbi Tuvia Balkin that richly illustrates our prayer maladies (loosely translated into English): “Eating is easy; it happens itself. Drinking is easy; it happens itself. Sleeping is easy, it happens itself. Why isn’t davening easy; it doesn’t just daven itself?”

A baby’s instincts teach him how to go through the motions necessary for survival. We eat, drink, and sleep naturally. But how do we naturally attach ourselves to prayer?

What is Mindful Prayer?

Prayer with kavana brings to mind complete and total connection with G-d, total disengagement of both body and soul from this world. The words of the prayers, obviously flow smoothly in complete harmony of soul and sprit.

At times, our vision for prayer comes true. The rosy picture painted in our imagination becomes reality and we hope and dream that this will be our prayer experiences three times a day, for the rest of our lives.

The truth is, sadly, quite different. While total and complete disengagement from the physical and connection with the Al-mighty is praiseworthy and having full and deep meaning and intention with every single word is admirable these descriptions are usually only an external symptom of mindful prayer, not kavana itself. Prayer with kavana can come without these outward expressions. And at times, difficulties in prayer are themselves a reason for their acceptance.

What is prayer with kavana and what can we do about it? And how to we ascend the kavana ladder (and is it is at all necessary)?

Tefilla with Kavana

The Rambam (Hilchos Tefilla 4:1, 15, 16) explains the centrality of kavana in prayer:

Five things prevent one from praying…  one is proper intention of one’s heart… Any prayer that is not [recited] with proper intention is not prayer. If one prays without proper intention, he must repeat his prayers with proper intention.

One who is in a confused or troubled may not pray until he composes himself. Therefore, one who returns from a journey and is tired or irritated is forbidden to pray until he composes himself. Chazal taught that one should wait three days until he is rested and his mind is settled. Then, he may pray.

…One should clear his mind from all thoughts and envision himself as standing before the Divine Presence. Therefore, one must sit a short while before praying in order to focus his attention and then pray in a supplicatory fashion.

Parts of Prayer

Does all prayer require full, beginning-to-end kavana? The Rambam (Hilchos Tefilla 10:1) rules: “A person who prayed without concentrating [on his prayers] must pray a second time with concentration. However, if he had concentrated during the first blessing, nothing more is necessary.”

The two parts of this halacha seem to contradict each other. Does one repeat prayers recited without intention, or does concentration on one single part suffice?

Defining Kavana

Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik explains (Chiddushei Rabbenu Chaim Halevi, Tefilla 4:1) that there are two facets of kavana. One is the knowledge that in praying one stands and speaks to G-d, our King. Without this knowledge, reading the siddur is nothing at all. The second facet — the meaning of every word — while maintaining it for the entire prayers is praiseworthy, it is only essential for the first blessing of the Shemone Esrei.

The Chazon Ish, though, disagrees. In his opinion (Gilyonos HaGrach, Tefilla 4:1) maintaining this level of awareness is technically impossible. The Gemara (Bave Basre 164b) lists lack of mindfulness in prayer as one of the three sins everyone transgresses every single day. The Yerushalmi (2:4) cites examples of Amoraim who admitted they struggled to retain their concentration in prayer: Rabbi Chiya said he would often find himself wondering who would come to him whenever he started concentrating on standing before the King. Other Amoraim also described their difficulties in prayer, and Rav Matanya said he is grateful to his head for habitually bowing at Modim, because as much as he tries to concentrate on the words, full control over one’s thoughts is impossible, and he sometimes finds himself saying phrases without contemplating their meaning.

Obviously, the Torah is not intended for angels. Humans, with their faults and foibles are the ones charged with serving the Perfect G-d. If it is humanly impossible to maintain full awareness throughout the entire davening, it is impossible to see full concentration as necessary component for valid prayer.

So what is the kavana that is integral to prayer according to the Chazon Ish (as mentioned in the Sefer Hachinuch, mitzva 433)?

Retaining full awareness of standing before G-d our King and concentrating on every single word from start to finish is admirable. However the only point at which kavana can make it or break it is the first blessing of the Shemone Esrei. There, awareness of standing before the King of Kings is crucial for whatever we are doing to be called “prayer”.

Automated Prayer

But how, asks Rabbi Chaim of Brisk, can an almost automated prayer be considered one uttered before the King of the World? How can a mumbling of memorized lines be called prayer? The Chazon Ish explains that every person approaching his siddur or walking into shul knows, somewhere in his mind, that he is going to speak with the King of the World. This slight awareness somewhere deep in our subconscious is enough to consider our prayers sufficient. Obviously, the more cognizant one is of this, the better, but even this minimal awareness is enough to consider the action one is engaged in “prayer”.

For the first blessing of Shemone Esrei, though, we need a more mindful awareness. Here, one needs to be fully aware of speaking before Hashem.

Halachic Rulings

The Shulchan Aruch (OC 98:1) rules that one must be mindful of the meaning of the words he utters and think about the Shechina standing before him. Prayer requires one to thoroughly remove all foreign thoughts from his mind and focus on only one thing – the words he utters before Hashem.

The Shulchan Aruch adds a comparison to illustrate this point: one who is scheduled to have an audience with a king will prepare his words carefully, choose each phrase, gesture, and intonation. He rehearses and prepares because knows he cannot make a mistake. If this is how we would prepare for a private audience with a flesh and blood monarch, how much more so should we prepare before standing before the King of all Kings.

The Shulchan Aruch adds that in the past, pious men would spend time before prayer contemplating in preparation for prayer, divesting themselves of all physical aspects until they became truly at one with their souls, close to the level of prophecy.

As for us, today, the Shulchan Aruch rules (OC 101:1) that b’dieved, one who cannot remain fully cognizant for the entire prayer must only have kavana in the first blessing of Shemone Esrei. The Mishna Brura adds (101:2) that kavana here is the meaning of the words, not merely the awareness of standing before a King.

Repeating Prayers

Do we have to pray again if we failed and caught ourselves wandering? The Rama (OC 101:1) writes that today, since we often do not have proper kavana, there is no guarantee the second prayer will be better than the first. Therefore, even one who lost himself in the first bracha of Shemone Esrei should not repeat the prayer.

Concentration Impossible

Why are we unable to concentrate? Is our failing awareness a result of our own deficits or is it a worldwide struggle?

The Gemara (Eiruvin 65a) quotes Rav Sheshet who quoted Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria: “I can make an argument that exempts the entire world from judgment, from the day that the Temple was destroyed until now. As it is stated: ‘Therefore, hear now this, you afflicted and drunken, but not from wine’ (Yeshaya 51:21) — in the wake of the destruction of the Temple all Jews are considered intoxicated and are not responsible for any sins they commit.”

While the connection remains to be understood, apparently the problem of deficient concentration is an age-old problem dating back to the destruction of the Temple. And perhaps, with the growing distance from that point in history, our concentration problems become more and more pronounced, to the extent that we see today — 7.2% of the world’s population are known to be suffering from ADHD.

Bearing that in mind, as we approach prayer, we must focus on what we can do. As we mentioned in last week’s editorial – success is never a goal. G-d wants to see us trying and struggling to improve. It is our efforts we are required and must invest, and with time, habit can also kick in and make mindfulness easier.

Defining Lack of Concentration

When the Rambam wishes to define who it is that cannot pray, he writes the following (17):

A person who is drunk should not pray, because he cannot have proper intention. If he does pray, his prayer is an abomination. Therefore, he must pray again when he is clear of his drunkenness. One who is slightly inebriated should not pray, [but] if he prays, his prayer is prayer.

When is a person considered as drunk? When he is unable to speak before a king. [In contrast,] a person who is slightly inebriated is able to speak before a king without becoming confused. Nevertheless, since he drank a revi’it of wine, he should not pray until his wine has passed from him.

A person who is inebriated to the extent that he cannot speak before a king, even if he is completely and totally immersed in his prayer and the words eloquently spill from his lips, is praying without kavana. Even a little shot of wine which does not confuse the mind – if his mood is slightly lifted due to the wine, he must wait until his mind is fully focused again.


Our external surroundings can be conducive or detrimental for mindfulness during prayer. The Rambam (16) provides guidance on the matter:

  • One must sit a short while before praying in order to focus his attention and then pray in a supplicatory fashion.
  • One should not pray as one who just one to get over with it. Therefore, one must sit a short while after praying, and then withdraw.
  • The pious ones of the previous generations would wait an hour before praying and an hour after praying. They would [also] pray for an hour.

The Ramban adds that in order to reach full concentration and feeling of actually standing before The King, one must ensure certain physical aspects are in place (18):

One should not stand to pray immediately following laughter or irreverent behavior, nor in the midst of a conversation, argument or anger, but rather following words of Torah. One should not stand to pray in the midst of a judgment or a [difficult] halachic issue, even though these are words of Torah, lest one’s mind be distracted by the halachah in question. Rather, [one should pray] in the midst of words of Torah that do not require deep concentration, e.g., laws that are clear cut.

Practical Guidance

So, practically, how do you do it? Rav Pinkus (She’arim B’Tefila – introduction) writes that the essence of prayer is the awareness of our standing before Hashem. In standing before Him we must feel His presence and closeness — the true reality, nothing less than any physical reality we know to be true.

Cultivating this awareness requires conscious effort and ongoing training until it becomes natural.

In addition, Rav Pinkus quotes the Ramchal in Mesilas Yesharim (chapter 19) who lists three essential intentions one must have in prayer:

  1. Awareness of G-d. As physical beings we find it hard to conceive the idea that when we pray G-d is listening, because our senses have a hard time accepting something they cannot perceive. Even if we know in our brains that He is listening, feeling it in our hearts is another story. This feeling, maintains the Ramchal, can be cultivated in a person with self-awareness — all it takes is practice.
  2. Awe of G-d. We must feel the awesomeness of G-d which is far beyond what we can comprehend.
  3. Our own deficits. As humans we have physical aspects, especially after sin. The fact that we find it hard to concentrate is a result of it.


The main kavana we should have in prayer is not born of raging emotions but rather the internal feeling of standing before The King, and understanding the words being said. This intention requires effort and practice. We are not required to reach perfection but rather strive for more. The minimal, is retaining awareness during the first blessing in the Shemone Esrei  but we must continually strive for more.

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