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Personal Prayer: An Introduction to Kavanah

Rabbi Dovid Bendory, 13 Tevet 5767
Wall Street Shul

Listen to the audio. (11:41)


Bershut Harav:

We have been talking all about Kavanah. This word "Kavanah" has come up in so many different contexts, but none of them accurately defines Kavanah in regards to our tefillah (prayer). We have seen Kavanah meaning "focusing on tefillah," or "concentration in tefillah;" understanding the words of tefillah, along with proper enunciation of the words of both tefillah and kriat shema. We have even seen Kavanah with regard to how we stand and what direction we face when praying. For example, one should have in mind to face Eretz Yisrael during his Amidah.

Yet our common usage of the word "Kavanah" in regards to tefillah seems to differ. When one states, "that chazzan has tremendous kavanah," this doesn't refer to any of the above definitions. We mean to refer to someone who brings tremendous emotions and intent into their tefillah, someone who really puts themselves into it. That is to say, "I bring myself into the prayer, rather than bringing the prayer into me." In other words when we talk about kavanah, we mean "I am going to focus on my tefillah, and I am going to concentrate in my words." We are talking about bringing the tefillah into me by making myself focus on the tefillah. However this is not usually what we mean when we say someone has kavanah.

Lets try to understand the literal meaning of the word "kavanah." The root of the word is "l'chavan," which means to point or to direct. For example, if I were giving you directions, I would "m'chaven" you where you want to go. One understanding of the root word is "kivun" (direction).

This understanding goes hand along with the word "chait," to sin. The root of the word "chait," is "lachto," which translates literally as "to miss a target."

Compare the two words:

This is one aspect of the meaning of "kavanah" — it is direction. kavanah is spiritual direction along with physical direction. There is an aspect to in regards to how I m'chaven my legs, body, and face. One should have in mind to face the Kodesh Hakoshim when one is Davening (praying). One should m'chaven the words — say the words with understanding and pronounce them properly. Additionally we should m'chaven our thoughts and feelings during prayer — we must have proper thoughts and feeling towards the prayers that we are saying.

Given everything we have said about kavanah, where does this aspect of putting myself into the tefillah come in? How does one perform the act of putting oneself into the tefillah? Almost all of our prayers are in loshon rabim (plural language). Where do I come in as an individual?

The Mishna in Masechet Berachot states: "One who makes his prayer solely a fixed activity, his prayer are not proper supplication." Prayer is not about merely standing with your legs this way and turning to face that way and saying the words this way and turning and bowing properly. There is more to it than that. That aspect — that "more to it" — that is kavanah.

This aspect of kavanah is discussed in the Shulchan Aruch Simon 119, entitled: "Laws regarding one who wants to add on to the Berachot (blessings)". This simon deals with our personal prayers — when one wants to add to the prayer as an individual. Currently the amidah is a fixed set prayer. In general we do not change the set prayers that Chazal (Chachamim Zechronam LeBracha) have set for us. For example we don't make up our own berachot for foods. We only say the set prayers that chazal have enacted for us. However, we have places where one is encouraged to add additional prayers and supplications, and this is the subject of Simon 119 which we introduce today.

Simon 119 Seif 1: "One is permitted to add to any of the middle prayers of the amidah as long as it is in with the same subject as the paragraph at hand."

The amidah is divided into three sections:

  1. Praise (Shevach). Here one is not permitted to make any personal modifications.
  2. Requests (Bekashot); among them:
  3. Thanks (Hodaya) — no modifications are permitted.

How does one add on to the Tefillah? If one is sick, he adds prayers for health in the eighth bracha, Refanu. This beracha is where we ask from Hashem to heal sick people everywhere. Therefore if one has a particularly sick person to daven (pray) for, one should insert his prayers at this location.

The Mishna Berurah (119:1) comments in the name of the Pri Megadim (Rabbi of Berdichev; 1740-1810) that there is a limitation on adding to the tefillah in these sections. One may not ask that he should shall not become sick, referring to a future date. Similarly, if one is davening for parnasa (livelihood) in a future date, he should not ask for it in Barech Alenu, rather one should request for it in Shema Kolenu.

In summary, one may add into the middle blessings according to the subject matter of the blessing, but only for current needs. Future needs may be added in shema koleinu, as we will be learning in more detail in the coming weeks.