What is the nature of Kavvanah (Concentration) for Prayer in Judaism?

We first published this in
New Perspectives on Ancient Judaism, Lanham, 1987, based on a paper delivered December 2, 1985 at the Bar Ilan University Talmud Department, Departmental Seminar, Ramat Gan, Israel. It's one of our favorite articles.

The common definition of the term kavvanah is "intention" or "concentration" during prayer or another ritual. 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.... [more...][repost from 4/07]

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