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By: Rabbi Daniel D. Levy
What is the basic kavanah (intent)
one should have when praying?
The Shulchan Aruch in Orach Chaim (O.C. 98:1) states that one who is praying should:
a)Have kavanah in regards to the simple interpretation of the words he is praying by thinking of their meaning before saying them. The Kaf Hachaim (O.C. 98:2) emphasizes that one should be particularly sure to enunciate and pronounce the vowels of each word correctly.
b)One should also envision, to the best of his ability, that Hashem is in front of him. In that vein, he should be mindful of the fact that he is standing in front of Hashem. To ground his understanding, he should remove all other thoughts from his head and visualize himself standing in front of a human king. In that situation, how much would he take care with his words so as not to stumble? All the more so, then, would he act respectfully in front of Hashem the King of Kings. The Mishnah Berurah (98:1) says that one shouldn’t focus on the deep mystical meaning of the words or on connecting Hashem’s names to them, unless he is on an extremely high level, as more damage than benefit can come from such actions if any average person were to attempt them.
We know that the act of prayer has replaced
bringing a Korban (sacrifice). What important halachot are gleaned from this comparison?
The Shulchan Aruch (98:4) states prayer serves in place of a sacrificial offering to Hashem. Therefore one should be cautious to:
a)Focus while praying, without allowing intruding thoughts to enter his mind. After all, entertaining other intruding thoughts while performing a sacrifice rendered it invalid.
b)Stand during Amidah, just as the service of the korban was
c)Have a set place to pray just as a korban had a designated place in which it was slaughtered and its blood sprinkled before the sacrifice.
d)Allow no separation between oneself and the wall, just as a chatzitzah (separation) between a person and the vessel of service disqualified the korban.
e)Don special, respectable garments for prayer, just as the Kohen wore special garments when performing his service in the Beit Hamikdash. Even if one cannot afford a whole special wardrobe for prayer, he should at the very least wear a clean pair of pants in honor of standing in front of Hashem.
Assuming one does have kavanah, is there
an other kind of mindset that would
prevent one’s prayers from being accepted?
The Shulchan Aruch (98:5) states that one shouldn’t think to himself, “Since I had kavanah it is befitting for Hashem to fulfill my request,” as such thoughts cause Hashem to analyze whether this individual is truly worthy of receiving his heart’s desires. Rather one should humble himself and think, “I am a poor simple creation standing in front of the King of Kings. Please Hashem, although I may not be worthy of this desired request, in Your abundant kindness and mercy, please fulfill my request.”
What actions can one take to prepare
himself for praying?
The pasuk says “Hikon LeKrat Elokecha” – prepare yourself before coming in front of Hashem. Just as meticulous preparation before a wedding enhances the pleasure of the wedding itself, so too, the more one prepares himself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to converse with Hashem, the more enjoyable and powerful his praying experience will be.
Here are some recommended ways to prepare for prayer:
a)When possible, one should arrive early to minyan in order to spend time clearing his mind before beginning to pray. His mind should be clear and pure for tefilah. (Shulchan Aruch 98:1)
b)Before praying, it is advisable not to engage in trivial matters or idle speech. Rather one should pursue spiritual actions such as dipping in a mikveh, doing netilat yadayim, learning Torah, or giving tzedakah (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 92:10). As it says in Tehilim, “Ani Betzedek Echezeh Panecha” – I (Hashem) will come in front of your face with righteousness” – meaning when one behaves righteously.
c)One should prepare himself physically by blowing his nose and using the restroom before beginning his prayers. He should also clean his physical surroundings so that he can maximize his kavanah during tefilah (S.A. O.C. 92:3 and 2:6).
d)It says of one who has a set place to pray “The Gd of Abraham will be to his aid.” (Berachot 6b, Shulchan Aruch 90:19)
What is the minimum required for one to
fulfill his obligation of praying the Amidah?
At a bare minimum, one needs to have kavanah in the first berachah of the Amidah, concluding with the words “Magen Avraham.” Although it does state that one who didn’t have this minimal kavanah on any blessing must repeat the Amidah, numerous Halachic sources concede that since the average person’s kavanah today is not stellar, it is advisable not to repeat the Amidah, as this might constitute saying a blessing in vain if proper kavanah is not executed the second time. At the very least, one should face eastward and have in mind that he is standing in front of Hashem in the direction of the Kodesh Kodashim in the Beit Hamikdash.
What is a person allowed to hold
The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 96:1,2) explains that one should not hold any object that he fears may fall out of his hand, (such as tefillin, a holy book, a full plate, a knife, or money), so that he doesn’t become distracted while praying. Additionally, the Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 97:7) says that one should not hold a tissue or a cane during tefilah. However, holding a lulav during tefilah on Sukkot is permitted, since one is involved in a beloved mitzvah while using it. Also, a Sefer Torah may be held during prayers at the appropriate time when the Torah is taken out. Likewise, one may hold a siddur in which to pray from, since he is using it to enhance his praying.
Is it advisable for one to pray at a wedding,
or wait until later and pray in a minyan
The Shulchan Aruch (98:2) states one should not pray in a place or at a time that will counteract one’s kavanah. The Mishnah Berurah (98:4, 5, 7) specifies such a place to be one that has a strong fragrance that might hinder one’s focus. So, too, it specifies an inappropriate time to be one where concentration is difficult due to pain, anger, or lethargy from traveling. Although most people today struggle to stay focused when praying and don’t maximize their kavanah, nonetheless one should do his best to foster the most ideal mindset and external conditions necessary to having kavanah.
If one is not needed for a minyan at the wedding and can pray later in a shul minyan with better focus, then it is advisable for him to pray later. However, if the wedding guests are his only minyan option and he won’t have a feasible opportunity to pray later with kavanah, then he should pray at the wedding.
What is the minimum kavanah one needs in
order to fulfill his obligation of the
The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 63:4) goes with the lenient opinion (expressed in the Gemarah Berachot 13) that at a minimum one should have kavanah in the first pasuk of Shema Yisrael. If one did not have kavanah there, he must repeat it.
The Mishnah Berurah (O.C. 63:12) proclaims that one must have kavanah when saying the pasuk of Baruch Shem Kevod... otherwise he must repeat it.
Tosafot in Berachot 13a says that during the first few pesukim of Shema one should have the following intentions:
a)To emphasize the oneness of Hashem. Ein Od Milvado: He is the source and only powerful force behind everything that happens in this world.
b)To love Hashem with one’s whole heart, realizing that everything, whether it seems good or bad, is done ultimately out of love from Hashem, with our best interests in mind.
c) To fear Hashem and feel the proper reverence for Him. The Shulchan Aruch (63:6) states that during the whole first paragraph of Shema one should not wink, mouth words, or motion with his fingers, as the theme of the first paragraph is accepting the yoke of Hashem’s kingdom and exhibiting these inappropriate actions during Shema is clearly in contradiction to that.
Is it preferable for one to pray in a minyan
that has kavanah if he will only be able
to pray part of the prayers with them?
Or is it better for him to pray the full
length of the prayers in a different
minyan where kavanah is not emphasized?
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurebach (Tefilah Kehilchatah Ch.2:28) says that it’s preferable to pray in a minyan with even if he will need to leave before the completion of the prayers. This holds true because Tefilah is “Avodat Halev” the service of the heart. Even if he will miss Keriyat Hatorah on Monday or Thursday, he should pray in the minyan that has more kavanah. Of course, best of all would be for him to pray the full prayers in a minyan that is conducive to having kavanah.
What should one do if inappropriate
thoughts enter his mind during prayers?
The Shulchan Aruch (98:1) states that one should wait until the inappropriate thought passes. Then, one should think of things that humble his heart to his Father in Heaven.