Our sages tell us that when praying the Amida, we must focus our thoughts on each one of the blessings (B. Berachot 34b). Indeed one sage buttresses this requirement by citing the verse "you will strengthen their heart, you will cause your ear to hear" (Psalms 10:17), indicating that if we focus the heart, the Almighty will be inclined to heed our requests (T. Berachot 3:4; B. Berachot 31a).
Concentration during prayer is no small feat, and our tradition acknowledges this challenge by adding that if a supplicant is unable to concentrate on the entire service, focusing on one of the blessings is a minimum necessity. Does this one-blessing minimum refer to a specific passage or to any one of the Amida blessings? The Talmud reports an unequivocal tradition that this requirement refers to the first section that deals with the Patriarchs. Jewish law gives a normative voice to this tradition, stating that if one did not recite the Patriarchs section with concentration - even if the rest was thoughtfully said - the Amida must be resumed from the beginning (Shulhan Aruch 101:1).
What is meant by "concentration" during prayer? Two aspects of concentration are stressed (Tur, 13th-14th centuries, Germany-Spain). First, the supplicant must focus on the meaning of the words being recited. Second, prayers must be said with an awareness that the supplicant stands before the Almighty.
The requirement to focus during the Patriarchs blessing is tempered by the Polish codifier Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1530-1575), who immediately adds that nowadays when our concentration is so lacking, there is no requirement to repeat the Amida, for it is entirely likely that even in the repetition we will not focus.
The assertion of the Rema raises a perplexing question: What is the difference between the first prayer and the repetition; if we do not mandate the second because we know that the supplicant will not truly concentrate, why require the first which will also be recited without concentration?
While this leads to the absurd conclusion that nowadays we should not pray, we are still inclined to understand his ruling. Perhaps we can assume that individuals generally focus during prayer and therefore there is no ban on the first attempt. Once a prayer has been recited without concentration, that assumption no longer exists and we prohibit a further unfocused prayer.
This analysis does not reflect reality: Regular, everyday prayer is subject to lack of concentration; an occasional repeated prayer awakens the supplicant who no doubt takes extra care to focus during this out-of-the-ordinary recitation.
Another approach could be suggested: While the initial prayer lacked heartfelt intent, it nevertheless fulfilled the requirement of prayer and therefore cannot be considered in vain. The second prayer is required not to discharge the prayer obligation, but to fulfill the focus requirement. If the second prayer is recited without concentration, then the blessings are said in vain, since the prayer requirement has already been fulfilled. Blessings recited in vain are considered serious offenses (B. Berachot 33a; B. Temura 4a), and given the propensity to lose focus the Rema rules that the second prayer should not be recited nowadays (Rabbi Asher Weiss, 7 Shevat 5767).
This does not mean that losing concentration is something that we merely accept as a given. The Mishna states that a prayer leader who says "modim, modim" (we give thanks, we give thanks) is immediately silenced (M. Berachot 5:3). The Talmud explains that the prayer leader appears to be thanking two deities and is therefore censured (B. Berachot 33b-34a). For the same reason a similar rule is stated for a leader who doubles the Shema - the prayer in which we accept the Almighty's dominion.
One talmudic sage springs to the defense of the prayer leader who repeated the Shema: Perhaps the first recital was said absentmindedly and the repetition was an attempt to read it with proper concentration? If this is the case, then the repetition is not disgraceful and the leader should not be denounced. The response offered to this suggestion is quick and curt: "May one act towards heaven with the familiarity of a friend? Supplicants who do not focus at the outset should be stricken with a smith's hammer until they apply themselves." While the Talmud is not proposing a violent response, it is giving voice to an aversion to prayer without concentration.
While lack of focus and absentmindedness in prayer is spurned, it is nevertheless a natural occurrence. In fact, we have a number of great halachists who boldly admitted to inattentiveness during their Amida prayer. To cite one example, Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson (1810-1875) was among the leading authorities of his time. His financial security allowed him to serve in a voluntary capacity as rabbi of the Lemberg (today Lviv) Jewish community. A prolific writer, he authored many responsa to those who turned to him from all over the world.
In a responsum from 1843, Rabbi Nathanson opens with the admission that while praying the Amida on Rosh Hodesh, he forgot to recite the special addition for the new month. He describes an idiosyncratic scenario in which he did not know how to act and then presents an involved halachic discussion. Significantly this paradigm of an outstanding scholar was not afraid to acknowledge the human frailty of forgetfulness and absentmindedness in prayer.
We all forget at times. While it is important to know what the prescribed action is when one forgets a mandated passage in the service, perhaps there is a more important question that we should ask ourselves: Why did I forget? Was I so focused on the words of the prayer; was I so deep in meditation that the calendar and its prayer requirements receded to the back of my consciousness? Or perhaps my mind wandered to a pending business deal or a petty conversation? As humans we will continue to lose focus and forget, perhaps the pertinent question is: What is the cause of our forgetfulness?
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.