What is kavana?

Can we see how kavana, which in Hebrew really means the act of going in a particular direction applies to real life as well as of course to all prayers, blessings, and mitzvot?

A visitor prays at the Western Wall, holding four cellphones (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A visitor prays at the Western Wall, holding four cellphones
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
There is a concept among Orthodox Jews called yeridat hadorot, or “the decline of the Jewish generations.” The understanding is, that as each generation is further removed from the Sinai revelation, our understanding of Torah is weakened.
One of the greatest causes of this phenomenon, to my mind, is when we as Jews forget what certain halachic concepts really mean.
One of the least understood, and yet most important, is the concept of kavana (direction, intention, or purpose). Without kavana, one cannot pray, say blessings, do many mitzvot, and really, once we understand what kavana is – one cannot even really live their life properly without it. So what is it?
They say that in the future even the mystical will become revealed to the masses. For some reason that I cannot fathom, the concept of kavana has often been relegated in Jewish circles to the mystical. This, to me, is quite a silly and harmful way to think. Yet, thank the Almighty, we have indeed reached that point in history where even the mystical is revealed.
You may have heard of a so-called modern concept called “mindfulness.” Simply put, mindfulness is kavana. Thankfully, due to people’s industriousness and the Almighty’s kindness, the world is filled with literature, videos, seminars, ad infinitum regarding mindfulness.
But I would like to save you some money, and besides, I’m not certain many of you will bother to YouTube or Google “Mindfulness.” So be it. You can begin to have kavana now. Wherever you find yourself reading this. Right now.
There are many different breathing techniques that you should Google if you don’t know how to breathe already. Choose which is most natural to you. Now. Simply focus on your breath. That is all. Being in touch with your breath... quite literally how you breathe...how the air, with its electric oxygen-energy, is firing itself into your brain and throughout your nervous system, and how upon exhaling you are releasing all that you need to release in order to bring your spirit to stillness.
Back to God... that is all. Applying this in everyday life is much easier than you might imagine. When reciting a blessing for example... are you exhaling? Yes. What needs to “leave” your system at that moment? I would assume... gratitude. Let it be. Let it go out of you with your breath when you utter the blessing. Simple.
You are standing in a long, long line at the post office? What needs to be the focus of your standing? I would assume... patience. Breathe in the reality of all those around you... they are waiting too... breathe out your frustration... breathe out your desire to be somewhere else and just be here, now. Center yourself.
Can we see how kavana, which in Hebrew really means the act of going in a particular direction (as the root of the word is kivun – direction), applies to real life as well as of course to all prayers, blessings, and mitzvot?
Can we understand with this simple definition of how kavana carries simultaneously the meanings of intent, understanding the words, meaning the words, and properly expressing the words and actions? Not to get too Eastern on you... but kavana is the direction of one’s Chi, their essential life-energy.
Riding the wave of your breathing, you read the words in the siddur, you see their meaning, you allow that meaning to fill you with understanding... and then you expresses yourself with those new thoughts and feelings as you exhale your next breath, standing with your feet together, your posture at ease but attentive, your mind flowing with her breath.
You pray a wonderful Shmona Esrai (literally “eighteen,” the centerpiece of the silent Amida prayer). You take three steps back in humble gratitude, and almost reticently bid Hashem Lehitra’ot (see you) until next time.
Focusing on one’s breath is much like riding a bike or a skateboard. At first one is clumsy as they learn to “pat their head and rub their stomach.” But soon, in some people almost immediately, it becomes second nature.
One stops having to “think” about focusing on their breath except under certain circumstances, for example when life is suddenly filled with chaos and you find yourself hyperventilating. Then, like a surfer on a gnarly wave, you must put all of your attentiveness into your breath, and bring yourself back to center.
Bring your mind back down to the ground floor. But most of the time you can cruise... and take in the universe as it swirls around you.
Of all the areas in halacha where the Jew must employ kavana, clearly the most critical is the recital of the Shmona Esrai.
There is a unique halacha here, which applies specifically to the first blessing of the Amida – that of the Patriarchs. If one does not understand and intend what he says, one does not fulfil the mitzvah of saying the Amida, and the rest of the prayer becomes blessings in vain to some extent. Serious stuff.
A study of the meaning of that paragraph, and its intent, are beyond the scope of this essay. Yet I cannot leave it untouched, important as it is.
The first blessing creates the context of who you are, what you are. This is important, because in the Amida prayer (unlike other prayers), one is not speaking to God “in Heaven,” so to speak – but rather one imagines himself or herself standing right in front of God. You must establish who you are in your own mind in order to properly understand why you are attending a private audience with God today. Just you and God, the Source.
Other prayers, regular blessings, just weave their way into the fabric of our atmosphere, so to speak, and perhaps rise up to Heaven. But during the Amida, one faces Jerusalem because we are instructed (as another aspect of kavana) to imagine we are standing right inside the Holy Temple, in front of the Holy of Holies.
So if we first must “announce” who we are, visiting the King, one must ask themselves, “Who the heck are you, anyway? Julius Greenstick from London? No. You are a Jew. What is a Jew? A child of Avraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Yaakov and Leah and Rachel (and the maidservants!).
This is a wonderful place from which to define your relationship to the Almighty. “Hello... Hashem? I’m one of the kids of those people You established an everlasting covenant with... actually... many covenants with! You are our God. We are your people.”
One can use even a single word as the vehicle for kavana, breathing in and out and developing an ever and ever deeper understanding of that very word.
One begins to quite literally inhale its meaning into the very core of his or her being, and then is able to release it back to the universe. One then really feels the word, is filled by the word. Once we experience this, we can begin to appreciate why the early sages of the Talmud, the real Hasidim, took an entire hour to say the Amida.
They also prepared with meditation for an hour beforehand, and meditated for an hour after. In order to properly address God, they had to meditate an hour to reach the place inside that they needed to be. Then they spent an hour in blissful conversation with God. They then took another hour to absorb their new insights and revelations, and come back “down to earth,” so to speak.
The Talmud asks: “If they spent nine hours a day in prayer, how was their Torah knowledge preserved, and when did their earthly work get accomplished?”
The Talmud answers, “Because they are [real] Hasidim [pious ones], their Torah knowledge is preserved [for them], and their work is blessed. It was good to be a Hasid.”
However, seminary students are taught (too strongly, in my opinion) when we first start learning in yeshiva that we are not at their level. Yes, and we are not at the level of Moses either. And yet, are we not taught to ask ourselves regularly, “When will my deeds reach that of my forefathers and foremothers?”
Tehillim, the Psalms, are an important part of prayer. The very last line of the very last Psalm (150:6) is: “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord. Hallelujah!”
Rabbi Micha Turtletaub is a spiritual leader, writer and musician who lives in Jerusalem