Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Kavvana in Tefilla: Mission (mostly) Impossible

One of the blogs I read, "ExtremeGH", had a rather interesting post last week about "The Problem with Davening". (word glossary at the bottom)

Choice Quotes Include:

The fact is, very few people daven with any kavanah (outside of the yeshivah environment).

[On wanting to reform davening]: I’m sure people will object, but deep down, you know I’m right.

With these reforms, davening will become shorter and more meaningful. You would probably attract more people to daily davening too. And people would have more kavanah cos there would be less to rush through.

While I don't endorse his post on wholesale change of tefilla, one of the main themes he discusses is, "Kavvana", which is what I would like to focus on today.

How does one keep their attention focused on the fact that man is standing before G-d? The wondrous human brain receives sensory input and multi-tasks thoughts at an incredible speed, and yet, davening is supposed to keep our attention intact for minutes on end.

And that's without serious external distractions.

How can one pray, attempting to actualize that you are standing before the King of Kings, when your nose starts to itch and you need to sneeze.

Finally, you sneeze and you need a tissue, so you desperately search your pockets for one. Kavvana?

Your kid is pulling at your arm, demanding your attention oblivious to the fact that you are davening. Kavvana?

While I can recall dozens of shiurim on the importance of Kavannah, never once was it put in plain human terms...as I just found in the Talmud Yerushalmi (thanks to Lurker, my virtual chavruta)

In all my years of yeshiva education, never once was davening taught as an experience of anything less than total subservience and fear before G-d.

Yet, the Amoraim in the Talmud Yerushalmi 2000 years ago had the exact same problem and attention issues that we face today!

The following quotes are not from some blog, but straight from the pages of the Gemara.

א"ר חייא: "רובא אנא מן יומי לא כוונית! אלא חד זמן בעי מכוונה, והרהרית בלבי ואמרית: מאן עליל קומי מלכא קדמי: ארקבסה, אי ריש גלותא?"

שמואל אמר: "אנא מנית אפרוחיא."

רבי בון בר חייא אמר: "אנא מנית דימוסיא."

א"ר מתניה: "אנא מחזק טיבו לראשי, דכד הוה מטי 'מודים', הוא כרע מגרמיה!"

[ירושלמי ברכות, פרק ב' הלכה ד' (דף י"ז,ב')]

Translation From Kavvana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer by Seth Kadish (Jason Aronson Inc., Northvale, NJ, Jerusalem, 1997), pp. 7-8, nn. 6-7:

...let us read what four other talmudic sages said about the terrible obstacles that prevented them from achieving Kavvana:

R. Hiyya said, “I never concentrated during prayer in all my days! Once I wanted to concentrate, but I thought about who will meet the king first: the Arkafta [a Persian high official] or the Exilarch [the head of the Jewish community in Persia]?” [Jameel: Who will meet Prime Minister Olmert first -- The Police Serious Crimes Unit or the Knesset Impeachment Committee?]

Shemuel said, “I count clouds [or “flocks of birds”] [during prayer].” [Jameel: sort of like counting sheep...?]

Rabbi Bun bar Hiyya said, “I count the layers of stones in the wall [while I pray].” [Jameel: How did that guy in front of me tie his techelet in his tzitzit?]

Rabbi Matnaya said, “I am grateful to my head, because it bows by itself when I read ‘Modim’!” [Jameel: ever daven on autopilot? Hmmm...I started a minute ago, how did I get to the end so quickly?]

[Yerushalmi Berakhot, end of 2:4 (16a in the standard Vilna edition). For convenient reference, the entire passage is cited by tosafot on Rosh Hashanah 16b (s.v. iyyun tefilla), but it is worth seeing it in the context of the previous discussion in the Yerushalmi... It is also referred to and partially quoted by the tosafot on Shabbat 118b...]

For those of you who have trouble believing the simple pshat of the Gemara, I even spoke to Seth Kadish this evening (above mentioned author). He explains as follows:

One commentary on the above passage asks why these four statements were preserved at all in the gemara. After all, even if these four great rabbis could not pray with concentration, what practical value does this fact have for us? The answer given is that these remarks were included to reassure other Jews who have trouble concentrating, by informing them that even the rabbis of talmudic times had major trouble with kavvana.

[See the commentary Toledot Yitzhak by Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Krasilshikov of Moscow, the manuscript of which was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published by "Mahon Mutzal Me-Esh" in their new edition of Yerushalmi Berakhot (Bnei Brak, 5740), 29a. He wrote, “It is possible that they didn't want our spirits to fall because of the fact that we don't completely concentrate in prayer.”]

We learn two very important points from this Gemara:

1. The Amoraim, the Rabbis from the Talmudic era were in fact, human beings just as we are, and had the exact same trials and tribulations with Kavvana that we face today. (And they weren't even ashamed to admit it, nor was it covered up by the gemara). This message is important for both FFBs and BTs alike.

2. Kavvana is extremely difficult to attain or maintain in davening, regardless of outside interferences. Add in some ordinary distractions and its close to impossible.

Perhaps the way davening is taught needs to be totally re-evaluated. Parents should not feel guilty when their kids disturb them during davening. If your nose needs to be blown, stop snivelling, find a tissue and blow your nose! Granted, it's hard to keep the same mindset that you are standing before G-d and blowing your nose, but perhaps that's what we need to understand -- that G-d doesn't expect us to be anything more than we are in the first place.

Human Beings.


davening, tefilla: prayer
kavanah: mental concentration/directing the heart and mind in prayer
shiurim: lectures on Jewish topics
Amoraim: "those who say" or "those who tell over"), were renowned Jewish scholars who "said" or "told over" the teachings of the Oral law, from about 200 to 500 CE in Babylonia and the Land of Israel. Their legal discussions and debates were eventually codified in the Gemara. The Amoraim followed the Tannaim in the sequence of ancient Jewish scholars. Not to be confused with Marvel comic book character, Amora.
Yerushalmi: The Talmud which was codified in Israel, as opposed to the Bavli, which was codified in Babylonia.

PS: A good friend of mine, JH, once said,"The best material for a purim shpiel is usually thought up during Neila at the end of Yom Kippur"

Wherever I am, my blog turns towards Eretz Yisrael


Anonymous said...

I used to work at the Justice Ministry, and Elyakim Rubinstein (then the Attorney General) would daven mincha with us regularly.

After seeing him there for several weeks, I had to approach him. I said, "I have small issues on my mind - work, home, etc. And they can distract me enough to not always pay attention and have sufficient kavana in my prayer. You have issues that affect life and death, the future of the entire State of Israel - every day! How can you possibly clear your mind of these things and focus at Mincha?"

He told me two things.

One, he doesn't always manage to do so.

But secondly, he told me that what does help him is to look at the words of the siddur.

So maybe this can be a helpful tip for those of us on "autopilot" - always look at the words we're reading.

JoeSettler said...

It's like suddenly Lurker is everyone's best friend.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Joe: I'm the original best friend, and can prove it as well.

the only way i know said...

Excellent reflections, Jameel.

What's nice about reading things like this, is -
that as soon as one feels more relaxed, knowing that even great Amoraim were in the same boat as us,
one feels a sudden ease of pressure and actually MORE confidence -
rather than feeling, that it's all a hopeless and pointless exercise to even try.

At least it's the way I felt..

Lurker said...

Who will meet Prime Minister Olmert first -- The Police Serious Crimes Unit or the Knesset Impeachment Committee?

Actually, you're supposed to think about that when you say "ki ta'avir memshelet zadon min ha'aretz" on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur...

Scraps said...

*two thumbs up*

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great post. On the infrequent Shabbat mornings where I actually do a shmone esrei, I always start with a two or three word apology for if I get interrupted by the kids.

Unknown said...

When I wanted to devote serious energy to my davening, and move as you said from a MO davening to a more meaningful yeshivish one, I started with Pathway to Prayer. After I had used it and taken time to read the Hebrew and English, I put it down and began to think for myself during davening about the words, and what they mean to me, how I would explain them. Now, I not only have a better davening (when I am concentrating) but the phrases are more personal because they mean something special to me.

But this did not happen overnight. If you want to put in the effort to try and improve something we all do three times a day, it will take some work. The rewards both practical and to come are well worth it.

I did find an interesting gemara which I look back at every so often
Berachot 32b - T"R: Four things need Chizuk - Torah, good deeds, prayer, and work ethics.
Rashi - Chizuk - you must always strengthen with regards to these with all your strength.

So we see that however good your davening might be, it will not last unless you put in constant effort to remain at that level. Everyone has ups and downs in prayer. May we all strengthen in this regard, and deepen our connection to HaShem.

Anonymous said...

R. Kadish's work is important.

Also see the perek 'tefillah binachas uvimesinus' in Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz, cheilek daled.

Unknown said...

3rd lesson: The Gemara left in 'embarrassing' facts about great Rabbonim so others could be inspired. Hmmm...

yitz said...

In my blogpost of today, I discuss the Zidichover on davening with/out kavannah.. interesting how the blogosphere independently touches on the same topics at the same time..

Zidichover on Tefillah without kavannah.

yitz said...

a note on all those quotes from the gemara. I know the pshat says one thing.. but just know that every one of those statements uses words that are super-chock-full of deep kabbalistic meaning.

Jack Steiner said...

Here is an easy way to maintain Kavvana.

Each morning try running across the freeway or a busy street. I guarantee that when you reach the other side you'll find it easy to daven with energy and enthusiasm.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Yitz: The Toledot Yitzhak writes that the pshat is what's crucial -- to teach us that everyone, including the Amoraim has human failings.

Dovid: I wonder why the Bavli says that prayer needs "chizuk", and the Yerushalmi quotes R. Hiyya who said, I never concentrated during prayer in all my days!

Could it be that while Torah learning, Good Deeds and work ethics are all finite, attainable goals -- proper kavvana is almost impossible on a constant basis?

I agree that learning the texts of davening are crucial to understanding.

Dave: Yes, reading can be helpful, but can also be a double edged sword. How does one imagine standing before G-d, and reading from a book? If you stood to petition a king, would you not memorize the text and present it by heart?

Safranit: That's impressive -- it should be part of davening!

Scraps: Thanks!

TOWIK: Glad this post could be an inspiration :)

Anonymous said...

1. Interestingly, this is one of the reasons why I prefer the longer traditional service to the "one hour on Saturday morning and out" Reform tefillah I grew up with. I feel like it takes me an hour of davening to get a few minutes of kavanah.

2. I think an earlier post's assocation of "MO" with lack of kavanah and "yeshivish" with more kavanah strikes me as a cheap shot. But such is the way of the world: MOs take cheap shots at Conservatives, yeshivish take cheap shots at MOs, and so forth.

tnspr569 said...

Jameel- great post. words of wisdom, as usual.

Holy Hyrax said...

Excellent post Jameeli

And thank you for giving me a tirutz not to daven again. :)

DTC said...

In the famous mussar Yeshiva in Navaradok, morning davening usually lasted over an hour. However, once a month, they would complete davening in 20 minutes flat.
The point was that the "elite" students should always remember what those outside the yeshiva had to deal with and therefore teach the yeshiva students how to attempt to have kavvana with such a short time frame.

Avromi said...

A few days ago, I wrote from the Ben Ish Chai who cites a Zohar that HaShem wants us to daven and try our best, the rest, He will take care of.

Here is a partial quote: The Ben Ish Chai responds: One who cannot concentrate on his prayers because he is entertaining other thoughts during tefillah should nevertheless continue to pray. This can be proven from the following Zohar in Parashas Vayechi: Rav Chizkiyah said that it is said that one should first prepare the praise of his Master and then pray. What should one do, however, if his heart is heavy and he wishes to pray, yet, since he is in distress he cannot properly formulate the praise of his Master? Rabbi Yosi responded that despite the fact that he cannot focus properly on his prayers and he will not be able to formulate the praise of his Master properly, he should still formulate the praises of his Master and he should pray. This is what it is said, a prayer of Dovid: Hear HaShem, what is righteous, be attentive to my supplication. First, hear HaShem righteous, as this is the formulation of praises for his Master, and subsequently, be attentive to my supplication, [give ear to my prayer]. One who is capable of formulating the praises of his Master and does not do so, regarding him it is said, even if you were to intensify your prayer, I will not listen.

Here is the link: Daf Notes

anonym00kie said...

love this post. it always inspires me to see the normalcy of those we look up to.
personally, the fact that kavana is difficult to have and keep doesnt make me want to change the davening though, enough with the dumbing down. i dont think kavana has anything to do with the text or even the length of it, it has to do with a service of the heart. i can have intense kavana on musaf of yom kipur but space out half way thru modeh ani. for me the only thing it relates to is how much effort i put into it, how much i invest in the connection, how much i need and desire the communication.

Anonymous said...

What was the point of this post? Do you really think this will motivate people to daven with kavana? No it won't. This will turn into the ultimate excuse for them. This should not have been posted. Our Gedolim are the ones that show us the path of God. They try to instil in us an appreciation for davening especially with kavana. This is what Hashem wants. He wants the tfilot of the righteous, and it is the righteous that we try to emulate. People do not need to know about this gemara.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

sulfer magnet: People do not need to know about this gemara.

That is the most pathetic comment I've seen on the JBlogosphere this month.

People should not know about this gemara? It was codified and written so people WOULD see it!

yitz said...

@sulfer magnet:
you are trying to hide some truth with a method known as 'security through obscurity' it's outmoded and not applicable. The only way to successfully hide this gemara nowadays would be through steganography: read into it something else so that it doesn't mean what it appears to mean, instead its carrying a deeper message.

With all due respect to the Toldot Yitzhak, it is certainly true that knowing about the short-comings of all people is important. (His actual quote above is this:“It is possible that they didn't want our spirits to fall because of the fact that we don't completely concentrate in prayer.”)

However people seem to not hold aggadah to the same strictures as the rest of the gemara from whence it comes. There were FOUR examples, FOUR generally means it is an exhaustive set. Which means that everyone else DID have kavannah. Not to mention, why not be medayek with the lashon that each one chooses? To learn this out at a level below the true pshat and call it pshat is embarrasing, disappointing, and simply lame.

None of the 4 amoraim said they just said the words. They all said they were involved in some other act presumably while they were saying the words. Why were each of those four figures involved in each of those four activities? And presumably just saying the words might not be ok. (?)

Something as provocative as this aggada is not there to say: you don't need kavannah. They could have just said: you don't need kavanah.

honestly, Aggadah gets such a bad reputation...

Iy"h I will look up the Yerushalmi tonight and post about it in the near future.

Not to mention, it WASN'T included in the bavli which would lead to the simplest explanation:

In chutz la'aretz tefillah requires kavannah, in Eretz Yisrael, it isn't required.

Lurker said...

Sulfer Magnet: This should not have been posted... People do not need to know about this gemara.

I presume, then, that you also level the same criticism against the editors of the Talmud Yerushalmi: They were wrong to have included this information, since people do not need to know about it. (Needless to say, the Toldot Yitzchak disagrees with you.) Do you think that this sugya should be censored out of future printed editions of the Yerushalmi?

yitz..: There were FOUR examples, FOUR generally means it is an exhaustive set. Which means that everyone else DID have kavannah.

(a) OK, so what if that's true? It then means that there were four Amoraim who failed to achieve kavvana in davening. Why is this any less important, or less of a comfort to someone like myself, who also finds it very hard to daven with kavvana, and might wonder if that means that he's a miserable failure? These are Amoraim we're talking about here -- and not just one, but four of them! Suppose, for argument's sake, I were to show you statements from R. Moshe Feinstein, R. Yaakov Kaminetzky, R. J.B. Soleveitchik, and the Chazon Ish, each one of which testified that he was unable to achieve kavvana. Would you say, "Hey, those are only four rabbis, so it's not very significant"??

(b) The gemara in Kiddushin 31a says: "R. Huna b. R. Yehoshua never walked four amot with his head uncovered". Using your reasoning, this means that everyone else DID walk with their heads uncovered. Yet this gemara is used as the basis for requiring all Jewish men to cover their heads. Why do you suppose that is?

yitz..: Something as provocative as this aggada is not there to say: you don't need kavannah. They could have just said: you don't need kavanah.

You're absolutely correct on that point. Of course it doesn't means that kavvana doesn't matter; that would be absurd. It means that kavvana is very, very hard -- so hard that even some of our gedolim couldn't manage it -- so don't feel like a hopeless loser if you can't, either.

Anonymous said...

why would someone think you dont need kavana just because they claimed not to have any? if anything i thought the opposite. it made me realize - once again - that the torah is made for humans, not angels, and that what hashem wants is our best efforts and that even my measly efforts are worth something. if they couldnt reach this ultimate state of kavana, then why should i feel guilty that i cant reach it? guilt only makes you want to give up, taking awya the guilt encourages you to keep trying.

unless i totally misunderstood the point of what you wrote ..

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

anonym00kie: You are correct. The point of the post wasn't to discourage people from davening, but to point out that having kavvana is very difficult, and that even the Amoraim had a difficult time.

Taking away the guilt is a good thing, a positive thing which can help kavvana.

Moshe David Tokayer said...

In my experience, the way to hold on to kavanna is by slowing down. If you have to blow your nose, STOP DAVENING AND BLOW IT, then return to the tefilla. Continuing to daven while something is bothering you, means that you're not having kavanna.

Of course, it also is crucial to prepare for davening before hand. Just think for a few moments at the beginning of the Amida, "I am standing before the King." Holding that thought for a few moments does wonders for kavanna.

Moshe David Tokayer said...

Also, I found learning the Nefesh HaChaim by Rav Chaim Velozhiner to be very helpful for kavanna, especially Sha'ar Shlishi. Granted, it's not easy learning but Rav Yosef Zundel of Salant wrote a synopsis of it called Kavvanas HaTefilla which is pretty straightforward (sticks to the practical and leaves out most of the esoteric Zohars, etc.) I believe it's qouted in entirety in a fairly new edition of the Nefesh HaChaim which was put out by Rav Aharon David Goldberg of Telz Yeshiva.

ADDeRabbi said...

Hooray for Rabbis with ADD!

BTW Jameel, I loved this post. Couldn't stop thinking about it during Shemoneh Esrei.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

ADDeRabbai - you know, you aren't the first who has made the comment to me (about thinking about this post during shmona esreh!)

Scary...it means Im going to have to have lots of extra kavana this Yom Kippur to make up for it!!!

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