Kavvanah, also spelled Kawwanah (Hebrew: “intention,” or “devotion”), plural Kavvanot, Kavvanoth, Kawwanot, or Kawwanoth, in Judaism, the attitude or frame of mind that is appropriate when one performs religious duties, especially prayer.
KAVVANAH (Heb. כַּוָּנָה; lit. “directed intention”), the phrase used in rabbinic literature to denote a state of mental concentration and devotion at prayer and during the performance of mitzvot. Although the demand for kavvanah as an obligatory component of religious prayer and action is not explicitly mentioned in the Pentateuch, it is clearly referred to by the prophets. Isaiah, for instance, condemns those who “with their mouth and with their lips do honor Me, but have removed their heart far from Me” (Isa. 29:13).
Kavvanah in Prayer
The Talmud attaches considerable importance to kavvanah in prayer. The Mishnah quotes R. Simeon’s dictum: “Do not regard your prayer as a fixed mechanical device, but as an appeal for mercy and grace before the All-Present” (Avot 2:13). It is, furthermore, related that the early ḥasidim used to wait an hour before and after prayer to achieve a state of kavvanah and emerge from it (Ber. 5:1). However, from the discussion in the Mishnah and the Gemara (Ber. 32b), it is clear that the rabbis, keenly aware of the “problem” of prayer were by no means unanimous in their interpretation of what proper kavvanah should be. Later medieval authors distinguished between the preparation for kavvanah which precedes prayer and the achievement ofkavvanah during prayer itself (e.g., Kuzari, 3:5 and 17), while repeatedly stressing the importance of both. Maimonides ruled as a matter of halakhah (which was not, however, agreed with by later codifiers) that “since prayer without kavvanah is no prayer at all, if one has prayed without kavvanah he has to pray again with kavvanah. Should one feel preoccupied or overburdened, or should one have just returned from a voyage, one must delay one’s prayer until one can once again pray with kavvanah… True kavvanah implies freedom from all strange thoughts, and complete awareness of the fact that one stands before the Divine Presence” (Yad, Tefillah, 4:15, 16). The Shulḥan Arukh states “better a little supplication with kavvanah, than a lot without it” (OH 1:4).
Many talmudic decisions relating to kavvanah were modified in the course of time. Thus, although the Mishnah (Ber. 2:5) states that a bridegroom is not required to read the *Shema on his wedding night (because he would not be able to achieve a proper degree of concentration), it was later ruled that “since nowadays we do not pray with proper attention in any case” he must do so (Sh. Ar., OH 60:3). Similarly, “even if one did not recite the Amidah with kavvanah, it is not necessary to repeat it,” since it is assumed that the kavvanah of the repetition would be no better (ibid., 101:1, and see Isserles, ad loc.).
In the Kabbalah kavvanot (the plural of kavvanah) denotes the special thoughts one should have at the recitation of key words in prayer. Very often these thoughts are divorced from the contextual meaning of the words and are of a mystical, esoteric nature. Some kabbalists were thus known as mekhavvenim (i.e., those who have kavvanot) and guides to kavvanot were written (cf. Emmanuel Ḥai Ricchi’s Mafte’aḥ ha-Kavvanot, Amsterdam, 1740).
Kavvanah in Mitzvot
This is defined as the intention of the person performing the action to do so with the explicit intention of fulfilling the religious injunction which commands the action. One example of a lack of kavvanah quoted in the Mishnah (Ber. 2:1) is the case of one who reads the Shema during the morning (or evening), for the purpose of study and not fulfillment of the mitzvah; another is the case of one who hears the shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah accidentally and thus does not have kavvanah for the mitzvah (RH 3:7). All authorities agree that due kavvanah to perform such mitzvot is desirable. There is, however, a difference of opinion as to whether mitzvot performed without kavvanah are valid, or whether they must be repeated (cf. Ber. 13a; RH 28a; Sh. Ar., OH60:4).