kosher bookworm

Kavvana in Jewish prayer


We should know by now that kavvana, or the use of deep meaning and concentration, has been at the heart of the study of prayer in Jewish law and practice throughout our history. In his study on this topic, “Kavvana: Directing The Heart in Jewish Prayer” (Jason Aronson, 1997), Rabbi Seth Kadish gives us an intense course of study that will surely give all his readers a deeper appreciation of the value of Jewish liturgical tradition.

Among the points that Rabbi Kadish focuses upon is the vital role kavvanaplays in the following:

“1. Is kavvanacrucial for Jewish prayer? If it is, then why did the halachastop demanding it as an absolute prerequisite?

“2. What actually is kavvana?Or, more precisely: What is the nature of a perfect or ‘ideal’ prayer, and what does it aim to achieve?

“3. How did the fixed, prescribed prayers of the siddurcome to be? Should reciting the exact words of the siddur be considered the basic act of Jewish prayer or not?

“4. What can be done to improve our tefillah?”

In considering these questions, posed in the functional outline that governs the book’s content, we have before us a comprehensive study of the deepest kind that will give the reader a fuller appreciation of the Jewish liturgical tradition.

Within the context of this valued study, the author brings to our attention the work of one of the great Jewish liturgists of our time, Rabbi Avraham Davis, the author of the Metsudah series of translation and commentary on the siddurimand Chumashim that are used in shuls worldwide. 

According to Rabbi Kadish:

“For years I have felt a debt of gratitude to Rabbi Avraham Davis, who created a tool to help make the fixed prayers in the siddurmore meaningful for English-speaking Jews. His Metsudah Siddur provides a clear translation, line by line, for each individual phrase of the siddur… I found that praying from his siddur was virtually the only way for me to say the tefillotin Hebrew and to honestly mean what I said.”

Further, Rabbi Kadish states, based on Rabbi Davis’s teachings:

“The point underlying Rabbi Davis’s description is that with fixed prayer texts, the job of the pray-er is to lose himself in the meaning of the words, and to make their meaning his own. It is only by doing so that he can discover new nuances of meaning in them during each and every prayer. This is the way to avoid keva. But of course, having kavvanaduring such a process is still much harder than talking freely to G-d, more difficult than expressing thoughts and feelings that come naturally.”

These are tough words and sharp teachings that should serve to caution us as we approach the prayer ritual each and every day of our lives.

Rabbi Kadish’s teachings and narrative on kavvana will help you better appreciate the siddur’stext and prompt you to further your study of related books on the laws and rational of the Jewish liturgical tradition.

I conclude with a quote from Rabbi Jacob Schacter of Yeshiva University:

“Rabbi Kadish outlines concrete and practical strategies to enhance kavvanain davening, analyzing in the process an impressive array of sources – ancient to modern, halachicand homiletic, philosophic and kabbalistic, Jewish and non-Jewish.

“His challenging call for a re-emphasis on individual personal expression in prayer will echo in the hearts and minds of those new to the siddur, as well as those whose sidduris well-worn from use.”

I wholeheartedly agree.