Part of the series 'Practical Mishneh Torah,' following the 3 chapter-a-day Rambam daily study cycle of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah.

When studying Jewish Law, there are often nuances that need expansion, phrases that need explanation, and difficulties in need of reconciliation. Some of these problems, while valid, are not integral to the understanding of the text itself. On occasion, however, we encounter a difficulty that forces us to stop short—a clear contradiction or (seemingly) glaring error on the part of the author. In such cases, we are forced to investigate immediately to seek a satisfying resolution.

One such impasse is reached at the start of Chapter 10 of Hilchot Tefilah. Maimonides essentially writes that the requirement for concentration (kavanah) during prayer is only strictly necessary during the first blessing of the silent Amidah. But earlier, in chapter 4, when describing the five things that prevent one from praying, he lists “proper intention of one’s heart.”

Which is it? Does concentration prevent one from praying, or is concentration only necessary during the first blessing of the Amidah?

Some suggest that chapter 10 comes to qualify chapter 4. So when Maimonides writes that one cannot pray without concentration, he is in truth only referring to the first blessing of the Amidah.1

This solution seems insufficient, however. Why would Maimonides set out a basic general rule, but not mention a crucial detail until six chapters later? Indeed, the Lubavitcher Rebbe writes (quoting the Yad Malachi) that Maimonides generally would not rely on something he writes subsequently to explain an earlier text.2

Two Types of Intent

A famous resolution to this inconsistency is presented by Rabbi Chayim of Brisk in his glosses to Mishneh Torah.3 He defines two types of concentration one can have during prayer.

  1. Basic awareness that one is standing before G‑d in prayer. In truth, says Reb Chayim, if one does not have this awareness, it is as if he has not prayed. This is a prerequisite to prayer, not an added element.
  2. Understanding the meaning of the prayers. This is an added dimension. So even if one does not understand the meaning of the prayers, it is still considered as if he has prayed.

This distinction sheds light on Maimonides’ seemingly contradictory statements. Initially, when he states that a prerequisite to prayer is “proper intent of one’s heart,” he is referring to the first basic element of intent, that one be aware he is praying to G‑d. Indeed, Maimonides elaborates: “He should clear his mind from all thoughts and envision himself as standing before the Divine Presence.”4

Later, when he states that intent is only necessary for the first blessing of the Amidah, he is referring to this second, more advanced intent, that one must be aware of the meaning of what is being said.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe takes this idea a step further.5 In a talk regarding prayer and Sefirat Haomer, the Rebbe says that the intent needed across the board is not simply that one is standing before G‑d in prayer. In order for prayer to be prayer, says the Rebbe, one must have the feeling of “supplication and prayer.” He seems to say that prayer—unlike other mitzvahs where the intent is separate from the action—is singular, because the intent to pray makes prayer prayer; without intent you have nothing.6

Is this really the case? If one’s mind wanders during prayer, does this mean that he or she is not praying at all?

Practical Application

Relevant here is a fascinating letter penned by the Rebbe in 1954 on this very topic, worth quoting at length:

I received your letter dated 27th Adar 2. I am rushing to respond because it amazes me to read what you have written, that you have heard in my name that I determined, as practical law, that prayer without a particular intent is void. . . In general I am astonished, what place do others have to decide the law in my name!? Especially when I can be asked directly? Although it is true that I did mention to various individuals the greatness of prayer with the correct intent. . . As is explained in the glosses of Rabbi Chayim of Brisk on the Rambam, where he explains that without the knowledge that one is standing before G‑d, it is as if those words of prayer had been skipped. . . However, besides for the fact that I am not convinced that Rabbi Chayim himself would decide this way practically, indeed his sefer is a book of innovative interpretations, not practical law, and since this idea is not cited in the Shulchan Aruch or the later commentaries, nor in the Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, it is obvious to me that this is not to be followed practically.7

This powerful letter states clearly the difference between an ideal and the reality. Yes, ideally, prayer should be with the correct concentration and the correct state of mind, but those who are currently not at such lofty levels are not excluded. Practically, we do not consider prayer without intent to be null and void, and one would not need to repeat prayer if said without intent.8 To say that anyone’s prayer is invalid, is a bridge too far for the Rebbe.9