In Search of Kavanah

With my Bar Mitzvah celebration very quickly approaching I have been doing my best to live fully in each moment, even as some of the more stressful planning and preparation variables have come into play. I made an agreement with myself when I decided to take this on that I would not allow the celebration to turn into a stressor. I have a habit of transforming most things into stressors. It’s just what I tend to do by nature. While reading my Heschel book (I’ve finally made it toward the end, I promise), I came across the idea of kavanah. Kavanah is a Hebrew noun that means motive, purpose, meaning, and intention. Heschel boils the idea of kavanah down to attentiveness, or the state of having a purposeful inner life, usually during prayer. Kavanah is the difference between turning thoughtlessly through the pages of the Siddur during a service while looking forward to the Edward’s brand key lime pie at the oneg, and actually taking to heart the words and prayerful inner life that can be awoken if one is truly attentive to them. 

Some concerns regarding halacha, or Jewish law, exist in that it is certainly possible to perform mitzvot by rote. One can give money to a charity out of habit, or even say the Shema multiple times a day without thinking much of it. The intention behind the act or a specific mitzvah is something that should not be lost if one is to live a rich and Jewish life. To perform a mitzvah with kavanah is seemingly as important as performing the mitzvah itself. When I was training and working as an actor, teachers, coaches and directors would often ask, “what is your intention in this scene!” Yes, you can memorize and say the lines. You aren’t necessarily wrong if you do this, but imagine a movie where the actors just speak the lines without any dynamism behind them. Life without Kavanah lacks the color and meaning that creates mosaics where plainness once stood. 

I have taken the idea of Kavanah, and am doing my best to live each moment with attentiveness, attention, and purpose. This, of course, is not always easy. I am constantly reminding myself to enjoy the moments that I am in, and to exist within them as fully as possible. I hope that when I stand on the bimah and lead the service, I will be able to do so with a heart full of Kavanah. Kavanah is probably the reason I am so happy with the fact that I did not have a Bar Mitzvah celebration when I was 13-years-old. Anxiety, and just getting it done would likely have been my two main goals at that age. With so much meaning behind my Judaism and prayers now in existence, the celebration is transformed.

Philosopher Bahya Ibn Pakudah said, “Prayer without Kavanah is like a body without a soul.”

How can we all live our lives with more kavanah? The more, the better, so it seems.



Published by Joshua Gray

I am Joshua Gray. I am a husband, father, not-for-profit-worker by day, and a former professional actor/singer. I am very active in the Jewish community in my area, helping to teach at religious school on Sundays, while also serving on the board of trustees at my local temple. My relationship with Judaism is a joy of mine, and I find great pleasure in studying texts and learning more and more Hebrew. I still enjoy warbling tunes, and I even got to sing the Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur, which was a definite highlight. Please feel free to contact me with any ideas for topics, conversations, or general inquiries. Shalom!

2 thoughts on “In Search of Kavanah

  1. I think Kavanah is a great word. I do the same thing when I go to Mass at my church. I try to stay focused on the readings and the homily. I also stay focused on what the meaning of the Eucharist is and what I am partaking of.


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