Sunday, June 13, 2010

How do you improve your Kavvanah [concentration]?

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

I feel like I must have posted on this issue in the past, but I can't find it, other than my post back here on "Why use a siddur" and this set of posts about various aspects of the davening experience.

Some years ago I staffed an NCSY program in which a teenager acted out davening the amidah, interrupted occasionally by a voice-over that interjected what he was actually thinking. Something along the lines of “Bareich aleinu… I wonder who won the game last night… Wish I could have gone, but I was stuck working on that project… Sally could have helped me with that project… I wonder if Sally’s sister likes me… Did I remember to say v’ten tal umatar?”

It’s so easy to get distracted, particularly in the altogether too one-sided conversation that is davening. Here I am saying the same words as yesterday, saying some of those words thrice daily, in a monologue, and it’s hard to retain concentration. Even though I can and do add, that doesn’t change the fact that many of the words are repeated into the ether entirely too often.

The gemara is filled with harsh comments about this sort of rote prayer – העושה תפלתו קבע אין תפלתו תחנונים (One who makes his prayers ‘fixed’ is not reciting an acceptable prayer) is but one example.

So what’s a Jew to do? [Assuming he won't go entirely creative in the liturgy, 'cause I won't.]

Approaches I’ve seen include using a different siddur for a change, changing one’s seat in shul, learning more about the davening, and keeping pictures of the loved ones for whom we are davening.

A few months back I encountered one way to help me re-focus. While at a local shul I opened up a siddur to find stamped in it, right before Sh’ma, something along the lines of, “Remember! You are about to perform a mitzvah!”

On the one hand, that was a bit jarring. On the other hand, it was exactly what I needed. I always write in my books as I learn, and I do make notes in my siddur as well, so perhaps I should make a little note at those points where halachah requires special focus. Or at those points that don’t require special focus, for that matter.

Another tactic that I often find works is to pick random lines for greater concentration.

Another tactic is to focus on the lines that immediately precede the parts of davening for which halachah requires the greatest concentration. So for Ashrei, for example, I focus on the line – עיני כל אליך ישברו – that precedes the פותח את ידיך line, since halachah requires greater focus on the latter line.

What else works for you? What tricks do you have for keeping your mind on davening? [Isaac: I’ll put this question up on, too, for good measure…]


  1. Hi, sometimes I try to focus on the second word of a phrase rather than the first, particularly in Ashrei, and sometimes I try to become more aware of the Dagesh in a letter in order to pronounce the words more precisely.