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Right at the beginning of the Tur and Shulchan Aruch, siman 1, it says that it is better to pray a little with kavannah (proper concentration?) than more without. I don't know that anyone argues. I also don't see it put into practice in many places where I might have applied it.
The Rambam (Hil. Tefillah 4(14)) says pretty clearly that we should not daven at all without kavannah, and if we did, go back and pray again. But, later authorities seem to tone it down - after all, we don't have so much kavannah anyhow.
That is pretty much the answer I have gotten when I asked, say: I'm really tired. Maybe I should sleep instead of going to shul for maariv, and hope I get up in time to daven later. No, no! Go to shul now and do the best you can.
Maybe I should say less of Pesukei D'zimrah? No, no! Birkas Krias Shema - are you nuts?
Anyhow, when Slichos comes around I really struggle. Do I have kavannah for more, or am I just stretching the kavannah I have much thinner? By the time I get to Hodu I'm frequently exhausted [I do have health issues with fatigue]. What should one do? "How can you think of skipping prayers at a critical time like the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah?!"
Also, what if a person can follow with the words, and pays attention, but is past the point of enjoying what's happening? He might have felt more inspired if he had said less. Does that play a role?
I'm asking for sources for practical rulings, but also advice on the right attitude.

Update: On re-reading, I don't want the impression that the question is based on my physical situation, as if I'm tired all the time. The real question is more based on a mental weariness, on one's ability to "hold kop", the point where one feels prayers turning into mechanical reading without really paying attention.
Update: tesvov has suggested in a number of comments that the principle stated by the Tur only applies to optional additions, like the Tikkun Chatzos that is the topic where he states it. Interesting suggestion - obviously Rav Avigdor Miller quoted below disagrees - and it would be good to have an explicit statement by a posek about it. [Berachos 34a might be a good source on this, but of course in those days prayers were more fluid.]
Third update: My son-in-law suggested what may be a compromise position, though personally I find it rather a depressing one: The requirement for kavannah is indeed absolute, and according to the Rambam one should perhaps never say any part of the davening, even the Amidah, without proper kavannah. However, since in our times we don't have so much kavannah anyhow, this no longer serves as an excuse to skip anything.

You really have to see the wording of the Rambam there - not really quoted by later poskim, but super-powerful and perfectly clear [ital. mine].

Any prayer uttered without mental concentration is not prayer. If a service has been recited without such concentration, it must be recited again devoutly. A person finds that his thoughts are confused and his mind is distracted: He is forbidden to pray till he has recovered his mental composure. Hence, on returning from a journey or if one is weary or distressed, it is forbidden to pray till his mind is composed. The sages said that he should wait three days till he is rested and his mind is calm, and then he recites the prayers...

I wonder if the much less sharp language of the poskim in OH 98 is evidence to the contrary: These more recent poskim seem to say instead that you really really need to have kavannah, but... let's talk about whether you have to pray again if you pray without. I'm not seeing a nice clear, Don't pray. Still, might that be the logical conclusion?

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    "I don't know that anyone argues" - R. Hutner was known to say, טוב מעט בלא כונה מהרבה בלא כונה
    – wfb
    Sep 13, 2021 at 22:21
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    If given free reign, many people would underestimate their ability to perform at prayer and skip too much. The people pressuring you to show up are making sure that the middle ground you end up at doesn't sell yourself short.
    – Double AA
    Sep 13, 2021 at 23:32
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    Worth noting as well that the question of what the tzibbur skips is different from what individuals may skip.
    – Double AA
    Sep 13, 2021 at 23:33
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    Rambam also rules (Hilchot Tefilla 5:2) that one is not allowed to pray if hungry, so one must eat before praying in the morning. However, this logic is not extended to being tired! Perhaps this is due to the concern outlined by Double AA above?
    – user17319
    Sep 14, 2021 at 3:04
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    @MichoelR "no one has told me yet to be late because I think I'll daven better without [peskukei d'zimrah]" If coming at the published start time doesn't leave you enough time to say everything at your pace, then telling you to come at that start time is effectively equivalent to telling you to come late.
    – Double AA
    Sep 14, 2021 at 15:48

4 Answers 4

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A related question was the topic of an episode of "Dimensions of the Daf." Rambam in one place (which I think is your citation) says about the Amidah that if you did not have kavanah, you must start again. But elsewhere he says that if one had kavanah at the beginning but not in the middle of the Amidah then you don't restart.

The explanation given (in the episode) is that there are two sorts of kavanah. The first is that without the kavanah that you are engaging in a conversation before hakadosh baruch hu, you aren't praying at all; so without that appreciation in mind, you haven't started the Amidah and must daven "in the first place." The second sort is an understanding of the words you are saying and their implications (as opposed to just saying them from habit). It is this second sort of kavanah that the Rambam says if you had it at the start (of the Amidah) you need not repeat the prayer (which of course would not even have been a prayer in the first place if you didn't have kavanah that you are addressing hashem).

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  • Thank you. I believe your answer is from R' Chaim Brisker, though I don't have the reference in front of me. And I believe I heard that the Chazon Ish gave a different answer (though I don't have the reference in front of me!)
    – MichoelR
    Sep 24, 2021 at 15:36
  • This is the famous first piece in Chiddushei R' Chaim on the Rambam. Not sure it answers the question though.
    – Double AA
    Oct 4, 2021 at 0:29
  • @DoubleAA this is not the famous first piece in Chiddushei R. Chaim on the Rambam. Might be the second though
    – wfb
    Oct 4, 2021 at 14:13
  • Turns out it's Hilchot Tefillah 4:1. Second piece in the book after Yesodei haTorah 5:1
    – Double AA
    Oct 4, 2021 at 22:05
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This is not a direct answer to your question but it's worth mentioning here for any readers. I have a Rambam "Siddur" that has every prayer needed for every Jewish event and it all fits into one book. But if you hand this siddur to an average Jew today they will marvel at all the prayers that are "missing." However, the reality is that most of the prayers that we take for granted as being necessary are often recent additions and aren't really required. Even such "standard prayers" like Modeh Ani weren't considered essential even in the time of the Shulchan Arukh. Rambam's son famously complained that people didn't have the proper Kawwanah for the Amidah (required prayer) because they were up all night doing dirges/selihot which aren't required at all.

Based on this I've advised friends who struggle with having enough Kawwanah for prayers to spend time finding out what prayers are actually required vs recent additions/recommendations. Because it's certainly possible that they (or you) have enough proper concentration for the required prayers, but maybe not for all the additions that fill many siddurs nowadays.

When praying alone I use the Rambam siddur or a similar Yemenite siddur so that way I can focus on my prayer and not have to spend mental energy filtering everything else out. I reserve my Sephardic and Ashkenazic siddurs to be used when I'm at synagogue.

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    Thank you. I think this is very much an answer to my question, but I'd like to to hear more about what poskim say on the topic. Also, do you have the reference to that quote from the Rambam's son?
    – MichoelR
    Sep 20, 2021 at 17:22
  • @MichoelR I haven't heard any Rav tackle the question of ignoring non required prayers to focus on only those required, because then they'd be caught in a catch 22 where some may accuse them of telling people to not pray as much, or stuff like that. I'll search for the quote but it's in Abraham benHaRambam's book the Guide to Serving God.
    – Aaron
    Sep 20, 2021 at 21:22
  • Is there a breakdown of what is and what is not essential without going through the entire Torah?
    – Israel B.
    Sep 22, 2021 at 13:51
  • @IsraelB. I recommend getting a Rambam siddur so you can see for yourself. There are also lots of explanatory notes. Warning the entire siddur is in Hebrew seforimcenter.com/…
    – Aaron
    Sep 22, 2021 at 22:52
  • @Aaron You know it already, but it's worth mentioning that there is sort of a "Rambam siddur" in his Sefer Avodah, Hilchos Tefilah u'Nesias Kapaim, basically him just quoting all the prayers. It would be hard to use in practice, lot of jumping around and stuff.
    – MichoelR
    Sep 24, 2021 at 15:40
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Wow. Just saw this over Yom Tov. Rav Avigdor Miller on Tefillah, just published (2021), by R' Yaakov Astor, quotes from his shiurim. [He says in the introduction that some of the quotes were lightly edited. I couldn't tell which shiur exactly it came from.] Anyhow, p. 127:

Question: In P'sukei D'zimrah there are so many selections from Tehilim, and the Rav has told us that every word is a gem and an opportunity for perfection of the mind. But can one really concentrate on so many verses and so many different thoughts?

Answer: Certainly not. And therefore, you shouldn't even try to say everything. Just to rattle off words and not gain any da'as, is worthless. It's not completely worthless, but it's just about worthless.
Instead, take your time. "Tov ma'at tachanunum b'kavanah m'harbeh b'li kavanah - Better to daven a small amount with concentration, than to daven a lot without concentration. Say a little, but think about what you're saying. Study the words and understand what you're saying. That's the real achievement in davening.
Now, of course, if you have a great deal of time, you can start davening three hours before the tzibbur, and you'll be able to do justice to a good part of the P'sukei D'zimrah. But whatever it is, you should spend time using your head in davening, not just your lips.

"You shouldn't even try to say everything."
Too bad they didn't ask him about other parts of tefillah, though.

Counterpoint: A very choshuv yunger man mentioned to me what Rav Shach z"l wrote in his haskamah to R' Meyer Birnbaum's Darchei Hatefillah : [paraphrased] "Use this for studying about prayer, but don't use it while you pray." You aren't supposed to be studying prayer while you pray, you're supposed to be talking to Hashem. That would seem to go against at least the "three hours" part of what Rav Miller said, and perhaps the whole idea of "gems" and "so many different thoughts". The words of P'sukei D'zimrah are indeed gems, but that doesn't mean you should spend time examining all the facets while you pray.
I don't think that would contradict a middle ground, where someone might skip part of the davening in order to do a decent job with the rest.

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  • Almost all of the material in similar publications is based on recordings of Rav Miller's talks delivered to people Rav Miller knew personally. Therefore, it is very likely that the above advice from Rav Miller (as well as other advice based on his tapes and recordings) was tailored and limited to a specific individual, demographic, or age-range only.
    – user17319
    Sep 30, 2021 at 13:36
  • In addition, טוב מעט תחנונים בכוונה מהרבות בלא כוונה is a quote from Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 1:4, which discusses tikkun chatzot - a prayer which is not obligatory to begin with.
    – user17319
    Sep 30, 2021 at 13:52
  • @Tesvov Not sure, but I think from the introduction to the book that these are generally from the Thursday night shiurim (which are also on the tapes that most people get), which always ended with "Questions on any topic!" I often used to go to them; there were like a hundred or two people there, from everywhere. Farthest thing from "tailored" that is possible.
    – MichoelR
    Oct 1, 2021 at 14:06
  • @Tesvov - that is what I have been asking in this whole post. Do you have any evidence that the quote only applies there? I thought it was at the beginning of Orach Chaim, because it's with things like "shivisi Hashem l'negdi tamid", and applies to everything. So far no one has posted here a single posek, except maybe Rabbi Miller z"l.
    – MichoelR
    Oct 1, 2021 at 14:09
  • @Tesvov Plus, Rav Miller used to make it very clear at the talks that he expected many more people to hear them. For instance, he would ask at the beginning that if you needed to cough, get up quietly and go outside to do it; he didn't want it on the tape.
    – MichoelR
    Oct 1, 2021 at 14:11
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I'd like to add my best impression of the answer to my question, taking into account what I've heard so far. I am still sorely lacking in poskim who deal with this directly.

  1. The Rambam quoted is pretty clear. Prayer without kavannah doesn't exist and is actually not allowed. [One might restrict the latter to the Amidah; perhaps its special status means that it's sacrilege to devalue it.]
  2. The Tur quoted is also pretty clear: It is better to skip prayers rather than say them without kavannah. However, he says what he says in a section on Tikkun Chatzos and it may therefore apply only to voluntary prayers, לפנים משורת הדין. I'll clarify that shortly בע"ה.
  3. Many people I've asked have responded pretty sharply [as usual without clear sources]: You cannot use this as an excuse to skip all your prayers. What is in the siddur's prayer service, or - at least - whatever we can determine is from the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah, you ought to be saying. It's a terrible slippery slope to start skipping half the davening.

So let me bring an idea I once heard from R' Tzvi Berkowitz shlit"a. He called it "blackmailing Hashem". Say A is required, B and C are not acceptable. Someone might say, Well, you should be happy I did B, because I might have done C which is even worse!
-You should be happy I only said some of the prayers, but with kavannah, because I might have just bopped through all of them fast without any kavannah at all, like so many other people.
-You should be happy I said the prayers at least, even if I paid zero attention, because so many other people skip and don't say all of them or even any of them.
You can't do either one. There are set prayers, and you must say them with proper concentration and kavannah.
Of course, if you really can't, then that Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch suggest alternatives. You're late for the minyan and can't say all of them properly, skip these and then these. Optional additions, the Tur says it's better only to say what you can say properly. You just came from a journey and can't think straight - don't pray till you can!
But one needs to be erlich and there's a reason the Rambam gave a case of coming from a difficult journey. It probably isn't a proper excuse that you aren't in the mood right now.

On the "slippery slope" argument quoted above, I would add that the slippery slope runs both ways, and I think we might be pretty far down the other way! I'm not sure that the average person davening knows that if he is just rattling off the words without kavannah, he needs to stop doing that and do something else. Could be he heard enough times, "Well, what are you going to do - not daven?" that he thinks this is fine b'dieved, and he'll work on it when he's older.

After all this, I need to point out that I did not say a word about what "kavannah" means exactly. See that Rambam further on, see the R' Chaim, see the poskim. That is an important part of the issue, of course. I don't mean to suggest that something isn't good enough if it really is. And, it would be a further discussion how to choose tradeoffs between different levels of kavannah.

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