In this week’s parshah the Torah gives us the mitzvah of tefillah – davening to Hashem – for as the pasuk says, “oso sa’avod – you shall serve Him.” The Torah repeats this mitzvah several times, with another mention further in this week’s parshah: “uleavdo bechal levavchem – serve Him with all of your heart.” The Sifri explains that one serves with his heart by means of tefillah.
The Torah did not set any time for davening or write how often one must daven. The Rambam (Hilchos Tefillah 1:2) says that min haTorah one must daven one time daily. The Ramban (commentary to the Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvos 5) argues that mi’de’oraisa there is no set time to daven, not even once a day. Rather, the obligation to daven is mi’de’rabbanan. The Ramban adds that perhaps there is a mitzvah mi’de’oraisa to daven to Hashem when one is in an eis tzarah.
The Rambam writes in Hilchos Tefillah 4:1 that there are five things that are crucial to tefillah, and that without them the davening is invalid. One of these is kavanah. The Rambam continues (halacha 15) by saying that any tefillah that is said without kavanah is not a tefillah. If one davens without kavanah, he must repeat the davening. One is forbidden to daven until one’s mind is at ease and the person is able to concentrate.
Achronim ask a question on this ruling. The Rambam seems to indicate that one needs to have kavanah throughout the entire tefillah, and if one does not have kavanah throughout the entire tefillah the tefillah is invalid. However, the Gemara in Berachos 34 and the Rambam in Hilchos Tefillah 10:1 say that it is sufficient if one has kavanah in the first berachah alone. From the later Rambam it seems that one is only required to have kavanah in the first berachah – and not in the entire Shemoneh Esrei.
Reb Chaim Soloveitchik, in his sefer on the Rambam, explains that the Rambam is referring to two different types of kavanah. One is kavanah of the translation and explanation of the words of davening. The other is the kavanah that one must know that he is standing in front of Hashem when he is davening.
The first Rambam that indicated that one must have kavanah throughout the entire tefillah is referring to the kavanah that one must know that he is standing before Hashem when he is davening. If one is not conscious about this throughout one’s davening of Shemoneh Esrei, his tefillah is invalid.
The Gemara in Berachos 34 and the second Rambam, that say that – bedi’eved – it is sufficient if one only has kavanah in the first berachah of Shemoneh Esrei, are referring to understanding the explanation of the words one is saying in davening. It is sufficient if one only understands the words of the first berachah. However, one must have kavanah that he is standing before Hashem when he is davening throughout the entire Shemoneh Esrei.
Reb Chaim explains that the first kavanah of knowing that one is standing before Hashem when davening is required for two reasons, and that both reasons are responsible for applying this kavanah to the entire Shemoneh Esrei. One reason is so that one is not considered mesasek (if one does not have kavanah, it is as if he is doing something else). The second reason is because of the general rule that mitzvos require kavanah. This general rule obligates one to have kavanah throughout the entire mitzvah, for it is not sufficient to have kavanah during only part of the mitzvah. But the kavanah of understanding the explanation of the words that one is saying is a specific kavanah that only applies to the mitzvah of davening. Therefore the Gemara can say that it only applies to part of the mitzvah, namely the first berachah.
Reb Chaim also points out that the Rambam only says that the tefillah is invalid and that one is forbidden to daven until his mind is at ease and he is able to have kavanah as it regards the kavanah of knowing that one is standing before Hashem. Regarding the second kavanah (knowing the explanation of the words), the Rambam does not use the same words. He only says that if one davens without this kavanah he must repeat the Shemoneh Esrei. It seems that there is a difference between the two kavanos. If one does not know that he is standing before Hashem when davening, the tefillah is not a tefillah. However, if one does not know the translation of what he is saying in the first berachah, the tefillah is still a tefillah; one has simply not fulfilled his obligation with that tefillah.