The Amora’im and the Rishonim disagree regarding the question, do mitzvot require kavanah? When the Torah commands us to perform a certain mitzvah, is the actual performance enough, or must a person have in mind the correct intent in order to fulfill the commandment? The halachah rules that mitzvot require kavanah. Just as a person has a body and a soul and one cannot live without the other, so too, the mitzvot need both body and soul, the body being the act of the mitzvah, and the soul being the kavanah that accompanies it.
Therefore, regarding a person who is reading the Torah portion of Parashat Va’etchanan, in which the Shema paragraph is written: when the time to recite Shema arrives, if he has kavanah in his heart to fulfill the mitzvah of reciting Shema, he has fulfilled his obligation. However, if he continues reading as he was, without having kavanah to fulfill the mitzvah of saying Shema, he has not fulfilled his obligation (Berachot 13a; Shulchan Aruch 60:4).
It is therefore apparent that when reciting Shema, we must concentrate on two meanings. First, as with all the mitzvot, we must have in mind that in performing this act, we are fulfilling Hashem’s commandment. Second, pertinent specifically to the mitzvah of reciting Shema, we must concentrate on the meaning of the words that we are saying. Since the essence of this mitzvah is to accept the yoke of Heaven, we are obligated to focus on the meaning of our words. As we have learned in halachah 6, if one did not concentrate on the meaning of the words in the verse Shema Yisrael, he did not fulfill his obligation and must go back and read it with the required kavanah.
We will now return to discuss the general kavanah required in the performance of all the mitzvot. Sometimes, one has implicit kavanah, and that suffices b’dieved. For instance, a person who comes to pray in a synagogue, and in his prayers he recites the Shema paragraph, even though he did not explicitly intend to perform the mitzvah of reciting Shema, he fulfilled his obligation. For if we were to ask him, “Why did you say Shema?” he would immediately answer, “To perform the mitzvah.” Thus, in his recital he had implicit kavanah to fulfill his obligation. Similarly, someone who puts on tefillin, even though he didn’t meditate on what he was doing, it is nonetheless clear that his only intention could have been to fulfill the mitzvah, and because implicit kavanah was present, he fulfilled his obligation (Yerushalmi Pesachim 10:3; Chayei Adam 68:9; Mishnah Berurah 60:10).
Many people do not know that the main reason for the recital of the Vayomer paragraph is to fulfill the commandment of remembering the Exodus from Egypt, which is mentioned at the end of the paragraph. Those unaware of this fact do not fulfill their obligation. For even if we were to ask them why they said the Vayomer paragraph, they would not know that it was in order to remember the Exodus. Apparently, there was not even implicit kavanah within them. Therefore, it is important to teach that the reason for the recital of the Vayomer paragraph is to remember the Exodus from Egypt.
. Likewise, a person who comes to synagogue to hear the blowing of the shofar, or the reading of the megillah, even though he did not explicitly have kavanah to fulfill the mitzvah, he fulfilled his obligation b’dieved, for the fact that he arrived at the synagogue indicates his desire to fulfill the mitzvah, and that he had implicit kavanah. However, if he was in his house and he heard the shofar being blown, or the megillah being read from the synagogue, and he did not explicitly have in mind to fulfill the mitzvah, he did not fulfill his obligation. Nevertheless, according to those poskim who believe that mitzvot do not require kavanah, he did fulfill his obligation.The origin of the disagreement can be found in Berachot 13a and Rosh Hashanah 28-29a. According to Rava, mitzvot do not require kavanah; however, Rabbi Zeira is of the opinion that mitzvot do need kavanah. The following are the opinions of a few of the poskim: the Tosafot and Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah write that mitzvot do not require kavanah, in contrast to the Ba’al Halachot Gedolot, Rif, and Rosh who maintain that mitzvot do require kavanah. That is also how the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 60:4, rules. The Bei’ur Halachah explains that even those who maintain that mitzvot do not need kavanah still assert that two other conditions must be present: 1) when he is performing the mitzvah the person must know that such a mitzvah exists; for example, to recite Shema or eat matzah. If he knew this and at that particular moment he did not have even implicit kavanah to fulfill the mitzvah, according to them, he still fulfilled his obligation. 2) He must have in mind to perform the act and cannot be like a mitasek – one who is merely busying himself. In other words, if he unthinkably puffed into the shofar and kosher sounds came out, he did not fulfill the obligation of the mitzvah.
Further, there is dispute as to whether lack of kavanah in performing rabbinic commandments prevents a person from fulfilling his obligation. The Magen Avraham writes in the name of the Radbaz that the lack of kavanah while performing rabbinic commandments does not prevent a person from fulfilling the mitzvah. His reasoning is that we are unsure as to whom the halachah follows, and therefore, concerning biblical commandments we go according to those poskim who are stringent, and regarding rabbinic commandments we follow those who are lenient. However, according to the Eliyah Rabbah, Gra, and Chida, rabbinic commandments also require kavanah, and that is what is implied in the Shulchan Aruch. In any case, regarding berachot (even those recited on biblical commandments) we take into consideration those poskim who believe that mitzvot do not require kavanah, since “safek berachot l’hakel” – if there is doubt regarding the recital of berachot, we are lenient. Therefore, a person who did not have kavanah at the start, although required to go back and fulfill the mitzvah, he may not recite the blessing again due to the uncertainty that perhaps the halachah goes according to those who maintain that mitzvot do not require kavanah (Mishnah Berurah 60:10 and Bei’ur Halachah there).