Talmud Tips

For the week ending 8 January 2022 / 6 Shvat 5782

Megillah 16 - 22

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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K Is for Kavana

“One who has read the Megillah of Esther while writing it or explaining it or proofreading it — if he had kavana in his heart (“intent”), he fulfilled the mitzvah to read it on Purim; and if not, he did not fulfill the mitzvah.”

This mishna teaches an essential factor necessary for fulfilling a mitzvah: kavana, i.e. “intent.” There are a variety ways in which the word kavana/intent is used in connection with the fulfillment of a mitzvah. One is the intent to understand what one is doing or saying, such as the kavana one must possess in understanding the words (at least the first verse) when saying “Shema Yisrael.” “Hear O Israel, Hashem, our G-d, Hashem is One.” Hashem who is nowadays recognized in the “limited role” as G-d of the Jewish People, in the future will be recognized and known by all to be G-d of all people and of all existence. (For further explanation, see Aruch Hashulchan 60:1-4.)

Another meaning of kavana is to understand the reason behind the mitzvah. For example, this would mean having in mind — while dwelling in the succah on the festival of Succot — the reason why the Torah says to do so. The Torah states, “You shall dwell in succahs for seven days, in order that future generations will know that I placed the Jewish People in succah dwellings when I brought them out of Egypt.” (Vayikra 23:42-43)

Yet another meaning of kavana is in a Kabbalistic sense, such as the connection of a mitzvah with the names of Hashem, the letters of those names and the various combinations of those letters. Much has been written in classic texts on this highly metaphysical topic, which involves a deeper understanding of the manner in which Hashem interacts with His physical creation.

However, none of these meanings of kavana is the main point of the halacha in our mishna that addresses reading the Megillah and fulfilling the mitzvah. The kavana in our mishna is kavana in its most pure and basic sense: Doing the act of a mitzvah for the sake of fulfilling the mitzvah. Not reading the Megillah in order to write another copy of the Megillah next to it; not to read the words in the Megillah for the sake of teaching a Torah lesson; and not to read it for the purpose of merely proofreading it to make sure it is kosher.

(An aside: in my youth, I bought my first Megillah — with quite beautiful writing — from a close friend. He told me it had been checked by another scribe when it was written and that he had also quietly read from it in shul for the past five years when following the reading of the chazzan of the congregation. However, the first Purim, when I was reading it at home for my wife who had recently given birth and was still homebound, I noticed a missing letter in the word chodesh and stopped in shock. My neighbor helped us complete the Megillah reading by lending us his Megillah. When I told my friend after Purim, he was more than surprised, but we decided that we are only human. He said that he would not only pay for a scribe to make the correction, but that he would also pay to have it checked by a computer scan for accuracy, just in case. And just like with the Purim story, all ended well with my Megillah!)

Now, back to our mishna. There is a fascinating question throughout Shas as to whether “mitzvahs need kavana.” Does a person fulfill a mitzvah by merely doing the correct action or saying the correct words? Or, in order to fulfill a mitzvah is there also a requirement that the person specifically have in mind that he is doing it in order to fulfill the mitzvah? This subject is discussed at length by the Poskim and may have different answers depending on whether it pertains to a Torah mitzvah or a rabbinical one (such as Purim); whether it is a mitzvah that is performed by an action as opposed to by speaking; is it self-evident from the time/place/manner of doing the mitzvah that it is being done for the sake of fulfilling the mitzvah? And possibly more factors, as well.

The commentaries ask why our mishna — which requires kavana for fulfillment of the mitzvah of reading the Megillah — is not mentioned in Shas as proof that mitzvahs need kavana, or, alternatively, is not cited as refutation to the view that a person does not require kavana. Many answers are presented by the Torah commentaries, and here is but one. In the cases of our mishna — reading to copy it, reading to expound on it, and proofreading it for errors — the person is reading the Megillah expressly not for the purpose of fulfilling the mitzvah to read it. For example, his reading is for proofreading it, and not at all for fulfilling the mitzvah to read it on Purim. Therefore, in this case he does not fulfill the mitzvah unless he consciously has in mind that his reading is also for the sake of fulfilling the mitzvah and he is careful to read it with correct pronunciation of the words (an effort not normally the concern of one who is merely proofreading). So, even if it would be true that a person fulfills a mitzvah with a lack of kavana, nonetheless, if there is a different intent involved that could diminish the mitzvah significance of the person’s action, the mitzvah is not fulfilled

This is akin to a person who is actively thinking to not want to fulfill the mitzvah that he is currently doing, and is certainly not fulfilling his obligation against his will.

For a more in-depth halachic understanding of the subject of “mitzvahsneedingkavana” I highly recommend learning the Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 60:4, with the Mishneh Berurah and Bi’ur Halacha there, along with the Aruch Hashulchan in simanin 60 and 61. And, as always, it is extremely important to ask a local halachic authority in any practical, real situation, for which one needs to know the halachic ruling.

I would be remiss in not adding another point regarding the significance of always having kavana to fulfill any mitzvah, whether or not one has achieved post-facto fulfillment of a mitzvah without conscious intent to fulfill the mitzvah. The Torah instructs each member of Klal Yisrael to love and serve Hashem with all of one’s heart, soul and might. Therefore, it is certainly ideal that a person should be conscious, aware and have clear intent as to why he is doing any mitzvah: because Hashem said to do so. (See the Mishnah Berurah 60 at the end of letter yod.)

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