From: Gary in Atlanta
Does a person have to be concentrating and focusing on a mitzvah all the time he’s involved in it. I would imagine that’s the case, but I personally find it hard to keep my mind focused for a long time. Do I fulfill the mitzvah if I don’t have full intention?
There is a lengthy discussion in the sources as to whether mitzvot need intention – “kavanah” – or not.
The halachic conclusion appears to be that mitzvot do need intention to fulfill one’s obligation (Orach Chaim 60). This means that one is required before fulfilling a mitzvah to clear his mind and focus on the idea that he is about to fulfill a mitzvah according to G-d’s will. If he doesn’t have at least this basic kavanah, he does not fulfill the mitzvah.
Ideally, this intention should be maintained throughout the duration of the mitzvah whether the mitzvah is short like a blessing, or long like learning Torah. And of course, the more depth of contemplation and fervor of intention a person maintains throughout, the better. This would range from keeping in mind the simple meaning and purpose of the mitzvah to the deepest intentions of the Kabala. However, the halacha only requires that a person have the initial, basic kavanah to fulfill the mitzvah.
That being said, there are three exceptions that are quite commonly practiced and therefore worth mentioning: tzitzit, tefillin and succah. For these three mitzvot the halacha states that in addition to the basic kavanah of fulfilling a mitzvah, one must also have kavanah for the reason/meaning of the mitzvah. The question is, what is the basis for these three exceptions?
The commentator referred to as the “Bach” (Bayit Chadash, O. C. 8) explains that only these three are mentioned in the Torah followed by the Hebrew word “l’ma’an” — meaning ‘because’ or ‘in order that’ — introducing the reason for the mitzvah. Tzitzit — in order that you shall recall my mitzvot and do them (Num. 15:40); Tefillin — in order that the Torah shall be in your mouths (Ex. 13:9); Succah — in order that you recall the redemption from Egypt when G-d caused you to dwell in clouds of glory (Lev. 23:43). Accordingly, when the Torah explicitly indicates the purpose of the mitzvah, one must have intention not only for the act of the mitzvah but for its reason as well.
Nevertheless, it is important to stress that unlike the basic kavanah needed for all mitzvot to do the mitzvah, the additional kavanah required for the meaning of these three mitzvot is only “l’ctechila’ — the ideal — but lacking this extra kavanah does not preclude its fulfillment. Also, even regarding the basic kavanah, while integral to fulfilling the mitzvah, if one’s actions indicate intention to do a mitzvah, even if he doesn’t have this in mind explicitly, he still fulfills his obligation. So for example, the mere act of giving charity to the poor or eating matza on Passover reveals that it is the person’s inner intention to fulfill a mitzvah even if he doesn’t contemplate on the kavanah at the time he does it (M. Br. 60).
So Gary, you need to have in mind at least the idea that you are doing a mitzvah as you begin it, or at least be in a context where that kavanah is self-evident. But as mentioned, the more kavanah, the deeper your thoughts and the more fervent your feelings, the better.