Intention in Prayer

Traditional Jewish prayer involves set language and is recited at set times. Alongside this, Judaism also values intention and feeling in prayer. In this resource, we will explore the tension between routine and intention/feeling, as well as how routine and intention can complement one another.

Resource Ages: 12-14


Rabbi Eliezer said, “One whose prayer is fixed, his prayer is not pleading (from the heart).”

Tractate Brachot, Chapter 4, Mishna 4

רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר: הָעוֹשֶׂה תְּפִלָּתוֹ קֶבַע, אֵין תְּפִלָּתוֹ תַּחֲנוּנִים.

Prayer without intention is like a body without a soul.

Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel, in his book The Salvation of His Anointed

תְּפִלָּה בְּלֹא כַּוָּנָה 

כְּגוּף בְּלִי נְשָׁמָה.

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How is prayer a vehicle to help us access connections to God?
  • How can I experience moments of connection to God?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What is the relationship between personal prayers and (traditional) set prayers? What is the difference between them?
  • Is there value in saying the words of prayers even without intention?
  • How can we balance set prayers with personal expression or experience that is sincere and spontaneous?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of a traditional set liturgy? Under what circumstances can it enrich our experience? Under what circumstances is it less satisfying?

Background for Teacher

In the biblical era, prayer was a vehicle for personal expression and internal dialogue with God. In the Mishnaic era, a set liturgy was established. Together with laws that define set times for prayer, this liturgy, which is still used, strengthens the role of...

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In the biblical era, prayer was a vehicle for personal expression and internal dialogue with God. In the Mishnaic era, a set liturgy was established. Together with laws that define set times for prayer, this liturgy, which is still used, strengthens the role of obligation in the relationship with God and the communal framework in which prayer services are held. However, there is also a danger that ritualized and routine prayer will become automatic and lacking in intention and feeling. Therefore, alongside the legal obligation to the format of the prayers and the times at which they should be said, the Sages established that there is also a need for intention in prayer. 

Rabbi Eliezer’s statement that “One whose prayer is fixed, his prayer is not pleading (from the heart)” presents the internal contradiction and tension between routine, on the one hand, and intention and feeling, on the other.  Rabbi Eliezer claims that the two cannot exist together. As we know from the very existence of the siddur with its formulated prayers, Jewish law did not support Rabbi Eliezer’s view, and formulated prayers which are to be said at designated times.  The Sages didn’t minimize the importance of intention, but they thought that without set prayers some of the important characteristics of prayer might get lost (communal prayer, requests for national subjects, etc.)

The saying “Prayer without intention is like a body without a soul” hints that intention is essential for prayer and transforms it into a way to connect with God. 

The Sages and commentators explain that praying with proper intention involves removing thoughts that are not related to prayer from one’s mind: “How does one achieve intention? The mind should be freed from all extraneous thoughts” (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, prayer and priestly blessing chapter 4, 16). One should have a consciousness and sense of presence in prayer in which the individual directs their heart to conversation with God: “The person who is praying must direct his heart to heaven” (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Brachot 31a). Finally, the pray-er should think about the words that are being said as one prays (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 98a). At the same time, prayer includes an element of pleading — like a child asking their parent for what they need or a poor person asking for a donation.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study

To understand the significance of intention and feeling in prayer, provide the students with examples of how feeling affects verbal communication between people. Speak to the students in a manner typical of a request / a command / praise / gratitude. Recite the words in a monotone and then a second time with feeling.

Then, ask the students to work in pairs. Ask each pair of students to come up with two or three examples from the categories mentioned above. Ask the students: What is the difference between the two forms of delivery? In which case did they sense that the words were meant more strongly? What made the words sound like they were more strongly intended and what made the words sound like they were less strongly intended? What kind of request is easier to connect with and respond to: a request that is recited without intention or a request that is delivered with feeling?

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  1. What is the importance of intention in prayer, for the pray-er?
  2. What does Rabbi Eliezer think about the possibility of conducting set prayers with intention? Do you agree with him?
  3. Although they believed in the importance of intention, the Sages decided on set prayers. Why do you think they decided that?
  4. What is your opinion on the matter: How does set prayer help one to connect with the Divine? How does it make such a connection more difficult?
  5. Suggest a way that we can integrate set prayers with personal intention.
  6. Rabbi Abarbanel uses a metaphor to describe the importance of intention. Explain the metaphor. Suggest a metaphor of your own that expresses this idea.
  7. Even though our tradition prefers prayer with intention, prayer without intention is also considered to be important. Try to explain this. (You can use examples of actions that are done without intention, such as parents who teach their children to always say “thank you”. Does this have value even if the “thank you” isn’t really felt?)
  8. What do you prefer: personal and spontaneous prayer or traditional prayer? Why? In your opinion, which type of prayer allows for a stronger connection with God, with the community or with ourselves?
  • Use a meditation exercise to help the students understand the difficulty of maintaining intention in prayer and keeping one’s mind free of ideas that are unrelated to prayer. Ask the students to sit and meditate for five minutes, to focus on their breathing and to try to empty their minds of all thoughts. Each time an idea comes up, they should set it aside. Discuss the things that make it difficult for us to concentrate and how distraction can influence the prayer experience.
  • In classes in which the students pray: There are different methods of refreshing and adding intention to  prayer services. Ask the students to suggest ways of strengthening one’s intention in prayer. (You can suggest some examples: a minute of meditation before praying, changing the location of the prayer, changing the form of the prayer, using different melodies, adding musical instruments, creative writing,  having a conversation about the significance of prayer before the actual prayer service, etc.) Try out some of the ideas suggested by the students.
  • Have the students discuss question 7.  Ask the students to work in pairs and act out a conversation between Rabbi Eliezer and someone who disagrees with him and believes that it is important to say “thank you” even when it isn’t felt.
  • Study the resource “What is Prayer” which addresses basic features of prayer.
  • Read the Chassidic story “The Flute” about spontaneous prayer and intentions of the heart. Ask the students what types of prayer are portrayed in the story. What is the relationship between those different types of prayer? In their opinion, what is the story’s message? Does it express a preference for any particular kind of prayer?