Again, I'm behind in my post though not my studies...
The second chapter of the Talmud begins with a discussion of the concept of kavvanah, which means "intention." The specific issue is whether one can fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the Sh'ma by mechanically vocalizing the sounds, or whether kavvanah is required. The Talmud begins by positing: yes.
There is an entertaining part of the discussion, in which an example is suggested: A person is proofreading a Torah scroll at the time when one is supposed to recite the morning Sh'ma, and happens to be proofreading Deuteronomy chapter 6. Does this count? You know you're reading these words, you know it's the Torah -- but you have the purpose of proofreading, not the purpose of affirming the oneness or uniqueness of God.
More to the point, the rabbis discuss the meaning of the word "Sh'ma" itself -- does it mean the physical act of hearing, or the concept of hearing and receiving, i.e. understanding. So there is a debate about whether the essential thing is to say the Sh'ma audibly to one's own ears, or in a language that one understands whether or not it's Hebrew.
What distills from the exploration is that kavvanah could have four possible meanings:
- Kavvanah could mean the intent to do the mechanical act you are doing. So if you are aware that the sounds you are making are the sounds of the words Sh'ma Yisrael etc., you have recited them with kavvanah.
- Kavvanah could mean the intent to do the act for the purpose of its being a mitzvah, in order to fulfill a mitzvah. If you know that you are saying the words Sh'ma Yisrael etc. because it's a commandment, you are reciting with kavvanah.
- Kavvanah could mean the intent to do the act for the deeper purpose that underpins the mitzvah. So if you are saying Sh'ma Yisrael etc. because it's a mitzvah that helps you focus on the essential nature of the divine, then that's kavvanah.
- A bit later on, it's suggested that you could have the kavvanah of the deeper focus and choose to act on it in some other way, by reciting some other words for that same underlying purpose.
#2 and #3 are usually the debate within traditional Judaism, about how deep kavvanah has to go -- but at least an awareness of the mitzvah/command dimension is needed. In my next post I'll go into #4, which I was surprised to find in the Talmud -- kavvanah possibly detached from the mitzvah act.