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Sunday, September 6, 2009

A MATTER OF INTENTION

The Mishnah poses a puzzle.
If one was behind a synagogue or lived close by a synagogue and heard the sounding of the shofar or the reading of the Megillah [for Purim], have they fulfilled their obligation.
The problem is that this person only overheard the sounding or reading, it was incidental, not intended. So does it count? Do we require intentionality in the observance of the mitzvot, and in this case the question arises, whose intention.

I feel like this is a no-win proposition. Of course we want everyone to come to their observance of Judaism with conscious intention. What would it even mean to have people sleep-walking through the mitzvot? They might hear the shofar, but it would have no impact, no significance. It would only be another sound in a noisy world. But then there are problems on the other side. If intention is mandated, it invites a certain “check on your neighbor” mentality. I have been told by those who consider themselves more observant than they think I am that my performance of a given mitzvah doesn’t really count. Presumably I failed their litmus test for the proper intentionality. So sorry.

The gemara on Rosh HaShannah 28a-b examines the question of intention from a variety of angles. Whose intention is important? Do all of those involved require intention? Is it required that the focus be on the mitzvah, or are there other issues? What started as a simple question -- are you prepared and awake to this holy opportunity before you -- becomes much more complex in the hands of our sages.

The gemara asks, what if the one sounding the shofar was only fooling around, not really intending to fulfill a command or to create any particular sound. Does the one who hear his playing, not knowing that he is not serious, fulfill his obligation to hear the shofar? Rava suggests (Rosh Hashannah 28b) that “mitzvoth do not require kavvanah (intention).” The one who hears, fulfills the mitzvah.

The sages test that proposition by citing a different mishnah (from Berachot, Prayers) stating that if one was reading Torah and came to the verses of the Shema at the hour when they were to be recited as prayer, did they fulfill their obligation. They escape the obvious conclusion by positing a scribe correcting the text, instead of a regular reader engaged in study. The scribe would only be scanning the letters, not really paying attention to the words as such. In this case intention means consciousness; the scribe needs to know what text he is reading and be conscious of its meaning, but does not require an intentionality to be reciting the Shema as a mitzvah.

The gemara tries again, this time returning to the case of our mishnah, the person wandering behind the synagogue. The mishnah says, if he directed his heart, he has fulfilled the obligation, if not, not. But the sages ask where his heart needs to be directed. Again they avoid the obvious. The issue they discover is that the person was focused on hearing something, that is, he could distinguish the blast of the shofar from the braying of a donkey, not that the person was focused on fulfilling a mitzvah. Hearing the sound of the shofar is sufficient. Intention now equals recognition or awareness.

The next case makes this all more difficult. If the one hearing the sound intended to fulfill the obligation of the mitzvah, but the one sounding the shofar did not, or vice versa, then the mitzvah was not fulfilled. That is, everything needs to be lined up. The hearer and the sounder both need to have a common intention at the same time to do the same act. This holds out the highest standard of intention, it needs to be a concerted effort by the players on both sides of the act, both performer and listener.

This would seem to be the most obvious case, in part because it matches our normal experience. We gather in the synagogue, we are directed to rise as the shofar service begins. The Baal Tekiah, shofar blower, is loudly prompted to sound each call. It is hard to miss the moment if you are in the room. Everyone’s attention is directed to the right place.

But the gemara is still not convinced. What, they ask, if the shofar blower was merely intending to create music? Or perhaps the person who picked up the shofar had no intention of fulfilling any mitzvah, but was merely making a barking sound, puffs of indiscriminate sound through the shofar? Isn’t it sufficient if the person hearing the sound intended to hear the shofar and believes he heard the correct sounds of the season? Can intention be one-sided?

Intention, we learn, can be of many kinds. Intention might equal consciousness or awareness. It might speak of ability to recognize certain stimuli. What would happen if our hearing were affected and we were unable to distinguish the sound of a shofar from other sounds, could we fulfill the command by watching the shofar blower bring the instrument to his lips? Intention may rest on one person , or many. With each change of focus a requirement of intention opens up a new story.

This is not the end of the discussion, but it is sufficient to give a taste of the complexity of the matter. I find the sage’s deconstruction of the simple term “intention” instructive. Our classic tradition is more concerned with right behavior than with right belief. It is reasonably easy to know that you heard a shofar, spent time in a sukkah, or recited words of blessing over a meal. It is impossible to know if your thoughts match some external standard of intention.

I subscribe to the teaching of R. Judah, cited in the name of Rav (Pesachim 50b): One should always engage in Torah and good deeds, even if it is for ulterior purposes, for from doing the right thing, one will come to do it for the right reason. Religious observance is a journey, a striving. May we be blessed to have good companions and wise teachers to accompany us on our journey.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser 2009

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