One of the classic debates of the Talmud – and one with no clear resolution – is whether or not mitzvoth tzreechot kavanah. The term kavanah, which literally means “direction”, is not easy to translate into precise halachic terminology, but is generally understood to mean focus and concentration on what one is doing.
In numerous discussions in the Talmud (see, for example, Brachot 13a) and later authorities, our Sages debate whether those who do the act of a mitzvah but do so without kavanah have fulfilled their religious obligation. Some distinguish between biblical mitzvoth (that require kavanah) and rabbinic ones (that do not). Thus, building a fence on one’s roof would require kavanah for the mitzvah, whereas lighting Chanukah candles would not.
Others distinguish between those mitzvoth fulfilled through speech and those fulfilled by performing a tangible act. Saying something without focusing on what it means is of little value. On the other hand with actions speaking louder than words, what we do is of great significance—regardless of our intent. Thus, prayer without kavanah could not be classified as avodah shebalev, worship of the heart, which is the essence of prayer. However, one who ate matzah solely because of enjoyment – perhaps even if he or she did not realize it was Pesach – would, technically, fulfill a mitzvah obligation.
Nonetheless, there are certain actions that have little meaning if done without the proper intent. In his commentary on the Tur (Orach Chaim # 425), the Bach notes three mitzvoth where the Torah states that the mitzvah must be performed for a specific purpose. With the Torah most specific about why the mitzvah is to be done, unless one has this goal in mind, one cannot properly fulfil the mitzvah. These three mitzvoth (and the reasoning behind them) are:
- Sukkah, “that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Vayikra 23:44);
- Tzizit, “that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your G-d” (Bamidbar 15:40); and
- Tefillin, “that the law of the Lord may be in thy mouth, for with a strong hand hath the Lord brought you out of Egypt” (Shemot 13:9).
Others distinguish mitzvoth between man and G-d from those between man and man. When we help others, the fact that such may not be our intent matters little; we have still helped a fellow human being. But G-d has no need for our mitzvoth, and if we are not focused on the mitzvah, what purpose can doing it possibly serve?
While there is much debate regarding when and what type of kavanah one might need, there is one area where there is no room for debate. “The slaughtered offering is slaughtered for the sake of six matters: for the sake of the offering; for the sake of the one who sacrifices; for the sake of G-d; for the sake of fires; for the sake of the aroma; for the sake of the pleasing; and in the cases of a sin offering and a guilt offering, for the sake of atonement for the sin” (Zevachim 46b).
A korban is a vehicle—in Temple times, the primary vehicle—to come closer to G-d. One dares not approach G-d unless one is properly focused on the task at hand. No encounter is better than a failed one. While there is little damage done by sitting in a sukkah because it’s hot outside, or keeping Shabbat because one values a day of quiet, bringing a korban without a focus on the mitzvah can be most detrimental, especially if one thinks atonement can be attained by bringing this korban.
The concept of kavanah should not be confused with a related concept, that of lishma, motivation. While kavanah focuses on what one is doing, lishma focuses on why one is doing something. Is it to fulfill G-d’s command or is it to impress a neighbour? Here, there is universal agreement that even improperly motivated mitzvoth are most meaningful. "One should always involve oneself in Torah and mitzvoth shelo lishma, not for the name of G-d, for from doing it shelo lishma, one will [eventually] come to do it lishma, for the name of G-d" (Pesachim 50b).
One can have much kavanah and be fully focused on the task at hand, but be doing it for less-than-pure reasons; conversely, one might have the greatest of motivation but nonetheless find oneself unable to focus on the mitzvah one is doing. One may be truly motivated to pray—fully internalizing the fact that G-d is the determinant of how successful our efforts will be—but nonetheless, find focusing on prayer most difficult. Or one might go to shul only because one is forced to by one’s parents, but once there, actually be inspired by the words of prayer – even if one finds the concept of tefillah to be of little value.
Fortunate are those who can do mitzvoth lishma and with great kavanah.
 Perhaps the explanation for such a distinction lies in the fact that rabbinic mitzvoth are not inherently obligatory. Rather, their authority is derived from the fact that the Torah tells us to listen to the Sages. Thus, when we light Chanukah candles, we are fulfilling the Biblical mitzvah to listen to the Sages – hence, we recite the blessing, “Who commanded us in His mitzvoth” – and the candles are just a means to that end.
 Of course, this works both ways, and one who unintentionally sins must still do teshuva if one wants to be forgiven for one's sin.
 The Rosh expresses a similar idea in noting why the mitzvah to write a sefer Torah no longer applies. As the Torah explicitly states that the reason for the mitzvah is to teach—“Now therefore write this song (the Torah) for you, and teach it to the children of Israel” (Devarim 31:19)—that reason becomes an integral part of the mitzvah. As nowadays, we use books to learn, rather than learning from a written sefer Torah, the mitzvah to write a sefer Torah today consists of buying sefarim, of having a library of Jewish books (and using them).
 It is for this reason that the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim #98:1-2) rules that one should not daven if one knows that one will be unable to have proper kavanah. As we discussed in our last post, the only reason we allow such today is due to the fear that, if we waited until we had proper kavanah, we might never daven. Davening without kavanah is not quite the same as a meaningless korban.
 One can, however, have such negative motivation that not only is the mitzvah rendered meaningless, the person is, too. If one performs a mitzvah for the purpose of hurting another—i.e., studying Torah to find a way to embarrass one’s teacher—“it would have been better had one not been born” (Brachot 17a).
 As discussed here our Sages understood that it is never possible to be 100% purely motivated. Interestingly, we find no teaching to the effect that proper kavanah is beyond our reach. While the human condition is such that we always have some ulterior motives mixed in, total focus is possible—with great effort.