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Thought for the Day: When "But Maybe You Don't Need כוונה/Intent" Is a Problem

Nope, I am not a fan of doing anything in a manner that is only appropriate בדיעבד, at least not לכתחילה.  So, you might figure, if you are like me (ok, ok... no one is like me; but if you were), you might think, "Heck!  I just need to learn about לכתחילה, because I am never going to do anything only בדיעבד.  Well, then, you'd be very wrong.  (Which is a lot like me, and mostly the story of my life.)  As R' Fuerst is wont to say, "Live and learn."

One reason you should know about בדיעבד is because in a pinch (שעת הדחק is the technical term), a בדיעבד can become לכתחילה.  For example, your day surgery takes a wee bit longer than expected and now -- already near the end of the first 1/3 of the day -- they finally take out all those tubes and you still need to daven... you need to know which parts of p'sukei d'zimra you can skip.  Or you go with your wife for a non-stress test and the doctor says, "Well, how does today -- as in right now -- sound for a birthday?", and by the time the emergency caesarian is finished and you get the new baby (first one... never seen anything so beautiful in my life) to the nursery it is a little past shkiah... you need to know whether you can still daven mincha or need to wait to daven a tashlumin after ma'ariv.  (Have I made my point that "in a pinch" means that you better be pinched pretty hard?*  Sometimes I fear that I am too subtle.** -- (*) That's mussar; "in a pinch" is "in a pinch", I am just saying that you shouldn't let yourself get into that situation without a very good reason.  (**) That's a joke... I never fear that I am being too subtle.  I should fear that I am being to blunt; but alas...)

That's the easy reason and, בעזרת השם, shouldn't come up very often.  There is another and, in fact, another issue -- both more common and more insidious.  The problem occurs because of a discussion of whether or not מצוות צריכות כוונה/the fulfillment of a mitzvah is dependent on ones intention.  First, you obviously need to know and have intention for the action you are performing to even be in the running.  That is, if you happen to absent-mindedly pick up a lulav, esrog, willow branches, and myrtle sticks while you are cleaning the house in preparation for the cleaning lady coming tomorrow (yeah, I don't get it either, but apparently you need to clean before someone comes to clean), and while you are carrying that stuff (you are only minimally aware that your hands are full, but certainly have no idea what is in them) you happen to wave them around and up and down... you have not fulfilled the mitzvah of lulav.  (I believe that may be an award winning run on sentence.)  The question of intention here is whether or not you intend your actions to be performed in fulfillment of an obligation you accepted regarding service to the Creator.

Just to clarify the idea.  Suppose you sign up to build a bookcase.  As long as you follow the instructions, I don't really care whether you are are building it to help me out, to because you need the practice in turning screws and hammering, or because you are hoping I'll do you a favor in kind later.  At the end of the day, I have my bookcase regardless of your intentions.  So HaShem wants me to wave a lulav at Sukkos and light Chanuka candles for eight days once each year.  What difference does it make if I have כוונה/intent that I am performing this action in order to fulfill a mitzvah or not.  If I do it, I do it; if not, not.  Right?

So this turns out to be a huge discussion with lots of proofs on both sides.  When the dust settles we legislate that for Torah obligations כוונה/intent is a requirement, but for Rabbinically mandated obligations כוונה/intent is a "nice to have".  לכתחילה, of course, you really need to have intent regardless of whether it was mandated explicitly at Mount Sinai or implicitly via application of the parliamentary procedures legislated at Mount Sinai.

What's the problem?  Suppose you want to be stringent and always doing things the right way.  One day, nebbich, you slip and are not sure if you had proper כוונה when saying קריאת שמע.  No problem; you'll just repeat, right?  Whoa, there, Quick Draw.  The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 61:9) says that you are not allowed to say שמע twice in a row -- because it looks like you are talking to two different powers.  Now, even though we pasken that מצוות צריכות כוונה for Torah obligations and קריאת שמע certainly is a Torah obligation.... but since it is a matter of dispute and there is a real, live prohibition to repeat קריאת שמע, we therefore have to be nervous for the opinion that מצוות צריכות אין כוונה even for Torah prohibitions, and so you have already fulfilled your obligation with your first recitation.

Yikes!  There is only one choice: think before you act.  I know, I know, seems very harsh, but there is just no way out of it.  Think before you speak or act, and when you do speak or act, make sure it is with intention.

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