Jewish prayer always requires kavanah.
Kavanah is more than just focus, although in part it means focus. It also means intention in your prayer. The word kavanah comes from a root which means to aim. In Jewish prayer there are basically three aims or general categories of prayer. You must pray with intention (content), intensity, and with focus.
Shevach--praise. You praise the Holy One, you bless him, glorify him, sanctify his name. Praise is the predominant form of prayer in Jesus’ world.
Bakashah--petition. You petition God on behalf of the needs of the community and of the individual. There are actually 10 Hebrew words for prayer in the Bible that speak of this kind of prayer. In English we can translate them: a cry for help, moaning, a song, a plea, a distress, a calling out, a prostrating of oneself, a petitioning or beseeching (beseech means to throw oneself totally upon God).
Hodayah--thanksgiving. Prayer ultimately should teach you that there is something more important than making demands and that you should have a sense of total dependency upon God. Prayers of thanksgiving always begin and end Jewish prayer.
We can summarize it this way: to pray is to acknowledge who God is, to give thanks to Him, to praise Him, to glorify and bless Him, to petition Him for His will to be done in our hearts and in the life of our community.
All of these types of prayer must be uttered with intention and with focus. The sages of Jesus’ day taught that if you were downcast and it was the time for prayer, you should start singing some songs, psalms or hymns (even for an hour if need be) so that you can come to the proper place of intention and focus in your prayer. What you are about to do is not to engage in some magic act, you are about to engage in high worship of the King of the universe.
Prayer always addresses God in direct speech.
We recognize that God is a Person and we speak directly to Him with respect, with joy, sincerity, and with humility. He is not some impersonal force of power in the universe. He is personal and He has a proper name. In fact, he has many names. He was to Abraham El Shaddai—the almighty God who is sufficient for every need. He is El Elyon—God the mountain, God Most High. He is Yahweh—the covenant keeping, loving God. He is Adonai Shalom—our peace, Adonai Tsidkeinu—our righteousness, and Adonai Nissi—our banner and Adonai Rofechah—the Lord who heals you. He has all of these titles and names (and more) for He cannot be circumscribed by human rationality.
We can get glimpses of who He is. He is not an impersonal consciousness that pervades everything in the universe, He is a personal God—He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If we pray to any other God we are missing the mark. We must prepare our heart to pray because it is toward God that we are directing our communication.
"All peoples pray. Biblical prayer is unique in the concept of the God—the identity of the God—to whom we pray. It is the God who is acknowledged as the King of the universe and the Creator and sole source of all life. He is both Father and King (Avinu malcheinu). He is to always be entreated, and never compelled. We must pray with respect."
In Jesus’ day (as today), when you enter into the three seasons of prayer daily, you would focus your attention. If it was during the daytime and if you were a male, you would put on the prayer shawl, reminding you that you were wrapped and surrounded in God’s Word and His commandments. Then you would take three small steps forward, plant your feet firmly as a tree planted by living waters, and then you would begin praying to God.
When orthodox Jews pray, they move to and fro. This is just a physical indication of concentration. They are concentrating on God because He is the King. You have entered into His presence, you have bowed before Him, and now you begin praising Him, giving Him thanks, and it is appropriate you petition Him according to His will, for your needs to be met. When you are praying you do not let anything distract you—only for a life saving emergency should you interrupt your prayer—because you are talking to the King. It is not time to speak with your friends or to take care of business. You are in the presence of royalty—the Creator of you, the source of your life. Show Him respect. You focus in your prayer with earnestness, with intensity, and with intention. When you finish your prayer, you back out three steps (symbolical of exiting the presence of the King), then you bow before Him, and then you enter the common world of human affairs.
Prayer is an enormous privilege. What right do you have to pray to the King of the universe? How can you pray to Him? You cannot even go outside and gaze upon the sun that He created. You cannot gaze upon one small part of it. How can you possibly gaze upon God Himself? What right do you have to even petition Him, to speak to Him? You have no right, save that He gives it to you. You cannot enter His presence unless He invites you to do so, and in Jesus Christ He has invited you, He has given you His grace sufficient to enter into His presence and to say: “amazing grace that saved even a wretch like me.” Compared to the King of the universe, the Holy One of heaven, we are all straw and stubble—filthy rags— and all our accomplishments are dung.
He actually wants us to enter into His presence with thanksgiving and enter into His courts with praise. You parents know what it is like when the only time your children come to you is when they want something. So do not just come asking. It touches your heart when your kids come and say: “Let’s talk. I don’t need anything. I just respect you. I appreciate you.”
God is a Father. He is a king that you dare not approach without His permission. He has given you His permission and He says that if you come to Him with respect, if you pray to Him with focus and concentration, and if you pray according to His will, He will graciously come and meet your every need.
The sages encouraged preparation of the heart before prayer. One of the ways of preparing is to enter into an attitude of celebration, praise, and thanksgiving. This is the attitude we should have before praying. Psalm 145 was a favorite in the time of Jesus of preparing one’s heart for prayer.
When you read these scriptures you can actually read them as a form of prayer. Do you find it difficult some times to engage in extended prayer because you run out of things to say? Do you find it kind of awkward, that you say the same things over and over?
The solution to that is to extend your prayer vocabulary by amplifying your praise and worship of God, drawing upon Scripture. One of the reasons the disciples could engage in 50 days of prayer in an upper room, waiting for the outpouring of the promised Holy Spirit, is not that they were engaged in 50 days of extemporaneous prayer, they were engaged in prescribed prayers and scriptural prayer. So if you find it difficult to engage in an extended period of prayer, read Psalms 145-150 and other great scriptures as a form of prayer.