The Hebrew word for intention (also, direction) is kavanah. In The Sabbath World, Judith Shulevitz introduces the concept of kavanah in relation to the story of the biblical character Hannah. Beloved wife of Elkanah, Hannah was unable to conceive a child. One day when she, Elkanah, and Peninah (Elkanah’s less favored but fertile wife), had made the pilgrimage to Shiloh, where they would offer sacrifices, Hannah prayed for a son.
Hannah spoke in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard (I Samuel 1:13).
Observing Hannah from a distance, Eli, the high priest of Shiloh, inferred that she was drunk and chastised her for her drunkenness. Respectful and fearless, Hannah responded to Eli, “No, my lord, I am a woman of sorrowful spirit; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the Lord” (I Samuel 1:15).
From Hannah, the rabbis derive a number of ideas about and approaches to prayer, including the practice of kavanah, which, writes Shulevitz, is “the rather Buddhist-sounding art of focusing one’s soul inside oneself and burrowing deep into one’s prayers.”
In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, prayer is part of Sabbath observance. Though we would not pray in a class taught at a public liberal arts university, we did try a kavanah exercise in which we burrowed deep inside ourselves to set intentions.