By: Rabbi Ari Enkin
Many people have the custom to recite a special declaration of intent prior to performing many mitzvot or reciting certain prayers. This kabalistic formula is known as the l’shem yichud, its name taken from the opening words of the declaration. This formula expresses one’s intention to fulfill a mitzva for the sole sake of serving God as well as to request that God’s Divine Presence join in one’s performance of the imminent mitzva.
It is believed that reciting such a declaration of intent will better prepare a person’s heart and mind for the holy act he is about to perform. Some commentators suggest that the practice of verbalizing one’s intention prior to the performance of mitzvot is actually alluded to in the Torah itself. It is also likely that the practice of reciting l’shem yichud derives from the requirement that one must have the proper intentions in mind when performing a mitzva in order to properly discharge one’s obligation. Some authorities have been especially particular to recite it and to have others recite it as well. As Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk writes:
“Whenever you perform any deed, whether Torah study, or prayer, or positive commandments, you should familiarize yourself with the following words and make it a habit to recite them: “Hareini oseh zot l’shem yichud kudsha berich Hu u’shechintei la’asot nachat ruach la’Borei yitbarach shemo (I am hereby doing this in order to unify the Holy One blessed be He and the Shechina, to give delight to the blessed Creator).” You should say this regularly and with great feeling from the depth of your heart, and after a while you will feel a great awakening and spiritual inspiration from saying this.”
The l’shem yichud can be found in most siddurim with slight variations depending on nusach. Almost all siddurim include it prior to Baruch She’amar, the counting of the Omer, and the shaking of the lulav. The wording of the l’shem yichud also has the reader invoke God’s holy name. Very often the standard l’shem yichud is followed by an additional declaration of intent which discusses the mitzva that one is about to perform in great detail. It is especially appropriate to recite l’shem yichud prior to performing mitzvot that do not have a preliminary blessing. Some authorities teach that l’shem yichud should only be recited once each day, prior to Baruch She’amar, at the start of Pesukei D’zimra. According to this approach, one should have in mind that this once-daily recitation of l’shem yichud is to apply to all the other mitzvot that one performs throughout the day.
Reciting l’shem yichud before performing a mitzva is especially encouraged by the more mystical authorities. This is because the Kabbala teaches that one who performs a mitzva after having recently sinned causes that mitzva to be soiled by evil spirits. The recitation of l’shem yichud is said to remedy this concern, and ensure that one’s performance of mitzvot will be performed with the proper intent and will be favorably received before God.
It is interesting to note that historically, the inclusion of l’shem yichud in the liturgy had been met with some fierce opposition. Rabbi Yechezkel Landau waged a fierce battle to ban the recitation of l’shem yichud and to have it removed from all texts. He also took great personal issue with those who had the practice of reciting it. As Rabbi Landau writes: “In my opinion this is an evil sickness in our generation.… [Those who recite it] are the destroyers of the generation.” Indeed, it is recorded that Rabbi Landau would forbid anyone who had the custom of reciting l’shem yichud from reciting a blessing over his personal lulav and etrog set on Sukkot.
This fierce opposition to what seems to be a completely innocuous and even praiseworthy practice is difficult to digest. It is suggested that Rabbi Landau may have believed that the l’shem yichud formula, with its strong mystical connotations, was actually a creation of the Shabtai Tzvi movement that led many Jews astray. Some claim that Rabbi Landau retracted his objection to the l’shem yichud later in life.