The Talmud in Berachot 31a relates how Rabbi Akiva, the great first-century sage, would conduct himself in prayer:
“When he was with the congregation, he would pray quickly so as not to be a burden on those praying with him (who would respectfully wait for him to finish). But when he prayed alone, one could leave him in one corner and afterwards find him in another corner, due to his many bows and prostrations.”
From this account we see that there are two levels of kavanah — proper intent and mental focus in prayer. The minimal level of kavanah is to concentrate on the meaning of the words. This is a basic requirement of prayer ( Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 98:1).
There is, however, a higher level of kavanah, when one’s thoughts are raised upwards, scaling the heights of profound insights and penetrating revelations. The Shulchan Aruch describes this lofty kavanah of great tzaddikim:
“Devout and pious individuals would seclude themselves, and then they would direct their thoughts in prayer until they succeeded in divesting themselves from the physical and enabling the intellect to dominate. Then they would come close to the level of prophecy.” (ibid)
While every prayer makes an impact on the one praying, the extent of this impact depends on the kavanah. A prayer recited with the basic kavanah of concentrating on the words promotes spiritual advance — but a gradual one, like the imperceptible growth of the body.
A prayer focused on higher kavanah, on the other hand, will be the source of more radical transformation. When Rabbi Akiva was alone, his prayer was not the reserved, dignified prayer of the community, but an intense and ecstatic service of God. His vibrant spiritual ascent was expressed physically, so that when he finished praying, he would find himself in the opposite corner of the room.
Such great movement during prayer is unusual — the Amidah prayer is to be recited standing in one place — but Rabbi Akiva would move across the room “due to his many bows and prostrations.” The more we are aware of God’s greatness, the stronger will be our feelings of submission and selflessness. As Rabbi Akiva progressively deepened his awareness of God’s greatness, he would express his profound sense of subservience to God’s infinity by bowing and prostrating himself.
Despite the obvious benefits of such an intense prayer, it is only suitable when one is secluded in private prayer. But when praying with the congregation, one should align oneself with their level of prayer. The entire congregation could never attain the intensity of prayer of a holy scholar like Rabbi Akiva, so he would pray quickly, content with the ordinary kavanah of concentrating on the meaning of the words.
This is the (perhaps unexpected) implication of Rabbi Akiva’s conduct when praying with the congregation. The importance of joining in communal prayer outweighs the benefits of private prayer — even a profoundly intense prayer that reflects one’s own spiritual attainments.
(Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. I, p. 28; Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 132)