What's in a Word?

For the week ending 12 December 2020 / 26 Kislev 5781

To Be a Wise Guy (Part 1 of 2)

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

Jewish tradition has long viewed the Menorah — eternally associated with the holiday of Chanukah — as a symbol of wisdom (see Bava Batra 25b). The Menorah illuminates and enlightens us both in the literal sense and in the proverbial sense. It therefore befits us to offer a discussion of the different forms of knowledge and wisdom as an ode to the festival of lights. In this essay we will explore three Hebrew words associated with knowledge (chochmah, tevunah/binah, and daat), and explain how altogether these three words form the basis of Jewish epistemology.

We begin our discussion with the term chochmah (“wisdom”), a form of knowledge associated with a chacham (“wise man” or “sage”). The Mishna (Avot 4:1) asks, “Who is a chacham?” before answering, “One who learns from all people.” Thus, the chacham casts a net as wide as possible, looking to accrue wisdom from all possible sources of information. The Talmud (Tamid 32a) says that a chacham is somebody who can foresee future consequences that had not yet come to fruition. In this explanation as well, the chacham holdswide-ranging wisdom, which allows him to be sensitive to all possible consequences of a given course of action. The Talmud (Chagigah 14a) further asserts that a chacham is defined as a student who makes his teachers wiser, again showing that the chacham typifies broadening one’s scope of wisdom.

Rabbi Avraham Bedersi HaPenini explains that chacham denotes the opposite of "simpleton," as chacham can refer to anyone who has mastered as certain body of knowledge. That body of knowledge could be something as trivial as carpentry (Isa. 3:3, 40:20), snake-charming (Psalms 59:6), or other technical/engineering skills (see Ex. 31:6). Even cunningness and political ingenuity can be considered a form of chochmah (see II Sam. 13:3) — even if used negatively (Jer. 4:22). That said, Rabbi Bedersi clarifies that when the Bible speaks of a chacham (especially in the Book of Kohelet), it refers specifically to a religious scholar — a sage who has mastered the Torah and the Divine Arts.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) traces the words chacham and chochmah to the two-letter root CHET-KAF, which refers to “waiting” or “delaying.” The word michakeh/choche (“waiting” or “anticipating”) in Hebrew (see Isa. 30:18, Hab. 2:3, Dan. 12:12, Iyov 32:4) is derived from this root, as is the word chakah meaning “fish net” (Iyov 40:25, Isa. 19:8, Hab. 1:15), a trap which one sets and then “waits” for the fish to enter. In the same way, a chacham is a wise man who is not hasty or rushed in his studies, but rather patiently “waits/delays” to deliberate over the material more thoroughly. (Rabbi Pappenheim also argues that the word cheich, “palate,” comes from the word chakah, because the open fish net resembles a person’s mouth opened wide in anticipation of food.) The Aramaic verb chayach (“to smile”) and the Modern Hebrew noun chiyuch (“smile”) are likely also derived from the word cheich.)

The term tevunah/binah refers to the form of knowledge acquired by the navon, whom the Talmud (Chagigah 14a) says is meivin davar m’toch davar (“understands one matter from within [another] matter”). This connotes a deep comprehension that allows the learner to derive new ideas from a lesson he or she had previously learned.

Rabbi Bedersi relates tevunah/binah to the word bein (“between”). This is because a navon must equally be able to apply relevant data to whatever he is considering, and, at the same time, exclude irrelevant information. The discerning navon is thus expected to be able to tell the difference “between” this datum and that datum, allowing him to efficiently analyze all relevant data and derive new conclusions.

Rabbi Pappenheim traces the term tevunah/binah to the biliteral root BET-NUN, which refers to “building.” The verb boneh (“builds”) refers to building a physical structure; even (“rock”) and teven (“straw”), to materials used for building a physical edifice; ben (“son”) and bat (“daughter”) are the result of building one’s progeny; avnayim (“birthing stool”), to the place on which that building can come, and so on. Binah relates to this core meaning because it essentially refers to the ability to “build” on a given idea by applying it to something else and extrapolating further. (The English word maven in the sense of "expert" actually derives from the Hebrew meivin, "he understands," by way of Yiddish.)

Most authorities use the term tevunah and binah almost interchangeably. While Rabbi Pappenheim admits that he has not seen other sources that address the difference between these two words, he proffers his own explanation, based on his understanding of the implications of an initial TAV. In a nutshell, Rabbi Pappenheim argues that binah refers to the ability to understand the big picture even if it is comprised of many different components, while tevunah refers to the ability to break down the overarching big picture into its smaller components.

The Vilna Gaon (to Proverbs 2:2-3, 2:6) differentiates between binah and tevunah by explaining that tevunah refers to the “reflection” that qualifies one’s chochmah or binah. The Vilna Gaon in Chemdah Genuzah (to Proverbs 1:1) writes that binah refers to understanding something on one’s own terms, while tevunah refers to understanding something so thoroughly that one can explain it to others (see also Zohar, Vayakhel 201a). Rabbi Shlomo Brevda (1931-2013) points out in Leil Shimurim (p. 26) that this latter source runs counter to the aphorism often cited in the “Yeshiva World” in the name of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk (1853-1918): “A deficiency in being able to explain something is a sign of a deficiency in one’s actual understanding.”

Let’s summarize what we have learned until now. Chochmah refers to the intake of knowledge or raw data as it comes from many different sources. On the other hand, tevunah/binah refers to the intellectual acumen required to process that knowledge and the ability to understand information in such a way that one can induce further. In the next article, part 2, we will learn how daat is the offspring of the "marriage" between chochmah andtevunah/binah (see Ramchal’s introduction to Klach Pischei Chochmah). For now, we will focus on sharpening the differences between chochmah andtevunah/binah.

The Malbim explains that chochmah refers to a practical form of wisdom, while tevunah/binah connotes a more abstract form of understanding. He explains that the term chochmah applies only when the opposite of chochmah is also a possibility. In other words, when there is something that can be done in two ways, such that one way is the “smart” way of doing it while the other way is the “dumb” way of doing it, the intelligence needed to choose the “smart” approach is called chochmah. In line with this, the Malbim explains that chochmah primarily refers to that which can be experienced. It refers to the “smart” way of acting/behaving.

That said, the Malbim explains that true chochmah can come only by way of Divine revelation, because with anything less it cannot be known for certain that it is the “smartest” of all options. When we speak of non-revelatory chochmah, it is only a borrowed term to refer to what we can only assume to be the “smartest” possibility.

By contrast, the Malbim explains that binah refers to a more abstract form of cleverness. When a person can understand complex allegories or solve riddles, this draws on his or her binah. One who acquires binah has the ability to take into account everything that he or she has perceived — either through their senses or intellect — and use all of that information to arrive at intelligent, logically sound conclusions. Binah is thus the ability to think through and process what one has beholden. In the Malbim’s model, the term daat refers to the “certainty” of the resultant knowledge and conclusions that come through binah.

Another way of putting it: Chochmah represents the raw information found in the Written Torah and its limitless planes of interpretation, binah represents the Oral Torah that processes and elucidates that information, and daat is the careful balance between the infinite wisdom of the Written Torah and the more concrete lessons of the Oral Torah. This approach is found in the Zohar (see Matok M’Dvash to Yisro 85a), the Vilna Gaon’s Biurei Aggados (Bava Kama 92b), and the Vilna Gaon’s commentary to Proverbs (1:8, see also the glosses to his comments on Proverbs 10:13).

Using this paradigm, Rabbi Eliyahu Tzion Sofer explains that the Hellenistic Syrian-Greeks specifically opposed the concept of binah, because they denied the significance of the Oral Torah. They essentially had the Written Torah in front of them in the form of the Septuagint, but to them the Oral Torah was nothing worth pursuing. We may add that this is why the poem Maoz Tzur refers to the Jewish People as “the Children of Binah” when describing their victory over the Greeks and the establishment of Chanukah as a special holiday. The Jewish People’s commitment to the Oral Torah (binah) turned the tide against Hellenism and led to the Hasmonean victory.

To be continued….

For questions, comments, or to propose ideas for a future article, please contact the author at rcklein@ohr.edu

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