Reuven Chaim Klein
Reuven Chaim Klein
What's in a Word? Synonyms in the Hebrew Language

Wisdom: Connecting the Dots

Picture by AB Kravitz (Instagram: @kravitz.photography).

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 (chochmahtevunah/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.)

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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 wordshe 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 and tevunah/binah (see Ramchal’s introduction to Klach Pischei Chochmah). For now, we will focus on sharpening the differences between chochmah and tevunah/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.

If we were to rank the three Hebrew words for “knowledge,” chochmah would be placed at the bottom as the most basic form of wisdom. Everyone agrees that binah and daat denote greater forms of “knowledge” than chochmoh does (see Shemot Rabbah 41:3 and Rashi to Shabbat 31a), but the exact relationship between binah and daat is subject to dispute.

The Mishna (Avot 3:17) teaches that daat depends on binah, and, conversely, binah depends on daat. For the purposes of understanding that Mishna, Rashi and Rabbi Ovadia Bartenura (1445-1515) explain that while binah refers to the ability to derive a new idea from a previous lesson, daat refersto the ability to understand the reasoning behind a given lesson (see also Rashbatz). Accordingly, the Mishna means that if one cannot figure out the rationale behind the first lesson, then one cannot extrapolate from that lesson anything further. And, likewise, if one lacks the ability to extrapolate new ideas from a given lesson, then certainly one cannot deduce the rationale for that lesson. At face value, then, it seems that binah and daat go hand in hand. That said, some sources assert that daat is higher than binah (see Maharsha to Ketuvot 5a), while the Maharal (in Chiddushei Aggadot to Kiddushin 30a, Avodah Zarah 19b and in Tiferet Yisrael ch. 56) teaches that binah is higher than daat.

The Torah reports that when Betzalel was charged with constructing the Tabernacle, G-d bestowed upon him chochmah, tevunah, and daat (Ex. 31:3). In that context, Rashi explains that chochmah refers to wisdom which one hears (i.e. learns) from others, tevunah refers to the ability to understand something new based on information he has already acquired, and daat refers to receiving knowledge through Holy Inspiration (Ruach Hakodesh, i.e. a lower form of prophecy). Rashi’s source for the difference between chochmah and tevunah is a conversation between Rabbi Yosi and Arius (see Sifrei to Deut. 1:13), and he cites the same explanation elsewhere in his commentaries (see Rashi to Deut. 1:13 and Prov. 1:5, and Radak to I Kings 3:12).

The Talmud (Chagigah 12a) teaches that G-d created the world using ten different qualities, the first three of which are chochmah, tevunah and daat. Rashi (there) repeats his approach to the difference between chochmah and tevunah, but explains daat in this context as “reconciliation.” Why in this case does Rashi define daat differently than in the case of Betzalel?

Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Burnstein (1946-2017) resolves this issue by explaining that, when taken together, both passages teach one lesson. He explains that the term daat denotes a form of “connection”, thus “knowing” in the Biblical sense is a euphemism for conjugal intimacy (Gen. 4:1) or familial connection (Ruth 2:1). Accordingly, daat consists of connecting all the pieces together and coming out with a final resolution in which everything jibes. In this way, daat refers to “reconciliation,” while at the same time it also denotes knowledge, which one had attained through Divine Inspiration, because that is also a form of connection. Divine Inspiration essentially stems from a person “connecting” himself to G-d, and thereby becoming privy to details that are not visible to the naked eye. Through Divine Inspiration one can see the bigger picture and have access to all the pieces that need to be reconciled. (See Nefesh HaChaim 1:6, who explains that the word daat in the term Eitz HaDaat Tov V’Ra, “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil,” refers to the forbidden fruit’s ability to bring about the interconnectivity of good and evil. The Vilna Gaon (to Prov. 2:5) similarly explains that daat refers to the dialectic reconciliation of contradictory ideas.)

If daat refers to the ability to connect two separate things, then it also presumes the mechanism by which separation can occur. Indeed, the ritual “separation” between the Sabbath and the work-week (Havdalah) is recited in the prayer for knowledge, as the Rabbis quipped (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 5:2): “If there is no daat, from where can there be havdalah (‘separation’)?”

Rabbi Chaim Friedlander (19239-1986) writes that the “connection” alluded to in daat represents the nexus of the intellectual and the emotional. He explains that it refers to “connecting” one’s intellectual knowledge with one’s emotions, thus totally internalizing that which he knows. Rabbi Avraham Bedersi HaPenini (a 13th century scholar) also writes that daat is associated with emotions and feelings.

Interestingly, Rabbeinu Yonah (to Avot 3:17) writes that daat refers to the ability to independently think of new ideas. Perhaps he understands that the “connections” denoted by the term daat refer to forging new connections between neurological synapses in the brain, which serve as the biological basis for acquiring new knowledge.

Kabbalists (see Eitz ChaimShaar Ha’Amidah ch. 11) have long noted that these three forms of knowledge (chochmah, binah and daat, often abbreviated as ChaBaD), correspond to the first three Sefirot used to describe the ways we perceive G-d’s influence in the world: chesed, gevurah andtiferetChesed refers to G-d’s kindness in bestowing upon us an unlimited influx of energy, gevurah denotes our perception of Him sometimes limiting His influence in the world based on our actions, and tiferet refers to the happy medium achieved when He creates a balance between chesed and gevurah.

By this model, chochmah refers to receiving knowledge from others, in accordance with what we have seen throughout this study. Binah, on the other hand,refers to intuiting knowledge based on what one already knows, with only limited input from outside. Daat, then, refers to the balancing act of harmonizing received knowledge with intuited knowledge. It represents the final product that results from taking raw chochmah and processing it through binah. As Rabbi Shaul Levi Mortera (1596-1660) so succinctly writes, chochmah is acquired, binah is natural, and daat is a synthesis of those two possibilities.

Interestingly, Dr. Michael G. Samet (a brother of Ohr Somayach’s Mashgiach Rav Yehuda Samet) told me that he once pointed out to Yale professor Robert J. Sternberg that his Triarchic Theory of Intelligence closely resembles the three types of intelligence we have been discussing, and the latter was quite taken aback by this finding.

In many cases, the Torah refers to all three levels of wisdom/knowledge in tandem (e.g., Ex. 31:3). However, in one particular instance, the absence of daat is quite conspicuous. When Moses warns the Jewish People to adhere to the Torah’s laws and precepts, he says: “And you shall guard them and you shall do them, for it is your wisdom (chochmah) and your insightfulness (binah) in the eyes of the nations, who will hear about all these statutes, and they will say, ‘This great nation is naught but a wise and insightful nation’” (Deut. 4:6). Why does Moses mention chochmah and binah in this passage, but not daat?

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Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer accounts for the absence of the word daat in this context by submitting that the non-Jews who are not privy to the contours of the Torah cannot achieve the level of wisdom/knowledge known as daat. They can reach only the levels of chochmah and binah, but they are not able to reach daat. However, his brother, Rabbi Eliyahu Tzion Sofer, infers that even binah cannot be found among the gentiles, as the Midrash in Eicha Rabbah 2:48 teaches: “If somebody tells you there is chochmah among the gentiles, believe him,” implying that if one said there either is binah or daat among them, he should not be believed.

Rabbi Y. C. Sofer explains that it is for this reason that when Joseph told Pharaoh to appoint a wise man to oversee storing excess produce for the future years of famine, he said: “And now Pharaoh should see an insightful (navon) and wise (chacham) man and appoint him over the Land of Egypt” (Gen. 41:33). Indeed, Pharaoh appointed Joseph to precisely that position, saying to him, “There is none insightful (navon) and wise (chacham) like you” (Gen. 41:39). In both of these verses, only cognates of chochmah and binah appear, but daat is completely absent. Rabbi Sofer explains that this points to Pharaoh’s inability to reach the level known as daat. Because daat was something beyond Pharaoh’s grasp, Joseph left out that word, and, likewise, Pharaoh’s detachment from daat hindered his ability to see that Joseph was not just a chacham and a navon but also a yodea.

About the Author
RABBI REUVEN CHAIM KLEIN is an editor and researcher at the Veromemanu Foundation in Israel. His weekly articles about synonyms in the Hebrew language appear in the OhrNet, as well as in the Jewish Press, Jewish Tribune, and Times of Israel. Rabbi Klein grew up in Valley Village, CA where he studied at Emek Hebrew Academy and Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles. He then studied at Yeshivat Mir in Jerusalem and in Beth Medrash Govoha of America in Lakewood, NJ, before finally making Aliyah in 2011. He is the author of Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew (Mosaica Press, 2014) and God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry (Mosaica Press, 2018), as well as countless articles and papers published in various journals. Rabbi Klein is also available for hire in research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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