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Shiur #09: Da'at

  • Rav Ezra Bick



            The next thirteen berakhot form a single unit of requests, or, in the language of the Sages, "tachanunim" (supplication). The framework consists of a particular need requested within a unit of a berakha. The first need of man identified by the Sages in the formulation of Shemona Esrei is knowledge and wisdom:


You grant man knowledge (da'at),

and teach mortals understanding (bina).

Grant us from Yourself knowledge (de'ah), understanding (bina), and perception (haskel).

Blessed are You, Hashem, who grants knowledge.


(The translation here is tricky, and we shall try and explain each of the terms used in the course of the shiur. I have tried as accurately as possible to convey the import of each term, but, as we shall see, there are multiple meanings involved, as well as some ambiguity.)


A. Chanina


            The first thing we notice about this berakha is the unusual and difficult verb "chonen," which I chose to translate as "grant." The verb appears three times, once in the description of God's attribute ("You grant man knowledge"), once in the request ("Grant us from Yourself knowledge"), and once in the chatima ("who grants knowledge"). In the introduction to this series, I pointed out that in general the language of the berakhot is taken from Tanakh. This is true for most of the phraseology of this berakha as well, but NOT for this particular verb. The opening of this berakha echoes a verse in Psalms 94,10: "... He who TEACHES man knowledge." It is the same phrase, but the verb "teach" has been changed to "chonen." (The original verb is used in the second, parallel phrase of the berakha). Nowhere is the verb "chonen" used explicitly in connection with wisdom in Tanakh. Rather, it appears in a general context describing the relationship of God to man, most notably in the priestly blessing: "May God shine His face on you, and YECHUNEKA." (My English translation to this verse renders the verb here as "be gracious to you.") The translation I have chosen is based on the Talmud, which says that the verb is related to the word "chinam, which means "free, undeserved." God is "chanun" when he gives freely, a gift with "no strings attached," and one which has not been earned. Why have the Sages chosen to single out this verb to describe the act of giving man wisdom?


            The key, I would like to suggest, is in an additional phrase in this berakha. "Grant us FROM YOURSELF knowledge, understanding, and perception." Why is wisdom granted "from God's self?"


            The berakha is saying that da'at (wisdom) is different from all the other things that we ask of God. The object we are asking for is not CREATED by God in order to give it to us, but is SHARED by God with us. Da'at is not made by God, like food, and health, nor does it exist as a result of an action of God, like justice, forgiveness, or the building of Jerusalem. Da'at is itself an attribute of God. It is, in the words of the prayer, "from Yourself."


            This is, I think, the explanation for the use of the word "chonen" as the chosen verb to describe what we want God to do. Consider the archetype of "chanina" in the Torah, the above-quoted verse from the priestly blessing. "May God shine His face on you, and yechuneka." Notice that there is no direct object here - chanina is a result of God shining His face on us. It seems to apply that being in direct contact with God, face-to-face, directly results in our receiving chanina. How is that chanina reflected in our lives? The Shemona Esrei answers that the content of chanina, of being "shined upon" by God, is DA'AT, wisdom and understanding. The midrash to this verse in fact draws that very conclusion.


"May God shine His face on you, and yechuneka." From whence do we know that they are granted ("chanunim") even with knowledge and understanding? - Because it is written, "yechuneka." This is the way that we pray, "You grant man knowledge, and teach mortals understanding." (Bamidbar Rabba 11,6).


            The midrash is saying that we know that we are granted wisdom from the fact that the priestly blessing contains the blessing of chanina. Obviously, chanina means more than "granting." I am suggesting that it means "sharing," bringing us into His presence. Based on the metaphor of "May God shine His face on you," we may draw the conclusion that one on whom God shines His face is standing in the LIGHT of God. Chazal explain, what is the light of God? - knowledge, understanding, and perception.


            Hence, the unique request that this gift of God be "from Yourself." We are not asking God to give us something else, but to grant us a measure of Himself. In other words, beyond the particular content of this grant of God, we are asking for Him to share Himself with us. We are requesting the root of all religious experience, the cleaving unto God ("deveikut"), which RESULTS in wisdom.


            The reason for this is the deep-rooted Jewish belief that true human wisdom and understanding is the wisdom of God. Man is capable of sharing in the truth, in the Divine wisdom. The Rambam comments that the meaning of "the image of God" in which Man was created is the intellect. (In the previous shiurim on kedusha, I suggested a different explanation). The intellect of Man is itself divine, not a creation of God, but, according to the Rambam, the image of God.


B. The internal order of the berakha


            I think this explains another unusual aspect of this berakha. The order of the elements of the berakha is the reverse of the ordinary. Every other berakha in this middle group of thirteen requests has the following form:


1. An appeal to God to fulfill some request.

2. A summation ("mei'ein chatima") that states that God has the power to grant the particular request.

3. The "chatima" - Blessed are You, who performs the particular action.


            Some berakhot skip the second part, assimilating the "mei'ein chatima into the first part. But only the berakha of "Chonen Ha-Da'at" reverses the order of the first two parts, opening with a statement that God has the attribute to fulfill the request, followed by a request that He do so.  First "Ata chonen;" then "Chaneinu mei'itcha."


            Of course, one might claim that this change formulation is merely stylistic, due to the fact that this is the FIRST berakha in the middle section. As an opening to the section, it seems more polished to begin with a statement of praise, and only afterwards continue with the request. This may be true, but in light of what we have just explained, I think there is another explanation. In all the other requests, we need to ask God to provide what we lack, but there is no question of our ability to receive if He chooses to give. If God grants our request to benefit from health or prosperity, then of course we shall be healthy and prosperous. But in this case, the idea that we can have knowledge, understanding and perception - the knowledge, understanding, and perception OF GOD - is presumptuous, and perhaps even illogical. How can mere mortal man, finite and limited, share in the wisdom of God? Hence, even before requesting such an audacious request, we must first state that it is possible and appropriate, for we know that "You grant man knowledge, and teach mortals understanding." In this case, the praise is not the reason WHY we want God to provide for the need in question (as in the cases where it follows the request), but is the basis and sine qua non for the possibility of its provision - and therefore must precede the very request. Without this statement first, the request is absurd.


C. De'ah, bina, ve-haskel


            There are many discussions of the exact import of each of these terms. The translation I adopted at the beginning of the shiur is convenient - and I tried to make it as accurate as I could - but obviously when dealing with three close synonyms it cannot be totally accurate. This is complicated by the absence in some versions (Nusach Ashkenaz) of "chokhma," which is usually translated as "wisdom," and its inclusion in others, either as a fourth term (Rambam), or in place of "haskel" (Nusach Sefarad). (Interestingly enough, the Sifre on the verse from the priestly blessing writes: "Ve-yechuneka: With da'at, chokhma, haskel, MUSSAR, and bina." I am not aware of any version of the Shemona Esrei which includes "mussar" in this berakha.) Without getting into the details, I think it is fair to concentrate on the "chatima," which refers, like the opening line, exclusively to "da'at." This is almost always translated as "knowledge." I think, though, that it does not so much refer to information as to grasping the essence of something. The Sages regularly refer to "yodea et kono" - one who "knows" his creator. This does not mean that he has memorized a biography of God, rather that he is aware of God's presence in a deep inner sense of awareness. Of course, the most famous use of the "da'at" in this sense does not refer to intellectual knowledge at all - "Adam 'knew' his wife Chava" (Bereishit 4,1). It is specifically in this sense that I claim that da'at is FROM God Himself, from within Himself. We want to grasp the truth, to transcend the superficial gathering of sensory information and get to the essence of things, as God perceives them. True da'at requires the vantage of God. A prayer for da'at is a prayer that God Himself become part of our minds - grant us OF YOURSELF!


            Having brought ourselves into the direct presence of God, sharing in His wisdom, it is fitting that the very next blessing address a most basic problem with our ability to maintain that position – the existence of sin, the opposite of the presence of God. Hence, we continue (next week) with the blessing of repentance.