A Thought on the Blessing for Knowledge
Upon arising each day, after giving thanks for the restoration of consciousness in the Modeh Ani prayer, and then ritually washing one's hands, the traditional prayer book prescribes a brief recitation beginning with the concluding verse of Psalm 111, “Reishit chochmah yirat Adonay...The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord; all who practice it gain sound understanding (sechel tov).” As we continue our introductory prayers, we reach the Birchot Hashachar, the morning blessings, the place where the prayer leader generally starts chanting the service in most synagogues. Here the very first blessing gives thanks to God who gave the “sechvi” (variously interpreted as “the rooster” or “the human heart” ) understanding to distinguish between day and night. Wisdom, understanding, discernment, knowledge, these mental processes are what distinguish humans from our fellow creatures on earth and we are grateful each day for these intellectual gifts. Maimonides explains the term “tzelem Elohim” “the image of God” in which we were created as referring to the quality of wisdom which God granted us. Thus when we come to the weekday Amidah, the central prayer of the service which, as we've seen in earlier columns, contains a series of thirteen petitions, it should not surprise us that the very first request we make is for knowledge and understanding.
This bracha is very brief. These petitions follow a standard form. Generally they begin by requesting a particular gift from God, then go on to praise God for granting this gift and concluding with the bracha formula, Baruch ata Adonay, Praised are You, Lord. Who does such and such with regard to the item we are requesting. Ordinarily, any blessing is required to open with the familiar words, “Baruch ata Adonay, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam,” “Praised are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe. However, in a chain of blessings, like the Amidah, that formula occurs only at the beginning and is dispensed with on each subsequent blessing linked in this chain.
Our blessing is slightly different from the others in that it begins by acknowledging God's gifts of knowledge and understanding before making any request, “Ata chonen la-adam da'at.” “You grant Adam (Man, Human, Earthling) knowledge. “Chonen” comes from the word “Chein” which means grace. It is an act of grace on God's part to give us knowledge.“Um'lamed la'enosh binah,” “And You teach Enosh (another term for humankind, emphasizing our mortality) understanding, the same word we encountered earlier as the gift to the “sechvi” the rooster or the human heart, allowing one to make distinctions between day and night. Appropriately then, it is at this point that the prayer is interrupted at the end of Shabbat by an insertion about havdalah, distinguishing between Shabbat and weekdays among other things. (I'll come back to that addition in a short while.)
The prayer continues using the same verb of “showing grace”, “chonenu mei-itcha deah, binah, v'haskeil,” - “graciously grant us from You knowledge (deah and daat, come from the same root for knowledge), understanding, and (we now add), sechel, usually translated as discernment, though many of us recognize it as the Yiddish word for common sense. Rabbi Elliot Dorff distinguishes among these three items: de'ah, knowledge, he says is factual information, binah, he sees as the ability to analyze things, while sechel means experiential knowledge. This line actually varies in different traditions. In one of the earliest prayerbooks we have, that of Rav Saadiah Gaon (882 – 942), this line adds the word “chochmah” wisdom to this list of three intellectual qualities we request. The Machzor Vitry (11th century), from the school of Rashi, also includes “chochmah” but arranges the four terms in a different order. Our version is the same as that found in Maimonides' law code, the Mishneh Torah, omitting chochmah and leaving just the other three. The Chabad siddur, appropriately enough, asks for chochmah, binah, v'daat, the words whose acronym is “Chabad,” wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, and it omits “haskeil.” These three terms reflect Kabbalistic terms for the upper sefirot (the divine emanations) and follow the mystical tradition. I've also seen siddurim which give our standard version but add chochmah in parentheses, just to cover all bases. Wisdom is certainly something to desire even if it is not mentioned specifically.
The bracha concludes with the appropriate chatimah, closing, Baruch ata Adonay, chonen ha-da'at, Praised are You, Lord, who grants knowledge. One of the sages of the Jerusalem Talmud quotes, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi as saying, “It is surprising that we omit Chonen HaDaat on Shabbat. Without knowledge, how can one pray and without knowledge where does havdalah come from?” It seems that whether or not we formally request it, God graciously grants us this gift anyway. When we do offer this prayer during our weekday worship, we are urged to concentrate on these words and seek the understanding and discernment to reject evil and to choose to do good, harking back perhaps to that primordial tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
We might also reflect on the story of King Solomon in First Kings, chapter 3, who has a wonderful dream at Gibeon in which the Lord asks him what he wishes for and Solomon says, “Grant, then, Your servant an understanding mind to judge Your people, to distinguish between good and bad; for who can judge the vast people of Israel?” God is pleased with this response and tells Solomon in this dream that He grants that wish and all that Solomon did not ask for: riches, long life, and victory over his foes as well. It may have been a dream, but the Bible tells us that it was fulfilled beyond expectation.
As mentioned above, the prayer of havdalah is added into this blessing on Saturday night at the end of Shabbat and at the end of Yom Tov. It seems inappropriate to bring our petitions to God again before we have ended the holy day. This insertion formally marks the end of Shabbat or Yom Tov even though it is customary afterward to perform havdalah once more over a cup of wine with spices and a braided candle. (Since we've said this havdalah first, there is no violation of the Shabbat prohibition on fire in lighting the candle for this ceremony afterward.)
The words added here provide a lovely conclusion for the holy day and a prayer for the coming week as well. After the opening line of the blessing, we add: “You graciously granted us knowledge of Your Torah, teaching us to fulfill the laws You have willed. You set apart the sacred from the profane (bein kodesh l'chol), even as you separated light from darkness (bein or l'choshech), singled out the people Israel from among the nations (bein yisrael la-amim) and distinguished Shabbat from the six workdays (bein yom hashabbat l'sheshet y'mei ha-ma'aseh).” These are the identical words we recite in the havdalah over the cup. At this point, we address God as Avinu Malkenu, Our Father and our Sovereign, as we pray for the week ahead, “May the coming days bring us peace. May they be free of sin and cleansed of wrongdoing; may they find us more closely attached to you.” We then resume the regular words of the blessing, “and grant us knowledge, understanding, and discernment.” With this we conclude with the blessing, “Praised are You, Lord, who grants knowledge.”
Rabbis Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen recall the words of the Degel Machaneh Yehudah of Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Ephraim of Sudilkov who cites a tradition in the name of his grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, “Wisdom is like water issuing forth from a wellspring. The more one draws, the stronger the flow. And like life-sustaining water, wisdom too increases with the space in which it can spread out. In this way, when wisdom is allowed to flow into one's personality and behavior, one become both physically and spiritually purified. Such intellectual purification goes beyond its source in the individual. Wisdom also nurtures one's friends and students, even as they, by paying attention and taking it into themselves, provide it with an ever-growing expanse in which it can spread out and increase.”