Photo Credit: Jewish Press

We are often told of the importance of having emunah in Hashem, but what exactly is emunah? Emunah is often translated as “faith”; the dictionary defines faith as a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” Faith is generally viewed as a “personal opinion,” a “subjective belief,” an “emotional decision,” or a “blind leap.”

Knowledge (yediah), on the other hand, is objective, unconcerned with opinion and belief. Without knowledge, there is no basis for argument. For example, if two people argue over which flavor of ice cream is superior, chocolate or vanilla, they are simply expressing two subjective opinions; their arguing is fruitless. Neither side reflects the objective truth, because there is no objective truth in this case. These are both subjective beliefs. Knowledge deals with objective facts, that which is not subject to belief or opinion.


We therefore ended off our previous article with a profound question: we can either be commanded to have blind faith in Hashem or to know Hashem, but not both.

  • If we are commanded to know Hashem, what need is there for emunah (faith)?
  • And if we are commanded to have faith (emunah) in Hashem – to believe in something unknowable – how can we also be commanded to know Hashem?


Emes vs. Emunah

The answer is that both knowledge (yediah) and emunah are required, and knowledge of Hashem is, in fact, objective and attainable. However, emunah does not mean having faith in Hashem; it means being faithful to Hashem. The goal in life is to first achieve knowledge of the ultimate emes, true and objective knowledge of Hashem. Obtaining this knowledge of Hashem requires a serious commitment to the pursuit of emotional, intellectual, and post-rational truth.

The real challenge, however, is emunah – being faithful to that knowledge. As human beings, we uniquely possess free will. We can know for a fact that something is wrong, and yet choose to do it anyway. Take, for example, the case of a man diagnosed with Beurger’s disease, which makes him extremely sensitive to the nicotine in cigarettes. If someone with this condition smokes, the blood vessels constrict, leading to the loss of fingers, hands, and even full limbs, with almost one hundred percent certainty. Because this condition is fully linked to smoking, it can be avoided by simply not smoking. This man happens to be an intelligent engineer, fully aware of the consequences should he continue smoking. And yet, he fails to quit smoking, and over the course of a few months, he proceeds to lose both his legs and eventually his arm as well. Through all of this, even after losing his limbs, he continues smoking.

One might ask how this is even possible. The answer is simple. As human beings, we possess free will. We have the ability to choose whether to loyally live by the truth or to block out the truth – clouding our intellectual clarity for more immediate, mundane pleasures. This intelligent man was willing to endure extreme consequences, despite the shockingly clear effects of his actions, for the fleeting pleasure and instant gratification of a cigarette.

This principle is the key to understanding emunah. Emes is truth; emunah is being faithful to that truth. Chazal say, “Leis emunah b’lo emes,” there is no emunah without emes, and we say the paragraph of “Emes V’Emunah” every night in Maariv, right after Shema. (We mention this right after Shema, because emunah is the ultimate expression of “hearing” in the dark.) Emes is the objective truth; emunah is the attempt to align yourself with that truth and live faithfully according to it. The ideal is living with emunah to the emes, faithfulness to the objective truth. Without emes, though, emunah is empty.


The Fleeting Nature of Emes

Emes is the root, the starting point and anchor of everything, but our connection and relationship with it is often fleeting. Emes is like a flash of lightning, a spark of inspiration. A powerful speech, an inspiring moment, or a profound idea can change our whole perspective on life. Suddenly, we see everything so clearly, we realign our goals, and everything falls into place. However, the very next day, we often find ourselves right back where we were before, as if nothing ever happened. What happened to the clarity of that emes, the power of that vision?

This is the challenge of emes. It is powerful, but it is fleeting. It fades almost as quickly as it appears. The moment you stop thinking about the emes, that truth disappears from your consciousness. As we have explained before, the spark of inspiration is there to help you experience the goal, the destination. It’s a taste of what you can, and hopefully will, ultimately accomplish. But it’s not real; it’s given as a gift, and is therefore an illusion. It serves only as a guiding force, but it cannot compare to the genuine accomplishment of building something yourself. It is therefore taken away to allow for the second and most important stage, the stage of emunah: this is the phase of building, of undergoing the work required to attain this growth in actuality, to work for the perfection that you were shown. A gift is not real; something chosen and earned is. We are in this world to choose, to assert our free will, and to create ourselves. Now that we have tasted the first stage, the emes, we know what we’re meant to choose – what we can build. The third stage, achieved through the hard work of the second stage, is the completed rebuilding of the original perfection. While this stage may appear the same as the first, it is fundamentally different. It’s real, it’s earned, it’s yours. The first stage was a gift, a spark of emes, but an illusion. The third is the product of the effort and time you invested through the stage of emunah.


Transforming the Rational into the Experiential

The ideal is to reach the point where emes no longer fades away – where the truth of reality becomes ingrained in our consciousness to the point that it becomes our default, governing every aspect of our life. The question is, how do we achieve this?

When one knows something is harmful and eats it anyway, it’s generally not because they know this and choose to ignore it. It’s because they have the wrong type of knowledge. There are two forms of knowledge. Intellectual, conceptual knowledge dictates that 1+1=2. If someone asks you to solve this equation, you can easily do so using your rational faculties. But rational knowledge is not intrinsic knowledge; it is a skill and tool that you are able to utilize. Many people possess rational knowledge of morality and spirituality. Intellectually, they know what is moral and immoral, and intellectually, they know that Hashem exists. However, when a desire competes with our rational knowledge, it is all too easy to blind ourselves from the truth, pushing aside our conscience to make room for this conflicting desire.

There is another type of knowledge, however, which makes it impossible for one to ignore their moral compass. This is experiential knowledge, a type of knowledge that is known so deeply and powerfully that it becomes part of one’s very consciousness and self. This knowledge cannot be overcome, nor can one blind themselves to it, no matter how strong the competing desire. When one is so deeply aware of spiritual truth, so inseparably attached to Hashem, it is impossible to push that emes aside. It takes a lifetime of emunah, of commitment and faithfulness to the truth, to reach this point where one existentially connects to emes in such a powerful way. When one reaches this stage of knowledge, their very identity and self becomes a reflection of objective truth, of a higher reality. This truth cannot be blocked out; one cannot but live by it. (The Nefesh HaChaim explains that this is the type of knowledge that angels have. They understand reality with such a crystal-clear lens that it is virtually impossible for them to do anything but operate in line with the truth. While they do have a very limited sense of free will, doing something wrong as an angel would be akin to walking into a fire. They may have the free choice to do so, but the scalding hot flames are more than enough to stop them.) This is the challenge of emunah, this is the journey of life. (As the Maharal explains (Nesiv Ha’Emunah, chap. 2; see Sotah 48b and Rashi there), living a life of emunah creates a vessel for emes to flow into, creating a space for Hashem to enter. The smaller the vessel, the less you connect to emes; the more space you make, the more Hashem flows in.)


The Words Emes and Emunah

The essence of the relationship between emes and emunah is expressed in the words themselves. The word emes is comprised of the letters aleph, mem, and tav. Aleph is the first letter of the aleph-beis, mem is the middle letter, and tav is the very last letter in the aleph-beis. The word emes spans the entirety of the alephbeis, reflecting the nature of truth. (See Shabbos 55a and Rashi there.) Truth is holistic, all-encompassing, and objective. While the word emunah is very similar to emes, it has one distinct difference. Amen, the shoresh of emunah, begins with the same aleph and mem of emes, reflecting its source in ultimate truth. It concludes, however, with a nun, the letter in the aleph-beis that directly follows mem. Emunah is the process of working toward emes, the journey toward the ultimate, ideal endpoint. In the word emunah, aleph represents the initial flash of inspiration, mem represents the starting point – the place from where you must begin working toward the realization of that initial inspiration, and the nun following the mem represents the journey from mem toward tav, toward the ultimate and complete truth, toward emes. The word “amen” literally means, “let this be true.” It is an affirmation, a desire to attain and reflect emes.

In our next article, we will delve deeper into this fascinating topic and try to understand the nature of emunah on an even deeper level. In the meantime, may we all be inspired to continue to embark on the journey of becoming our ultimate selves!

Share this article on WhatsApp:

Previous articleThe People’s Talmud Presents: RANDOM Brain Teasers
Next articleGaza ‘Photojournalists’ Accused of Oct. 7 War Crimes
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, “The Journey to Your Ultimate Self,” which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an educator and speaker who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah thought, Jewish medical ethics, psychology, and leadership. He is also the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, the transformative online self-development course based on the principles of high-performance psychology and Torah. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received Semicha from Yeshiva University’s RIETS, a master’s degree in education from Azrieli Graduate School, and a master’s degree in Jewish Thought from Bernard Revel Graduate School. He then spent a year studying at Harvard as an Ivy Plus Scholar. He currently lives in Chicago with his wife and son where he is pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: