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Jewish tradition has long viewed the menorah as a symbol of wisdom (see Bava Basra 25b). As an ode, therefore, to Chanukah, we will explore the Hebrew words associated with knowledge (“chachmah,” “tevunah”/“binah,” and “daat”).

Chachmah (wisdom) is a form of knowledge associated with a chacham. Who is a chahcham? One who learns from all people, says Pirkei Avos (4:1). The chacham casts his net as wide as possible, looking to accrue wisdom from all possible sources of information.

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The Talmud (Tamid 32a) says a chacham can foresee future consequences. According to this explanation as well, the chacham holds wide-ranging wisdom allowing 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” can refer to anyone who has mastered a certain body of knowledge – whether it’s carpentry (Isaiah 3:3 and 40:20), snake-charming (Psalms 59:6), or engineering (see Exodus 31:6). Even cunningness and political ingenuity can be considered a form of chachmah (see II Sam. 13:3 and Jeremiah 4:22). When the Bible speaks of a chacham, however (especially in the Book of Ecclesiastes), it refers specifically to a religious scholar, says Rabbi Bedersi.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) traces the words “chacham” and “chachmah” to the two-letter root chet-kaf, which means waiting or delaying. “Michakeh” (waiting or anticipating) comes from this root, as does “chakah” (Job 40:25, Isaiah 19:8, and Habakuk 1:15), which is a net, a trap that one sets and then waits for the fish to enter. A chacham is a wise man who doesn’t rush through his studies. Rather, he waits/delays so he can deliberate over the material more thoroughly.

(Rabbi Pappenheim also argues that “cheich” [palate] comes from “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] likely derive from “cheich.”)

In addition to chachmah is tevunah/binah, which is knowledge acquired by a navon, whom the Talmud (Chagigah 14a) says is meivin davar m’toch davar (understands one matter from another) – i.e., he or she derives new ideas from lessons he or she previously learned.

Rabbi Bedersi connects “tevunah”/“binah” to “bein” (between). A discerning navon is 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 “tevunah”/“binah” to the biliteral root bet-nun, which denotes building. Thus “boneh” (to build); “even” (rock) and “teven” (straw), which are materials used to build; “ben” (son), a progeny one “built”; and avnayim (birthing stool). Binah essentially refers to the ability to build on a given idea by applying it to something else and extrapolating further. (The English word “maven” derives from the Hebrew “meivin” [understands] by way of Yiddish.)

Most authorities use “tevunah” and “binah” almost interchangeably, but Rabbi Pappenheim argues that “binah” refers to the ability to understand the big picture, even if it comprises many different components, while “tevunah” refers to the ability to break down an overarching big picture into its smaller components.

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).

The Malbim writes that chachmah is a practical form of wisdom, while tevunah/binah is a more abstract form of understanding. He explains that the word “chachmah” is only used when the opposite of chachmah is also possible. In other words, if something can be done in two ways – the smart way and the dumb way – the intelligence needed to choose the smart way is called chachmah. Thus, chachmah is primarily a smart way of acting.

The Malbim also writes that true chachmah can only come by way of Divine revelation since human beings cannot known for certain what the smartest way of behaving is. When we use “chachmah” in other contexts, we are using it in a borrowed sense.

Binah, writes the Malbim, is a more abstract form of cleverness. A person who can understand complex allegories or solve riddles draws on his or her binah. A person who acquires binah can take into account everything he or she has perceived and use that information to arrive at intelligent, logically-sound conclusions. According to the Malbim, daat is the certainty of the resultant knowledge and conclusions that come through binah.

In reference to Torah knowledge, chachmah is the raw information found in the Written Torah, binah is 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 explanation is found in the Zohar (see Matok M’Dvash to Yisro 85a), the Vilna Gaon’s Biurei Aggados (Bava Kamma 92b), and the Vilna Gaon’s commentary to Proverbs.

Using this paradigm, Rabbi Eliyahu Tzion Sofer explains that the Syrian-Greeks at the time of the Chanukah miracle specifically opposed binah because they denied the significance of the Oral Torah. That’s why “Maoz Tzur” refers to the Jewish people as the children of binah when describing their victory over the Greeks and the establishment of Chanukah – for it was the Jews’ commitment to the Oral Torah (binah) that turned the tide against Hellenism and led to victory.

(To be continued)

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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.