Photo Credit: Jewish Press

We might expect that centuries of sages would have compiled copious catchphrases covering everything we need to know about wisdom.

But while biblical sources show us where to start: “The beginning of wisdom is fear of G-d,” we soon get bogged down in a mass of diverging advice. Who is wise? Maybe the person who “learns from all people” or alternatively the one “who perceives the results of their actions” (ro’eh es hanolad). A further Mishnah in Avot lists seven identifying characteristics of a chacham – though many would seem merely to reflect good manners and organization.


On some occasions chachma-related teachings appear downright bizarre: “say to wisdom – you are my sister.” While chachma bagoyim ta’amin (you can accept that non-Jews have wisdom), wisdom of the Greeks remains strictly off-limits. One’s chachma-possessing child can be expected – at least on Seder night – to inquire: “What are the remembrances, statutes, and laws that Hashem, our G-d, has commanded you?”

Perhaps the key lies in Rambam’s introduction to the Moreh: Real chachma involves being able to decode and explain riddles. Starting, it would seem, with the ability to navigate and reconcile the sages’ various chachma-orientated teachings.


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Rabbi Shmuel Phillips is the author of Judaism Reclaimed: Philosophy and Theology in the Torah" (from which this is adapted). He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and four children.