Malki-Tzedeq and Birkhas Avos

Compare these two snippets. I added color to highlight my point.

First, Bereishis 14:19-20. A massive regional war just completed, and Avraham joins the kings he fought with. Malki-Tzedeq the king of Shaleim (the future Jerusalem) and priest of the Kel Elyon (most high G-d) serves food and blesses him:

וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ וַיֹּאמַר: “בָּרוּךְ אַבְרָם לְאֵ-ל עֶלְיוֹן קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ.
וּבָרוּךְ אֵ-ל עֶלְיוֹן אֲשֶׁר מִגֵּן צָרֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ”, וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ מַעֲשֵׂר מִכֹּל.

He blessed him and said:
“Blessed be Avraham to the Most High G-d, Owner of heaven and earth.
“And Blessed be the Most High G-d who delivered your enemies in your hands.”
And he gave him a tenth of all [the booty].

And now, Birkhas Avos, the first blessing of the Amidah:

אֵ-ל עֶלְיון. גּומֵל חֲסָדִים טובִים. וְקונֵה הַכּל. וְזוכֵר חַסְדֵּי אָבות. וּמֵבִיא גואֵל לִבְנֵי בְנֵיהֶם לְמַעַן שְׁמו בְּאַהֲבָה: מֶלֶךְ עוזֵר וּמושִׁיעַ וּמָגֵן: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, מָגֵן אַבְרָהָם:

… Most High G-d, Supporter through good generosity, Owner of everything, Who remembers the generosity of the forefathers and brings the redeemer to their children’s children for the sake of His Reputation, with love.
King, Helper, Savior, and Protector.
Blessed are You Hashem, the Protector of Avraham.

And in case you find comparing “Qonei shamayim va’aretz” and “Qonei hakol” a stretch, note that on Friday night, in a shortened repetition of the Amidah, the Chazan does use “Qonei Shamayim va’aretz“. Chazal did consider them roughly identical; although it would be interesting to explore why they changed the expression from “heaven and earth” to “everything”.

To further this comparison, Malki-Tzedek’s titles for G-d — “Keil Elyon” and “Qoneih haKol” — are uniquely found in this story (here and in Avraham’s reply) and nowhere else in Tanakh. They also make very weak theological claims: “Keil Elyon” is true — Hashem is the Highest Power. But it can be asserted by a Canaanite who happens to believe that El is greater than his other deities. Similarly, as the Creator, of course Hashem owns what he created. But to only call Him “Owner” also includes people who don’t believe in creation. These phrases make sense for Malkhi-Tzedeq, who was trying to preach monotheism even before Avraham. (Our sages associate him with Sheim, Noach’s son.) They allow him to build a student base without confronting too many of their beliefs up-front. But they are odd expressions for us Jews to use in prayer — and in fact they do not appear elsewhere in the siddur, either.

I think therefore it’s clear that the Amidah is making reference to Malki-Tzedeq’s blessing. And moreso, a blessing of “אֱ-להֵינוּ וֵא-להֵי אֲבותֵינוּ. אֱ-להֵי אַבְרָהָם, אֱלהֵי יִצְחָק, וֵאלהֵי יַעֲקב — G-d as we perceive Him, G-d as perceived by Avraham, by Yitzchaq, and by Yaaqov” uses terms from a less developed perception of Deity, language of Malki-Tzedeq who attempts to be a priest between idolators and the Creator without confronting his “congregation”.

I am not sure what to make oft this — it’s counterintuitive. Perhaps the point is just that — to identify the lofty conception of G-d the avos discovered with the concept their contemporaries grappled for when they looked at creation. That the G-d of revelation is the G-d of nature.



I noticed that there are two types of middos — intransitive and transitive. I mean those terms in the grammatical sense: Intransitive middos have no object, no specific target. Sadness is what I would call an intransitive middah, as it’s a state of mind rather than part of a relationship with another. Transitive ones express an attitude toward an object. Something close to a transitive version of sadness is disappointment; we don’t get sad at someone, but we can be disappointed in them.

Admittedly the line gets blurry when one discusses a transitive middah but it’s about the relationship between me and myself. Is frustration with oneself really transitive? But we do feel a subtle difference when frustrated with ourselves and frustrated with “the universe”, with no specific target.

A second distinction I would like to draw before plunging into the topic of gratitude is that between perceptions and responses. We do not respond to the world, we respond to how we perceive the world. A while back I wrote about the conflict in psychological circles about the origins of our personalities, the famous debate of “nature vs. nurture”. I asked what room either option (or both) would leave for free will. I noted that if one takes the “nurture”, i.e. the environment side, one is assuming that people respond to the world, not respond to the word as we choose to see it. Like the famous picture that looks either like a beautiful young woman or her cronish mother (see the earlier entry for the picture), we choose how we see the world.

We can choose to be frustrated with a child not following our directions, or challenged by the lack of language comprehension or organization skills that we still need to teach them. The choice is ours. Perhaps not while “in the moment”; the arena in which we are conflicted enough for the process to require conscious internal debate. As Rav Dessler would put it, our bechirah point may be elsewhere at this moment in our lives. But we can develop our middos with regard to our perception and change them in the long run.

Based on that perception, we respond. Often outwardly, but always there is an internal reaction. Anger is a response. The perception leads to frustration, frustration to anger.

Looking at gratitude, I am tempted to take some of the more discussed middos and break them down into a perception component and a response component. But I do not know if the generalization works. Does the term “ka’as” similarly refer only to the response, the way the word “anger” does (as I used it above)? There are so many different elements to anger, not all of which necessarily in play each time (frustration, blame, an egotistical expectation that I should be getting my way, etc…) , that I am inclined to believe that it is actually only about the common element in the response. But I am still unsure.


In the case of gratitude, there is certainly both an element of perception and of response.

The perception, in turn, also has two elements: Intransitive and transitive. In this section, I want to look at these two elements of the perception of gratitude.

I can feel grateful for having this apple. I have hakaras hatov, literally, a recognition of the good that is before me. I am happy because I have something to enjoy.

Then, I can turn it into a transitive feeling, going beyond being grateful for what I have, to look at who I am receiving from. I make a berakhah, I thank the One Who made this apple possible.

Similarly, when I say Modeh Ani, the prayer contains both elements: I am aware of the gift a new day is, having new opportunities. Then I thank Hashem for giving me that beautiful and precious thing that is a day.

Within the hakaras hatov aspect of the perception, looking at what good we have in our lives, we can be aware of the same good thing in more or less detail. We can be grateful for the apple. Or, we can be grateful that Hashem made it possible for people to plant the tree, sell it to the wholesaler, provide the means for an open market in apples, all the many elements that go into my wife finding it in a store display, her loving me and wanting me to have something to enjoy and eat healthier, and her buying it for me. Notice how, by spelling out the detail, one realizes more fully the greatness of the tov. The closer we look, the larger it looms.

This is a primary lesson in meseches Berakhos. The gemara has discussions for dozens of pages over which berakhah to make on what food. Why? Does our thanks for a banana really depend on whether we thank Hashem calling it the fruit of a tree, or whether we recognize that a banana “tree” is a perennial, and therefore we should thank Him for “the fruit of the ground”? I think that’s just the point — the attention to detail is critical. Without it, one can not fully recognize the good Hashem does for us.

Along with recognizing the full extent of the good we receive is acknowledging that there is a provider.

This is a central theme of Sukkos. On Sukkos we relive the Exodus, we again live in huts to commemorate the huts (man made or clouds) that we had in the desert. The Exodus was the one time in human history where all of man’s needs were provided for supernaturally, in a manner obviously of the “Hand” of G-d. My Sukkah is a reminder that the safety provided by my home is no less from Hashem than that experience was. And that our thanks to Hashem must be no less than theirs. This is why Sukkos is Chag haAsif, a fall harvest festival, involving the plants of Israel at a time when people are bringing crops in before the rainy season. It is not “kokhi ve’otzem yadi — my strength, and the might of my hand”. My success had a Provider.

Rabbi Ari Zivitofsky once mailed me a reprint of an article of his which reinforces this point. When we entered Israel with Yehoshua, we did so at the Yardein. The first plant we encountered were the “willows of the river”, as the Torah describes aravos. Next, we get to Yericho, the “city of date palms”, and Hashem provides a miracle to enable us to conquer it. Then, under Yehoshua, the people spread out through the central plain, where the fragrant bushes including hadasim grow. Last, toward the end of Yehoshua’s life and through the period of the Judges, we start settling along the Mediterannian coast, among the esrogim and other citrus fruit. Thus, while not all of the four species are crops, they are very much a reminder to be grateful. By holding the four species, are reminded of Hashem giving us the land and its flora.


And the number of things to be grateful for our countless.  We are currently discussing the shidduch crisis on Areivim, and someone who already told our chevrah that they got married much older than they had originally planned wrote, “I still feel like bentshing gomel when I read articles like this…”

But in truth, those of us who should bentch gomel (make the berakhah thanking G-d for a lifesaving event) are those of us who found our mates while still teens, and didn’t have any years of worry and distress. Every time I hear of someone making a se’udas hoda’ah (thanksgiving meal / party) for getting cured or for this close call or that, I thank Hashem for saving me from even needing a yeshu’ah. Every time my child crosses the street and there were no hidden cars, I got a bigger berakhah than that of the neighbor who thanked G-d that their son healed.

I learned this lesson the hard way.

A number of years ago, my daughter fell off a cliff onto a bed of rocks. Through Hashem’s Grace, she was given a clean bill of health not three months later; the broken bones rewoven, the torn tissue healed, and no permanent damage (b”H and ba”h). So, my wife an I made a Qiddush. But what about every child who ever day doesn’t fall off a cliff? Every time we cross the street, and no car comes turning around the corner?

Think how many things go right every day that we so take for granted we don’t think to thank Hashem and other people for providing. Of course, without the stories of close calls and repaired problems, we wouldn’t be able to. Who could possibly imagine everything that could have gone wrong, but didn’t?

In my career doing technology for financial firms, some part of the job — sometimes more, sometimes less — is a support role. To keep things running. I find that aspect of the business frustrating. Yes, sometimes support means adding a new system, making sure the program runs on the new upgrade, ramping up for handling more volume. But much of support is an attempt to be invisible. A trader wants to think about trading, and everything about the software, machines, and the staff who provide them to him should be as transparent as possible. If there is a problem, they’ll notice — usually quite heatedly. But when you’re succeeding, you should be unnoticable.

I was thinking (and this is the whole reason for updating this post) that this might be the a major point of the second berakhah of Shemoneh Esrei. The berakhah is titled by its authors “Gevuros“, that it speaks of Hashem’s Might, and if we take the word with all its connotations from Qabbalah, His “self-restraint”, the might it takes to hold firm. The body of the blessing, though, is about how Hashem repairs things that go wrong, how He consistently saves us. The phrase “mechayeh meisim — revives the dead” appears repeatedly, including in the closing. Also, “someikh nofelim — supports the fallen”, “rofei cholim — heals the sick”, “matir assurim — releases captives”.

In Ashirah Lashem, I focus on how gevurah is the self-restraint a parent excercises when teaching their baby how to walk. There is a strong desire to step in and catch the child, hold her hands and keep her from falling. However, in order to become an independent person, she has to be able to walk on her own. The parent’s gevurah is a greater kindness than following our loving instincts. So too, Hashem lets us mess up and cause problems in our lives.  And so, tied to gevurah is this notion of repair — keeping us autonomous, but also making sure that we only remain with our problems in the ways He wishes us to.

However, there is another aspect to it that came to me thanks to this discussion. Without Hashem allowing us to have these close calls and noticing Him save us from them, we would be unable to appreciate everything else, all the times He stepped in to allow our lives to run smoothly. One might think that in the ideal world everything runs smoothly. But then, Hashem (like technical support) would largely be invisible. It’s only the times He shows restraint and only afterwards saves us that allow us to occasionally notice our dependcy on Him even during the other, easier, times.


Why is this way of perceiving the world, to be grateful for everything we get, so difficult? To draw on Rav Shimon Shkop’s thought (introduction to Shaarei Yosher):

[I]in the very foundation of the creation of Adam, the Creator planted in him a very great measure of propensity to love himself. The sages of truth describe the purpose of all the work in this language, “The Infinite wanted to bestow complete good, that there wouldn’t even be the embarrassment of receiving.” This discussion reveals how far the power of loving oneself goes, that “a person is more content with one qav [a unit of measure] of his own making than [he would be of] two qavin that are given to him” – even if from the Hand of the Holy One! – if the present is unearned.

From here it should be self-evident that love of oneself is desired by the Holy One, even though “the wise shall walk because of it and the foolish will stumble over it.” In my opinion, this is true despite all the evil and sin that the world is full of because of this middah of self-love. Added to the challenge of wealth, this middah will cause him to stumble until the depths, as it is written, “Lest I grow full and deny.” Because of the greatness of a person’s attachment to his own qav, if Hashem graced him with wealth, and he believes with complete true faith that everything is the Holy One’s, he is in truth poor. What he has isn’t his. However, if he denies G-d, then it is all his and he is in his own mind truly wealthy. Therefore, to satisfy his desire to enjoy his wealth, he will habituate himself to deny G-d, and then his error is complete. …

How could we not take things for granted? How could we plan our actions, to be autonomous creative beings, if we couldn’t plan based on expecting things to go as usual? Our need to be people requires shoving things not under our control to the mental background, and to focus on and take pride in that which we can produce. To create, we need to love ourselves and what we create.

This in turn explains why Chag haAsif, Sukkos as the holiday of gratitude, is also “Zeman Simchaseinu“, our period of greatest joy. Rav Shimon, continued:

With this one can explain what is said, “Yismach Mosheh… Moses will be joyous with the giving of his portion, because You called him a reliable servant.” There is no joy in receiving a bit of wisdom unless he is a reliable servant who possesses nothing, that it is all his Master’s. Only then there is complete joy in acquiring wisdom. Without this [attitude] it is possible that there is no happiness in acquiring wisdom, for it through it he is capable of defending to heresy.

Only through being grateful can we handle being recipients with simchah, with joy.

There are a number of entries on the topic of simchah, relating the contentment-happiness of “Who is wealthy? One who is samei’ch with his lot” and the need to be an idealist in order to properly see one’s lot in life and its value. Thus, “uleyishrei leiv simchah — the straight-of-heart have simchah“. And only the yishrei leiv have gratitude, can overcome the need for it to be his qav, because it’s the goal that matters.


When it comes to responses, gratitude engenders two kinds of changes in how we relate to the one who provided for us.

The first I would call shib’ud. This is the shif’il conjugation of the root that gives us avodah (work, service) and eved (servant). Shif’il is an Aramaic conjugation, borrowed here into Mishnaic Hebrew, meaning a minor servitude. In modern terms, since that metaphor no longer resonates, we would use fiscal language – indebtedness.

Shib’ud is a good response, in that it shows a real hakaras hatov. However, it is suboptimal — good, not great. Shib’ud is the setting up of a favor bank, and trying to keep one’s balance in the positive. After all, if I can repay someone’s favor, I am a self-made person again, my self-love unthreatened. The qav is mine, I paid for it!

However, a superior response is “todah“. First, to return again to the introduction to Shaarei Yosher:

Although at first glance it seems that feelings of love for oneself and feelings of love for others are like competing co-wives one to the other, we have the duty to try to delve into it, to find the means to unite them, since Hashem expects both from us. This means [a person must] explain and accept the truth of the quality of his “I”, for with it the statures of [different] people are differentiated, each according to their level. The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people, since in truth every Jewish person is only like a limb of the body of the nation of Israel. And there are more levels in this of a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love all of the Jewish people and [even] all of creation.

In my opinion, this idea is hinted at in Hillel’s words, as he used to say, “If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?” It is fitting for each person to strive to be concerned for himself. But with this, he must also strive to understand that “I for myself, what am I?”

In the ideal, I can acknowledge what I receive from others because I can realize that they are not outside of my “I”. We are parts of a single greater whole.

What does “todah” mean? As it stands, it means “thanks”. The same root conjugated as “vidui” means to “confess”. Last, when the mishnah wants to stress that something is outside of a dispute, “hakol modim” — “all agree”. What do thanks, confession and agreement have in common?

When I thank someone, I acknowledge his actions had an impact on me. When I confess, I am admitting that my actions had an impact on him. And when we are modim, we realize that an idea isn’t mine or yours, but ours. The point in common in the three uses of the root is a realization of connectedness. I wrote a few years ago:

Do roads exist to connect cities, or do cities exist to serve the roads? We naturally assume the former, that roads are built to allow people and goods to travel from one center to another.

However, historically speaking, it’s usually the reverse. Medina, in Saudi Arabia, grew from the crossroads of trading routes. Canaan was at the crossroads of three continents, and its very name comes from the word for “traders”. This is why the Israel of Na”kh was so often crossed by the soldiers of Assyria and Egypt, en route to the other to battle. And being at a traffic center placed us in the ideal situation to influence world thought. Because of the centrality of shipping, New York, Baltimore and Boston all grew around their harbors, and many European cities are on rivers — London, Paris, Budapest, Frankfurt, etc…

Moshe Rabbeinu lacked his full prophetic gift from the time of the Golden Calf until the rise of the next generation. The Or haChaim explains that this is because “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh” (Shevu’os 39a, as more reliably recorded in the Ein Yaaqov), which is usually translated “All Jews are guarantors one for another”. That’s consistent with another version of the quote, which ends “lazeh” (for this). However, “ba-”, in, implies a different meaning of the word “areivim”, mixture. All Jews are mixed, one into the other. Moshe’s soul did not stand alone, it is connected and overlaps those of the rest of the nation. When they lowered themselves with the calf, Moshe’s soul was diminished.

We are called Yehudim because only the descendants of the Kingdom of Judea returned after the Babylonian Exile, and of those tribes, Yehudah’s perspective dominated. We are Jews because, as Leah said upon naming her son, “Hapa’am odeh es Hashem — this time, I will thank G-d”. To be a Jew is to be a thanker, to acknowledge the connection.

Note that this implies a strong connection between Yom Kippur as a day of vidui, and Sukkos, the holiday of hoda’ah and consequent simchah. Vidui leads to an awareness of my role as a contributor in the greater whole, from which follows hoda’ah, an awareness of all I gain as being part of that whole. And knowing that one lives for a greater good is the key to simchah, happiness in the sense of contentment with one’s lot and role in life.

And this is why the founding of what would become the Jewish People had to be with an Exodus-like experience, leading us to hakaras hatov for our Creator and from there to true hoda’ah and areivus as one community.

Types of Thought: Dictionary

A while back, last time I had a chance to complete a blog entry, I promised a dictionary of terms for thought. When writing it up, I noticed I had MUCH more to say on da’as / dei’ah / yedi’ah than the other topics. In any case, here is the result.


According to the Rambam, yedi’ah is at the center of man’s mission. We exist in order to gain da’as of Hashem. In the Aristotelian understanding of knowledge, to know something is to have its form in one’s mind. Form, in the sense of form and substance — tzurah vechomer. It is man’s ability to have elements of Tzuras E-lokim in one’s soul that gives it the ability to survive eternally. This unity of knower and known is why yedi’ah is also the term used for marital intimacy.

Also, to the Rambam, da’as is tied to one’s personality. The laws of how one is to behave, what we call today “middos“, are to him Hilkhos Dei’os. This too he probably would have framed using Aristotelian terminology. Aristotle saw emotions as primarily a product of thought. Thus, da’as, the knowledge which shapes one’s thoughts are indeed dei’os.

Today we see it more as a cycle, thought shaping our emotions, but our emotions also shaping what we choose to think. To quote someone I enjoy quoting (me), “The mind is a wonderful organ for justifying conclusions the heart already reached.” This is why we find that the experience of a Shabbos has done more to preserve Judaism, and to bring people back to observing halakhah, than all of the philosophical arguments ever could. It is the heart of the Kuzari’s objection to reliance on philosophy; what any one philosopher proves, another proves something contradictory, each convinced their proof is solid — and in accordance with their personal predilections.

But this does not distance da’as from dei’os. Quite the reverse. Because they feed each other in a cycle, they are even less separable; it is harder to define where one ends and the other begins.

It would seem from the introduction to Orchos Tzadiqim that in her opinion (most scholars believe that the anonymous author of this originally Yiddish work was a woman), dei’os are the capacities themselves. Ka’as (anger) for example. She switches to the word middah when discussing the frequency or intensity of various dei’os. One person may become angry frequently. Another, perhaps less often, but when he goes into a rage he loses all self control. “Middah” is being used here in it very literal sense, the “dimensions” of the dei’ah.

Da’as reemerges in a central role in Telzhe, where the Mussar Shmuess (impassioned Mussar talk) is reinvented as R’ Eliyahu Meir Bloch’s Shiurei Da’as. Rather than using fervor and passionate experience to influence emotion, in Telzhe they focused on the intellect as their route to perfecting middos. Telzhe aspired to acquire tzurah, not the Tzurah of Hashem (as the Rambam had it), but of His Thought, the Torah. To acquire a tzurah of Torah in one’s mind, da’as Torah as a personal goal of anyone engaged in Torah study. (As opposed to something solely possessed by a distinct class of “the gedolim“.) By delving into the Why of a halachic dilemma, the Telzher reaches depths below the division of halakhah and aggadita. Connecting halakhah to its values so that one becomes unified with those values.


Tanya: Initial insight. The moment when you get an idea, but haven’t articulated it to yourself yet to work it through and develop it. The Baal haTanya notes that the word is an anagram for “koach mah — the potential of ‘what is?'” It is from this that he builds his understanding of the Chaba”d progression. (See last month’s contrast of Chaba”d, looking at the emanation of wisdom from G-d to man, and Deva”sh, focusing on man’s use and control of the resulting knowledge.)

Rav S.R. Hirsch: Accumulated knowledge. Arguably the opposite of the Tanya’s understanding.

The Brown-Driver-Briggs dictionary (usually called “the BDB”), based in Gesenius’s earlier (German) work, is a primary academic work on Biblical Hebrew. By far, not a “frum” work. There isn’t that much I can understand in their explanations of how they derive a definition, as they tend to involve cognates in other semitic languages, such as Amharic, Syriac, etc… printed in their native alphabets.

Here, the BDB gives “wisdom” or “technical skill”. An example of this usage is the Chumash’s description of the skilled and talented artisans who did the work on the mishkan — those who were “chakhmei leiv“.

Perhaps this is a facet of the general Chaba”d vs. Deva”sh dispute. Art requires two things: (1) Divine inspiration, a gift; (2) practice, practice and more practice. In nusach Sefard, where the focus in on G-d’s gift of intelligence, the chakhmei leiv are associated with initial ineffable insight granted by the Almighty. In nusach Ashkenaz, chakhmah is accumulated laboriously over years of practice, trial and error.


Rav Hirsch: The ability to make distinctions into categories (bein) through inductive reasoning, and the ability to inductively reason from a combination of ideas to their conclusions (livnos).


The BDB entry on binah has a sub-entry on tevunah, for which I was unable to find a precise definition in by a mesoretic source, and yet arises in Tana”kh and tefillah often enough to require our attention. They translate “tevunah” as the object of knowledge — the known, or that which could be known. It would seem to refer to the product of binah.


According to Rav Hirsch, haskeil is applying understanding. As we suggested in the comparison of Deva”sh vs Chaba”d, haskeil is bringing that da’as and binah to practical use. (For what it’s worth, the BDB has “consider or understand”.)


Rav Hirsch identifies a group of related roots:

  • hayah: to exist
  • chayah: to live, an intense form of existence, just as ches makes a sound that is similar but more intense than that of the hei
  • hineih: a place in which something exists, thus one worth noting
  • hagah: imagination. To picture something in one’s mind, a shadow existence.

It would seem that R’ SR Hirsch’s understanding of higayon is similar to what the Rambam calls koach hadimyon. (See “I Had a Dream“, “Ruach Memalela” and “Yeitzer haRa” for explorations of koach hadimyon.) When we say on Shabbos that we should praise Hashem “alei higayon bechinor — upon the higayon with the harp”, we could well be speaking with the sensory experience and the feelings it induces.

Rashi comments on Rabbi Eliezer’s final advice to his students (Berakhos 28b):

Be mindful of the honor of your peers, and keep your children from higayon, and place them between the knees of Torah scholars, and when you pray know before whom you stand – and on account of this you will merit the life of the world to come.

Rashi explains that higayon here means study of Tanakh “which draws the heart”, and R’ Eliezer fears may be to the exclusion of other Torah studies. This assumes a similar definition

Ramchal, on the other hand, wrote “Seifer haHigayon” on the subject of logic. Assuming a quite different definition than dimyon. The Ramchal may be drawing from the same tradition as Rav Hai Gaon, who understands Rabbi Eliezer as warning his students against sophistry, learning rules of argument to the point where you can argue any position, with no regard to truth.


Rav SR Hirsch associates the 7 lamps of the menorah with the verse in Yeshayah (11:2) “ונחה עליו רוח ה’ רוח חכמה ובינה רוח עצה וגבורה רוח דעת ויראת ה – and it rested upon him the spirit of G-dliness, the spirit of chokhmah and binah, the spirit of eitzah and gevurah, the spirit of da’as and awe of G-d.” Rav Hirsch illustrates this menorah with da’as (applied knowledge), eitzah and chokhmah (accumulated knowledge) branching to the right, yir’as Hashem, gevurah (strength to stay steadfast) and binah (reasoning) to the left. With ru’ach Hashem as the middle. This introduces eitzah as similar in kind to da’as and chokhmah, and therefore within the bounds of our discussion.

Rav Hirsch connects eitzah with other words meaning to aim. To give an eitzah is to give someone else direction. Whereas da’as is the product of my own thought, eitzah is applied knowledge acquired from without.

(Interestingly, a word in Biblical Hebrew for an advisor is aveh, from which Rav Hirsch says we get av, father. An interesting contrast to binah and ben – son.)


We touched on zikaron earlier, when discussing the relative strengths of da’as and binah between men and women. Man, zakhar, has the greater propensity for da’as, learned modes of thought, as opposed to the more free-ended reason of binah. The commonality of root implies that zikaron includes the capacity for da’as. The obligation to destroy “zeikher Amaleiq – memorials to Amaleiq” uses zeikher in the same sense as modern usage, memory. I would therefore suggest that zikaron is a general term, including da’as, tevunah, eitzah, and R’ Hirsch’s version of chokhmah — applied knowledge, logical conclusions, taught advice and collected wisdom.

I hope this little mini-dictionary will help someone say their tefillos with greater kavanah, as all these similar terms can be uttered with knowledge of more of their connotations. Please feel free to add your own experiences davening these words to the comments section below.

Types of Thought: Progressions

The first of the requests of the Shemoneh Esrei is Birchas haDa’as, the blessing on understanding. We first state “Atah chonein le’adam da’as – You grant humanity understanding, umelameid le’enosh binah – and teach man comprehension.” What is da’as that is chonein, granted freely, whereas binah is taught, and therefore requires that the student participate by learning it? And why is da’as a feature of adam, whereas binah is that of enosh?

The Reisha Rav, R’ Efrayim Levine (HaDerash vehaIyun, Parashas Bereishis), explains that da’as is knowledge of a single fact. Singular, like Adam, an individual. While “adam” means man, it is not pluralized. On the other hand, binah is the ability to combine ideas in order to produce new ones. Binah is most effective in a community, as anyone who studied with a chavrusah experienced. One of the forty-eight ways necessary to acquire Torah listed in Avos is “pilpul hatalmidim – the sharp give-and-take of the students”. (Beraisa Avos 6:6) The usual Hebrew word for people is anashim, plural of enosh. Enosh, Adam’s grandson, was the first generation to consist of multiple nuclear families living together. Adam and Chavah were a unique couple. Their children Kayin and Hevel certainly could not combine into a society, leaving Sheis and his wife as another unique couple. Until Enosh, there was no concept of “society.” Thus, binah was incomplete until Enosh.

Perhaps we can answer our first question by utilizing R’ Efrayim Levine’s idea. Binah requires working at the idea, the give and take. Da’as may be gifted, but binah cannot be fully absorbed that way. This is the need for ameilus baTorah, toiling in Torah, “melameid le’enosh binah.”

The Eitz Chayim, the tree-structure of the 10 sefiros of Qabbalah describing how G-d’s Good flows down to us, is described either with keser, a Crown that is the source of chokhmah and binah, or it has da’as, the synthesis of chokhmah and binah. We can look at da’as either as the product of thought, or as the source for future thought. The da’as of an idea is both what it is upon which binah acts, as well as the conclusion toward which binah works. This might distinguish da’as from the realm of zikaron. It’s not just knowledge, it’s knowledge that shapes thought.

Da’as‘s role in binah is pretty straightforward. They even teach courses in deductive and inductive reasoning; there are lists on line of common fallacies of reasoning (proof by authority, post hoc ergo propter hoc, etc…) Proper reasoning is a skill to be learned. The connection to chokhmah is less obvious. On the right is a famous picture by WE Hill “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law” (published 1915) that might help. Who one sees in the picture is decided preconsciously by what one brings to the experience. See also my earlier essay “Free Will and Environment“.

Shlomo Hamelech writes, “Have you found devash – honey? Eat only your limit of it lest you fill yourself and vomit it” (Mishlei 25:16). The Vilna Gaon explains the metaphor of honey, devash, as coming from its being an acronym of de’ah, binah, and seichel (insight). One’s progress in Torah needs to be slow and progressive. “Eat only your limit” – attempting for too much too rapidly invites failure.

The pasuk does not make sense if it means the cerebral and abstract pursuit of Torah. The Alter of Kelm told a student celebrating his third Siyum HaShas, “It is not a discussion of how many times you have gone through Shas, but how many times Shas has gone through you.” It is of that kind of Talmud Torah that Mishlei speaks. And it is that kind of self-changing wisdom that we ask for when we request dei’ah, binah, vehaskeil – knowledge (dei’ah), developed through reason (binah) to be applied in one’s life (haskeil).

Someone who tries for results without the skills, for dei’ah without da’as, haskeil without seikhel, tevunah without first aspiring for binah, can not retain either – they get vomitted out.

This version of the text recognizes the progression set up in the opening of the berachah. Adam receives da’as, Enosh develops it as binah, and request from Hashem that this progression continue into haskeil. However, it has the clause “chaneinu me’itecha – grant us from You,” which does not fit binah, and certainly not haskeil. Haskeil must be self-developed; people must have the power to shape how they apply their knowledge as action, or else there is no free will.

Perhaps the Nusach Sefarad chose a different progression because this implication is difficult. But it does so at the expense of continuity with the ideas already developed. In Nusach Sefarad, the progression is chochmah, insight, according to the Tanya (Likutei Sichos, ch. 2), the gifted-from-G-d awareness of an idea, raw, undeveloped. This is then developed in binah, and da’as, knowledge, is produced.

Rather than Ashkenaz’s progression from knowledge to action, Nusach Sefarad gives the progression from inspiration to knowledge. Nusach Ashkenaz focuses on how the intellect is used for self-perfection, sheleimus. Sefaradim and Chassidim speak of knowledge as a flow from G-d’s Divine Wisdom, a connection to Him, temimus. (See also the posts on the “forks” topic, the difference between the misnageid‘s quest for perfection in the image of G-d and the Chassid’s life-mission of cleaving to Him.)

Birkhas Avos

This chart combines the ideas contained two earlier divrei Torah.

The first is the idea of the Vilna Gaon that the first berakhah of the Amidah, Birkhas Avos, consists of iterations of variations on Moshe’s praise for Hashem – “HaKeil, HaGadol, HaGibbor VeHanorah.” See Mesukim MiDevash – Tetzaveh pp. 3-4.

The second is the concept that the berakhah follows a structure first used by David haMelekh and appears a number of times in Na”kh. (Mesukim MiDevash – Behar pp. 3-4)

My combining the two, we not only identify the five iterations of the same basic idea, we can explain how and why they differ.

I recommend printing it on the other side of the same piece of paper as this chart on the structure of Shema, to produce a page one can keep in their siddur.