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.

And your thoughts...?