The Priority of Knowledge

Author: Ronni Suna, Tamuz 5767/June 2007

This is a talk given in one of the Etta Kossowsky Study Groups by Ronni Suna, dedicated to the memory of Rav Izhak Shlomo ben Hillel and Miriam Chaya bat Shmuel.


Ata chonen le adam da'at. These are the opening words of the fourth beracha, which is also the first blessing of the middle section of the Amida.

Ata chonen le adam da'at u melamed le enosh bina. Chaneinu mei itecha da'at bina ve haskel. Baruch ata H' chonen ha da'at.

You grant man knowledge and teach the human being insight. Grant us Your knowledge, insight and discernment. Blessed are You Who grants knowledge

We learn from Midrash that the blessings of the Amida are associated with the angels: the first, with Abraham when he was saved in Ur Kasdim, the second, with Isaac at the 'Akeida', the third, with Jacob whose twelve sons are among the Righteous, the fourth (ata chonen) with Joseph (Sefer HaYashar):

Pharaoh had seventy steps to his throne, representing the seventy languages that a monarch had to know. When someone came to see Pharaoh, he came down and would talk to that person in one language and if the person knew that language, he would come up one step towards Pharaoh. On each step Pharaoh would speak in a different language. On the night before Joseph was to see Pharaoh, the angel Gabriel taught him all seventy languages and so he was able to come up all seventy steps and stand next to Pharaoh when speaking. Then Joseph spoke in lashon ha kodesh, the holy (Hebrew) tongue and Pharaoh didn't understand and was scared – sanctity and purity was required to speak lashon ha kodesh. Afraid that he might cease to be the monarh, Pharaoh made Joseph swear not to tell. Joseph swore.

Later, Joseph asked Pharaoh's leave to go and bury his father Jacob. When Pharaoh objects and suggests that Joseph break the promise he had made to his father, Joseph says, that means I can break the oath I made to you. Pharaoh lets Joseph go – and the angels said this beracha.

Our Sages also suggest that this beracha was given when G-d gave Moses the understanding of the Divine Name.

There are seventeen words in this beracha, which is the numerical value of the letters that make the word tov, 'good'. There are sixty letters that correlate to the sixty tractates of the Talmud. We might say that we are asking G-d to bless us, to give us what is good (tov), that is the sixty tractates, and bless us and grace us so that we can learn and internalize them and that it will make a difference in our lives

Another suggestion is that seventeen is also the number of types of wisdom mentioned in Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiates.

Why is this beracha chosen to be the first of the middle section of the Amida, the section that consists of 'requests'?

Im ein bina (insight), ein tefila, 'where there is no insight, there can be no prayer'. In order to pray, we need knowledge to understand that G-d exists and has a master plan. The first level of serving G-d is knowledge.

Also, nowadays, when prayers substitute for the sacrifices of the Temple service (avodah) some people, such as minors (katan) and people deficient in understanding (shoteh), were not qualified for that service. So we pray for da'at, knowledge so that we can be able to do the avoda.

Rav Munk ('World of Prayer') adds that even on workdays, our first request is not for help with our livelihood. This impresses upon us the lesson that that our daily work must not be permitted to overshadow the care for our spiritual needs.

If we compare our beracha to the others in the middle section of the Amida, we note that ata chonen is the only one to open with praise of G-d, not with a request. Why?

The three opening blessings of the Amida open with praise, so we begin the fourth one with praise, even though it begins the section of requests. It is a transitional phrase and thus leads us gradually to the requests.

If we look at the terms used, we note that there are doubles, adam, enosh both denote man, da'at, bina both denote knowledge; there is also haskel, discernment. All of these are not just synonyms, but represent ascending or descending values and orders. 'You graced us with knowledge (ata chonen le adam da'at)' The ability to acquire knowledge is a gift that we are born with. We need to realise that we owe it to G-d's kindness and endless compassion. Insight (bina) is something that we need to learn, to work for and it is thus higher. Haskel, discernment, ranks highest; it enables us to pull out halacha le ma'asei, the correct observances, from the text of the Torah. Others have seen the order reversed, so that da'at is highest, basing this on a verse that describes Bezalel who wrought the artefacts in the tabernacle, 'I have filled him with the spirit of G-d, (ru'ach elokim), in wisdom and in understanding and in knowledge (da'at)' (Ex.31,3). Here da'at is placed last, highest and is seen as the same as ru'ach elokim. With this interpretation, we are asking the Almighty, if You will not give us da'at, please grant us bina. Haskel then becomes the lowest form, repeating something learnt.

On Saturday evening we include in this beracha, a paragraph that marks the separation of the holy Sabbath from the weekday. The paragraph begins with the words ata chonantanu, You have granted us (knowledge of your Torah), and this seems to be a repetition. It teaches us that acquiring wisdom is not like acquiring other things in the world. Often people get things that they do not deserve, a slave can become a ruler, an incompetent person may become a leader. Not so with wisdom. We have to work for it and to be worthy to receive it and

G-d has to want to give it to us. With ata chonen we ask that The Almighty grace us (with knowledge etc); with ata chonantanu we are trying to understand, to work for the wisdom, and we ask that we may be graced that we should always yearn to learn.