AMIDA, FOURTH BERAKHA: The Miracle of Human Intelligence

אתה חונן לאדם דעת ומלמד לאנוש בינה

“You grant humans knowledge, and You teach mortals understanding. Grant us from Yourself wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. Blessed are You, HaShem, Who grants knowledge.”

After finishing the section devoted to praising (שבח), we begin the second section of the ‘Amida with this blessing , the first blessing of “requests” (בקשה).

In these blessings, we ask God to grant our material needs. And in this first berakha we ask God to grant us “wisdom” and “intelligence”. But why asking for “wisdom” before anything else?

Firstly, wisdom is different from every other request. We say in this berakha that HaShem is the “direct” source of the wisdom and intelligence bestowed upon us (אתה חונן לאדם דעת), something we do not pronounce in any other blessings. To stress this important point, we also assert וחוננו מאתך, which means something like “and give us FROM YOURSELF”, an expression we do not use in any other berakha, or for any other request! Why is wisdom something we describe as coming “directly” from God? Because wisdom (da’at) is not an element created by HaShem; it is an attribute of HaShem! As Maimonides explains (Yesode haTora 2:10): אבל הבורא הוא ודעתו וחייו אחד “[unlike humans, that we ‘acquire’ knowledge from an external source] the Creator, Him, His existence and His knowledge, they are all one.” In a sense, we are not asking HaShem to grant us knowledge, we are requesting Him to “partake” of His knowledge.

Second, this blessing teaches us a very important principle about the nature of man. Intelligence/wisdom is God’s special gift to the human species. Our brain is remarkably similar to that of monkeys. Yet, we humans are endowed with “intelligence” which is not an extension of our biological make-up and cannot be justified in evolutionary terms. Intelligence is not a biological natural feature like sight, hearing or a digestive system. Intelligence is not an evolutionary gift by which chimpanzees became humans. Apes are perfectly able to survive without intelligence. But without intelligence, we humans would not be able to connect with God, to learn or teach His Tora, or to distinguish and choose between right and wrong. Intelligence is what make humans unique among all living species. In this berakha we assert that intelligence is a God-given, miraculous, super-natural gift, humans are exclusively endowed with.

This berakha describes three levels of “wisdom”, as they apply to our human experience.

HOKHMA: This refers to creativity. The capacity a person has to see or discover something new. When everyone is looking at the same things, the man with this wisdom is able to see deeper, or further or differently. It is the ability to develop a new idea, a Hiddush of Tora or a new invention. This is also, we say, a gift from HaShem

BINA: Once a new idea is discovered we need “bina”, practical wisdom to articulate this new idea or to effectively apply the new discovery. Some people may be gifted with “bina” but not “hokhma”, or vice-versa.

DA’AT: Da’at, knowledge, as it applied to us, refers to the good judgment that we acquire by our life-experience. People differ in what or how they learn from experience. Some people are so gifted in their da’at that they have the ability to learn from other people’s experiences. Some can learn only from their own experience. And others have a hard time to learn even from their own experiences.

Finally, we need all this wisdom to identify the gifts and blessings that we already got from God, which is essential for knowing what do we really need to request from God. We need wisdom to differentiate between what we “need” and what we just “want” or “wish”. Moreover, without wisdom, we will not even know “what” to ask from God. Or what to do with the blessings that God would eventually grant us. We might think that we need urgently money or success. But without wisdom, money and success might be counterproductive.

Wisdom is a prerequisite for all other requests.