Wisdom—Chokmah

August 1, 2011

by: Rebecca J. Brimmer, International President and CEO

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The most common Hebrew word for wisdom is chokmah (חכמה). Its root forms the word chakam (חכם), which is translated “wise,” and chakamim for wise men (or sages). These Hebrew words include the concepts of wisdom, skill, shrewdness, insight, moral discernment, understanding of justice, intelligence, and prudence. The Encyclopedia Judaica for youth, called My Jewish World, summarizes wisdom this way: “It was a way of thinking and attitude of life that emphasized experience, reasoning, morality and the concerns of man as man rather than as Israelite. Wisdom, however, was not considered to be just intellectual ability or capacity; true wisdom had to be based on the fear of God and on a moral way of life.”

The Bible is replete with references to wisdom, the wise, and wise ones. We are told that wisdom is a treasure (Prov. 8:11); those who find it will be happy (Prov. 3:13); it is better to have wisdom than gold (Prov. 16:16); those who find wisdom find life (Prov. 8:35); and wisdom is better than weapons of war (Eccles. 9:18).

Other Word Associations

—Knowledge

Wisdom is often closely associated with knowledge, although it is possible to have great knowledge and not possess wisdom. I have heard it said that it is better to have no education and be wise than to be highly educated and not have wisdom. The American industrialist David Sarnoff said, “Knowledge is not enough unless it leads you to understanding and, in turn, to wisdom.”  I have known people of great intelligence, even possessing doctorates, who didn’t know how to apply their vast knowledge wisely.

Jewish understanding is that it is not possible for a person to acquire wisdom through their own intelligence. He must attain wisdom through studying the Torah or by learning from sages. Elijah Gaon (1720–1797), a scholar of the Talmud (rabbinic commentary on Jewish tradition and the Hebrew Scriptures) from Lithuania, acknowledged God as the source of wisdom when he said, “Wisdom and Torah [Gen.–Deut.] flow from one source.”

—The Fear of the Lord

Seven times in Scripture, the concepts of the “fear of the Lord” (yireh Adonai) and wisdom (chokmah) are linked, such as in Proverbs 9:10:“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (The other six are Job 28:28; Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7, 15:33; Isa. 11:2, 33:6.) In the ArtScroll commentary on Mishlei (Proverbs), Rabbi Eliezer Ginsburg says, “This frequent repetition indicates the importance of the link between the two. God is the creator of the universe and life; all wisdom emanates from Him. It is impossible to understand man’s place in the design of the universe without reverential awe of God and submission to His will, indeed it is the only starting point that will lead man to his true goal.”  He goes on to quote the Mishnah:“If there is no wisdom, there is no fear of God” (Avot 3:21).

—Instruction

The term mussar (instruction, discipline, ethical teaching, or affliction) is often connected to wisdom in the Bible. In Proverbs 1:2–3, King Solomon says, “To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding, to receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, judgment and equity.” Rabbi Ginsburg says, “Given man’s natural tendency toward the negative as the Torah states, ‘since the imagery of man’s heart is evil from his youth’ (Genesis 8:21), he needs mussar.”  When we fear God, we are in awe of His greatness, mercy, salvation, and also His righteous judgment. Indeed, God may use difficulties, rebukes, and afflictions to bring us to the place of wisdom attained by fearing God.

Wise Men

The word chakamim (sages or wise men) is most often used to describe the scholars of the Mishnah (first written record of Jewish tradition) and the Talmud. The Mishnah says, “Seven characteristics distinguish the wise: he does not speak before his superior, does not interrupt, is not hasty to answer, asks and answers to the point, talks about first things first and about last things last, admits when he does not know, and acknowledges the truth” (Avot 5.7).

In the book of Matthew in the story of the incarnation, we see wise men referred to as coming from the East. Many scholars believe that Matthew was originally written in Hebrew. One of the most compelling arguments is that when translating the book from Greek to Hebrew, the translation is very smooth, which is very unusual. Could it be that in the original Hebrew language, the word for “wise men” was chakamim?  Perhaps Jewish wise men came from Babylon to view the baby Yeshua (Jesus). It certainly makes sense that they would be interested.

Just like the wise men sought Yeshua, all wise men seek. Such seekers of wisdom produce much good fruit. Jewish poet Joseph Kimki (1105–1170) from Spain once said, “Wisdom without action is like a tree without fruit.” He must have been thinking of Solomon’s words: “She [wisdom] is a tree of life to those who take hold of her, and happy are all who retain her” (Prov. 3:18).

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