Aleph Beta

Intro To The Intermediate Blessings

Shmoneh Esrei

Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

Listen to this episode as a podcast!

For the full transcript, scroll down, it appears below the comments!

The Shmoneh Esrei is the centerpiece of our daily prayers. A person who davens regularly will say these prayers tens of thousands of times in their lifetime (if not more!). But do we really know what these words mean? There are a lot of things we say in the Shmoneh Esrei that really aren't so obvious what they're doing here. Why are these the things the we pray for on a daily basis? Why did the Rabbis decide to lay out the brachot in the way they did, and in this particular order?

Join Rabbi Fohrman and writer Ami Silver as they unpack the text of the Shmoneh Esrei and attempt to uncover what this prayer is all about. In this session, they begin with a general introduction to the Shmoneh Esrei and delve into the first of the bakashot (requests), the bracha of chonen ha-da'at. I think you'll see that there is much more here than meets the eye.

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Rabbi Fohrman: Hey everybody out there in Aleph Beta land, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and I am here together joined with Rabbi Ami Silver. Ami, you there?

Ami: Hey everybody, hey Rabbi Fohrman.

Rabbi Fohrman: Okay. And we are here today pioneering something grand and wonderful. Grand and wonderful in terms of the content we're going to share with you and it's also grand and wonderful, Ami, I think in terms of the format in which we're kind of sharing that content.

First of all let's talk about the content itself. What Ami and I are going to be talking about today is something really wonderful that I think Ami, you've been working on for a while now, no?

Ami: I started over a year ago, put it down for a bit, came back to it, but thankfully it's something that as you'll all hear in a second, I get to deal with on a daily basis.

Rabbi Fohrman: And indeed he does. So Ami has been working on the Shmoneh Esrei. The Shmoneh Esrei is of course the centerpiece of our daily prayers, hence Ami's daily involvement with this. It is the main thing. It's 18 brachot (blessings), 18 blessings that we stand and say in silent devotion. And the reason why I think this is so special again is I think the Shmoneh Esrei, if you're observant and you've been praying once a day, twice a day, three times a day, if you're one of those folks, you've been saying this so often that you're almost subject to something which I labeled in the introduction to my first book, the lullaby effect. This sort of sense that you know the things so well you could just sing yourself to sleep with this and you almost stop thinking about the words, a terrible thing for prayer, which is supposed to be this intimate communication between us and God, but you can almost stop thinking about the words.

So I think the chance to really stop and go back and say, what in the world are we saying here, and why is it meaningful, is really a special kind of opportunity.

Ami: I couldn't agree with you more Rabbi Fohrman, let's start with your speaking about education from a young age. Young kids are trained to say the words. We're basically acculturated in the recitation and the ritual act of prayer, but whoever takes time to study what the prayer is actually about? Like how many school that teach all the books of Chumash and as much Nevi'im, Gemara, you can go through your entire life really as an observant Jew and never take the time to really study the actual texts that you say and recite daily that's supposed to be this very meaningful encounter with God, some kind of personal petition to your Creator, but when do we get a chance to really explore what that is.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah and you know if you think about sort of the history of how this developed, prayer, at one point was an entirely spontaneous thing. The Rabbis came along and to be helpful they composed texts almost as a framework that would give you some way, kind of a Hallmark card edition, when you can't figure out what you want to say to somebody that matters a great deal, you stop in CVS pharmacy, you pick yourself up a Hallmark card, you say that's beautiful, and yet, you're supposed to be able to add to the card. It's supposed to mean something to you. Your supposed to bring your full heart to it and yet, sometimes it becomes easy to just rely on the words and almost turn off and not even focus on them.

So the chance here is to be able to really look at this document and to try to use some of the methodological tools, Ami, that you and I have been working with here in Aleph Beta that sort of literary textual kind of method that is so fruitful in Tanach. I think one of the exciting things is, there are versions of these literary tools which seem to have opened up the? Shmoneh Esrei for you, these layers of meaning within the document. Am I reading you right, would you say that that's true?

Ami: Very much so, I mean it's something that does get lost on us in this, I hate to say it, the Hallmark card version, is that we forget that there were actually authors of these words who were not just any old authors. The Gemara, says that these were the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah (The Men of the Great Assembly), the Elders and among them even Prophets who actually sat and created the formula of prayer that we say.

So there's a lot of intentionality and meaning put into these words and we really have a chance to unpack it as a text. Once we start doing that, there's I think quite amazing things to discover there.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, I think an opportunity also on a personal level to be able to more easily write in the margins of that Hallmark card and to use the prayer to inspire our own personal thoughts and feelings and words in connection with God.

So that's why I'm excited about this. the chance to make prayer more meaningful for me, and more personal for me, and to be able to see some of those layers of meaning that we see in Tanach come alive in prayer, is a chance that has me raring to go. So I'm really excited this. What we're going to be doing in the series is, we're pretty much going to be, I'll sort of kind of be interviewing you, Ami. You're the guy who has really sort of immersed yourself in a great deal of research over the last year or so, and we're going to do a few weeks together to kind of make it through these 18 blessings. I will pose questions to you, try to be a thoughtful sparring partner and hopefully together we can get to the bottom of what's going on.

So I'm really excited about that. In a moment we'll talk a little more about maybe the methodology, what it is that we're trying to do, but let me shift now to the second thing which I was talking about that excited me; that on the one hand this content is new but the format is also new. And what I mean by that Ami, is that we're going to be trying something kind of new here at Aleph Beta, pretty much most of what you see at Aleph Beta is animated videos that are kind of ready to go and are finished at least from our perspective. We've done a lot of the heavy lifting in hiding, not available for people to see, and then kind of put this out in as beautiful form as we can.

And that's wonderful. What we're doing here is kind of giving you, the listeners, kind of a chance to become partners with us in this material. Ami has got some ideas. I have some ideas. Ami, I fully expect that by the time we're done when we look back on what we've done here, it will be new to both of us.

Ami: Definitely.

Rabbi Fohrman: I think we'll be creating something that as of now we even don't know what we're seeing and part of that will be because dynamically when we talk together I think we'll see things, it always works that way, that we've never seen before, but part of it will be because there's somebody else here, and that's you guys, the listeners.

What we've done here is we've invited a special cohort of Aleph Beta folks. Really we've opened it up to Aleph Beta folks and we have a volunteer cohort of people who are listening to this week to week, and you guys, what I'm asking you to do is to listen and to comment. Let us know what you're thinking about, what questions come to your mind based upon what we say, what observations come to your mind, personal, textual, otherwise? We really want you, me and Ami, as part of this conversation. We're going to be reading these discussion boards and not only will we be reading them, but we really intend for them to become part of the conversation here. What we hope we'll do is spend the first minutes of each weekly session kind of going over some of the really provocative stuff that we've seen there, and if you think you don't have anything provocative to say, don't let that stop you. Even a small thing that you want to add to the conversation, please put it in there.

This kind of input from you is really important for us, and I'll speak personally, going back to something earlier I did in Aleph Beta, I did a series a while back on Acher (The Other One), about Elishah ben Avuyeh, where we also kind of invited discussion from folks week to week, and frankly it changed the course of what I had in mind. It was just absolutely wonderful.

So one way that we want you our cohort involved, is please listen to this if you can, stay in week by week, if you can't, if you're a week behind don't worry, you can catch up in the car, this is audio do it's like Podcast format so you can listen while you jog. You can listen on the treadmill, you can listen in the car, wherever it is that you like.

Ami: Just don't listen while you're davening (praying), okay?

Rabbi Fohrman: That's right, just don't listen.

Ami: Do us a favor.

Rabbi Fohrman: Don't do that. That's right. So that's exciting. We're going to be going through it week by week and it's exciting for us to be in that cohort with you. And the second thing is there's another kind of listener here as well, what we intend to do is sort of devise this series this way by my conversations with Ami together with our Aleph Beta listeners, but when we're done with that at the end of five, six, seven weeks, or however long this takes, we don't know yet.

What we're going to do is give it to our wonderful audio editors. Ami and I will put some written material together and we'll be able to shape this series a little bit, edit it a little bit, and then put it out in a little more of a finished fashion for the entire Aleph Beta community to be able to access and see. And we'll kind of just drop it and then you can just listen to it in that car as you like and you'll have the benefit of what we've all been able to kind of think about and put together and listen to these conversations at your pace.

So the bottom line is, I want to welcome two kinds of listeners to this. If you are in our cohort involved in the discussion or is helping to shape this, welcome, it's great to have you aboard. If you are listening to this farther along in the timeline, months from now, years from now, and you're benefiting from the finished version of this, then welcome to you as well. We're glad to have you along for the ride.

So with that Ami, with no further ado, let's try and dive in, and let me just sort of set the parameters and then maybe I'll ask you a couple of questions. What we're going to kind of do is break the Shmoneh Esrei into sections here. The Shmoneh Esrei naturally breaks into three sections. The three sections are going to be the three prefatory blessings, the three concluding blessings, and then the intermediate blessings.

The three prefatory blessings are focused on what we call shevach (praise of God), the three concluding blessings are essentially also focused on God in terms of mostly with the theme of thanks, and the middle blessings are what we call bakashot (requests), are sort of requests that we make. I think what we're going to be focusing the bulk of our efforts here is in the middle blessings, that' really where we're going to start, the middle blessings, those middle section of requests.

I think it's possible that as we begin to understand more about them, we'll be in a position to better understand the groups at the beginning and at the end of Shmoneh Esrei too, so we'll try to revisit that at the end. So we're going to narrow our focus for the beginning with the blessings that begin with, "Atoh chonein ladam da'at," the idea that God, you're the One who bestows knowledge to man. So that's what I wanted to say in terms of the scope of our inquiry and one word about method and then we'll kind of jump in.

Ami, in listening to some of the ideas you put together, I'm going to give you my sort of best summary of the methodology I see you using, and you can be free to nitpick with me or disagree entirely, but I think a simple way to see it is that one of the difficulties that you sort of have when you read the Shmoneh Esrei, is that it seems kind of haphazard, it seems random. I don't really get a story. Normally when I read any sort of text there's a story, there's transitions, I understand how I get from point A to point B. Now it doesn't make a difference if I'm reading a lease or if I'm reading a novel or if I'm reading a non-fiction biography, just the nature of writing is that there's transitions that take me from paragraph to paragraph and I understand some sense of where I'm starting and where I'm ending and the path through.

It's not as easy in the Shmoneh Esrei. It just sounds like there's sort of these 18 disconnected blessings, and I just don't get how one connects to the other, and Ami, one of the things that I hope is that we can create a sense of path here. What are the missing transitions between these blessings, how do we get from one to the other? Why did blessings four come after blessings three, come after blessings two? How is it that these things connect? So that I think is one methodological thing that's going to preoccupy us. How do these things connect? What is the story here?

Would you agree with that? Does that feel like where your head is at?

Ami: Yeah, I mean that's definitely one of the overarching, guiding principles here, paying attention to the sequence of things which you're talking about any text that I read I need to kind of be able to follow the thread there, right?

Rabbi Fohrman: Yep.

Ami: I think it becomes particularly significant here in the Shmoneh Esrei, listeners, I think it's just helpful to pay attention, at what point when I'm saying these words, when I'm praying, do I start to just totally tune out? Like where do I just kind of just turn to fuzz and get lost? Like all of the sudden oh, I guess I'm talking about Judges, oh, now I'm talking about Moshiach (Messiah), how did I get here?

Rabbi Fohrman: Yep, and I think that's a great kind of litmus test that you can use almost as a way of getting in touch with this methodology, that notion of tuning out or your brain turns to fuzz. I know that that's something which we internally sometimes use here at Aleph Beta when we're critiquing scripts that we write. Sometimes we'll bring in another writer and say, here read this script and let me know when your brain turns to fuzz. Because when your brain turns to fuzz it means I didn't do my job because you have no idea how you got to where you're going, how idea A connected to idea B and therefore, you're daydreaming, you're no longer focused.

So sometimes where you start to daydream is actually indicative that you're missing a connection, you just don't see how this relates. Cause if there was a story here, I'd be locked in. So that's a great thing to ask, where is my brain turning to fuzz as I say these words.

So one of the things that we're going to be looking at is sequence. How do all these things fit together? Now one of the things that Ami's going to do, I think Ami's going to also make the case that when you read the Shmoneh Esrei, the author of the Shmoneh Esrei, or the authors of Shmoneh Esrei were not composing an original document from scratch that is meant to be understood entirely in a vacuum. They are fully within Jewish history which is the books that have come before mainly the Tanach, the Bible, the Prophets, the Writings. They are drawing on some of these things and you know, it's interesting Ami, I don't know why. Is it, and maybe we'll never know but I think Ami can sort of demonstrate convincingly and it's certainly true, that there are copious allusions to earlier works to Biblical works in this text, and yet what's different about what I think you and I are going to do here, is that you can open up a Siddur (prayer book) and sometimes if it's a good prayer book, you can find little footnotes, and say, oh look at Isaiah over here, look at Deuteronomy over here, and like typically Ami, do you pay any attention to those when you're reading the prayer book?

Ami: No, no, I'm just trying to pray.

Rabbi Fohrman: You're just trying to pray. And isn't it sad that the word daven (pray) is also a synonym for say things very quickly without any understanding of what it is you're saying?

Ami: Maybe by the end of this we'll have a new word for prayer.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yes.

Ami: Or at least a new understanding of what tefillah (prayer) means for us.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, we can come up with a new Yiddishism other than daven for prayer. But what I think Ami's uncovered is that those quotations, those times when the authors are echoing Biblical texts, are not something to be dismissed, that is magic what's happening there. Those are windows into deeper meaning and if you look what's happening in those other places, they just astoundingly illuminate what it is that's going on back here in the prayers, and help us with that first methodological issue, which is like, how does it all connect with each other? That the biblical illusions are going to kind of help us. They all just help us sort of in this intellectual way; craft the prayer and see how it all fits. I think they also help us personally because if you see what's happening with these illusions and where the Sages are going back into these earlier biblical texts, there is spiritual meaning there, right? The thing comes alive in three dimensions. All of a sudden, it's personal, it's meaningful, it's something I can touch and feel. I can begin to see its layers and that makes the difference for me.

So in my mind those are kind of the two things that, you know, little preview here, we're going to be looking at, which is sequence and echoes, we might say. Sequence and echoes. Sequence will sometimes help us see the echoes; echoes will sometimes help us see the sequence. All of it, I think, will help us spiritually connect to it a lot more. So, Ami, does that feel like a good summary for you?

Ami: It is. I just want to add a response of one thing that you said there. It's true a lot of, you know, prayer books, especially translated ones, they'll have little footnotes, like look at this verse over here. Part of what I want to share with you here, in these next few weeks, is that some of those textual references are really overt. Like some of them seem to be really there at the surface and that's the kind of stuff that you'll find in the footnotes in the prayer book. Some of that stuff you'll even find in descriptions of the Talmud itself about the order of the blessings.

There's also, I think, as we start to look at the text a little more closely, somewhat of a covert reference is happening. Or at least, you know, I think once we see them, they're not so covert, but they're not going to be there in the footnotes. Part of what I want to show is that these echoes, they're not just in the obvious places where you recognize it at first glance. But once you start to look at it more carefully, the echoes are really all over the place.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, and so what Ami is kind of saying is, is that don't get too focused on those footnotes in your prayer book because they're not going to be entirely complete, those are going to look --

Ami: It's a good starting point.

Rabbi Fohrman: It's a good starting point for those overt echoes --

Ami: Definitely a good starting point.

Rabbi Fohrman: -- but you sort have to ask yourself, once that's there what else do you see? So, Ami, with all of that explaining around what's going to happen, it's time for us to dive in. Let's take a look at the first of these blessings. Ami, you want to just kind of read it for us and translate it just in the kind of most basic way that you would?

Ami: Yeah, sure. I'll just say, for most of these blessings, I'm working out of the nusach Ashkenaz. Different communities have different slight variations and there may be times where we actually bring in different variations to help illuminate some of the points. But I'm going to be really focusing anyway on the language that's consistent throughout most of the different versions.

We start with the bakashot, right, we start with our requests. The first thing we request has to do with daat, knowledge. Let's see the words; "Atah chonen l'adam da'at," you grant, you bestow knowledge to humankind, "u'melamed l'enosh binah," and you teach people understanding. "Chonenu mei'itcha dei'ah binah v'haskel," grant us from You, bestow upon us from You, God, knowledge, understanding and haskel. Which I don't know; how would you translate haskel, Rabbi Fohrman?

Rabbi Fohrman: Maybe insight? Sechel is going to be the word for mind. Haskel is going to be the ability to use the mind. Maybe it means insightful. Dei'ah binah v'haskel, these are all synonyms, right? The nature of how these synonyms interact is interesting and maybe something that we will deal with.

Years ago, Ami, I put together a course which I never did on Aleph Beta, it was kind of experimental. But it was kind of on sort of archetypally masculine and feminine ways of knowing things. With the idea that it's not as if all women think in a certain way or all men think in a certain way, but almost the same way that there's a masculine and feminine hormone, right? There's testosterone and there's estrogen and yet all real people whether you're male or female have both of these hormones within you, right? It's just kind of the balance, but you might say that the testosterone is an archetypally male hormone and estrogen is an archetypally female hormone. That there are archetypally male ways of knowing, archetypally female ways of knowing. I saw those way back then as dei'ah and binah, actually.

Ami: Interesting.

Rabbi Fohrman: Deiah being a more masculine way of knowing; binah understanding, being a more feminine way of knowing. The big question mark is where haskel comes in, right, and how that fits? I don't have opinions about that, but the larger vision of the masculine and feminine ways we'll have to leave for another course. Finish off the blessing for us.

Ami: So the chatimah, the closing, "baruch ata Hashem," blessed are you God, "chonen hada'at," bestower of knowledge.

Rabbi Fohrman: If you go back to this blessing, this opening blessing to these bakashot, to these requests, it sort of is interesting, isn't it, Ami? Before you even dive into any of the research which you've done here, I just kind of want to ask you a basic human question. Which is what does it mean to you that this is how the Shmoneh Esrei begins? That this is how the requests begin. Of all things -- I mean if I were -- you know I remember back when I was kid there used to be this game show, Family Feud, you know? And on Family Feud they'd ask these questions and they'd survey like 100 people and your job is to --

Ami: Survey says.

Rabbi Fohrman: Survey says, right. Your job was to get the highest ones up on the survey. Ami, like if they ask people, like 100 people, give me your requests; what should you start with? You've a chance to have an audience with the Master of the Universe, the Creator; what are you interested in? What do you think the survey would've said? What would people -- what do you think the most popular requests would've been to start things off if you -- this is your chance to get the attention of the Master Creator?

Ami: Well, I think it's obvious. Everyone would want to know everything in the world and, you know, please God, let me know 42 languages and --

Rabbi Fohrman: Of course.

Ami: -- advanced mathematics and yeah.

Rabbi Fohrman: And Sophocles and Antigone and Hamlet. I always wanted to know Hamlet. It's like --

Ami: Okay. Well, I'll say it this way. No, I'm being a little tongue in cheek it. There definitely is a human drive to know, to amass knowledge.

Rabbi Fohrman: Right, but it is --

Ami: But to just be fair, it's not the first thing that I think I would want.

Rabbi Fohrman: Right. Health, wealth.

Ami: You know, my needs met.

Rabbi Fohrman: Right, it's like, you know, there's all these basic things that I'm screaming for. It's fascinating that we start things off, you know, with this. I guess my question to you is just from a human perspective. What do you make of this of starting off our, what it is that we ask for God -- is this blessing just for nerds, right? Just people who enjoy Shakespeare? Just people who want to understand the difference between Kant and Hegel and Schopenhauer? What is this quest for knowledge that we're beginning with?

Ami: So this is already touching on, I think, one of the essential kind of shifts that I think we need to make when we approach a Shmoneh Esrei. Which is we actually, you know, rather than what would I say at this point; like maybe part of what we need to be doing here is listening to the Shmoneh Esrei? Like what is it saying to us that this is where it begins?

Rabbi Fohrman: Okay. I hear you.

Ami: You know, and what are the -- if I read, if I'm taking in, I'm kind of receptive to the Shmoneh Esrei as something that I'm here to listen to and to absorb. So what is it telling me, that this is the starting point?

Rabbi Fohrman: Okay. Fascinating. I'm willing to buy that. This notion that a proper way to study this is as sort of demanding and as urgent as the enterprise a prayer seems to be. We oughtn't let us ourselves become distracted by all of that urgency. We have a sacred text in front of us and when you've got a sacred text in front of you, you have to have a little bit of a humility and you have to sort of stand back and say okay, wait a second. Maybe this isn't so idiotic; what really is being said? Maybe if we understand it, we might be able to understand why this quest for knowledge is so basic and so important. So yes, that sounds like a good segue to begin to mine this.

Let me just, actually, say one thing personally and then, you know, go in and mine this. Personally, I guess one way to think about is that da'at, knowledge -- and I'm not so sure it's knowledge or wisdom, but something like that, right? That cognitive capacity to make sense of the world is sort of one of our vastly underrated needs. You know what I mean? It's like we've got a lot of needs and some of those needs we take for granted so much that we don't even realize we need them. Ami, like is one of -- how much do you -- when you think about your needs, you know, you're thinking about, well, I got this kid in school, I've got that. But do you think like electricity and water as your needs? The answer is no because I just take that for granted.

Ami: Until you don't have it.

Rabbi Fohrman: Until you don't have it.

Ami: Until you don't have those things.

Rabbi Fohrman: And if you think about like the number one most powerful capacity that any one of us is endowed with, to actually sort of make change in the world, to build anything in the world, to do anything creative with, it actually is our cognitive abilities. Our ability to this amazing capacity that we, of all creatures, have, to be able to use our mind to come to an understanding of what is actually out there, is mind blowing.

You find philosophers of science talking about this, by the way. I remember reading a book; I think it was called The Mind of God by Paul Davies -- I'm not sure if it was that book.

His argument was that one of the most astounding things is that the universe is built in such a way that human beings can actually comprehend it. That we can use our mind and understand what in the world is going on. If you think about the awesome power of the mind, that the mind has the capacity to understand the secrets of the universe. To discover what gravity is made of, to discover how it all fits, how it all works, to understand how the moral world works. To understand this great puzzle that's been put out before us called our existence. That our mind can grapple with it. It's the most powerful thing in the world, right? It is the greatest tool.

So if one way of thinking about the requests is we're asking for our toolbox, right? It's a pretty big part of a toolbox, all be it, something that we all take for granted because it's as natural as anything. That's what a human being does; a human being thinks. I don't know. Does that resonate with you?

Ami: Right. So on that note, I mean, isn't the mere act of asking for it again and again and again kind of a wakeup call --

Rabbi Fohrman: It is.

Ami: -- to this kind of a wonderous gift? Just look at how we talk about it here. "Atah chonen l'adam da'at," wow, God, you did this; you give us this amazing capacity --

Rabbi Fohrman: Well, not only you did this, you give us this capacity which --

Ami: You give it to us.

Rabbi Fohrman: -- theologically, spiritually is saying something pretty amazing, isn't it? Which is that this gift isn't just something that is present. This was actually a gift. That itself is amazing, right? It's not just like my room comes with a floor and comes with a plant in the corner and that's just like the basics of my existence. No, every human being has to see themselves as actually having gotten this cognitive capacity from somewhere, from the Holder of all cognitive capacity. It's literally, mind on loan from God. Which is special because in a way that means that when you use your mind, you're actually engaged in a spiritual endeavor, right? You are using a gift and that came from somewhere.

Actually, that word chonen is an interesting word too, Ami. It's a very gift-like word, wouldn't you say? How would you translate that word?

Ami: Right. I mean, the word chen is kind of an untranslatable term, which is just the feeling of charm and love that I have for something because I do have love for that thing, right? Why do I like it? In Hebrew, ze motze chen b'einai, it finds favor in my eyes. I'm drawn to it.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, kachah zeh.

Ami: It's an attraction. There's an attraction and a kind a belovedness. So when it's used as a verb, it's kind of like you just lovingly give this to me. It's kind of this free gift of love that you've -- I just recognize it. You give this gift to me because you love me, because you want to.

Rabbi Fohrman: Think about that, right? If da'at, if the cognitive capacity really is mankind's most fearsome tool, most powerful tool, this incredible bulldozer to be able to -- I mean, think about it. Bears are a lot stronger than human beings, but bears do not have human beings in their zoos. People have bears in human zoos and why did we dominate bears? It's because of this capacity because we --

Ami: Because of this da'at.

Rabbi Fohrman: -- can think and actually use thought to manipulate our world. By the way, I think this blessing is all the more comes into relief in our own day and age when the hunter gatherers have given way to the agricultural revolution, to give way to the scientific revolution, that gives way to the industrial revolution, that gives way to the information age, right? Knowledge really is power now. If you are a computer programmer, if you can manipulate machine minds. And what area of computer programming is number one, is the hottest ticket. It's AI. It's literally --

Ami: It's AI.

Rabbi Fohrman: -- artificial intelligence. It's if you can manipulate intelligence you have this great power. But look at that word that you just talked about, about how God gives it. Chen is a gift that's so deeply associated with emotion and the emotion is charm and love, right? It's the least cognitive thing you can imagine. But God, with just nothing but love, gives you this incredibly powerful cognitive tool of his and says hey humans, you know, this is for you. Just wanted to let you know, please unwrap carefully.

So there's this sense, that when you just start reading Shmoneh Esrei, the sentence that hits you, that this thing that I use all the time, it comes from somewhere. It comes from somewhere lovingly and it comes from my Creator lovingly and that's a powerful kind of orienting tool.

So, Ami, with this kind of as a background tell us -- you know you've been doing some research cognitively as you've looked at this thing. What did you begin to uncover? Where were you starting to think of as you were reading this blessing? 

Ami: So I actually want to pick on something you mentioned already on the phone. Which is the beginning part of the requests is beginning with knowledge and it is this kind of fundamental human gift and human capability. If we think about our story and the Torah itself, actually the very beginnings of the human story and human relationship with God, really revolves all round da'at, around this issue of knowledge, of this divine knowledge and of humanity using that knowledge.

Rabbi Fohrman: Interesting. If you actually go back to the beginnings -- at the least the way that the Bible talks about those beginnings, you know the two ways I think of knowledge at the beginning is -- one is more obvious and one is less obvious. I'm actually going to start with the less obvious one because it actually dovetails with what it is that we talked about.

The less obvious, but I think still blatant way that knowledge figures into the early stories of humanity is going to be in Genesis Chapter 1. Because in Genesis Chapter 1, the very first blessing that God gives us -- think about it here, these are blessings that we give God. The story of humanity begins with a blessing. It begins with a blessing that God gives us and think about what that blessing is. What does God say in that blessing?

The first thing it says is God is thinking and God says to himself, "na'aseh adam betzalmeinu kidmuteinu," let us make man in our image. Then, "Vayivra Elokim et ha'adam betzalmo, b'tzelem Elokim bara oto," God creates man in his image, "zachar u'nekeivah bara otam."

So the first thing we understand about him is that man is created in God's image and then, "Vayevarech otam Elokim," God blesses man and woman. What is that blessing? So the first blessing is, "peru u'revu u'milu et ha'aretz," be fruitful and multiply. But then what's interesting is, "peru u'revu u;milu et ha'aretz," be fruitful and multiply; don't just have a few kids, "milu et ha'aretz," literally fill the world with your progeny.

Now, Ami, let me just ask you something. How do you -- if you think about like all the various different species in the world, not all of them get this blessing, right? Not everybody gets a blessing of "peru u'revu umilu et ha'aretz." Interestingly enough, by the way, fish get that blessing.

Ami: Fish get that one, yeah.

Rabbi Fohrman: Fish get that one and land --

Ami: Fill the seas.

Rabbi Fohrman: -- animals do not get that blessing and people do, why? I think the answer is, is that the fish can get the blessing because the fish have the seas to themselves, so they're going to fill the seas. But you can't give that blessing to both humans and animals because they both live in the same habitat.

Ami: We're going to be fighting for real estate.

Rabbi Fohrman: They'd be fighting for real estate. You can only give that blessing to the dominant species. So when you say peru u'revu, you're already saying, "peru u'revu umilu et ha'aretz," fill the world with your progeny, that mankind is dominant. Now, the question is we're the apex predator, we're at the top of the food chain. Now, that idea of dominance is going to continue in the next word in the blessing. Because the next word in the blessing is, "peru u'revu umilu et ha'aretz v'kivshuha," --

Ami: V'kivshuha.

Rabbi Fohrman: -- and conquer it. "U'redu bidgat ha'yam," and master the fish and master the fowl and master all of these animals. Then, if I ask you, Ami, like how does that work? How are we going to attain such mastery? Are we the strongest of the beings on the planet? In terms of brawn, do we really deserve to win out in terms of muscle power? And the answer is no. It's not just bears; it's lions and tigers and bears, as Dorothy and Toto would say. It's any large predator. How was it that we managed to put these guys in zoos? And the answer comes back to our minds.

Our minds together with our hands, working together, we can direct these things. The process through which we do, actually later on in the Torah is called melachah (work) and it's actually a divine process. Maybe, this is all what it means on some level to be tzelem elokim, to be created in the image of God. God created the world through work. We can't create the world, but we can create in the world with work. What is work? Work is mind, but not just disembodied mind; mind directing hands to be able --

Ami: To create.

Rabbi Fohrman: -- to create what we want. So this is the first great moment where man's cognitive abilities appear in the Bible, but it's not the last.

Ami: I actually thought you were going to say something else -- maybe it's where you're going -- but at the beginning of that blessing, "pere u'revu u' milu et ha'aretz," when we see Adam and Eve bearing children, the way they do it is through knowledge; "vayeida Adam et Chavah ishto."

Rabbi Fohrman: Yes, also interesting, isn't it, that even the euphemism for intimacy between man and woman, that the Torah uses, also borrows from that idea of knowledge. Making you wonder sort of what knowledge is; if it really is completely conceptual or is on some level --

Ami: Conceptual, right? That word.

Rabbi Fohrman: That word. That's why knowledge allows you conceive, but it may also be -- the Kabbalah talks about knowledge as meaning connection. When I can reach out and touch something, I know it. One way to know is to be able to feel the contours of something and to be able to understand them. So to connect experientially is a way to know something and man knows Eve in that kind of way.

What I was getting at before, was that there seems to be an entirely other area of knowledge that the Torah seems to be preoccupied in, in the early stories. There, interestingly enough, it's not so clear that man should have access to that kind of knowledge, as strangely as it is. Man is blessed that he has this cognitive capacity to do work and God is saying run with it, but there seems to be this other area of knowledge where God is like saying I'm not so sure you should be running with that. I think, Ami, you were suggesting that this blessing is maybe touching on some of that. So take us there.

Ami: Right. So if you just look at that opening phrase, "Atah chonen l'adam da'at," and do what we do at Aleph Beta all the time. Just listen to the words. Forget that you're saying the Shmoneh Esrei. Hear these words; adam da'at, adam da'at. Where does that take your mind? It takes you right to Gan Eden, it takes you right to the Garden of Eden where there's a whole big story about the eitz hada'at tov vera, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and Adam, who is commanded don't eat from that tree.

Rabbi Fohrman: Now, let me ask you this question, Ami. With this, we're going to kind of bring this to a close, our first little dipping our toes in the water here of the Shmoneh Esrei. The question I want to ask you is maybe the most basic question you can ask about the story of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Which is why in the world would God want us not to eat from that tree? It seems like such a good thing. Not only is da'at mechanical knowledge, industrial knowledge, information knowledge, wonderful at making man powerful. But why can't man -- what, is there moral knowledge he's not supposed to have?

The knowledge of good and evil, which seems to be moral knowledge; the understanding that this is good and this evil and he oughtn't to have that. It sounds just preposterous to say that mankind shouldn't have access to moral knowledge. That this, of all trees, is the one that's off limits. If it was the spotted and speckled and polka dotted tree that was off limits, so then maybe it's just random, but of all trees, to have this tree off limits, it just seems strange. This is like the fundamental question that you ask about this. I think, Ami, where you were going with this is that maybe this blessing is beginning to give us a way to dig out of that question.

Ami: Right. Because you look at these opening words, "Atah chonen l'adam da'at."

Rabbi Fohrman: Go ahead. So where are you bringing that?

Ami: Before we go even further, we know a story in the opening chapters of Genesis, where knowledge is something that God seems to be withholding from Adam, that word used here very specifically, I think. Here we're opening the blessing saying, actually, God, you lovingly bestow a gift of knowledge to humankind. Again, if -- a big if; we haven't really gone that far down the rabbit hole here, but if this blessing is somehow referencing Adam and knowledge, way back in Genesis, it's actually kind of telling the opposite story from the one we're familiar with.

Rabbi Fohrman: Which is crazy.

Ami: It's telling us, God, You give the gift. You give this gift. It's a free gift; give it away to us. You just give it to us. What do you mean, give it to us?

Rabbi Fohrman: Right. So at this point, Ami, with all due respect, this where your theory starts sounding preposterous. Because if I take you at face value, what is being suggested here is a counterfactual spin on the Eden narrative. It's like the Star Trek reboot. Which is like -- it goes on a completely different -- it's the story where God lets you eat from the tree, right? But that wasn't the story we know and love.

Ami: No, they didn't take it, God gave it to them. It was okay.

Rabbi Fohrman: That's right. It sounds like a convenient spin for humans, but God wasn't bestowing that tree; we took from the tree. So the questions is, is Ami's theory that this is perhaps -- and again, right now a big perhaps skeptical; we don't know whether this is really true. But if this language of Adam is not just a -- for humankind, takes us back to the original Adam -

Ami: Not a generic term.

Rabbi Fohrman: Not a generic term. The original Adam in the Garden and his experience with knowledge. Does it fly in the face of reality to say, oh sure, man -- God was chonen da'at, he freely is gifted, no! That was the one thing that He said that we shouldn't eat from. It seems crazy. So is this counterfactual?

What I want to suggest -- and I want to close our first session with this suggestion -- is that the blessing here is getting to a provocative possibility; a provocative reading to the story. It is leading you towards a provocative reading of the Eden story.

There is a general principal, Ami, when it comes to learning Tanach -- I say it all the time in Aleph Beta and it's true with whatever you read, but certainly with Tanach -- never read with the end in mind, right? One of things that creates problems for us is that you already know the end of the stories because the stories are familiar to you. But the problem is if you know the end of the stories and you know the middle of the stories and you know the whole story, you can fail to -- you can succumb -- let me put it that way -- to the illusion of inevitability.

The illusion of inevitability is this story had to end that way. Why? Because it did end that way. So it had to be that Adam and Eve had to eat from this tree because otherwise what would history look like; what would the Torah look like. Of course, that's not true. Every human being has freewill, including Adam and Eve. They could have chosen to eat from the tree and could've not chosen to eat from the tree. As you're reading the story, the story did not have to end that way, right? It's not a foregone conclusion.

There's a really great what if question that the Torah leaves you with. Which is what if Adam and Eve had never reached out to take from the tree, what would've happened? What would've history have looked like had they obeyed the command to stay away from this tree? We don't know the answer to that. Why? Because that's not our version of history. We only see what happens after they violate the command, they take from tree. They get kicked out of Eden, they got all these punishments, but the question is what if they were good little boys and girls? What if they had not eaten from the tree? 

This blessing, I want to suggest -- or I think you're suggesting-- is giving you its answer to that hypothetical, which is the restriction on the tree was only temporary. It wasn't supposed to be forever. Yeah, stay away from the tree until some point in time. What would've happened if you stayed away, if you demonstrated your willingness to cede the tree to God? At some point, "atah chonen l'adam da'at." At some point, God says I have a gift for you. In other words, mankind's sin wasn't taking something that wasn't meant for him. Mankind's sin was taking a gift before its time; was stealing something that should've been --

Ami: The unripe fruit.

Rabbi Fohrman: The unripe fruit. Stealing something just before the master finished putting the bows and putting the wrapping paper on it and saying here this is for you. How impolite. Why would you reach out and grab something before I can bestow it to you? There was this moment in time that it wasn't yet for us, while the gift was being wrapped. We have to ask, what was it about? What had to happen during that moment in time? Good question. But there was this moment in time that wasn't yet for us.

Who is God? God, of course, is the giver of knowledge, right? God is the giver of intellectual wisdom that lets you rule over animals right away and moral wisdom is a little different. Moral wisdom, you have to leave in God's domain for a little bit. Then, one day, God smiles and presents you with a gift and says, hey, I want you to be my partner in another kind of knowledge, in another kind of discerning good and evil. And God gives that gift to you lovingly. That ability to make those distinctions between good and evil that God himself makes.

This blessing seems to be suggesting, I think, a resolution to the most fundamental basic question in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Which is how could God say this tree is off limits? The answer is it wasn't never meant to be off limits permanently. God is always l'chonen l'adam da'at, the giver, the One who bestows gifts. The problem is we took it too soon.

So, Ami, I want to thank you for the beginnings of this fascinating exploration. Got many more blessings to go and who knows how many weeks this is going to be. I really want to thank everybody in our cohort for listening to this and thank you, Ami, for beginning to take us down this path. It's a fascinating path. Folks in our cohort, you got your pens in hands or your keyboards in hands. Feel free to join the discussion with your thoughts, your questions, your observations. You disagree; you want to add something. You tell us your personal stories. Whatever you'd like to put on the discussion boards, we'll be looking at them. We'll pick up with some of the stuff that you guys have to got to say. Next week we'll dive in, look at this blessing a little bit more carefully and then try to figure out what in the world this has to do with the next blessing; mentions of forgiveness and has to do with Torah and all of those things.

Ami: Teshuvah, repentance.

Rabbi Fohrman: Teshuvah, repentance. And we'll be diving into that next week. Until then, Ami, thank you so much. Thank you to our producer Rivky. We'll see you guys next week and eager to read your thoughts and comments and observations. See you then.

Ami: Hi, everyone. Ami here. I just wanted to say if you think this theory that me and Rabbi Fohrman started to lay out sounds kind of crazy; connecting the first blessing of the requests, "atah chonen l'adam da'at," with the story of the Tree of Knowledge. And especially that maybe God intended for us to eat from that tree, just not right away. Well, I'd say you might be right.

The truth is we haven't laid enough of the groundwork yet to really make a strong claim about it and it's still just a whacky theory. But this is what we're hoping to do over the course of the next segments. There's more evidence here to strengthen the claim about the Tree of Knowledge in this blessing and the ones that follow. Ultimately, we have a broad sweeping theory about the general arc of the request section of the Shmoneh Esrei.

In the meantime, think about what we said here. Can you find more evidence in this blessing or the next ones that may support the claim that links it to the Tree of Knowledge? Do you have any strong pushback to our theory? Lay it on us. Thanks a lot, and looking forward to picking up with you next time.

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