Chokhmah And Binah (Wisdom And Understanding) – How Your Awesome Mind Is Spirituality Wired

When we speak about enlightening ourselves, it’s important to differentiate between these two modes of apprehension, wisdom and understanding (in Hebrew, Chokhmah and Binah).

​So, what’s the difference between these two concepts?

The human mind is the most fascinating tool in the universe. No other lab equipment can grasp and store wisdom and understanding as much as it.

​We all know that the mind is the interface between the spiritual realms and ourselves. Training it to be strong, agile and capable of receiving influx of energy is part of the healthy pursuit of spirituality. That’s something Tzaddikim excel in.

​In essence, wisdom and understanding are two very distinct (and often opposite) modes of apprehension we use without thinking (even for those who are proficient at mindfulness). Knowing them deeply can greatly increase our perception of reality and grant us fascinating new insights.

Wisdom and understanding, an example

During my journey to do teshuvah over the past 8 years, I’ve been blessed to find many inspiring people. These people proved to be great spiritual masters, who really devoted their lives to transcending their nature and that also helped me find my way.

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Not all knowledge is equal and, to illustrate that, let’s consider two doctors who, hypothetically speaking, have exactly the same skills and mental capacity. The two of them finish med school with exactly the same grades and exactly the same rank. After school is over, one of them goes on a vacation. His friend, on the other hand proceeds to perform the very first surgery in which he’s leading a team all on his own.

This is an experience, which he never had before while studying. Let’s assume this is actually what happened even though, in real life, doctors do all kinds of procedures before graduating.

Now, it’s clear to everyone that the second doctor is in a much higher position than his friend who took the vacation. If we were to choose one of them to consult with, it would be, without a doubt, the second one.

​But why?

We all know that the second doctor has what we call practical experience. But why is it better than regular knowledge? In order to understand this concept better, we need to delve deeper into the essence of wisdom and understanding, and their practical ramifications.

The definition of understanding

Understanding is built through the specific mode of apprehension called “verbal knowledge”. As the term implies, verbal knowledge is acquired through words and it is a rather slow, harsh process.

Consider: when we want to learn an idea by reading something, we often have to read all the words, then process it in our minds, and finally acquire the knowledge of that idea. This can often be an arduous journey in which we are left in the dark for a long time before light finally dawns in.

​Everything we read and listen by definition is called “verbal knowledge”, and it is responsible for the greatest part of what we know to be true. Understanding comes from listening to a lecture, reading articles or watching the TV. Interestingly enough, even when we read silently, we hear the words in our minds.

If that was the end of it, life would be a very poor experience… which brings us to the second mode of apprehension.

wisdom and understanding

​The definition of wisdom (Chokhmah)

Wisdom, on the other hand is the envisioning of the parts operating together in synergy. It’s knowing how the system works while at the same time understanding all its particular parts.

As such, wisdom is associated with the sense of sight because when we look at something, we immediately are able to apprehend it. It is “non-verbal knowledge”, because it transcends words. That’s the essence of all that we call practical knowledge. In our example above of the two doctors, the second one had a specific type of knowledge that can’t be conveyed. Maybe he knew specific things about different tissues in surgery (like how they feel with the scalpel), maybe he acquired nuances in leading his team, and maybe he improved his mental concentration by working with pressure.

​There’s a famous quote that says “a picture is worth a thousand words”. That’s very inaccurate because, no matter how much we try to describe a picture into words to another person, he/she will never be able to paint one like it.

​It is also noteworthy that there’s no comparison between wisdom and understanding. That means that no amount of understanding can amount to one clear idea from wisdom. A person might learn all the books in the world, but if he fails to put it all together and seek how everything is interconnected, then even someone with a little experience will be higher than him in that area.

Wisdom and the spiritual experience

Another important point is that wisdom is highly associated with the meditative spiritual experience, or Ruach HaKodesh. When we experience something higher than us, we are nullified in it. This is pretty much what happens when we look at something since the eyes are the center of Da’at (more on this later).

A person who gazes deeply into a concept assumes a passive stance in the experience. The concept is what the concept is, and the person simply accepts it (in this case, Hashem’s revelation). This is in contrast to understanding, in which we make an effort to absorb the idea and translate it into our inner world (and then we might need to share it later in our words).

However, much of our experience will be a product of what our desires currently are, whether they be good or not. Wisdom could be a form of spiritual understanding and this is what we learn in our meditation classes.

Therefore, to be wise is the ability to receive wisdom, after acquiring enough understanding. It’s like building a house, first you need the material for the foundation, then plaster it and finally decorate it with furniture. It’s only once it’s built that you can really enjoy it.

​The interplay between wisdom and understanding

Wisdom and understanding work together and form all the knowledge we acquire.

​As the higher form of the two, wisdom vests itself into understanding. In Kabbalistic terms, the Yesod of Chokhmah is revealed from within the Yesod of Binah.

What this means is that often abstract ideas need to be contracted into words in order for us to apprehend. Every one of us starts life by learning through words. From the time we are small, we learn to point at things and say the words associated with them. Yet, that’s how it happens: We all need to built a solid foundation of understanding. After that we can then acquire wisdom.

​This is particularly important to know because, when we meditate, we are actually trying to acquire pure wisdom, in its most pristine form. Then, we can feel real, transcendental experience, which we know to be true and irrevocable. Yet, we can’t convey it to someone else because it’s something inherently personal. And this is also why we pursue purity of the mind when meditating: in order to be able to focus our attention on things that really matter.

In other words, we are not pursuing purity in order to be puritans. Rather, we want to achieve higher states of consciousness that would be impossible otherwise. Proper wisdom and understanding demand we de-clog our minds.

​At the outset, it might seem like these two modes of apprehension are one thing. And, ultimately, in a state of expanded consciousness, they really fuse into one. However, in our waking, regular state, when we can seldom apprehend wisdom, they remain separate (and often conflicting).

A truly spiritually awakened person will be able to derive lessons from reality without the need for words. In fact, one of the signs of spiritual maturity is the fact that people can think without words, and be fully free to choose whichever mode is best. We often call that our intuitive powers but we will have to leave this topic for another time.

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Concluding remarks

​In summary, the intellect is a composition of these two modes of apprehension. Being aware of when we are receiving wisdom and understanding is essential for spiritual advancement. The brightest treasures come when we are able to experience reality in its purest form, without the need for words. Take any meaningful experience like love, parenthood, friendship, gratitude, and anyone can agree that they transcend words.

​In fact, putting these concepts into words would more often than not cheapen the experience. While it’s nice to hear “I love you”, most gestures of love speak louder and convey much more.

​As was said before, we can’t apprehend wisdom without first having understanding. This is because the former one is a step above the latter. As such, wisdom and understanding each have their time and place.

Knowing when to seek each one is also a vital part of the journey to transcendence. Wisdom and understanding complement each other and are an integral part of experiencing life.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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