From the beginning of the Torah, humans have a fraught relationship with knowledge. The essence of da’at—knowledge—in Adam’s world is the tree of knowledge (עץ הדעת) of good and evil (Genesis 2:9). Adam is instructed to eat of all the trees, but not from the tree of knowledge (Genesis 2:17). When the snake speaks to the woman about the tree, he claims that once they eat of this tree, they will be like God, “knowing good and bad”—יודעי טוב ורע (Genesis 3:5).
It is not clear what kind of knowledge is represented by this tree. It could mean moral knowledge, as in the difference between good and bad. Of course one has to ask: why would God want to prevent humans from moral knowledge?1 Or it could mean sexual knowledge: the first thing Adam and his wife realize once they eat from the tree is that they are naked.2 Perhaps it is knowledge of everything, where “good and bad” is a phrase that means: from good to bad, and everything in between.3
R. Yehudah suggests a different approach. In trying to figure out what the fruit of this tree was (none of the rabbis suggest it was an apple!), R. Yehudah teaches something novel:
תלמוד בבלי ברכות מ.
דתניא אילן שאכל ממנו אדם הראשון...
רבי יהודה אומר: חטה היתה, שאין התינוק יודע לקרות אבא ואמא עד שיטעום טעם דגן.
Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 40a4
As it is taught (in a baraita): The tree that Adam the First ate from, [what was it?]…R. Yehudah said: It was wheat, for a baby doesn’t know how to call “Abba” and “Imma” until it tastes the taste of wheat.
In this conception, the tree of knowledge was actually very tall wheat. When babies eat wheat—that is, solid food—they are beginning to form the capacity for language. In the example R. Yehudah brings, this capacity for knowledge is used to develop formative relationships, here with one’s parents. We use language not only to speak, but also to relate and connect. The words the baby says are not random: they are the names of the baby’s parents. Knowing how to speak is the basis for relationship. Indeed, the first time Adam speaks (albeit before he eats from the fruit), he names Hava, the very first human relationship in the Torah’s narrative.
Throughout this year of Divrei Torah, I will draw connections between our weekly parashah and some of the prayers in our tradition, shedding light on both as they are held in relation to each other. I have been teaching about prayer for years, and through this weekly Dvar Torah, I am excited to offer many more insights into the world of prayer, as seen through the weekly parashah. Let’s see how this week’s parashah connects to one of the most fundamental request prayers in our liturgy.
Almost every line or phrase of our prayers are drawn from the Bible, and there is a long tradition of examining the connections between the two. As R. David Abudraham, writing in 14th century Spain, notes in the beginning of his book length commentary on prayer:
יש לך לדעת כי לשון התפלה הוא מיוסד על לשון המקרא ולכן תמצא כתוב בפי' הזה על כל מלה ומלה פסוק כמוה או מעניניה...
You should know that the language of prayer is based on the language of Scripture. Therefore you will find written in this commentary on every word [of prayer] a verse like it or relating to its essence.5
Abudraham is saying something profound here: prayer and Torah are intimately linked. We often assume that prayer is us speaking to God, and Torah is God speaking to us. Prayer uses human language, and is invented by human authors. But the relationship is in fact more complex. Abudraham’s claim argues for a different conception: our prayers use God’s language to speak back to God. Our core prayers could have been written in the vernacular (see Mishnah Sotah 7:1), but instead they are constructed entirely in the Hebrew idiom of the Bible.
Language is limiting and imperfect. How could we use it to communicate with God? The answer of the siddur is: we aren’t using regular human language, but rather the holy God-infused language of the revealed Torah. In fact, we may need God’s help to pray, and that is the focus of this week’s connection between the parashah and the siddur.
The first request we make of God in the weekday Amidah is to grace us with knowledge. We begin this blessing with an account of God’s ability to do this with humans, or more accurately, with Adam:
אַתָּה חונֵן לְאָדָם דַּעַת.
וּמְלַמֵּד לֶאֱנושׁ בִּינָה:
דֵעָה בִּינָה וְהַשכֵּל
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', חונֵן הַדָּעַת
You grace people [Adam] with knowledge
And teach humans [Enosh] discernment
Grace us from You
Knowledge, discernment, and intelligence
Blessed are You, YHVH, who graces knowledge.
What is the knowledge we are praying for in this blessing? There are many options, corresponding to the numerous synonyms for knowledge used in the blessing itself. However, I prefer to look at this through the lens of R. Yehudah’s identification of knowledge: the capacity for words to form a relationship. In light of this association with אדם and דעת, perhaps we are asking God for the knowledge to speak in prayer, and through that speech, to be able to connect to God.
Why recall this scene of Adam and knowledge in this blessing? Perhaps this blessing is an opportunity to rewrite the relationship between God, people and knowledge. God certainly did not grace Adam with knowledge originally; Adam stole it. But in our blessing, we are trying to reformulate that fraught relationship. We praise God for gracing Adam, and us, with da’at, even as we ask for da’at from God (מאתך). This blessing affords us an opportunity to envision a different connection to our acquiring of knowledge, and to use that knowledge to deepen relationships—with other humans and with God.
1 See Umberto Cassuto, Perush al Sefer Bereishit (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1996 [repr.]), p. 73 and Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 19.