Chochmah: Wisdom or Skill?

Chochmah: Wisdom or Skill?
Woman weaving on a hand loom wearing brightly colored woven clothes illustrating a post on wisdom - chochmah in Hebrew

Chochmah. Wisdom. A wonderful Hebrew word sprinkled all around the Bible. But what does it mean? Who has it? How do we reward them? And are our rewards fair?

Sometimes Chochmah feels like a cosmic force. In Proverbs Chapter 8, she helps God create the world. In Kabbalah, too, Chochmah is God’s spark of inspiration for creating the world. It’s an intellectual force, operating before anything physical comes to be.

But sometimes chochmah seems rather down-to-earth. Joseph gets it from God. He uses it to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. And then he turns the interpretation into a national food policy! God gives chochmah to Solomon, too. And then Solomon uses it to rule a empire. Carefully, he stations troops, collects taxes, builds public buildings, and also gains fantastic wealth.

Betzalel and Oholiab, lead designers of the mishkan, have chochmah too. God gives it to them so they can build a place where God dwells among the people. A ritual centre, a beautiful tabernacle and sanctuary.

How will Betzalel and Oholiab use their chochmah? They will use it, says the Torah, “to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood. To work in every kind of craft.” (Exodus 31:4-5)

We discussed this verse at our Or Shalom Torah study. Or, rather, we wondered about it. Aren’t Betzalel and Oholiab just implementing God’s design? So does that mean they have skill, not wisdom? And isn’t a skill just something you learn by rote? Or does a skilled person have a lot of life experience? Do they already know the right and wrong way to do things? And then quietly act on their knowledge? And isn’t this the essence of wisdom: good judgment, based in experience?

Our discussion of chochmah went round and round. Do smiths, jewellers, and carpenters really have it? Or only spiritual teachers, intellectuals, elders, and great leaders?

And then, I shared a excerpt from the Wisdom of ben Sira. No one else in our group had heard of it. Probably because this 2nd century BCE book didn’t make it into the Tanakh. But the Talmudic sages quoted it. Early Jewish communities chanted it. Some great liturgical poets riffed off it. And you’ll soon see why.

Ben Sira, it turns out, asked all the same questions we did. But he answered them. And then he organized his answers into a critical social theory. He writes:

How can one become wise who handles the plow, and who glories in the shaft of a goad, who drives oxen and is occupied with their work, and whose talk is about bulls? … So it is with every artisan and master artisan … All these rely on their hands, and all are skillful in their own work.

Without them no city can be inhabited, and wherever they live, they will not go hungry. Yet they are not sought out for the council of the people, nor do they attain eminence in the public assembly. They do not sit in the judge’s seat … and they are not found among the rulers. But they maintain the fabric of the world.

How different the one who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High! He seeks out the wisdom of all the ancients, and is concerned with prophecies; preserves the sayings of the famous and penetrates the subtleties of parables; seeks out the hidden meanings of proverbs and is at home with the obscurities of parables. He serves among the great and appears before rulers … Nations will speak of his wisdom, and the congregation will proclaim his praise. (Wisdom of Ben Sira, 38:24-39:11)

Chochmah, says ben Sira, means many things. It’s the practical skill that sustains human civilization. And it’s political skill, too. The kind that manages public resources, and not always fairly. But it’s also intellectual inquiry that captures public imagination. And the canny self-interest of intellectuals who know just how to court the rulers’ favour.

And with this, our study group changed its mind. Wisdom we agreed, comes from life experience. Skill is a kind of wisdom. Of course, intellectuals might try to convince us otherwise. And we are familiar with their rhetoric. “Abstract thinking is an elite skill.” “Only we have true wisdom.” “Philosopher-kings should rule.” But the intellectuals can’t trick us anymore. They can’t distract us with their tokens of fame and power. Because now we know what really sustains the human world. Every artisan and master artisan who rely on their hands, and are skillful in their work.


For a more woman-centred biblical take on wisdom, see A Grandmother’s Wisdom.” It, too, explores Parshat Ki Tissa, Exodus 30:11-34:35.

Photo credit: Tyndale Davis.

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