Miketz: Chanukah wisdom ~ Wonders of The Holy Tongue



Chanukah Wisdom

The first appearance of the word “חכם” in Scripture is in this week’s Torah portion, in connection to Joseph’s advice to Pharaoh: 

Now let Pharaoh seek out a discerning and wise man[וְחָכָם]and set him over the land of Egypt (Gen.41:33).

The Zohar (Vol. I, 130b) alludes to the connection between “חכמה” and the word “מְחַכֵּה”, waiting: No eye had ever seen, O God, beside You, what He will do for those who wait [מְחַכֵּה] for Him (Isa. 64:3). What does it mean, to wait for Him? As it states: Elihu waited [חִכָּה] before addressing Job (Job 32:4).

The Zohar goes on to say that meaning of “חכמה” is the ability to infer and extract information: And these are the ones who press upon a word of wisdom and extract from it, and wait (ומחכאן) for it, to learn the clarification of the matter.1

Shoresh Yesha (entry ‘חכם’) suggests two reasons for the closeness of the words “,חכם””מחכה”(wait), and “חך”(palate)2: The wise man does not speak rashly, waiting[to think] before he speaks. He then speaks words that are sweet and pleasant to the palate.3

Based on the above, let’s explore the gamut of words in the Holy Tongue that contain the 2-letter string, ‘.חכ’

In Sefer Hashorashim, Radak lists numerous verses where the wordחֵךְ” “,palate,appears.4He then cites his father, who wrote that the root of ‘חך’isחנך’,’ and the “dagesh” that appears in these verses is in place of the letter “nun.”5Radak then adds a second meaning to this root – “חַכָּה”(fishing hook), since the hook latches onto the fish in its palate.6

In Aramaic, the word “חייכא” is the translation of the verb לצחוק”,” to laugh, an act that involves the palate(from which derives the word חיוך”,”smilein latter-day Hebrew).7

Until now, we have found a connection between words with the letters ‘חך’and the “חֵךְ”palate itself. However, there remains one word that seemingly bears no connection to חֵךְ”,” namely, the word “חַכְלִילִי”that Jacob used in his deathbed blessings for Judah: the eyes are red [חַכְלִילִי עֵינַיִם] from wine(Gen.49:21). However, our Sages teach us that this word is also based on the root ‘חך’, stating in Ketubot 111b that חַכְלִילִיmeansכָּלחֵיךשֶׁטוֹעֲמוֹ אוֹמֵר לִי לִי, “Every palatethat tastes it says, ‘For me, for me.’”There is one other instance of “חַכְלִילִי”in Scripture (Prov.23:29-30), and there Solomon appears to hint to the aspect of waiting/pausing(“חַכֵּה”)inherent in the constituent letters ‘חכ’: “Who has redness (חַכְלִילוּת) in the eyes? Those who lingerover wine.” 

It would appear that the role of the palate is to instill in us the characteristic of waiting – both before releasing a word from one’s mouth, and before inserting something into it. Whereas an infant demands immediate satisfaction and does not grasp the unwanted outcomes that are likely to result from putting random items into his mouth, the wise man foresees results in advance. Similarly, the fish is caught by the hook, because instead of waiting and making a careful assessment, it swallows what’s in front of it without hesitation. By contrast, in Scripture we find numerous expressions of praise for the ability to wait, such as the word עקב”,” as explained by Ibn Ezra and others: And all the nations of the world shall bless themselves by your offspring, because [עֵקֶב] you listened to My voice(Gen. 22:18); Ibn Ezra- עקב-the reward that comes at the end. Radak- עקבmeans the reward… just as the עֲקֵב,heel, is the end of the body, so too reward comes at the end…8

In other words, reward depends on the ability to wait and overcome the desire for immediate gratification. Similarly, RSRH (Gen. 15:1) compares the word שכר,rewardto the word סכר,a dam,9meaning water and blessing can only accumulate when they are closed and protected.10

Above, Radak noted that his father showed that ‘חנך’is the root of the word “.חֵךְ”What is the connection between חךand’,חנך’the root for words such as educationandinauguration? Based on the above, the connection is clear. An infant is born without the ability to hold back his desires, and it puts anything and everything into its mouth without compunction. The infant needs his parents and teachers to train and educate [לחנך] him in the value of waiting. Here is the secret of these days of Chanuka, the ability to wait for God’s salvation, as the Rambam states: I will wait for him [the Messiah] every day, that he should come, speedily, in our days!



Why is a wise man referred to as a “chacham?”Let us analyze the depth of this word and concept, so central to Jewish daily life thought.

Our Sages interpret the Scriptural word מְחַכֵּהas an allusion to the חכםin the following teaching (Berachot 34b): “R. Chiya son of Abba said in the name of R. Yochanan: All [the good tidings] that the prophets prophesied were only regarding one who gives his daughter in marriage to a scholar… or who allows a scholar the use of his possessions… But as for the scholars themselves, no eye had ever seen, O God, beside You, what He will do for those who wait מְחַכֵּהforHim(Isa. 64:3). 

While the Talmud does not specify how it sees this as a reference to the Torah scholar, Maharshasuggests(as one possibility) that it is based on the word מְחַכֵּהbeinga permutation of חָכְמָה.

Regarding the link between ‘חך’and ‘חנך’mentioned above, we find a discussion in the Talmud (Chullin103b), regarding the calculation of the olive-sized minimum needed to incur liability for partaking of the limb of a live animal. The Sages discuss whether we also include the amount that may have been caught between his teeth and that which is in the rest of his mouth. In his commentary,Rashistates that we do not include the material that is ‘בֵּין הַחַנִיכַיִם’, i.e., that which is stuck to his ‘חך’ (palate), since only his gullet derived enjoyment from it but not his stomach.11

Thus far, we have found links between all the words that contain the two-letter sequence ‘חכ’, and the word’חיך’ (palate) itself. 

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among the unique characteristics which the Sages ascribe to the wise man, is the trait of waiting and consideration: “A wise man… is not hasty to respond” (Avot 5:7).

As cited above, Radakmentioned that according to his father, R’ Yosef Kimchi, the root of the word ‘חך’ is actually ‘חנך’ (trained/educated). His own explanatory remarks do not reveal any obvious connection between the words palateand train/educate.However, based on what we have suggested here, the two concepts would fit like a hand in glove. As we noted, a child is born without any power to rein in his desires. He would ingest and expel from his palate at will, were it not for his parents and teachers, who teach him the benefit of patience and help him develop the characteristic of being able to wait and delay gratification.

1 וע’ספר לקוטי תורהשקישר עפ”ז גם בין “חיך”ל”חכה”.

2Machberet Menachemlinks three words to the underlying biliteral root ‘חך’: 1) “חַכֵּה”(waiting); 2) “חַכָּה”(fishhook); 3)”חֵך”(palate). However, he does not directly link “חכם”to “חך”or “חכה”, nor (per his usual practice) does he indicate what or even ifa logical connection exists between the words linked to the root. 

3Ohr Chadash (Gen.41:33), also links “חכם”toחך” ,” adding that “חיוך”(smile) derives from “חך”as well.

4וְחֵךְ אֹכֶל יִטְעַם לוֹ(איוב יב:יא),חִכּוֹמַמְתַקִּים(שה”ש ה:טז),וְחִכֵּךְכְּיֵיןהַטּוֹב(שם ז:י),אֶלחִכְּךָשֹׁפָר(הושע ח:א).

5Sefer HaGalui by R’ Yosef Kimchi, entry ‘חך’.

6חבקוק א:טו-כֻּלֹּה בְּחַכָּה הֵעֲלָה;מצ”צ:בחכה-שם כלי צדיה.איוב מ:כה-תִּמְשֹׁךְ לִוְיָתָן בְּחַכָּה.ישעיהו יט:ח-כָּל מַשְׁלִיכֵי בַיְאוֹר חַכָּה.

7בראשית יח:יב -וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה לִּי עֶדְנָה;ת”א -וחייכת שרה במעהא למימר בתר דסיבית תהי לי ולימו.בראשית לט:יד -הֵבִיא לָנוּ אִישׁ עִבְרִי לְצַחֶק בָּנוּ; ת”א- איתי לנא גברא עבראה לחיכא בנא.

8ול’חז”ל”עיכוב”בעצמה נובעת מל’מקרא”עקב”.ראה למשל צרור המור (בר’כה:לא),הכוה”ק(שם כז:לו).

9בחילוף אותיות גיכ”ק,וזסשר”ץ-ע’נספח א’ “חילוף אותיות”.

10ורש”ר הירש משווה גם את המלה “חכם”בעצמה ל”אגם” (בחילוף אותיות אחע”ה וגיכ”ק):רש”ר הירש בראשית מא:לג-איש נבון וחכם -‘חכם’קרוב ל’אגם’:קליטת…המצוי.

11Rashi makes a similar link in his comments to Ketubot 39b, where he interprets the Talmudic term ‘חינכי’ as a reference to the ‘חך’.


Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg

Founding Director, Editor-In-Chief at Veromemanu
Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg is the Founding Director and Editor-in-chief of Veromemanu and it' website BiblicalHebrewEtymology.com.

Yehoshua is a retired U.S. Army Chaplain and currently lives in Israel with his wife and children.

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Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg