The phrase “mi natan la-sechvi vinah?” (=who gave the “sechvi” understanding?) is found at Job 38:36. The verse has two parts: who put wisdom in “tuchot,” and who gave understanding to the “sechvi”? (“Le-havchin bein…” is not in the verse.)
With regard to the word “tuchot,” it also appears at Psalms 51:8. It is evident from there that its meaning is “covered/hidden part of the body” (from the root “tet-vav-chet” = covered). It is usually interpreted as “kidneys.” (ArtScroll’s Tehillim commentary remarks: “The kidneys [were] considered to be the seat of human intellect, as in Job 38:36, Psalms 7:10, 16:7.”)
Since the word “sechvi” at Job 38:36 is parallel to the word “tuchot,” “sechvi” almost certainly refers to a body part. The root of “sechvi” is sin-caf-heh, which means “to see.” Most of the traditional commentaries interpret it as “heart.” Another reasonable interpretation is “mind.” This is the only time that the word “sechvi” appears in Tanach, which makes its proper interpretation difficult. But even though its precise meaning is hard to discern, there is no reason from the context to suggest that it is an animal.
Several centuries later, at Brachot 60b, there is a statement that when one hears the sound of the “tarnegola”(=rooster), one should recite the blessing “asher natan la-sechvi vinah le-havchin bein yom u-vein laylah.” The statement utilizes the text of our verse in Job for the beginning of the blessing, but we saw above that “sechvi” did not mean any kind of animal there! How can we understand this passage in the Talmud?
The Talmud, at Rosh Hashanah 26a, gives us two clues: 1) We are told that in a city in Syria, “sechvi” meant “tarnegol,” and 2) a statement is reported in the name of either Rav or R. Yehoshua b. Levi that the “sechvi” of Job. 38:36 is a “tarnegol.”
So a possible scenario is that Rav or R. Yehoshua b. Levi (or Sages prior to them) picked up the sechvi=tarnegol interpretation from another region and language, such as Aramaic.
We have to remind ourselves that our Tannaim and Amoraim did not have our standard Tanach commentaries to assist them. They were faced with a vague one-time word of “sechvi” at Job 38:36. They may have learned a possible meaning from another region and this became the widespread way to understand the word’s meaning. OK, the meaning did not fit the context of Job 38:36 well. But it was not egregiously inconsistent with the context and at least now they had a meaning for this vague word.
Once “sechvi” in this verse was understood as “tarnegol,” it became reasonable to utilize this verse when enacting a blessing about God’s special gift to the tarnegol.
The reason I am elaborating on this is to avoid the “heart” meaning or “double meaning” interpretation of our blessing. All siddur translations and commentaries are faced with a dilemma here. They know (from Brachot 60b) that the blessing is a response to the sound of a “tarnegol” and they also most likely believe that the verse is about a body part like the heart. So how should they translate “sechvi” in the blessing? The Complete ArtScroll Siddur, in its text of the blessing, translates “sechvi” as “heart.” But then the commentary below writes: “In the context of this blessing, both meanings are implied.” Indeed, many of the commentaries on this blessing write that both meanings are implied.
But the other preliminary morning blessings listed at Brachot 60b are all simple blessings without double meanings. As we are slowly getting our bearings upon arising, do you think the Sages would enact, as the first blessing for the day, a blessing with a wordplay and double meaning? Moreover, do we think they would have intended us to focus, even partially, on a Tanach meaning that was itself vague? The simplest approach to this blessing is that at the time it was enacted, the widespread understanding of “sechvi” was “tarnegol.” Nothing deeper than that. Wordplays with double meanings are features that authors of piyyutim use, not enactors of simple preliminary morning blessings.
I am here reminded of an article I read recently about paradoxes. One “paradox” mentioned was that there are people in the world who cannot do anything in the morning until they drink their coffee. The problem is, if this were literally true, these people would not be able to function ever, as they are unable to make their coffee in the morning! Surely our blessing authors were sensitive enough not to make us think too much with the first blessing! (By the way, the suggestion for those dysfunctional coffee drinkers is for them to do most of the steps of making the coffee the night before, and only leave a minimal amount of coffee preparation for the morning!)
- For more on “sechvi” and “tuchot,” see the Daat Mikra commentary to Job. 38:36.
- I never realized until I wrote this article that the simple Hebrew word “bein” (B-Y-N, between) is almost certainly related to the word “binah.” In other words, the original meaning of “binah” was “to distinguish between things”! See Mandelkern’s concordance, p. 187, Jastrow, pp. 162-63, and Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 2, p. 99.
- I mentioned above that at Rosh Hashanah 26a we are told that in a city in Syria, “sechvi” meant “tarnegol.” At Lev. Rabbah 25:5, we are told that this was the meaning of the word in Arabia. At Jerusalem Talmud, Brachot, Chap. 9, we are told that this was the meaning of the word in Rome. But perhaps “sechvi” did not mean “tarnegol” in all these regions, and that what we have here are merely different variants of one tradition. (The exact city name recorded at Rosh Hashanah 26a is “Kan-Nishraya.” According to Jastrow, p. 1387, this is “Kennesrin,” a city in northern Syria.)
- I mentioned above that the Biblical root Sin-Caf-Heh meant “to see.” We see this root elsewhere in the word “maskit,” which appears six times in Tanach and likely means “image.” In rabbinic Hebrew, the Biblical “sin” often evolved into a “samech” (see, e.g., the word “erusin”). In the zemer “Baruch Kel Elyon,” we refer to God as “kol socheh” (with a samekh). The meaning is “the One Who sees all.”
- I mentioned above that there was an interpretation reported in the name of either Rav or R. Yehoshua b. Levi that the “sechvi” of Job. 38:36 was a “tarnegol.” Perhaps this interpretation did not arise from a foreign region as I suggested earlier. Rather, one of our Sages saw the root sin-caf-heh in the word “sechvi,” and knew that the root meant “see,” and then decided that the word was an allusion to the rooster who sees the dawn. But this is still far-fetched, as there is little reason to have read an allusion to an animal into this verse.
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. After he says his morning blessings and tries to block out the biblical meaning of “sechvi” and have only the “tarnegol” meaning in mind, he can be reached at [email protected]
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.