As we will see in Mitzvah #433, there is an obligation for us to try to get closer to God through prayer. To help us fulfill this, our Sages established a prayer to be recited thrice-daily, corresponding to the prayers of our Forefathers. This prayer is called the Amidah (because it is recited standing); the weekday version is also called Shemoneh Esrei, the Eighteen Benedictions (although a nineteenth has since been added). Once a week for nineteen weeks, we will review the contents of the 19 blessings of “Shemoneh Esrei.”
There are several different mental faculties in a person: wisdom, knowledge, insight, etc. In this blessing, we praise God for the gift of wisdom, then we ask Him for the ability to evaluate things and come to appropriate conclusions. The Talmud in Brachos (33a) tells us that we can see how important understanding is from the fact that the Sages placed this blessing first among those in the weekday series. Even before health or sustenance, we ask God to give us perception, wisdom and insight.
The Talmud in Brachos (55a) tells us that God only gives wisdom to a person who already possesses wisdom. This is based on a verse in Daniel (2:21) that “He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who know understanding.” Accordingly, this blessing starts with a praise of God for the wisdom we already possess before asking Him to enhance our mental faculties.
We say in this blessing, “Atah chonein la’adam daas” – “You (God) grace a person with knowledge.” The verb chonein means to give as a gift; God has given every person a modicum of intelligence to start with, even though we have done nothing to deserve it. It is our job to work to increase our ability to discern and understand. The Talmud tells us that in intellectual matters, effort and success go hand in hand (Megillah 6b).
On Saturday nights and following Festivals, a version of havdalah is inserted in this blessing before we later recite it over a cup of wine. Aside from the fact that Binah is the first blessing in the weekday series, havdalah perfectly reflects the theme of this blessing in that we require God’s gift of insight in order to distinguish between the holiness of Shabbos and the secular nature of the other days. (In an interesting aside, the Hebrew initials of four blessings we recite each Saturday night – besamim, yayin, ner and havdalah – actually spell “binah.”)