Knowing That We Know Nothing
By Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Ginsberg

The Rebbe Rayatz told the following story on Simchas Torah 5704 (1944), for which 20 years later on Simchas Torah 5724, the Rebbe shlita MH"M presented a magnificent explanation. This story and explanation convey one of the principle chiddushim of chassidus, and this principle is particularly apropos in regard to our generation.

I heard this story for the first time with this emphasis from Rabbi Y.Y. Jacobson in 770. I looked up the story in Sichos Kodesh and copied it, although it is an unedited sicha. This is what the Rebbe shlita says:

On Simchas Torah 5704, the Rebbe, my father-in-law, related that one of the times the Alter Rebbe went to Mezritch (in the year 5529 [1759] ), he passed through Shklov. That night it was freezing, so the Alter Rebbe entered a beis midrash and stood near the stove to warm up. Since according to kabbala hands may not be held behind the back, the Alter Rebbe stood near the stove with his arms held out to the sides.

Although it was the middle of the night, the Alter Rebbe saw that the gaon R’ Yosef Kolbo was in the midst of explaining a topic in Meseches Erchin. The usual lecturer couldn’t unravel the difficulties of this topic, so R’ Yosef Kolbo had taken over.

R’ Yosef was called "Kolbo" because he was "kol bo" (had everything): He was at home in every area of Torah. The Alter Rebbe was twenty-four years old at the time, and R’ Yosef Kolbo was fifteen years older and a colleague and close student of the Vilna Gaon.

When the Alter Rebbe heard R’ Yosef’s explanation, he shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of disapproval. R’ Yosef, noticing this, approaching him afterwards with the question: "Young man, where are you from?"

The Alter Rebbe responded: "This is the question of the Mishna - mei’ayin basa?" (where are you from?)

Said R’ Yosef: "Lav orchai l’ishta’i b’milin d’hedyota" ("It is not my custom to speak of mundane matters." [This phrase is taken from the Zohar, where it is stated in reference to Hashem the King, "d’malka."])

The Alter Rebbe said: "[The angel referred to by the name] Matat, sar ha’pnim (the interior minister), is called hedyot. Leis dein asar hedyot’" (this is not a place of the mundane). [This was a reference to himself, indicating that R’ Yosef had not properly understood the Alter Rebbe’s response.]

Asked R’ Yosef: "From where do you know this?"

The Alter Rebbe answered, "The Gemara in Brachos (3b) asks why Moshe Rabbeinu said, ‘k’chatzos ha’laiila’ (around midnight [as opposed to precisely midnight]), although Dovid HaMelech said, ‘Chatzos laila akum l’hodos lach’" ([Precisely] at midnight, I arise to thank You ).

"According to Torah, one cannot know anything about someone else with certainty, and even when speaking about Hashem (as did Moshe), he had to speak in approximations. But Dovid was speaking about himself, therefore he could be precise. Dovid is s’firas ha’malchus, and malchus knows everything."

The Alter Rebbe concluded, "The point of knowledge is knowing that we don’t know. Even if we think we know the meaning of a subject in Meseches Erchin, the truth is, we don’t really know it."

The Alter Rebbe then said over the topic under discussion in Meseches Erchin by heart with the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafos and explained it properly. This is the end of the story.

The Rebbe shlita comments: "We have already said that when the Rebbeim tell stories, even stories about tzaddikim and Jewish leaders, it is not merely to tell a nice story but to impart a lesson for our avoda. This point particularly applies to a story the Rebbe told on Simchas Torah, for in that very same farbrengen the Rebbe spoke of the need to treasure every single moment of the forty-eight hours of Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah, every moment of which could be used to draw ‘pitchers and barrels.’ From this statement we see how precious every moment is; yet the Rebbe devoted time to telling this story. Certainly it is not just a ‘nice story’ (milin d’hedyot, as it says in the story), but something to learn from and to derive a lesson from in avodas Hashem."

Aside from the lesson learned from the story, there are questions that need to be addressed:

1) When R’ Yosef asked the Alter Rebbe where he was from, the Alter Rebbe answered by saying it was a Mishna, "mei’ayin basa." What kind of answer is that?

R’ Yosef’s question suggests an element of surprise that although the Alter Rebbe had arrived in the middle of the lecture, he grasped the entire lecture, even presenting a question that negated what R’ Yosef had worked on so extensively. He recognized the Alter Rebbe’s greatness, therefore he asked the Alter Rebbe where he was from, and the Alter Rebbe responded by showing R’ Yosef his knowledge of a Mishna - how do we understand their conversation?

2) When R’ Yosef said, "It’s not my way to speak of mundane matters," he meant that the Alter Rebbe’s reply of "mei’ayin basa" had no substance; he thought the Alter Rebbe was merely quoting the Mishna. The Alter Rebbe responded by saying, "Even [the angel known as] Mattat, sar ha’pnim, is called hedyot, and ‘this is not the place of hedyot.’" How did this response answer R’ Yosef’s question?

R’ Yosef’s question, "From where do you know this?" indicates that he did indeed accept the Alter Rebbe’s response as an answer. And not just an ordinary answer, but an extraordinary answer, for he even asked for a source.

3) In the Alter Rebbe’s explanation that Moshe didn’t know, but Dovid knew, there seems to be a contradiction between the beginning and the end: At first the Alter Rebbe said that Dovid’s knowledge was precise because the fact applied to himself, and when speaking about oneself one can be precise - not because Dovid was greater. If Moshe were to speak about himself, he too would be precise. But then the Alter Rebbe said that Dovid is malchus (kingship), and malchus knows everything. This means that Dovid wasn’t precise because he was speaking about himself, but because malchus knows everything. The wording is "malchus yodaas ha’kol" - not just about itself, but about everything.

* * *

The Rebbe shlita explains these apparent contradictions. R’ Yosef’s question concerning the origin of the Alter Rebbe was an expression of amazement at the Alter Rebbe’s brilliance. But why did R’ Yosef ask where the Alter Rebbe was from? He should have asked the Alter Rebbe what he liked or disliked about his lecture, and why. Why did R’ Yosef care where the Alter Rebbe was from? This question was surely not just idle conversation; R’ Yosef really wanted to know.

Even in earlier generations, Seider Kodshim wasn’t generally learned because it has many different textual emendations, and the precise wording was not clarified, as in other sedarim, because few people learn it. In Seider Kodshim, Meseches Erchin in particular is a tractate that appears in many different versions, and contains difficult subject matter.

R’ Yosef saw a young man who did not review the Gemara but listened orally, came in the middle of the lecture, and had been traveling. Rashi says in Parshas Lech Lecha that traveling diminishes one’s learning. The Alter Rebbe quickly grasped what was being discussed, shrugging his shoulders to express his displeasure. This was a young man (who wouldn’t have had many years of Torah learning behind him)! R’ Yosef was amazed because even a diligent young man still cannot know as much as an older person.

R’ Yosef thought that brilliance was not the most valid justification for the amount of knowledge this young man had. A more likely explanation would be that he studied with an older scholar who had plenty of time to learn. That is why R’ Yosef asked the Alter Rebbe where he was from (i.e., who taught him).

The Alter Rebbe responded with the Mishna, for Mishna is something everyone must know, as it says, "Taa b’dvar Mishna chozer" (if a judge errs in a ruling that is explicit in the Mishna, the ruling is overturned). His mistake would not be considered a legitimate one, because everybody knows Mishna. The Alter Rebbe responded: "Mei’ayin basa" - when learning is in the category of "mei’ayin basa" [which could be read a different way, "with self-nullification"], there’s no difference if he’s an older person or a younger person, for with bittul, the powers of the soul are illuminated.

Since the Alter Rebbe had already been in Mezritch (he first went to Mezritch in 5524, and this story took place in 5529), he had already achieved such a level of learning. But R’ Yosef was unfamiliar with this approach. The difference in R’ Yosef’s learning before he went to the Alter Rebbe and afterwards is well known. The new approach is what the Alter Rebbe was referring to when he said that this is the Mishna’s question. Also suggested is an indication that this idea is obvious, alluded to by mentioning a phrase from a Mishna.

When R’ Yosef heard this response he wondered whether the Alter Rebbe’s learning was at the level of amkus, deep analysis - including the conversation in which they were presently engaged - or whether the Alter Rebbe simply mentioned that phrase, and that his learning was in a manner of pilpul (an approach to learning that is more superficial). That is why R’ Yosef said, "It is not my way to speak of mundane matters."

The expression "milin d’hedyota" does not mean mundane words. The Mishna uses the word "hedyot" regarding the annulment of vows. Shlosha (three) hedyotos are acceptable for this task. This means that the three who annul a vow could actually be outstanding scholars who simply lack smicha from one person to another all the way back to Moshe Rabbeinu. There’s also the Kohen Hedyot in contrast to the Kohen Gadol. A Kohen Hedyot is not a boor; he is called hedyot to distinguish him from the Kohen Gadol. The Ten Utterances" are called "milin d’hedyota" in comparison to Torah. Pilpul of Torah is described as hedyot relative to amkus in Torah.

The Alter Rebbe answered that his Torah study was far loftier, and compared to his Torah study, even amkus would be called hedyot. This is what he meant when he said that even Matat, sar ha’pnim, is called hedyot. For he could have simply said "Matat" without adding that he is the sar ha’pnim (interior minister), but he wanted to hint that he was speaking about Matat as regards Matat’s Torah, as it were. It is known that a number of things in Torah were revealed through Matat, and because of this he is described as sar ha’pnim. Nevertheless, Matat is called a hedyot because his level is not the ultimate in bittul. In fact, on one occasion Matat was actually punished, and there were other instances that illustrate that he was not totally battul. That is why he is called hedyot. Similarly, those who lack smicha all the way back to Moshe are called hedyotos because they don’t have the utter bittul of Moshe Rabbeinu, who said, "And we are nothing."

When the Alter Rebbe explained that his Torah was in the category of ayin of Atzilus, R’ Yosef asked him, "Ho minayin loch" (literally, where do you have this from?).

The Rebbe shlita concludes: The end - and the truth is you cannot say the word "end," because besides the explanation just given, plus what I will say now, there are certainly other explanations and allusions - will be spoken about later in the farbrengen.

The Rebbe continued with this topic at the farbrengen of Parshas Noach. Sadly, the end of the explanation is missing, and is not available in the Hanacha in the old edition of Sichos Kodesh (I hope it will be found and printed soon in the new edition).

Let’s attempt an explanation on our own: The question of "ho minayin loch" meant: What was the basis of the Alter Rebbe’s statement that ayin is so high that even amkus of Torah is considered hedyot in comparison to it? The Alter Rebbe answered: In regard to the question about Moshe Rabbeinu using the term "approximately midnight," while Dovid said "at [precisely] midnight," the Gemara in Brachos asks: Could it be that Moshe did not know, but Dovid did? The answer to that question is that according to Torah one cannot precisely know another person, but one can know oneself, and - the Alter Rebbe concludes - Dovid is the s’fira of malchus, and malchus knows everything.

Perhaps we can say as follows: The difference between Moshe Rabbeinu and Dovid HaMelech is the difference between ayin, the aspect of Dovid (malchus of Atzilus), and Moshe (chochma of Atzilus, chochmas ha’Torah, as it says, "Torah goes forth from chochma").

Herein is found the basis for what the Alter Rebbe said. He said that relative to the aspect of ayin, even amkus in Torah is considered hedyot. The Torah is associated with Moshe Rabbeinu, as it says, "Torah tziva lanu Moshe," and, "Zichru Toras Moshe avdi." While it is true that Moshe Rabbeinu is the source of Torah, and he certainly contains all the depth of Torah, at the level of Torah associated with Moshe there remains ideas that are still somewhat obscure; whereas concerning Dovid - malchus of Atzilus, which is the aspect of ayin and utter bittul - these ideas are clear and explicit, as the Alter Rebbe concludes, "Malchus knows everything."

S’firas ha’malchus is ayin and utter bittul. This is what Dovid meant when he said, "Im lo shivisi v’domamti" (If I was not treated properly, I would remain silent). As explained in chassidus, bittul is like inanimate rock (domeim), which has nothing of its own. Because of the strength of the utter bittul within it, it can receive everything, even the ko’ach ha’Atzmus (power of the Essence), found specifically in s’firas ha’malchus.

Chochma of Atzilus is in the category of utter bittul, and bittul is primarily from chochma (chochma is made up of the words "ko’ach mah"). Moshe said, "V’nachnu mah" (What are we?), and as it says in Tanya in the note in chapter 35, "Ein Sof Boruch Hu is the true oneness, which is Him alone, and there is none aside from Him - this is the level of chochma. The very essence of chochma is that He is alone and there is none aside from Him - this is the level of chochma." Chochma is bittul. The bittul of chochma is bittul of a very high level, to the point that bittul is its very essence. However, it is "aware" of its bittul, comparable to the bittul of a great tzaddik, who, as an expression of his greatness, is entirely battul. Thus, this is not the bittul of shiflus, where one feels himself to be an "absolute nothing." On the contrary, his very bittul is his greatness, the perfect revelation of "echad ha’emes," and so it turns out that the bittul itself is a metzius of bittul.

The bittul of s’firas ha’malchus is the bittul of shiflus, comparable to the bittul of a simple person who has no outstanding quality, thus feeling like an "absolute nothing." This bittul is absolute nothingness. It is because of this level of bittul that "malchus knows everything," even what chochma does not know.

Chochma remains in a sense a metzius; it is aware of what it knows because of its elevated level, and as great as its level is (including the level of its bittul), it is nothing relative to Hashem’s Atzmus.

Malchus, however, is nothing, and it doesn’t "know" anything except that its utter bittul is like a vessel which illuminates everything, even Hashem’s Atzmus, before which everything is considered naught. Since it doesn’t know by virtue of its own powers, but by virtue of the power of Atzmus, it, therefore, knows everything!

Perhaps this is also what the Alter Rebbe meant by "according to Torah it’s impossible to be certain about someone else, even about Hashem." "According to Torah," which is the aspect of Moshe Rabbeinu (chochma), "it is impossible to be certain about someone else," for bittul that comes from chochma, as we said, results from the loftiness of the level and the awareness of Hashem’s greatness.

So the bittul that chochma generates is derived from the fact that it leads to a person’s awareness of Hashem’s greatness, which is why he is misbattel. The bittul is not an expression of its very being; the bittul was brought to this awareness by being elevated to a lofty level of awareness of Hashem’s greatness. A drop of metzius still remains because of his elevated state, and doesn’t permeate him entirely. In the lowly elements within him, in that fraction of his being which is not aware of Hashem’s greatness, there is no bittul, and therefore, "it is impossible to know something clearly about someone else."

Regarding oneself, as far as chochma, "it is possible to know clearly," for the bittul is complete. But regarding what is outside itself, there remains a drop of "otherness," a drop of metzius, and there it is impossible to know something precisely.

Perhaps we can also say that the Gemara says this about "midnight," for chassidus explains that chatzos is the bittul (i.e., it is not an actual time, but rather a dividing point between two halves of the night) that unites day and night with the power of Atzmus (which is not bound by the distinctions of day or night). This is why "it is impossible (for chochma) to know something precisely," for although chochma is the most wondrous "revelation," it is still a descent from the "enlightenment of His blessed countenance," from Hashem’s essence.

Dovid was speaking about himself when he said that he arose at midnight to thank Hashem, which is malchus and utter bittul, not bittul that derives from "revelation," but bittul that is an expression of his very being, which is "nothingness." It is because of this that he is like a vessel for the power of Atzmus, therefore everything shines in him. This enables one "to know things clearly about others," for this sort of bittul is not derived from one’s awareness of Hashem’s greatness; on the contrary, it is an outgrowth of the fact that he is absolutely nothing.

This is also what the Alter Rebbe meant when he said, "The point of knowledge is knowing that we don’t know." "If we think we know the meaning of a topic in Meseches Erchin, we really don’t know it." The Alter Rebbe said this because when "we think we know it," even - and especially - when it is known perfectly, there remains the metzius. Plus, we know only what we can grasp with our limited kochos, only the "revelations," though "we truly do not know" relative to Hashem’s truth. Only when we reach utter ayin and know we are gor gornit (an absolute nothing) - not only in contrast with Hashem’s greatness, but like a simple person, because we are truly gor gornit - can we know it truly.

After the Alter Rebbe answered R’ Yosef, who had achieved great heights in Torah greatness and was "kol bo" (contained everything), and he explained and showed him where he knows it from - that all his perfection was considered hedyot relative to ayin - that is when "the Alter Rebbe began telling him the topic in Meseches Erchin by heart with Rashi and Tosafos, and explained it properly," as it is grasped on the level of ayin.

This was the chiddush that the Alter Rebbe received in Mezritch, the chiddush of Toras HaChassidus, and by disseminating it - Moshiach comes - because chassidus is a foretaste of the teachings of Moshiach. The study of Torah and avodas Hashem in general should not be in a way of metzius, not even the metzius of utter perfection. That level is merely "revelations." In order to reach Hashem’s essence we need to be completely battul, to know we are truly nothing. This is the way to grasp Hashem’s essence.

This chiddush of chassidus was further developed and expanded by the Alter Rebbe through chassidus Chabad, particularly after his release from incarceration in Petersburg. He did so by drawing down the ayin into metzius, i.e., the intellect, Chabad. Thus the Alter Rebbe revealed the "essence" far more than did the Baal Shem Tov (though he did it with the ko’ach of the Baal Shem Tov). The Alter Rebbe revealed that the essence is not limited to simple people, or to tzaddikim and chachamim who make themselves into anashim p’shutim, for he showed how it could fill and penetrate all of their metzius, including their intellect.

The Rebbeim said that the revelation of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid were only a preparation for the revelation of the essence through the Alter Rebbe, just as the revelation of the Avos was only a preparation for the drawing down of the essence at the Giving of the Torah.

That chiddush of Toras HaChassidus was developed and expanded by our Rebbeim from generation to generation, by bringing it down to an even lower heaven, as it were, thus revealing a deeper aspect of the essence. In the final analysis, despite the fact that Toras HaChassidus is Toras HaMoshiach, for all the Rebbeim are descended from Dovid, we know that the Alter Rebbe represents chochma and not malchus.

The main event takes place in our generation, the seventh and lowest generation, "gor gornit," which is the idea of malchus. It is this which brings the Sh’china from heaven down to earth. This is the final generation of Galus and the first generation of Geula.

Just as it was necessary to have a Petersburg in order for this amazing chiddush of chassidus Chabad to be revealed to the world (even though we don’t understand why we couldn’t manage without Petersburg, and we certainly don’t give it our stamp of approval), in our generation as well there were a number of concealments and obstacles and then victories along the way. We had Rosh Chodesh Kislev and all the rejoicing of Didan Natzach, the first of which was on 13 Kislev, all of this preceding the main event: the revelation of the essence with the true and complete Redemption.

The greatest Petersburg of all has been the last years, when it seems as though there is gor gornit. But it is specifically here that the essence, which is above all revelations, can be expressed fully. This is so particularly through our actions and avoda in the chiddush of the present time, over and above the general chiddush of our generation, as repeatedly emphasized in the D’var Malchus - that the "only thing remaining to be done in the avodas ha’shlichus is to greet Moshiach."

We proclaim that there is a Melech HaMoshiach - not just his metzius, but his revelation, too, as the Rebbe said, and that he is chai v’kayam, and we say this from the position of gor gornit. This is the point of saying "Yechi," as we learned in the D’var Malchus of Parshas Toldos - that the meaning of the proclamation is the revelation of the metzius of Moshiach (just this fact alone, that we know he is Moshiach!) in his role of Melech HaMoshiach (and that role is, after all, the main point in Moshiach’s coming. This is followed by the "light of Moshiach" and his revelation to one and all through his activities to redeem the Jewish people and the entire world from Galus with the true and complete Redemption now!

Yechi Adoneinu Moreinu v’Rabbeinu Melech HaMoshiach l’olam va’ed!


The Alter Rebbe concluded, "The point of knowledge is knowing that we don’t know. Even if we think we know the meaning of a subject in Meseches Erchin, the truth is, we don’t really know it."



When the Alter Rebbe heard R’ Yosef’s explanation, he shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of disapproval. R’ Yosef, noticing this, approaching him afterwards...



Because of the strength of the utter bittul within it, it can receive everything, even the ko’ach ha’Atzmus, found specifically in s’firas ha’malchus.


Since it doesn’t know by virtue of its own powers, but by virtue of the power of Atzmus, it, therefore, knows everything!



This is not the bittul of shiflus, where one feels himself to be an "absolute nothing." On the contrary, his very bittul is his greatness, and so it turns out that the bittul itself is a metzius of bittul.


Home | Contents | Archives | Interactive | Calendar | Contact | Bulletin Board | Advertise

©Copyright. No content may be reprinted without permission.