the full text and comment, see Pirkei
Avot by Kravitz and Olitzky, eds. (URJ Press)
5:15 There are four kinds [of disciples] who sit before the
sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sieve.
The sponge soaks up everything. The funnel takes in at one
end and pours out at the other. The strainer lets out the
wine and keeps the dregs. The sieve lets out the flour [dust]
and keeps the fine flour.
kinds. Anyone who has been a student or a teacher has
encountered all four kinds of students.
Maimonides explains the somewhat problematic last line. While
kemach is usually translated as "flour,"
following Maimonides, we translate it as "flour dust."
Thus, it becomes clear as to how a sieve operates: It lets
out the finer material while retaining what is coarse.
rabbis use analogies to cooking implements to describe the
different kind of learners. While the four types may not seem
to be in hierarchical order, they do proceed from showing
no ability to discern to proper discernment. A sponge does
not distinguish good from bad, it absorbs clean or dirty water.
While we may want to remember everything we learn, this ability
does not make a person wise. "One of the greatest adaptive
virtues of our brains, the feature that makes our grey matter
so much smarter than any machine yet devised (my laptop's
cluttered hard drive or a World Wide Web that insists on recalling,
in pellucid detail, a 'Beverly Hills 90210' fan
site last updated on 11/20/98), is our ability to forget almost
everything that has ever happened to us" (Franzen, "My
Father's Brain" in The New Yorker, September
10, 2001, 82).
simply does not remember anything; as the saying goes, "In
one ear and out the other." A strainer distinguishes
types of information, but unfortunately only keeps the worthless
information. If we retain minor facts or sound bites from
articles or speeches, we have really not retained anything
of value. Some publicity is designed in such a way that relies
on this kind of learning. Finally, the sieve retains only
the valuable information, only that which can be used to create
something more. A further analogy explaining this quality
might be the mixing bowl, in which the learner combines new
and old information to progress and create new ideas.
morning blessings, we thank God for the power of discernment.
The prayer is sometimes translated, "Blessed are You,
Adonai our God, Ruler of the world, who gave the cunning rooster
its ability to distinguish day and night." However,
"the word [l'sechvi, 'rooster']
may denote the human mind, in which case we thank God for
enabling us to distinguish day from night" (Dorff in
Hoffman, My People's Prayer Book, Vol. 5, 131).
This seemingly simple prayer is actually complex poetry, in
which we are required to use our powers of discernment to
understand the meaning of the blessing which thanks God for
just that ability.
age when information is so plentiful, the power of discernment
discussed in this mishnah is vital. The ability to distinguish
worthwhile information from extraneous information, credible
from unreliable, and true from false determines the wisdom
of true intellects and critical thinkers.
did you learn how to identify unreliable or unimportant
information and filter it out? Can you think of an example
from your life when you did or did not do this well?
2. Why do you think we start our day and our prayers with
one thanking God for the power to distinguish day from night?
3. Note that the mishnah puts no value judgment on the four
kinds of learners. When it comes to Jewish learning, which
type are you?