10 Minutes of Torah -  Jewish Ethics
  July 14, 2005
Week 86, Day 4
7 Tamuz 5765
Ethical Teachings - Selections from Pirkei Avot*

*For 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.


Four kinds. Anyone who has been a student or a teacher has encountered all four kinds of students.

Flour. 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.

(Pirke Avot, 84-85)

Davar Acher--Another Interpretation

The 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).

A funnel 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.

In the 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.

In this 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.

1. How 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?


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