Pirkei Avot 5:18 There are four types of students who sit before the Sages: A sponge, a funnel, a strainer and a sieve: a sponge, which absorbs everything; a funnel, which lets in from one end and lets out from the other; a strainer, which lets the wine flow through and retains the sediment; and a sieve, which allows the flour dust to pass through and retains the fine flour.
There are four types of students who sit before the Sages: A sponge, a funnel, a strainer and a sieve:
A great influence in the way a student studies, and the results of that study, is his or her goal and motivation for learning. This will determine their ability to discern what is important and also their ability to apply the concepts involved in practical and meaningful ways. In the classic commenary, Avot de-Rabbi Natan, the observation is made that what distinguishes a good student from a poor student is if he or she truly is interested in listening and learning or if they primarily are learning for the sake of getting ahead materially and gaining prestige.
One who is interested in the practical application of concepts is more likely to grasp their meaning and to gain deeper understanding. He will be able to make better judgments on issues and can retain those of value and discard the trivial; hence being a “sifter” rather than a “sponge.” In this context, the students of the Sages are studying the Written Scriptures and the Oral Torah. William Berkson points out that “…the Talmudic style of study, which is focused on applying ethical and legal ideas to case studies, if done correctly, fosters such an [intentional way of thinking] and a practical understanding.”*
…a sponge, which absorbs everything;
This type of student is able to remember all he learns, which is a great blessing. A downside, however, is that he is not capable of distinguishing between the meaningful and the trivial.
…a funnel, which lets in from one end and lets out from the other;
For whatever reason, this student absorbs nothing. The teaching he hears, as per the saying, “goes in one ear and out the other.” Needless to say, this is a serious disadvantage to any progress he might want to make in his studies.
…a strainer, which lets the wine flow through and retains the sediment;
This student also suffers a disadvantage in that he remembers only the minor, irrelevant points of a lesson, and forgets the major, key points. He might remember the funny jokes, the mannerisms of the teacher, or what was happeing in the class, but he misses the riches and depths of the material being taught.
… and a sieve, which allows the flour dust to pass through and retains the fine flour.
At the time of the sages, as described in the Talmud, Menachot 76b, the grains of wheat, once separated from the chaff, were placed in a large sieve and repeatedly shaken in order to eliminate the outer layer of inferior flour dust and to retain only the fine inner kernels. It is a gifted student who can “sift” material and ignore superfluous information while retaining the essence of the material he is studying.
Although the verse itself is simply descriptive and does not pass judgment on the four types of students, medieval commentator Joseph ben Judah ibn Aknin says of them: “The first is a simpleton, the second is a fool, the third has an evil portion, and the fourth is wise.” *
Irving Bunim makes a positive and interesting application of the four types by attributing them to the scholars or teachers!*** The ‘sponge’ is like an encyclopedia. He retains all the knowledge, whether important or trivial, and can be consulted on every minor detail.
A funnel helps to transfer liquids from large containers to smaller ones. Good teachers have the ability to ‘funnel’ their knowedge in such a way that the less informed minds of their students can receive it.
The ‘strainer,’ like the utensil that holds back the sediment and allows the liquid through, brings the pure liquid to his students. Unlike the ‘funnel’ who simply transfers knowledge, the ‘strainer’ holds back worthless ‘sediment’ that would not apply to the student.
The ‘sieve’ does an even finer job of distilling the very “heart of the wheat” and presenting it in a manner that every student will gain the foundational knowledge necessary to live a moral and spiritually rich life.
* William Berkson. Pirke Avot, 169
** Ibid., 169
*** Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol. 3, 179
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