Yaakov Jaffe
Rabbi, Maimonides Kehillah; Dean, Maimonides School

Sponge, Funnel, Strainer, Sieve: Four Students

“The are four measures of those who sit before the sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer and the sieve (Avot 5:15).”

The Tractate Avot, fathers, contains many religious teachings: moral and ethical guidance, some basic principles of Jewish philosophy, reflections on tradition and Torah study, and even a little bit of Biblical commentary. The end of the Tractate features a series of comparison Mishnayot, which evaluate different approaches to life or different sets of human talents. Each of these Mishnayot chose two pairs of talents or dispositions that relate to each other and overlap, and then builds a two-by-two matrix to capture four individuals – one who has mastered both talents or dispositions, one who fails at both and two people who have one and not the other.

Five Mishnayot follow this basic form (Avot 5:10-14), evaluating approaches to charity & economics, anger, education, and Mitzvah observance, beginning with two figures who achieve only one of the intended goals. The third figure in each Mishnah achieves both of the talents or dispositions, while the fourth achieves none; four of these Mishnayot end with the word “Rashah.”

To give one example of the five (Avot 5:12), the Mishnah begins by noting that some students are quick to grasp and quick to forget while others remember well but have a harder time understanding – each of these students achieve half of the goals of education. The third achieves both and becomes wise, the fourth has a “difficult portion,”[1] as learning is hardest for this type of student.


This introduction brings us to one of the most memorable Mishyaot in the entire Tractate, which at first glance is the sixth Mishnah with a matrix for evaluating human dispositions. Unlike the first five, this one also features four parables that capture the four different types of human beings, the four backgrounds learners bring to the study hall.

“The are four measures of those who sit before the sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer and the sieve. The sponge absorbs everything, the funnel enters in one side and exits in the other, the strainer allows the wine to exit and retains the impurities,[2] the sieve allows the thin, dust-like flour to exit and retains the fine flower[3] (Avot 5:15).”

The classical commentaries explain that we find here again a matrix of two talents and four types of people. “Learning like a sponge” is not the ideal in Judaism, as the sponge retains everything, even what is not valuable (Rashi, Machzor Vitri) or what is wrong (Rambam, Rabbeinu Yona, Bartenura, Avot De-Rebbe Natan), although at least he retains something. The funnel has achieved one valuable talent of not retaining that which shouldn’t be retained, but sadly too much learning is lost. The commentaries conclude that that the ideal student has a mind “like a sieve” retaining the good, fine flour and allows the inferior flour to depart, while the worst student only retains the dregs and allows the fine wine to be lost.

However, this interpretation breaks the model and format of the other Mishnayot, as the other three list the ideal person in the third position, while this one does not in this view. Plotting the four types of students on our chart, we reach the following conclusion:

In this view, the Mishnah wants a student to retain the impurities and the imperfections, like a wine strainer, and allow the good material, the wine, to pass through. But why and how? Two answers seem possible.

Tiferet Yisrael explains that the phrase “who sit before the sages,” does not actually refer to students, sitting before their teachers listening. Instead, it’s referring to mature students of growing caliber who now would “sit before the sages” and ask questions and engage with their teachers, ready to begin to share their learning with others.[4]  It is for this reason that the strainer is better – when she opens her mouth she has the discernment to ensure it is only the best wine that comes out.  The sieve is the worst, then, as the good teachings stay inside and she only shares the bad ones.[5]

I would also suggest a second possibility. Students often learn the most from their mistakes and errors, and not from their successes; indeed, constructive feedback on something done wrong teaches the student how to correct and change for future learning opportunities. The funnel forgets all his learning experiences – good or bad – and has nothing to learn from, while the sponge retains everything and is overwhelmed and unsure how to manage and process all his past learning. Neither of those demonstrate the ideal path for a student. Meanwhile, the sieve is the student who remembers her successes, the fine flour moments of achievement at school. These moments bring a sense of pride and accomplishment, to be sure, but focusing on the successes of the past don’t create a platform upon which to improve for the future.

The best student, thus, is the strainer. The student who might forget about the successes, the A’s, the 100’s, the perfect Divrei Torah and essays, and instead focuses on the mistakes, errors, miscalculations and misunderstandings to analyze what went wrong and get better for the the next time. Learning from the failures is the most important part of education, and the ideal student acts like a strainer, sifting through learning experiences to focus and retain the imperfections, the most important lessons that become the ways to improve for the times to come.

[1] Rambam notes that this individual is not called “wicked,” like the fourth person in the other Mishnayot, because this is not a choice and is beyond a person’s control.

[2] For the use of a strainer in the Talmud, see Shabbat 137b-138a.

[3] For the use of a sieve in the Talmud, see Menachot 76b.  In Amos 9:9 it is used slightly differently, where the wheat germ remains in the sieve after the chaff falls out.  See my Isaiah and His Contemporaries, 78, for further discussion.

[4] Chidushei Ha-Ramah to Sanhedrin 17b note how the lesser level of student would stand before the sages to ask questions; it was a greater level to be seated before the sages.  Indeed, Rashi to Horiyot 2b (kegon) calls the lesser sages of the Mishnah who were not ordained as rabbis but who still composed Mishnayot and participated in its dialogue as among those who “sit before the sages.”

[5] Tiferet Yisrael says the sponge is actually worse, as he can neither teach others nor distinguish between good or bad – although the structure of the Mishnah suggests that the sieve is worse: better not to teach and share at all, then to share only the incorrect or irrelevant teachings.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Jaffe is the Rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah, and the Dean of Judaic Studies at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass. He is the author of Isaiah and His Contemporaries, now available from Kodesh Press.
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