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Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse seventeen

There are four types among those that frequent the study-house: there is one who attends but does not put to practice—he receives the reward for attendance. There is one who puts to practice but does not attend—he receives the reward for practice. There is one who attends and puts to practice—the saint. Neither attends nor puts to practice—the wicked.

Judah Goldin’s translation, which pretty much agrees with the others I have, as there isn’t much question about any of these words. I suppose we could translate s’char as payment rather than reward, or wages or something like that, but it would be a bit of a stretch, and I’m not sure that it changes the meaning of the verse very much. Except, I suppose, to de-emphasize the Divine’s active participation in the whole business, and make it more tautological. If you go, you get paid for going; if you do, you get paid for doing. Obvious, really.

The thing that pops out at me is that of the four types that frequent the study-house, two of them do not actually frequent the study house. Who, then, are we talking about? Who is in the group that frequents but does not attend? Do we mean attend as in pay attention—in which case the Sage is saying that mere physical attendance does not earn a reward if you do not actively attend? This seems, well, perhaps not obvious, exactly, but clear enough that it doesn’t seem to merit a whole verse. Or is this verse applying to some larger group who are supposed to frequent the study-house, whether they actually do or not? The Meiri says that those who practice but do not attend are those who study Torah at home, by themselves. They learn enough to put into practice, he says, and thus earn their reward, but they do not learn as much as they would if they studied with a teacher.

I also wonder—if you take away sainthood and wickedness, and simply talk about this as those enrolled in a class, have you lost any of the meaning? These are familiar types, the ones who skip class (or sit in class FBing) or skip their preparation at home, the ones who skip as much as they possibly can, and the ones who are diligent. The A student, the B- students, the F: their rewards are their grades, and they get what they earn. But in school, of course, there are people who are in one category in math and another in history, people who are diligent with their studio arts classes but skate along in their English classes, people who are diligent in their Junior year and slack of in their Senior year. Or are diligent in February and March, but not in April and May. Are these categories useful? Are they really types?

I think I see this verse, then, as saying that we, as students, should act as if there were four types of students, even if that is not an accurate depiction of the world—act as if we were setting our habits in stone—act as if the reward for attendance and for practice were combined to be greater than the sum, and the penalties worse, and never accept a part measure. But then, how do we take the verse as teachers? Or as parents?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,