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Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse eighteen

The last of the fours, in the translation of R. Travers Herford, who seems to be having some copy-editing trouble with his punctuation:

Four characters who sit before the Wise. A sponge, a funnel, a strainer and a sieve. A sponge because it sucks up everything; a funnel, because it receives at one end and lets out at the other; a strainer because it lets out the wine and keeps back the dregs, a sieve because it lets out the coarse meal and keeps the fine flour.

Reverend Herford complains in his comments that no sieve was ever devised which would let the course meal through and keep the fine flour, but of course what is meant is that the sieve collects the course to be thrown away, while what is let through is kept for use. The actually interesting part about the sieve metaphor is that the sieve is clearly superior to the sponge.

The funnel-student, who immediately forgets everything, is familiar enough and obviously bad. The sponge student, who remembers everything, is perhaps less familiar, but obviously good nonetheless. We can pass lightly over those two. The other two, though, the strainer and the sieve… if we think of these as college students, generally, it’s easy to imagine the student who remembers only that the podium didn’t work, or that the student in front of him had a zit, or that the teacher can’t pronounce his Rs. This is the strainer, the one who focuses on the negative, and remembers only the worthless and mean. The sieve, then, is the reverse, the one who remembers the content of the lecture but not the distractions and irrelevancies.

The kitchen metaphor doesn’t work. All it does is point out that the student is doing the same thing: filtering one thing out from the other. What you really want is a filter that holds the good stuff and lets out the bad. Cheesecloth? That holds in the curds and lets out the, er, runny stuff? Is that what whey is? Wouldn’t the Wise have had cheesecloth? There’s a joke in there about the beatitudes, but I think it’s best of one of you make it.

Anyway.

The thing I find interesting is that the ideal student is not the sponge but the cheesecloth. The ability to retain all the knowledge is not valued as highly as the ability to discern what is worth keeping. While this makes sense in a college context, I’m surprised to find it in those who sit before the Wise. Surely when you sit before the Wise, there isn’t a lot of chaff (or dross, or slag, or whatever is caught in the metaphorical filter). The Meiri says that the lees is the legends and anecdotes and playful interpretation, and I certainly understand that—the fellow who remembers Honi the Circle Drawer but not Gamaliel is keeping the dregs and pouring out the wine. But surely the ideal student would not actually forget the miracle stories and such. That isn’t the path of wisdom, surely.

No, I prefer to think that the bitter dregs that the superior category filters out of his memory is the unpleasant work that goes into study, the discipline, the difficulty of getting up in the morning in time for class, the quarrels with the other students, and most of all, the disappointments and failures that mark the path to ultimate success. The ability to put those memories aside—probably not to forget them altogether, but the ability to not keep chewing on them—is the difference between the sponge and the sieve (or whatever) that makes the sponge only second-best.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.