The Mishnah (5:12) lists four types of students:
(a) quick to learn but quick to forget;
(b) slow to learn but slow to forget;
(c) quick to learn and slow to forget; and
(d) slow to learn and quick to forget.
Buried in this Mishnah are important ideas about learning. We can also extract tips on how to become a better student.
Even the “weakest” student, the one who has difficulty learning and is also quick to forget, is still called a Talmid. This teaches us that even if someone does not have a natural ability to learn, as long as they make a sincere effort to toil in Torah they are still included in the same category as the best and brightest; they are still considered a Talmid. We learn from this the importance of effort, over which we have control (in contrast to natural ability).
The Mishnah states that for a student from category (a), the gain is offset by the loss and for a student from category (b) the loss is offset by the gain. This means, according to Meam Loez, that if there are two students, one from category (a) and one from category (b), the student in category (b) takes precedence. If there is only enough money to support one student, preference is given to the one who is slow to learn but slow to forget. Since that student has a good memory, they retain what they learn. The student in category (a) catches on quickly but then soon forgets what they learnt. The student in category (b) has to toil harder to grasp concepts. Again, we see the importance of effort.
The Maharal on this Mishnah states that the relationship is actually causative. The student in category (a) forgets the lesson quickly because they grasped it quickly. If one tries to digest the information too quickly then one’s understanding may be too shallow. On the other hand, a student who takes a long time to grasp the lesson needs to expend a lot of effort and needs to think slowly and systematically. Such a student has revised the material repeatedly and they may end up with a better understanding and therefore a greater chance of remembering.
There is a lesson for the scholar too. Even the best category of student is described as “slow to forget”. They may have an excellent memory, but they are still human and eventually do forget. We were introduced to Rabbi Elazar ben Arach in chapter two of Pirkei Avot. The Mishnah testifies that in some respects he was the greatest scholar of his generation. Yet he moved to a town that was not a place of Torah and after a while forgot his learning (Shabbat 147b). His former colleagues had to pray for him in order for his learning to be restored. This teaches us that even the best and brightest student has to constantly do chazarah.
Many of the Mishnayot in Pirkei Avot teach us the correct way to behave; what behaviour should be emulated and what behaviour should be avoided. However our Mishnah does not instruct us regarding good and bad midot. This is because we are born with natural intellectual capacities that are out of our control. They are a gift from Hashem.52
Nevertheless, there are techniques that we can use to help us reach our potential. The Chatam Sofer, like many Gedolei Yisrael, was renowned for an amazing memory. When complimented on his memory, he would humbly state that Torah knowledge was so important to him and was acquired with so much effort that it was easier for him to remember. Perhaps the Chatam Sofer was touching on the notion that to improve one’s memory one needs to engage their emotions when studying. For example, if a person has an intensely emotional or horrific experience they will often remember the experience in great detail many years later. This is not because they have a photographic memory. It is because the experience had an enormous emotional impact on them and is personally important to them. When we learn Torah, if we keep in mind that we are learning the wisdom of Hashem and if we learn with tremendous Yir’at Hashem or Ahavat Hashem, then we may find it easier to remember what we learn.
There is a Midrash which states that when Moshe was on Har Sinai he toiled but could not grasp the more complex parts of Torah. Eventually, as a reward for his efforts, Hashem granted him the wisdom as a gift. Moshe put in the effort but in the end his wisdom came from Hashem. We have picked up some lessons in how to become a better student. The most important factor in reaching our potential is Hishtadlut - we need to put in the effort. However if we want to break through our natural limitations and exceed our potential, Chazal recommend that we pray for divine assistance from the source of all wisdom. As it says in Mishlei (2:6), “Hashem grants wisdom; from His mouth comes knowledge and understanding”. Hashem Himself grants wisdom to those whom he loves (Niddah 70b).
52 As an aside, we can learn from this that people who are endowed with intelligence should not feel proud, rather blessed and grateful.
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