Learn As a Child

Pirkei Avot

Pirkei Avot 4:25 —

Elisha ben Avuyah used to say: He who learns as a child, what is he like? He is like ink written on new paper. He who learns as an old man, what is he like? He is like ink written on blotting paper.

ד,כה [כ] אלישע בן אבא אומר, הלמד תורה ילד, למה הוא דומה--לדיו כתובה על נייר חדש; והלמד זקן, למה הוא דומה--לדיו כתובה על נייר מחוק

This part of a series of posts about Pirkei Avot. Ilana-Davita posted a summary of this summer’s posts (so far).

Approaches to Learning

One will often read a post and say, wow, that person knows a lot. I could never write that. I don’t have that kind of knowledge. What I would like to share with you through this post is the process I went through to write this post.

Step One: I decide I will find a mishnah that to which I find some emotional connection. I am reading a Jewish newspaper (can’t remember which one) at my in-laws, and I find a column about the above mishnah. It evokes some feeling for me, though all I can remember from the newspaper column is that kids are like sponges, and it is easier to learn as a youngster because they are like empty slates, waiting to be filled with information.

A quote by George Bernard Shaw comes to mind:

"Youth is wasted on the young. "

Does it fit here? Maybe, in that older people are usually more appreciative of knowledge, too bad it's easier to learn when young.

Step Two: I make sure I know what all the words mean, both in English and in Hebrew.

מחוק is like מחק

Mahak means to erase. Mahuk means erased. The translation above says "blotting." Other translations say "blotted" or "smudged".

I look up mahak, and I find Balashon's post. He quotes another use of the word "mahuk", where it means erased. It doesn't help me come up with something to say about how learning as an older person is like writing on blotting paper.

Step Three: I get help.

Across the Atlantic Ocean in France, Ilana-Davita looks up the mishnah in one of her books. She emails me it is translated as "palimpsest." I don't know what that means. (Do you?)

If I understand Rambam correctly (the only commentator for this mishnah in
my commented version of PA), when you get old your mind is obfuscated by
other things that you have already learned so learning is not as easy.

I had read it slightly differently. When you are older, your mind is like
palimpsest in that the different strata of learning are still underlying;
they have not completely disappeared. The new does not completely replace
the old.

However it does not have to be negative (Rambam's commentary sounded
negative as regards older people, here at least) and might just reflect
different understandings and experiences at different stages of one's life
that have accumulated in a person's mind.

Does it make sense?

She also sends me the Wikipedia link for palimpsest.

My husband also helps out, as we learn some of the perushim, commentators, on this mishnah. Here's a comment by Kehati: Learning as a child is like engraving in stone; learning as as an adult is like engraving in the sand.

Step Four: I take what I've learned and state a problem that I have with the text.
I can understand how a youth can easily absorb the Torah when young. Do you ever ask your children to memorize a number, because your brain is too cluttered to think straight? Another example: we just got new cell phones, the same model, one for me, one for my husband, one for Eldest son. My husband, who spends long days at a brain-intensive job, asks Eldest son to teach him how to use the phone.

However, I have a hard time grasping why learning as an adult is like writing on blotting paper. Ilana-Davita suggestion to use the word "palimpsest" means that learning as an adult is like adding one more layer to many layers of learning.

But I want more.

Step Five: One could argue that it's easier to learn as an adult, because an adult often wants to learn, whereas a kid may prefer to play on the computer, hang out with friends, or just laze around. No coercion involved with older folks.

Once again, I visit my in-laws. What do I find on their bookshelf but a copy of the three volume Ethics from Sinai by Irving Bunim, copyright 1966. I ask to borrow Volumn II, the one with my mishnah, and my generous mother-in-law says take the whole set, they have so many books already.

Here's what Irving Bunim wrote about my mishnah:

Think young. Turn over a new leaf and be receptive to new thoughts, eager for new understanding that will bring spiritual growth.

On the other hand, if you learn as an old man, with the attitude that mental growth, like physical growth, is no longer possible, then you will indeed be a page already covered with writing: erase it as you will, it can no longer receive new writing well.

So, Irving Bunim is suggesting that you should think like you are young, even if you are not.


So, why do you think learning as an old man is like ink on blotting paper? Did this post help you learn the mishnah? Can you think like you are young, and learn some Torah, find some room for it on top of all the clutter in your brain? If you like learning Torah, perhaps you can share with us some of your approaches to learning. Hope you got something out of reading today's long post!

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6 thoughts on “Learn As a Child

  • Interesting post. I always assumed the mishnah was simply referring to the fact that children’s brains take on new information more easily that adults’ brains. I like the idea that it’s also about an attitude to learning new things.

  • Thanks for reading, Daniel. If it we took the mishnah at face value, there would be no point to my father learning as much as he does (he’s 78). But he absorbs a lot, so he must have a young attitude!

  • I haven’t had a chance to read your post until now but it was worth the wait!
    I also like Irving Bunim’s conclusion; it is more optimistic than what other commentators have to say on the subject.

  • You asked why learning as an old man is like ink on blotting paper? To me, it means that what you learn as adult spreads to many memories and connections you have in your brain. Children are busy making new memories and new connections. Our learning comes into established pathways and there are many spokes like a spider web. And you have to keep using those connections to keep them.But maybe that is too simplistic a view..comes from the special education teaching back ground…

  • what you learn as adult spreads to many memories and connections you have in your brain
    What a lovely approach. It is perhaps related to Ilana-Davita’s layered palimpsest, but even better, as with the adult there is the necessity connect the old with the new.
    Thanks for joining in on the commentary, Michelle.

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