Sharpening the Wisdom of One's Teacher - Middah Machkim et Rabo

Marlene Myerson

About Mussar and Middot
The Hebrew word "mussar" means moral conduct, instruction, or discipline. The Mussar Movement arose in the 1800’s in Lithuania and encompasses a range of spiritual practices, focusing on the individual’s personal characteristics, traits, or virtues, which are called middot (in Hebrew, singular: a "middahMiddahמִדָּהcharacteristics, values, or virtues of Jewish life that focus on becoming a better and more fulfilled person; plural: middot ").

Machkim et Rabo translates as "Sharpening the wisdom of one's teacher." Machkim" comes from the root chet-kaf-mem meaning "wise." Rabo comes from the Hebrew root reish-vav meaning "teacher."

"A wise person is a student who makes his/her teacher wiser." (Chaggigah 14a)

How can a student make his/her teacher wiser? For a student to learn, she must be willing to ask questions and challenge a teacher. This in turn gives the teacher the opportunity to learn as well. The ideal teacher-student relationship is one in which both are in the pursuit of knowledge and truth and neither is interested in merely proving himself/herself right.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes that Jewish tradition generally regards a non-aggressive demeanor as a good trait, but not when it comes to Torah study or learning in general. He suggests that students have an obligation to question their teachers. "Jewish law dictates that you should do so respectfully, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be aggressive." (The Book of Jewish Values, Telushkin, p. 476)

The Talmud tells the story about Rabbi Yochanan and his favorite student, and later learning partner, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish. After Rabbi Shimon's death, Rabbi Yochanan became very despondent, and the other rabbis arranged for Elazar ben Pedat to study with him. Each time Rabbi Yochanan would voice his opinion, Rabbi Elazar would add, "You are right. There are authoritative statements from the Sages that confirm your opinion."

Eventually, Rabbi Yochanan became very upset and said to him:

"Do you think you are like Rabbi ben Lakish? Whenever I stated an opinion, Rabbi ben Lakish would raise twenty-four objections to what I said. He forced me to justify every ruling I gave, so that in the end, the subject was fully clarified. But all you do is tell me that you know another source that supports what I am saying. I do not need confirmation of my position. (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Mezia 84a)

From Rabbi Yochanan's perspective, a student who is always agreeing, and who is too respectful to challenge and question his teacher, causes his teacher to stop growing.

Of equal importance, by being assertive and questioning, the student is able to grow in knowledge and wisdom. The Talmud reveals that Rabbi Lakish grew up among gladiators and bandits and, as a young man, was totally ignorant about Judaism. After a few years of studying with, questioning, and challenging Rabbi Yochanan, he grew into one of the greatest sages of his age.

Sometimes a student remains silent out of fear that a question might offend the teacher by sounding antagonistic. On other occasions, shy or timid people say nothing because they are afraid to appear ignorant in front of the other students. The Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century standard code of Jewish law, addresses this dilemma. It says that a student should not be embarrassed if a fellow student has understood something after the first or second time and she has not grasped it even after several attempts. If she is embarrassed because of this, it will turn out that s/he will come and go from the house of study without learning anything at all. (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 246:11)

To Talk About

  1. Think about a teacher who encouraged you to ask questions and pursue knowledge? How did it feel to have such a teacher? Did this teacher have a greater influence on you than other teachers you have had?
  2. Students sometimes try to demonstrate how much they know by challenging the teacher. Sometimes, teachers may insist on the validity of their position and may see any challenge from a student as a threat to their superior knowledge. What lesson might such teachers or students learn from this middah?
  3. According to the Shulchan Aruch, what are the consequences for the student who is embarrassed about not understanding something and hesitates to challenge his/her teacher? Have you ever had this experience? The next time this happens, what might you do differently?
  4. A certain Talmudic rabbi expressed the opinion that it was improper to argue with a teacher's ruling and that one who did so was contending with the Divine Presence. (Sanhedrin 110a) Why do you think this ruling was made? Do you think that the rabbis who wrote about this middah would agree or disagree with this opinion? Do you agree with it? Why or why not?
  5. "Much have I learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues but most of all from my students." (Taanit 7a) What does this Talmudic saying mean? Is its message similar or different from this middah? Explain.

To Do
Solomon Ibn Gabirol, the Spanish poet and philosopher wrote: "We are wise only while in search of wisdom; when we imagine we have attained it, we are fools." (Day By Day, Rabbi Chaim Stern, p.295) As the High Holy Days approach, whether we are teachers or students, let's all look for opportunities to learn and to teach and to challenge each other in order to grow in wisdom!