Shammai used to say: make your [study of the] Torah a fixed practice; speak little, but do much; and receive all people with a pleasant countenance.
One of my favorite courses to teach is Educational Psychology. The content covers a vast wealth of material related to psychological theory and research concerning learning and teaching. When the advice is utilized in the classroom or in any sphere of learning, the comprehension, retention, and application of content is greatly enhanced. A plethora of fascinating topics are covered, such as cognitive development, language, memory, personality, emotions, self-regulation, motivation, culture, character, morality, spirituality, learning environments, and social skills such as collaboration and communication, all with an eye towards how they impact learning.
To a large extent, Pirkei Avot and its commentaries serve as a type of educational psychology textbook. Many of the maxims encourage learning Torah and provide advice and guidance as to how to best accomplish this scholastic goal. This is particularly evident in Shammai’s statements in this mishna.
Starting most obviously with the first section: “make your [study of the] Torah a fixed practice.” Besides for the general importance of a consistent and constant learning process, we are also informed by the commentaries that it is important to have the right intentions and motivations while we approach our learning (Rabbi Moshe Almosnino), and that for the best learning, we must make sure that we apply what we learn in practice (Rabbi Eliezer ben Natan).
In his commentary Tiferet Yisrael, Rabbi Israel Lipschitz suggests five different possible understandings of what the word “fixed” or keva could mean in this context. Each explanation includes its own unique and important lesson about learning. First, keva connotes a serious physical posture. An overly relaxed body stance will disrupt the ability to learn seriously. Second, keva can also mean a calm mind. Having peace of mind, enhanced by a quiet, clean, and tranquil environment can greatly enhance the learning experience. Third, keva represents deep thinking. The more in depth we learn, particularly with longer, uninterpreted opportunities, the better we will be able to think deeply and critically about the concepts. Fourth, keva signifies strength. Learning should be done with grit, vigor, and persistence. The more cognitive and motivational energy we invest, the better the outcomes will be. Finally, in a creative read of the word based on a verse in Micha (3:8), keva could imply stealing. While consistency and constancy are essential, it is also important to find hidden moments to redeem for extra learning. If we are waiting at the bus or are gifted time with a canceled meeting, we should “steal” that time to learn.
The next phrase, “speak little, but do much,” is great advice broadly speaking, as well as in a learning context. Not speaking too much is generally a good practice, but here the message seems to be not to get caught up in discussion to the point of inaction. Some interpret this in the context of learning. In a provocative reading, Abarbanel suggests that “speak little” is a reference to learning. Learning, according to Shammai, should not just be about theory but must lead to practice, and moreover, the emphasis should be on practice (“do much”) over learning (“speak little”).
In a creative read, Tiferet Tzvi culls an important productivity tip that can help overcome procrastination generally, but he ties it specifically to learning. At times, the vastness of a task overwhelms us, which leads us counter-productively to inaction. It may feel too much to learn for an hour, so we don’t learn at all. He suggests that we tell ourselves that we are only going to learn for a little bit of time, let’s say, fifteen minutes (“emor me’at”). This will help us get over the psychological block generated from the vastness of the task. Once we start learning, chances are we will end up learning for even longer than fifteen minutes, yielding an “aseh harbeh” result.
Finally, in the last clause, Shammai advocates that we “receive all people with a pleasant countenance.” This is also advice that applies in all situations, not just the learning context. As Rabbeinu Yonah explains, by demonstrating pleasant and accepting facial expressions we will be more beloved and socially accepted, important values broadly speaking. However, Rabbeinu David HaNaggid applies this message directly to the first clause of the mishna. Those who succeed at making their Torah study permanent are at risk of developing a personality that aims at avoiding social contact to save time. Such a person, in their striving for efficiency and productivity are in danger of being brusque. Shammai balances his advice to learn consistently with the caveat that it should not come at the expense of greeting everyone with a pleasant disposition. Besides for being an important ethical principle, it is also one that reinforces the idea that part of a successful learning environment requires adaptive social skills and positive relationships.
In all, Shammai’s messages, especially viewed through the prism of the commentaries, highlight many core educational psychological messages all aimed at enhancing our learning Torah and application of its ideals into our lives.