Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

Throughout the 20th century, the predominant view in psychology was that the most essential factor for success in school was intellectual abilities. Starting in the 1990s, this idea was challenged, with many arguing that other factors, such as emotional intelligence, personality traits, and motivation, play a predominant role in school achievement. This is a fairly contentious issue and the field is far from reaching a consensus on which is more important (see Stankov, 2023, for a recent review), but it is safe to say that everyone agrees that all of these factors can contribute to success.

As mentioned in last week’s column, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai praises each of his five students for a specific trait that encapsulates their strength. Two of the students are praised for their intelligence: Rabbi Eliezer for having a superb memory and Rabbi Elazar for his analytic abilities. Two are commended for outstanding character: Rabbi Yose for his piety and Rabbi Shimon for his fear of sin. About Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Yochanan says, “Happy is the woman that gave birth to him.” While we will offer alternative interpretations of this cryptic statement below, for now let us assume, like Rambam, that he is praising Rabbi Yehoshua for having virtuous character.


Subsequently, the Mishna rates the students in comparison with other Sages:

He [Rabbi Yohanan] used to say: If all the Sages of Israel were on one scale of the balance and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus on the other scale, he would outweigh them all. Abba Shaul said in his name: If all the Sages of Israel were on one scale of the balance, and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus also with them, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach on the other scale, he would outweigh them all (Avot 2:12).

There are two versions as to whom Rabbi Yochanan considered greater. One version assumes it is Rabbi Eliezer, the other Rabbi Elazar. Many commentaries link this debate to another found in the Talmud (Berachot 64a) as to whether it is better to appoint a “Sinai” (someone with a vast knowledge of content) or “an uprooter of mountains” (someone with powerful analytic reasoning) as the head of the yeshiva (see Sforno for an analysis). Psychologists similarly distinguish between two types of intelligence: crystalized intelligence and fluid intelligence. Crystallized intelligence, most connected to the “Sinai” type, refers to accumulated knowledge, while fluid intelligence, related to the “uprooter of mountains,” is the ability to solve novel reasoning problems. There is likewise a debate as to which of these types of intelligences is more beneficial for achievement (see Postlethwaite, 2011).

Without resolving which of the two types of intelligence is better, Rabbi Avraham Farissol (15th century, Italy) highlights the fact that the other three students aren’t even entertained as a possibility of being greater. The debate revolves precisely around the two students who are praised for their intelligence, demonstrating that intellectual traits related to Torah study are of greater importance than the other, character-related personality traits. Abarbanel disagrees with Rabbi Farissol’s reading. Rather, he suggests that the discussion as to which student is greater is a limited debate within the realm of intelligence. However, Rabbi Yochanan never meant to compare students when it comes to character, nor was he resolving that intelligence is more important than character.

Perhaps, instead of framing these as debates in terms of which one is superior (intelligence versus character, fluid intelligence versus crystallized intelligence), it would be beneficial to take a different approach to this issue. As mentioned in the previous column, both of the students whom Rabbi Yochanan praises with superior intelligence subsequently suffer tragic consequences. Rabbi Eliezer is excommunicated, and Rabbi Elazar forgets all his learning. Two of the other students praised for their character, Rabbi Yose HaKohen and Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel, are barely known throughout the rest of the Talmud. The most well-known and successful of these five students is Rabbi Yehoshua. As mentioned, Rabbi Yehoshua is praised with the phrase “Happy is the woman that gave birth to him.” Rambam and Rabbi Farissol assumed that this refers just to Rabbi Yehoshua’s pristine character. However, other commentaries point to other strengths of Rabbi Yehoshua’s that are alluded to in this statement.

Rabbeinu Yonah, for instance, suggests that he was praiseworthy in all traits, including greatness in wisdom and refinement of character, which led to general success in his endeavors. Rashi writes that he was well-versed in Torah knowledge and that he also developed close relationships with government officials. This latter fact, writes Rashbatz, reflects his pristine personality, because without good character, he would not have been able to succeed in political activism.

Joseph ibn Aknin (12th century, Spain) points to a parallel source in Avot DeRebbe Natan (14) that says that Rabbi Yochanan praised Rabbi Yehoshua as a paradigm of the verse in Kohelet (4:12): “But a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” This indicates that Rabbi Yehoshua had three important traits. According to ibn Aknin, these were: knowledge of the Divine, virtuous character traits, and the ability to teach others wisdom and character. Interestingly, Meiri also refers to Rabbi Yehoshua representing the “threefold cord,” but assumes that all three of these qualities reflect intellectual capabilities: quickness of understanding, memory, and analytic abilities.

Putting these sources together, perhaps Rabbi Yehoshua serves as an example that helps us resolve the open questions presented above. Which is a better intellectual trait – good memory or novel thinking? Which is more important for success – intelligence or character? Rabbi Yehoshua reminds us that these aren’t necessarily the right questions. They shouldn’t be forced choice questions. Both memory and analysis are essential. Both intelligence and character are vital. The ideal is to be a “threefold cord” student who doesn’t just excel in one area but strives to achieve balance and become well-rounded in multiple areas.


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Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Schiffman is an Assistant Professor at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School, an instructor at RIETS, and the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. He graduated YU with a BA in psychology, an MS in Jewish Education from Azrieli and Rabbinic Ordination from RIETS, before attending St. John’s University for his doctorate in psychology.He learned for two years at Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh. He has been on the rabbinic staff of Kingsway Jewish Center in Brooklyn, NY since 2010 and practices as a licensed psychologist in NY. His book “Psyched for Torah,” his academic and popular articles, as well as many of his lectures are accessible on his website,