Empty Vessels – Full Vessels
An exercise in deciphering Talmudic metaphors. Three interpretations.
Talmud Bavli Sukkah(46a) also Brachot (40a).
תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוכה דף מו עמוד א
ואמר רבי זירא ואיתימא רבי חנינא בר פפא: בא וראה שלא כמדת הקדוש ברוך הוא מדת בשר ודם; מדת בשר ודם, כלי ריקן מחזיק, מלא אינו מחזיק, אבל מדת הקדוש ברוך הוא: מלא מחזיק, ריקן אינו מחזיק, שנאמר +דברים כח+ והיה אם שמוע תשמע וגו’ אם שמוע – תשמע, ואם לאו – לא תשמע. דבר אחר: אם שמוע בישן – תשמע בחדש, +דברים ל+ ואם יפנה לבבך – שוב לא תשמע
“R.Zeira said: Come and see how different is the way of God’s thinking from the way of human beings.
For human beings it is only an empty vessel that can be filled, while a full vessel can no longer be filled.
In contrast, the way of God is that only a vessel that is already full can be filled, but nothing can be put into empty vessels.”
Paradox: how will it ever be possible to fill a vessel which needs to be full before you start filling it!? If it can only be filled once it’s full, how does one start filling?!
Let’s try to unravel the metaphor used here by the Talmud. Clearly the vessels referred to are human beings, and the process of filling is a reference to the person’s ability to absorb and contain spiritual content, ideas, values and meaning. The Talmud is making the point that one cannot begin filling a person with spiritual teachings, inspiration, guidance or understanding while he or she is empty of some preparatory foundation. Therefore the paradox will be solved by grasping the idea that there is some Type A content which needs to be gained initially, before one is able to successfully absorb Type B content which is the desired goal.
But what is the definition of this Type A content which is a necessary prerequisite for being able to absorb the essence of Torah wisdom?
The first understanding of this metaphor is found in Rashi.
He understands the Type A content which must come first as a training to listen and absorb from teachers. This is a skill which needs to be inculcated earlier in life, and provides the basis for later deeper scholarship. Once this skill has been attained, the person is no longer an empty vessel, and can be taught deeper Torah thoughts.
Rashi adds a second interpretation of the empty/full metaphor, referring to the willingness to review and re-learn earlier material repeatedly. Only by continually revisiting one’s Torah learning many times over, will a person lose the status of being an ‘empty vessel’ and will be able to gain the deeper understanding of Torah thought which is a gift from God only bestowed upon full vessels which have been already filled with this repeated learning.
This idea of repeated learning of the same material is based on the assumption that there are multiple levels of depth and meaning in Torah knowledge, and by definition one is only attaining partial knowledge the first few times it is studied. By repeatedly re-examining one’s learning, one is able to discover increasing levels of knowledge.
A second understanding of the full/empty metaphor.
Rambam (Hilchot Talmud Torah Ch.4)
רמב”ם הלכות תלמוד תורה פרק ד
אין מלמדין תורה אלא לתלמיד הגון נאה במעשיו, או לתם, אבל אם היה הולך בדרך לא טובה מחזירין אותו למוטב ומנהיגין אותו בדרך ישרה ובודקין אותו ואחר כך מכניסין אותו לבית המדרש ומלמדין אותו, אמרו חכמים כל השונה לתלמיד שאינו הגון כאילו זרק אבן למרקוליס
“One may only teach Torah to someone who behaves in an honest way and lives a moral life, or a naïvely simple person. But someone who is living a morally bad life must first be brought to lead a better life of integrity and we must check that he is indeed following this new path, and only then can one bring him into the Beit Hamedrash and teach him Torah.”
(This ruling is clearly derived from the Talmudic warning not to teach a ‘talmid she-eino hagun’ – ‘an unworthy student’. This is based on the Talmudic statement (Bavli Chullin 133a), modified in Brachot (28a) where the inspector at the door of the Beit Hamidrash of Rabban Gamliel was removed, and ruled in the Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 246.7. I am using this formulation of the Rambam to interpret this enigmatic dictum about empty/full vessels.)
Following this idea of the Rambam, the metaphor of the emptiness of the vessels is referring to the absence of a clear moral direction in a person’s life. This is the initial Type A content which needs to be present before one can teach the deeper ideas of Torah which is the Type B which is the desired goal.
I have heard it said that this idea of the Rambam refers to two types of learning programmes which have always existed within Klal Yisrael. One is the Beit Hamidrash of Avraham Avinu which is designed to be open to all mankind, and offers courses in monotheism, morality and chessed to anyone who steps in. The second is the Beit Hamidrash of Moshe Rabbeinu which teaches the deeper messages of Torah, but it is only able to accept those who have graduated from the first course. In terms of our initial metaphor, those who have not yet learned the truths of Avraham Avinu are empty vessels to whom one cannot authentically teach any Torah.
This approach of the Rambam follows the idea found in the mishna (Avot 3.17).
משנה מסכת אבות פרק ג משנה יז
יז] רבי אלעזר בן עזריה אומר אם אין תורה אין דרך ארץ אם אין דרך ארץ אין תורה
“Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah said:
Without Torah there is no Derech Eretz, -without Derech Eretz there is no Torah.”
This mishna is paradoxical in the same way as our initial quotation from the Talmud. Understanding Derech Eretz as meaning a moral life of integrity, -how does one start acquiring it if Torah knowledge is a prerequisite but cannot be attained beforehand?! How can it ever be filled if it needs to be full before one can start filling? Where does one start?
Clearly, following the above-mentioned Rambam, the starting point is an initial level of morality and integrity which is an entry level prerequisite to learning Torah, and this is the meaning of ‘without Derech Eretz there is no Torah’.
However, this mishna takes this idea one step further by saying that increasing levels of Torah knowledge will have the effect of strengthening the moral behavior of the individual; that is the meaning of ‘Without Torah there is no Derech Eretz’.
Taken together these two phrases describe the symbiotic relationship that exists between authentic Torah knowledge and moral behaviour. The mishna is telling us that it is not a single entry level requirement, rather it is a continuous process by which every stage along the infinite way of Torah knowledge, requires increasing levels of morality which constitutes the are entry requirements for the next level of knowledge.
A Third interpretation of the empty/full vessel metaphor.
‘Ruach Chayim’ (commentary on Pirkei Avot 4.1) R. Chaim Voloshin
וזהו שאמרו כלי מלא מחזיק כלי ריקן אינו מחזיק כי הנה לפי מה שביארנו היראה היא חכמה ראשית לכל החכמות אשר אחריה כולם נמשכות. וזהו שכתוב ראשית חכמה יראת ה’. כי בלא יראה אין חכמה מתקיימת אך יראה בלא חכמה גם היראה אינה נחשבת לכלום כי היראה הוא כמו כלי בית קיבול שתתקיים בה החכמה. ובלא חכמה היא ככלי ריקן
“The statement that ‘a full vessel can be filled, but an empty vessel cannot be filled’ refers to the quality of ‘Yirat Shamayim’, -the sense of awe of being in the presence of God, which is a prerequisite to the pursuit of wisdom, and draws to itself all forms of wisdom. Without this quality of ‘Yirah’ no amount of Torah wisdom can be established. ‘Yirah’ by itself without wisdom is also without ultimate value, since the function of ‘Yirah’ is to be a vessel to contain wisdom, and without this wisdom it is an empty vessel.”
This interpretation is similar to the continuity of the mishna cited above from Pirkei Avot (3.17).
משנה מסכת אבות פרק ג משנה יז
אם אין חכמה אין יראה אם אין יראה אין חכמה
“Without wisdom there is no Yirah; Without Yirah there is no wisdom”
Distinct from the learning skills of Rashi and the moral requirements of Rambam, this expresses a perspective that the emptiness referred to in the Talmud is a lack of the spiritual quality of ‘Yirat Shamayim’ which is an expression of a deep Emunah in the presence of God in the world, and the sanctity of God in the Torah wisdom. It is only by having a deep sense of the Divine origins of the Torah that one can be a vessel worthy of being ‘filled with genuine wisdom’. Clearly R.Chaim sees in this Talmudic dictum a warning that the pursuit of Torah knowledge cannot take place in a purely academic context, of intellect without belief and commitment to the truth and binding nature of the knowledge itself.
In conclusion, it is not my intention to claim that Rashi, Maimonides and R. Chayim of Voloshin had opposing interpretations of this paradoxical Talmudic statement. I have no doubt that they all equally subscribed to Rashi’s idea of the need for training in learning skills, as well as the Rambam’s idea of moral behavior and integrity, and R. Chaim’s Yirat Shamayim. I am simply using the writings of these three Torah scholars to elicit different layers of meaning in this Talmudic metaphor which mutually complement each other in their description of the process of acquiring Torah wisdom.