THE POWER OF PRASIE
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had five disciples and they were these: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah, Rabbi Yose haKohen, Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach. He [Rabbi Yochanan] used to list their outstanding virtues: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is a plastered cistern which loses not a drop; Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah - happy is the woman that gave birth to him; Rabbi Yose haKohen, is a pious man; Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel is one that fears sin; Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is like a spring that gathers force.
In the previous Mishna, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai cautioned against the dangers of self-praise. In contrast, in this Mishna, he explicitly praises his students, recognizing what he perceives as their signature qualities. The language he uses is somewhat cryptic and is open to interpretation. For the sake of simplicity, we will interpret the qualities based on the opinion of the Rambam. Rabbi Eliezer had a superb memory, Rabbi Yehoshua had wonderful character traits, Rabbi Yose had both good character and intellectual qualities, Rabbi Shimon was careful to avoid sin, Rabbi Elazar understood difficult concepts easily and generated additional insights based on his keen intellect.
Observing the qualities of his students and his praise of them, the commentators in turn praise Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s teaching abilities. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that it was precisely through this his praise, that Rabbi Yochanan’s students became prominent and successful:
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was a great teacher because five of his students became giants in their own right. The Mishnah is telling us how he did it: with focused praise. He showed each of his pupils where their particular strength lay.
Developmental psychologists Mika Asaba and Hyowon Gweon research how people develop self-understanding. To a large extent, we arrive at self-knowledge through what others tell us about ourselves. As Asaba and Gweon (2021) write:
How do we learn about who we are? Learning about the self is an inherently interactive, social process; rather than relying solely on our own experiences with the external world, we learn about the self by interacting with others. We often receive others’ opinions and evaluations about our performances, qualities, and even personality traits… The influence of others’ feedback may be especially powerful early in life; as children begin to develop abstract, sophisticated, self-concepts, feedback from others can shape the ways children learn about the self, interact and communicate with others, and learn about the world (p. 67).
Elaborating on Rabbi Yochanan’s techniques as an educator, Second Temple historian, Dr. Maren Niehoff, comments:
This is the first time in the extant Jewish literature from antiquity that different types of students are discussed. Not only do they have individual names, but also various approaches to learning. The question of Yohanan ben Zakkai’s preference shows the importance of the personal relationship between teacher and student. Learning is not considered a mechanical process or transmission of a certain body of learning, but rather part of a meaningful relationship within the overall framework of school life… The comparison of students and their styles of study indicates the rabbis’ keen interest in personality (2017, pp. 459-460).
Rabbi Berel Wein sees within Rabbi Yochanan’s praise of the personalities of each student a message for the importance of educators to identify and nurture the individuality and diversity of each of their students:
What is clear from this Mishnah is that these five disciples were each very unique people, different from one another. It is also clear that Rabban Yochanan encouraged these differences, recognizing the individual talents and personal natures of each. The great teacher is not a cookie cutter who produces identical people. Rather, the greater the teacher, the more diverse and all encompassing will be his own personality, so that each student will be attracted to the facets of the personality that most appeal to his own persona and nature... Rabban Yochanan’s identification of the different and positive individual strengths and talents of his five main students should serve as an example for every teacher and mentor of Torah in all times and places. We should rejoice in the diversity of our students (and our children as well) and not attempt to stifle their individuality and personal uniqueness.
Yet, perhaps embedded in the Mishna is also a nuanced critique of praise. Just like self-praise requires nuance (as discussed in the previous Mishna’s Psyched for Avot), so too does praising others. As Jennifer Crocker (2021) notes in her foreword to “Psychological Perspectives on Praise”:
Praise can motivate, but it can also sting. Praise can strengthen social bonds or weaken them. Although praise can be a powerful reward for a job well done, excessive praise, or faint praise can foster self-doubt… Praise prompts anxiety about whether one can live up to it and continue to earn praise in the future. Praise may, in some cases, paradoxically, contribute to low self-esteem, anxiety, and symptoms of depression, and excessive praise, may foster narcissism (Crocker, 2021, pp. xv, xviii).
Praise has the power to build but depending on the type of praise and depending on the demeanor of the people giving or receiving the praise, it can also destroy. Just like with self-praise, inflated other-directed praise, particularly towards someone who has low self-esteem, can lead to depression (Brummelman, Crocker, & Bushman, 2016). Additionally, excessive praise can cause narcissism (Brummelman & Graspas, 2021). As noted by Dr. Carol Dweck in her research on growth versus fixed mindsets (see Brummelman & Dweck, 2021), praising innate qualities in children (“you are smart”) can lead to children thinking that there is nothing they can do to change or improve (fixed mindset). In contrast, praising process (either the effort exerted, or the strategy employed), can help children understand that they can always work harder at improving (growth mindset).
After praising Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s ability to identify and articulate his students’ qualities, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks quotes Dr. Dweck’s research on growth and fixed mindsets and makes a startling suggestion: “Perhaps this explains a sad aftermath in the life of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s two most gifted pupils.” As expressed in the following Mishnah, there was a debate as to which of these five students was considered the best:
He [Rabbi Yochanan] 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.
These two prized students—Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus who was praised with an incredible memory and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach who was praised with sharp intellect—both had tragic endings to their lives. The former was excommunicated by his colleagues and students for refusing to conform with the majority opinion. The latter voluntarily separated from his colleagues and settled in a different town, eventually forgetting all his learning. Connecting the ideas together, Rabbi Sacks suggests:
It may be that praising his students for their innate abilities rather than their effort, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai inadvertently encouraged his two most talented students to develop a fixed mindset rather than engage with colleagues and stay open to intellectual growth.
While Rabbi Sacks’ analysis is admittedly speculative, it does highlight the complexities of effective praise. It is advisable to not overly emphasize innate and unchangeable traits, which may lead to a fixed mindset. While also conjecture, perhaps embedded in these Mishnayot is a critique of praise that may lead to unhealthy social competition or jealousy. As evident from the research, it is also important to avoid inflated or excessive praise that can lead to narcissism, self-doubt, and low self-esteem.
However, despite these critical caveats, the essential message of the Mishnah is the importance of praising others to help their development. As Rabbi Sacks concludes his essay, “Praise, and how we administer it, is a fundamental element in leadership of any kind. Recognizing the good in people and saying so, we help bring people’s potential to fruition. Praising their efforts rather than their innate gifts helps encourage growth…” Leaders, educators, and parents all have this important responsibility to use effective praise to help those they influence gain better self-knowledge, discover their strengths, and reach their potential.