Proverbs, Talmudic

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The Talmud abounds in proverbs of all kinds. Important sources are the tractates Avot, Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, Derekh Ereẓ Rabbah, and Derekh Ereẓ Zuta, and numbers of proverbs occur together in several smaller collections (bk 92a–b; Bek. 17a; et al.), although they are scattered through all rabbinical literature.

Scholarly and Popular Proverbs

The proverbs of scholars are usually introduced with the words, "it was customary for A to say" or "he used to say," and their popular ones by "as the rabbis say." In most cases these proverbs have an ethical and didactic character. The Talmud also contains many popular proverbs which are quoted with the opening words "the proverb says" (in Hebrew and in Aramaic), "they say," "as people say," "the proverb says," "the common proverb says," and in "the language of the people." These popular proverbs are mainly expressed in Aramaic. In many cases there is no clear distinction between scholarly and popular proverbs, and it is then difficult to determine their source. For example, the saying of Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel, "One who gives bread to a child must inform its mother" (Shab. 10b), is also cited in the Midrash (Num. R. 19:33) as "a popular proverb." The words "he used to say" merely indicate that a particular scholar quoted it frequently. Thus the saying of Samuel the Younger, "Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth" (Avot 4:19), is a verse from Proverbs (24:17). The dictum of Shammai, "Receive all men with a cheerful countenance" (Avot 1:15), is quoted with a slight variation by Ishmael (3:13). The dictum of Hillel on the Feast of Water Drawing, "Whither I desire to go thither my feet lead me" (Tosef., Suk. 4:2), was originally a popular saying which Hillel applied to God (S. Lieberman, Tosefta ki-Feshutah, ad loc.). This is probably why Rashi quotes "walls have ears" as a popular proverb (Ber. 8b), although it is given in the Midrash in the name of R. Levi (Lev R. 32:2; Eccles. R. 10:21). Sometimes contradictory proverbs appear to be directed at one another. An example is found in the ethical dictum, "Be rather a tail to lions than a head to foxes" (Avot 4:15), which contradicts the popular saying, "The proverb says: Be a head to foxes rather than a tail to lions" (tj, Sanh. 4:10, 22b), and indeed parallels to this popular version are found in Hellenistic literature.

The rabbis spared no effort to introduce beautiful popular proverbs into the world of scholarship. They sought authority for them in early sources, in the Bible and in the tannaitic literature (bk 92a–b), and also derived proverbs from the interpretation of biblical verses, although in these cases it is also possible that the proverb anticipated the interpretation (cf. "From here we see that the ignorant person pushes himself to the front" (Meg. 12b); "When wine enters, counsel departs" (Er. 65a; Sanh. 38a); "Woe is me because of my Creator [yoẓer], woe is me because of my [evil] inclination" (yeẓer; Ber. 61a)).

Proverbs and Halakhah

The sages did not hesitate to utilize the worldly wisdom in the proverbs for halakhic ruling. "Once a man borrowed a cat to deal with mice, but the mice killed the cat. The case came before Ashi for judgment. Thereupon a certain Mordecai, who was present, intervened, quoting Rava: A man killed by women gets neither judgment nor judge," i.e., the cat was itself responsible and the owner can have no claim (bm 97a). They applied the proverb "It is not the mouse that is the thief, but the hole" (Git. 45a) in halakhic discussions. From the ancient, pointed proverb, "An olive's bulk of the paschal offering, yet the rejoicing splits the roof," expressing the popular attitude toward an inflated ceremony, Ḥiyya inferred a halakhah in connection with ritual uncleanness (tj, Pes. 7:10, 35b). The reverse also occurred, namely that the proverb was created through the halakhic ruling, as in the case of a ruling of Akiva expressed in a proverbial form: "You have dived into the depths and brought up only a potsherd" (bk 91a). The rabbis utilized the dictum: "That which made you unclean, did not make me unclean, yet you have made me unclean" as a mnemotechnic chain connecting a collection of mishnayot on the laws of ritual defilement (Par. 8:2–7).

Rabbinic Study of Proverbs

The sages engaged in the study of proverbs. Mention has been made of a series of dialogues in which amoraim searched for the classical source of popular sayings, and it is worth noting that for one of them (bk 92b) they discovered five possible sources. They also compared the dicta of Ereẓ Israel and Babylon: "Here [in Babylon] they say, 'Tobias sinned and Ziggas was flogged.' There [in Ereẓ Israel] they say, 'Shechem married and Mabgai was circumcised'" (Mak. 11a; i.e., because Shechem – Gen. 34 – wished to marry Jacob's daughter the whole population had to undergo circumcision).

Ereẓ Israel and Babylon

Undoubtedly much use was made of proverbs in Ereẓ Israel; but for some reason the number of them in the Jerusalem Talmud is relatively meager in comparison with those in the Babylonian, and most of those quoted in the Jerusalem Talmud are also found in the Babylonian Talmud.

Translations from Aramaic to Hebrew

In the late Midrashim there occur translations into Hebrew of the Aramaic proverbs in the Babylonian Talmud. At times the translation is inferior to the original. Thus the dictum (bk 92b), "Into the well from which you have drunk water do not throw clods," becomes in the Midrash (Num. R. 22:4), "Into the well… do not throw stones." The Aramaic word for "clod" is more suitable, since it suggests the defiling of the water.

Comparison with Biblical Proverbs

Talmudic proverbs surpass the biblical ones in pungency and appositeness but are inferior in sophistication and poetry. Thus the biblical (Eccles. 10:8), "He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it," parallels, "If a man spits into the air, it will fall on his face" (Eccl. R. 7:9, no. 1), and the verse (Prov. 17:10), "A rebuke entereth deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred stripes into a fool," parallels, "A hint is sufficient for a wise man but a fool needs the fist" (Mid. Prov. 22:15).

Animal Proverbs

The sages made extensive use of the animal world for their proverbs. The miser is compared to "a mouse lying upon the coins" (Sanh. 29b). Of a coward who treats harshly those subservient to him, it says: "One who cannot hit the donkey [lest it kick], hits the saddle" (Tanḥ. Pekudei 4). A warning against women occurs in the saying: "If the dog barks – enter; if a bitch – leave" (Er. 86a; from which Rav exemplified a halakhah in the laws of Eruvin based upon the difference in a man's relationship to his son-in-law and to his daughter-in-law). Of a weak character it says, "He never controlled two flies" (Deut. R. 1:5).

Stylistic Characteristics

Alliteration occurs in several dicta, such as "A man's character can be recognized in his cup, his purse, and his anger" (Heb. koso, kiso, ka'aso – Er. 65b). In some instances the alliteration is somewhat rhymed such as, "He who eats the fat tail [allita] must hide in the loft [alita], but he who eats cress [kakule] may lie by the dunghill [kikle] of the town" (Pes. 114a); and "When a Jew must eat carobs [ḥaruva], he repents [tetuva]" (Lev. R. 13:4). Ingenious homiletical interpretations of words occur: "Why are some coins called zuzim? Because they are removed [zazim] from one and given to another. Why are other coins called ma'ot, because they signify mah la-et [what of the future time?]" (Num. R. 22:8).

Eulogistic Dicta

The Talmud cites dicta uttered by professional mourners. Thus, "if the flame has fallen upon the cedars [the great] what avails the hyssop on the wall!" (the lowly; mk 25b); "Many have drunk the cup of death; many shall drink" (Ket. 8b). Tawiow noted that the Bible and the Talmud contain no derogatory proverbs about deformed persons such as occur in abundance in the sayings of other peoples.

Rabbinic Proverbs in Popular Parlance

Hundreds of rabbinic dicta have found their way into popular usage. In many of them changes have occurred which are worth noting. Very many others originally quoted in a halakhic or theoretical framework have become popular sayings with a meaning different from the original. Thus, "A man may see any leprous signs except his own" (Neg. 2:5), taught originally as a law that a leprous priest must be examined by some other priest, received the popular psychological meaning that no man is objective with reference to himself. The expression dikdukei aniyyut ("the minutiae of poverty"; Er. 41b), first used of the sufferings of poverty, is used already by Ibn Ezra (Eccles. 12:5) with reference to a forced explanation, i.e., the writer is lacking imagination. "Damim tarte mashma," in the original means "the word damim [blood] applies to two kinds of blood" and is popularly used to express both "blood" and "money." Hundreds of rabbinic sayings found their way into the spoken language in the form in which they occur in more popular works, such as Rashi's commentary, piyyutim, etc. The expression, "The Omnipresent has many agents of death" (Ta'an. 18b), is current among people in the form it occurs in Rashi (to Ex. 16:32): "The Omnipresent has many agents." The dictum, "Four count as if dead: a poor man, a blind man…" (Ned. 64b), is better known in the abridged form of Rashi (to Ex. 4:19): "A poor man is regarded as dead." Akiva's dictum, "No pity may be shown in a lawsuit" (Ket. 9:2), is popularly known by the form in which it occurs in a silluk (type of piyyut) for the first day of the New Year: "[The Supreme King preserves the world through justice, for] there is no pity in judgment." The changes popularly introduced did not result from ignorance but from didactic grounds whether consciously or unconsciously. These changes gave greater clarity and accuracy to the dicta, furnished a general and abstract form to dicta that needed it, and also added interpretation where necessary. The talmudic dictum, "In the place where penitents stand, the wholly righteous do not stand" (Ber. 34a) was popularly revised into the clearer dictum, "In the place where penitents stand, the wholly righteous are unable to stand," stressing the superiority of the penitent more clearly than in the original. The statement of Rava (Meg. 16a) that the help given Mordecai was given "not because of the love for Mordecai but because of the hatred for Haman" received a general abstracted meaning in the mouth of the people: "not from love of Mordecai but from hatred of Haman" (a version already found in the Massekhet Purim attributed to *Kalonymus b. Kalonymus, ed. by J. Willheimer (1871), 43). The expression "R. Yose always has his reason" (Git. 67a) became through the influence of Rashi, "his justification and reason are with him," i.e., he always has good reason. During recent years many works have appeared comparing talmudic sayings with those of other peoples (see bibliography) which prove that among cultures and languages far from Ereẓ Israel and Babylonia, such as the Far East, independent proverbs similar to those in the Talmud were common.


I.H. Tawiow, Oẓar ha-Meshalim ve-ha-Pitgamim (1922), 10–25; L. Taubes, Talmudishe Elementn inem Yidishn Shprikhvort (1928), 9–16; M. Waxman, Mishlei Yisrael (1933), 23–31; I. Davidson, Oẓar ha-Meshalim ve-ha-Pitgamim (1957); M. Glueck, in: Hadoar, 36 (1957), 484–6 (= Leshonenu la-Am, 8 (1957), 260–6); 9 (1958), 20–27); S. Ashkenazi, in: Leshonenu la-Am, 11 (1960), 261–65; 12 (1961), 99–105; E. Blankenstein, Mishlei Yisrael ve-Ummot ha-Olam (1964); I. Davidson, in: Jivobleter, 13 (1938), 354–72 (bibl.); Y.L. Zlotnik, in: Barkai, 66 (1940), 14f. (additions to bibl.).

[Arie Strikovsky]

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Proverbs, Talmudic

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