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Ancient Jewish Proverbs
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Pages (PDF): 75
Publication Date: 1911
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A treasure trove of traditional Jewish proverbs, mostly extracted from the Talmud and Mishna. Covers subjects like: Human Existence; Family Life; Human Virtues; Human Faults; Occupations; Rules Of Conduct; Vagaries Of Fortune; Social Life; and, Colloquialisms.
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§ 1. Youth and Age
1. Youth is a crown of roses; old age a crown of willows (Shab. 152a; D. 323).
In the former case the "crown" is an adornment lightly worn; in the latter an unwelcome burden. The stages in the career of a man are summarised by R. Judah, the son of Tema, as follows: "At five years the age is reached for the study of the Scriptures, at ten for the study of Mishnah [cf. Introduction, § 3], at thirteen for the fulfilment of the commandments, at fifteen for the study of the Talmud, at eighteen for marriage, at twenty for seeking a livelihood, at thirty for entering into one's full strength, at forty for understanding, at fifty for counsel; at sixty a man attains old age, at seventy the hoary head, at eighty the gift of special strength (Psalm xc. 10), at ninety he bends beneath the weight of years, at a hundred he is as if he were already dead and had passed away from the world" (Aboth v. 24).
*2. Every pumpkin is known by its stem (Ber. 48a; D. 146).
One can usually detect in the young what they will be like later on. "The child is father of the man." See the following.
3. While [the thorn] is still young it produces prickles (Gen. R. ch. ii. § 1; D. 549).
Used to illustrate "Even a child maketh himself known by his doings" (Prov. xx. 11).
*4. He who has issued from thee teacheth thee reason (Jeb. 63a; D. 206).
The young can often teach their elders. The context of the proverb is as follows: There lived once a Rabbi who was married to a shrew. She would always do just the opposite of what her husband wanted. If he asked for peas she cocked him lentils, and vice versa. Their son, one day, in conveying his father's wishes to his mother, stated the exact reverse, and in this way the old man obtained his desires. The father rebuked his son for his lack of filial respect, but for all that learnt from him how to manage his wife.
5. In old men there is no taste, in young no insight (Shab. 89b; D. 413).
The old lack the imagination and enthusiasm of the young, but the young lack the shrewdness and prudence of the old.
*6. When we were young [we were esteemed] as men; now that we are old as school-children (B. K. 92b; D. 331).
Many a person displays ability in his youth and is entrusted with duties above his age. When he grows old he is regarded as unfit for important work as children. Cf. "A man at sixteen will prove a child at sixty."
7. Two are better than Three; woe to the One which goes but never returns (Shab. 152a; D. 303).
The resemblance to the riddle of the Sphinx is very striking. The question was: What is it that walks on four legs in the morning, on two at midday, and on three in the evening?
The answer is: Man, who crawls on all fours as an infant, walks on two legs in his prime, but with the aid of a stick in his old age. The "One" that goes but never returns is Youth.
8. For something I have not lost am I searching (Shab. 152a).
The old man walks with bent figure, as though looking for something he had dropped.
*9. Many old camels carry the hides of young ones (Sanh. 52a; D. 534).
A similar Hebrew saying is: "Many colts die and their skins are turned into covers for their mothers" (Lev. R. ch. xx. § 10; D. 262). Many old men survive the young. Cf. "Old camels carry young camels' skins to the market."
*10. An old man in the house is a snare in the house; an old woman in the house is a treasure in the house (Erach. 19a; D. 537, p. 217).
An old man is more peevish and helpless than an old woman. Cf. "An old man is a bed full of bones." True as this proverb may be in fact, the Rabbinic literature has many passages which show how much importance was attached to the Biblical law "Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man" (Lev. xix. 32). Thus the young are exhorted to reverence the aged who are broken in mind through physical weakness, even as the fragments of the broken tables of the law were considered worthy of being preserved in the Ark (Ber. 8b).
*11. Shake the salt off and throw the meat to the dog (Nid. 31a; D. 571).
When the soul leaves the body what remains is worthless. The soul is the preservative of the body in the same way as all salt is a preservative for meat.
§ 2. Poverty and Wealth
*12. Poverty follows the poor (B. K. 92a; Ḥul. 105b; D. 181).
The numerous disadvantages which result from his lack of means constantly remind the poor man of his poverty.
*13. The pauper hungers without noticing it (Meg 7b; D. 406).
On the principle "Familiarity breeds contempt."
*14. When the barley is consumed from the pitcher, strife knocks and enters the house (B. M. 59a; D. 335).
Cf. the English proverb "When poverty comes in at the door love flies out through the window."
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