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Ancient Jewish Proverbs, by Abraham Cohen, [1911], at

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§1. Proverbs in General

The importance of a people's proverbs has long been recognised. Aristotle went to the trouble of making a collection of the popular sayings current in Greece at his time, and often quotes them in his works. In the early part of the second century B.C. the Hebrew sage Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) wrote, "Acquaint thyself with the proverbs [of the wise], for of them thou shalt learn instruction" (viii. 8). They have indeed much to teach us. They are the safest index to the inner life of a people. With their aid we can construct a mental image of the conditions of existence, the manners, characteristics, morals, and Weltanschauung of the community which used them. They present us with the surest data upon which to base our knowledge of Volkspsychologie.

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The genuine proverb is not the elaborately thought-out sentence of an individual, but the commonly adopted expression of long and wide experience. Its literary form is usually crude, unpolished, and devoid of style, indicating that it obtained its currency among the lower classes, not the littérateurs. Hence the saying that proverbs are the "People's Voice" is true in more senses than one. It is the popular speech in so far as it reflects the popular mind, but also because it is an accurate record of the vernacular. This is a point of great importance. In attempting to form a conception of the language used by a community at a given time, it is not always safe to rely only upon the literature of that period. The literary language often differs considerably from the spoken, and therefore proverbs offer us the best material for forming an idea of how the people spoke in their everyday intercourse.

All nations have many proverbs in common, 1i.e. a certain phase of human existence or a certain characteristic of the human being is dealt with, which is very much the same the world over. But each nation has its own distinctive way of giving expression to this common idea. From this fact springs another fruitful source of instruction. Why has a proverb such and such a form in one language and quite a different form

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in another? The answer to this question will always be found in the variety of conditions under which different nations live. Proverbs among an agricultural community will contain references to nature, and proverbs among a mercantile community references to commerce. Therefore the illustrations used in popular sayings indicate to us the objects with which they who use them come most frequently into contact.

Except in rare cases, it is impossible to trace a proverb to its source. The "whence" or "how" of its origin is usually an unanswerable problem. It does sometimes happen that a proverbial phrase arises out of an incident the account of which has been preserved for us. We know, e.g., how the saying "Hobson's Choice" came into proverbial use, through Milton's poem "On the University Carrier." In the great bulk of cases, however, the origin is wrapped in obscurity. This is a natural consequence of the nature of the proverb, which has been well defined by Cervantes as "a short sentence founded on long experience." It is the accidents of life and the idiosyncrasies of man that give rise to and obtain acceptance for the proverb, and not until it has passed from mouth to mouth and won approbation does it become recognised as such. The authorship of an individual saying is not of so much importance as the causes which gave it

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the form adopted by general consent. For the experiences of humanity are like the molten metal upon which each nation stamps the cast of its own characteristics, before they pass into currency as proverbs.

§ 2. Jewish Proverbs

We have so far dealt with proverbs in the abstract, and now we turn our attention to those of a particular people, the Jews. In Jewish literature the word for Proverb, Māshāl (Aramaic, Mathlā), has a wide meaning. It may signify (a) a proverb in our sense of the word, a popular saying; (b) the object against which the saying is directed—i.e. a by-word, taunt; (c) allegory; (d) parable, fable; (e) any poetical composition. When the Bible declares, "And he [Solomon] spake three thousand proverbs" (1 Kings iv. 32; Heb. v. 12) it clearly refers to "fables," for it continues, "And he spake of trees…beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes." The "Book of Proverbs," for instance, does not answer to the description of the folk-saying given above. It is a literary production containing moral aphorisms in poetical form.

Among the Hebrews, poetry consists not so much in metre as in parallelism. The verse is divided into two equal parts, each part expressing the same idea in different words or expanding it.

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[paragraph continues] The opening sentences of the second chapter of Proverbs may be taken as an illustration:

My son, if thou wilt receive my words,
   And lay up my commandments with thee;
So that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom,
   And apply thine heart to understanding;
Yea, if thou cry after discernment,
   And lift up thy voice for understanding;
If thou seek her as silver
   And search for her as for hid treasures;
Then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord
   And find the knowledge of God.

The parallelism is more striking in the original, but is also well reproduced in the English translation. Each half-verse, it is noticed, "resembles" (Heb. māshal) the preceding in thought.

It is thus obvious that the meaning of the word "proverb" as used in the title of the Biblical book is very different from that used above. The man in the street does not speak poetry, nor are such lines as those quoted of a character likely to become "flowing in the mouth of the people." It is true that the whole of the Book does not consist of such connected poems. We often have long passages of disjointed maxims which are more like the true proverb. But even in these cases the poetical form is carefully preserved. As Professor Toy says, "None of the aphorisms, however—not even such as "go to the ant, thou sluggard," or "answer a fool according to his

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folly"—are popular proverbs or folk-sayings. They are all reflective and academic in tone, and must be regarded as the productions of schools of moralists in a period of high moral culture." 1

In five places in the Bible we find the word employed in the narrower sense of a "short pithy saying in common and recognised use." They are:—"Therefore it became a proverb, Is Saul also among the prophets?" (1 Sam. x. 12); "As saith the proverb of the ancients, Out of wicked cometh forth wickedness" (ibid. xxiv. 13 [Heb. 14], see no. 70 below); "What is this proverb that ye have in the land of Israel, saying, The days are prolonged and every vision faileth?" (Ezek. xii. 22); "Behold, every one that useth proverbs shall use this proverb against thee, saying, As is the mother, so is her daughter" (ibid. xvi. 44, see no. 41 below); and "What mean ye that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge?" (ibid. xviii. 2).

These are proverbs in the modern sense of the word, and we see from the Biblical references that they were in common use in ancient times. Unfortunately no other examples from those days have come down to us. After the Bible the next piece of proverbial literature is the Book of

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[paragraph continues] Ben Sira, to whom reference has already been made. This book resembles Proverbs in form and matter, and therefore need not occupy our attention. The only source from which we derive our knowledge of Jewish proverbs in post-Biblical times is the Rabbinic Literature.

§ 3. The Sources of Jewish Proverbs

The Mishnah—codification of the Jewish law—was completed at the beginning of the third century of the current era. It formed the subject for study and discussion in the numerous academies of Palestine and Babylon. For over three centuries did the master-minds of ancient Jewry devote their energies to the elucidation of the Torah, the written law, and also of the traditional law. Notices of their debates, teachings, and decisions were preserved orally until they were classified and systematised in the Talmudim. The "Proceedings" of the Palestinian schools were put into literary form at the beginning of the fifth century and of the Babylonian schools at the end of that century.

The Talmudim are consequently a kind of Hansard, providing us with reports of the academic gatherings. It might often happen in the course of his remarks that a Rabbi would emphasise a point or give force to his speech by quoting a common and well-known proverb. Or, since it

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was a general practice to derive every law from the Bible, the Rabbis tried as a pastime or mental exercise to find Biblical authority for many other matters besides, among them being the popular sayings. Hence in two important passages, Baba Kama 92ab and Sanhedrin 7a, we have a long list of genuine proverbs preserved. Scattered throughout the Rabbinic literature generally, we have pithy sentences introduced by such phrases as: "That is what men say"; "As men say"; "The proverb says"; "Created beings say"; "In the West (or, There, i.e. Palestine from the standpoint of Babylon) they say."

All these are clearly genuine proverbs. But even in these cases we not unfrequently find the identical saying quoted in other passages without the introductory formula—no doubt because they were so well known—which leads us to believe that the Talmud contains proverbs not specifically cited as such. If, for instance, in a Hebrew passage we come across an Aramaic sentence, in form and contents like a proverb, we may rest assured that we have there a genuine popular saying.

Another important source is the Midrashim. As early as the time of Ezra, the Reading of the Law was accompanied by an exposition (Neh. viii. 8). When the synagogue became a recognised institution, these Bible expositions occupied

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a prominent position in the service. In this way arose the weekly sermon, which not only interpreted the Scriptures, but was also employed as a medium for moral exhortation and religious instruction. In the course of these sermons the preacher would often use sayings which were current in the mouth of the people. At various times between the fifth and tenth century collections were made of these homilies, and many proverbs were thus committed to writing. These collections are called Midrashim, and although the date of their compilation is comparatively late they embody a good deal of early material.

§ 4. Language of the Proverbs

From the interesting narrative contained in 2 Kings xviii. we learn that in the beginning of the seventh century B.C. the only language understood by the general populace in Palestine was Hebrew. Aramaic was at that time only understood by the Court. Before many centuries had passed, however, the influence of this language upon Hebrew began to make itself felt, and during the time of the Babylonian captivity(586-536 B.C.) grew stronger and stronger. Recent discoveries have placed in our hands Aramaic documents belonging to Jewish colonies outside the Holy Land, dated the fifth century B.C. The post-exilic literature of the Jews shows clear traces

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of Aramaisation both in vocabulary and grammatical construction. We even have long Biblical sections in that language: viz. Ezra iv. 8–vi. 18; vii. 12-26; Daniel ii. 4–vii. 28 (cf. also Gen. xxxi. 47; Jer. x. 11).

There is preserved an Aramaic dictum of José b. Joëzer, who flourished about the time of the Maccabean struggle—i.e. the middle of the second century B.C. (Eduyoth viii. 4). Slowly but surely Aramaic began to displace Hebrew as the vernacular of the Jews, until towards the end of the Jewish State we find it in complete possession. The language spoken in Palestine about the time of the rise of Christianity was Aramaic. 1 Thus Hillel, who was a contemporary of Herod, often frames his maxims in that language (cf, no. 177 below, and Aboth i. 13; ii. 7; iv. 7).

As a consequence we expect and find the proverbs used by the people in the Aramaic language. A few are found in Hebrew, but they are either late or were current among the more educated classes, who continued to use the "Holy Tongue." Numerous proverbs disclose dialectical differences from the normal Aramaic of Palestine or Babylon,

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some of them pointing to Galilee as the land of their origin.

§ 5. Age of the Proverbs

It has been mentioned that the Talmudic literature, where the Jewish proverbs are to be found, was completed at the end of the fifth century AḌ., and the Midrashim some hundreds of years later. But the date of the source in which a proverb occurs, or of the earliest Rabbi who quotes it, merely gives us the terminus ad quem. It provides us with no clue to the age in which the saying came into circulation.

The difficulty in dating a proverb with any degree of precision has been alluded to already. It is impossible to speak confidently on this matter, but it would scarcely be an exaggeration to assert that a large number, at any rate, of the proverbs in this collection was in use in the first century of the present era. An additional interest is given to them by this fact. They illustrate the life, manners, thought, and speech of the Jewish people in the most critical period of its existence, and as a consequence must prove helpful in the elucidation of the New Testament.

§ 6. Characteristics of Jewish Proverbs

The following collection is not a florilegium, but

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has been made as exhaustive as possible. 1 We have not therefore a selection of the best of the recorded sayings used by the Jewish people nearly two thousand years ago, but a list of practically all that have been preserved. It is necessary to bear this in mind when attempting to pass judgment upon them.

The first point that will strike one on reading them through is the absence of the coarseness of speech so prevalent with Eastern peoples. One need only compare Burckhardt's "Arabic Proverbs" to perceive the contrast. Allowance has, of course, to be made for the fact that the Rabbinic literature has preserved for us only a part of, and probably the best part of, the Jewish proverbs. In spite of this, however, one can scarcely fail to notice the purity of the language which is employed throughout.

The lofty standard of morality displayed in the proverbs also calls for commendation. It has been rightly said, "If the moral character of a nation is to be judged by its proverbs, only the best of them may go to form the verdict, only such as may be considered the product of gradual ethical growth." 2 It is inevitable that all nations, however highly developed their culture may be, should have among their proverbs some which

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would be condemned by every right-thinking individual as improper. Selfishness, e.g., exists in all communities and is bound to find expression in their sayings. Exasperation at the fickleness of fortune is sure to find an outlet in some harsh proverbs. But it is a wise maxim of the Rabbis: "A man is not to be held responsible [for what he says] in the hour of sore trouble" (B. B. 16b; D. 51).

For all that, the Jewish proverbs are remarkably free from sayings of this class. In very few cases—cf. nos. 213 and 282—was it found necessary to emphasise that the morality inculcated was not in accord with the general ethical teaching of Rabbinic Judaism. Against them might be set the fine thoughts expressed in nos. 29, 38, 59 ff., 80, 101, 124, 158, 176 ff., 182, 208, etc., etc.

Jewish proverbs display a keen insight into the psychology of the human mind and into human character generally. This may be seen in many of the sayings relative to family life, and in such sayings as nos. 65, 91, 96, 106, 125, 131, 136, 145, etc. It is rarely that we find this subject figuring so largely in popular proverbs, especially of ancient peoples.

One peculiarity which should not escape attention is this: "It is to be noted that the Talmudic proverb is generally expressed in concrete form, whereas proverbs in languages other than Hebrew

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favour abstract expressions." 1 Instead of taking an experience which occurs to different classes of men under different aspects and generalising it, a concrete instance is selected as typical of them all. For instance, the idea "Familiarity breeds contempt" is expressed in the form "The pauper hungers without noticing it" (no. 13; cf. also 15, 23, 31, 63, 86, 88, 95, 108, etc.). This is not peculiar to the Hebrews only, but to all Oriental peoples. Examples may be found in Burckhardt's "Arabic Proverbs" (nos. 17, 21, 37, 137, 255, 386, 506, 675, etc.) and in Christian's "Behar Proverbs" (cf. especially his Introduction). This indicates a fundamental difference between the psychology of the Oriental and Occidental.

That many of the proverbs originated in the villages and not in the large towns is evident from the numerous references to nature and agricultural work. Cf. nos. 2, 21, 54, 85, 90, 111, 113, 130, 216, 239, 276. Such sayings would on the whole belong to an early period, since it was only in the first centuries of the current era that it could be said: "As for ourselves, we neither inhabit a maritime country, nor do we delight in merchandise …; but the cities we dwell in are remote from the sea, and having a fruitful country for our habitation, we take pains in cultivating that only." 2 The proverbs connected

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with Trades will accordingly be comparatively late.

Historical incidents have given rise to proverbs, nos. 25, 44, 230 ff., 246, 269 f., 326; and in most cases we have not been supplied with the key to the details. A Biblical source is to be claimed for nos. 252, 257, 270, 280. There is one folk-saying, based on the Bible, that seems to have been in common use as early as the beginning of the second century AḌ. (in the time of R. Akiba, see Jalkut to Prov. § 958), and is worthy of quotation. "In the West (i.e. Palestine), when a man took to himself a wife people used to ask him "Mātzā or Mōtzē"?" (Jeb. 63b). The key to the question is the following two Scriptural verses; "Whoso hath found (mātzā) a wife hath found good" (Prov. xviii. 22), and "I find (mōtzē) woman more bitter than death" (Eccles. vii. 26). The question, then, means, "Do you find married life "good" or "more bitter than death"?" This is a good example of how the Bible became the source of popular sayings.

The proverbs reveal to us various habits and customs of the Jewish people at that period of their history. We see what pride they took in their personal appearance (no. 202), and how they strove to make their homes as beautiful as possible (nos. 203 f.). They were abstemious (no. 184), but not freed from superstition (no. 348). Workmen were respected and idlers despised

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(nos. 156 ff.). Only in few instances do we find a class of workmen contemned—e.g. in the case of weavers (nos. 23 f., 53, etc.). 1 Such a proverb as no. 148 teaches us that it was a common practice to put by the family savings in jars. A reference to this custom is perhaps to be found in 2 Cor. iv. 7. Nos. 73 and 99 could only have arisen in a country where snakes, and nos. 11, 15, 72, 76 where dogs were numerous. No. 150 throws light on the kind of food eaten by the poor.

Generally speaking, the close study of the proverbs of the ancient Jews must yield much information about the country in which they lived, their occupations, their habits, their thoughts and environment, with the result that we can form a truer picture of what they were like. Readers of Franz Delitzsch's Jewish Artisan Life in the Time of Christ will remember the fine use to which he puts Jewish proverbs in his attempted reconstruction of life in Jerusalem. The unbiassed student, who approaches the consideration of these proverbs without preconceived ideas about Palestinian and Babylonian Jewry in the first five centuries of this era, will probably arrive at the conclusion that much that has been written upon that subject is based more on prejudice than fact. The quotations collected in the

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following pages may offer a surer guide to a fair conception of the character of the Jewish people, and if this be so, lovers of the truth will accept the guidance. Above all, men need constantly to act upon the old proverb: "First learn, then form opinions" (no. 217).


14:1 Cf. Analogous Proverbs in Ten Languages, by Mrs. E. B. Maur (London, 1885).

18:1 "Book of Proverbs," International Critical Commentary, Introduction, p. xi.

22:1 A heated controversy raged over this question for a long time, but the statement made above has been conclusively proved by Professor Dalman in his Die Worte Jesu (1898), and Aramäische Grammatik (1905). For a recent summary of the Language-problem the reader is referred to Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Eng. Trans. 1910), pp. 269-75.

24:1 Proverbs of only linguistic interest have been omitted. They may be found in Dukes, pp. 14 f., and Lewin, pp. 82 f.

24:2 Lazarus, Ethics of Judaism (Eng. Trans.), vol. i. p. 65.

26:1 Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. x. p. 227.

26:2 Josephus, Contra Apionem, I. 12.

28:1 Trade guilds seem to have had their own proverbs, since we read of millers’ proverbs (see no. 350), and fullers’ (Suc. 28a; BḄ. 134a).

Next: Chapter I: Human Existence