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

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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).

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*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]

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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."

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*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.

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*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."

*15. The dog in his hunger swallows dung (B. K. 92b; D. 394).

In the time of extreme necessity everything can be of use. Cf. "The full soul loatheth an honeycomb: but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet" (Prov. xxvii. 7).

*16. Sixty pains afflict the teeth of him who hears the sound of his neighbour [eating] but himself hath nothing to eat (B. K. 92b; D. 649).

("Sixty" is used in Rabbinic writings to denote a round number.)

*17. When a man is in straitened circumstances, he recalls the comfort of his father's house (Lam. R. to i. 7; D. 332).

Palestinian proverb. See the following.

*18. When the bride is hungry, she recalls the seven days of her marriage feast (Lam. R. to i. 7; D. 338).

The Babylonian parallel to the preceding.

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[paragraph continues] The marriage festivities usually lasted a whole week. (I have adopted Buber's reading tikhapan; the editions have tispōn, which yields no sense.)

*19. What is beneath thine head is thine (Gen. R. ch. lxix. § 4; D. 472).

You can only be sure of that which is actually in your possession.

*20. While the fat one becomes lean, the lean one expires (Lam. R. to iii. 20; D. 553).

By the time the oppressor of the poor, who battens on them, is brought to justice, his victims are dead through starvation.

*21. Two kabs of dates—one kab of stones and more (Jom. 79b; D. p. 15).

There is no such thing as unalloyed pleasure. Half of the sweet date at least consists of the stone, which is of no use and has to be thrown away. Cf. "No corn without chaff." The kab is a dry measure.

*22. Poverty befits the Jew as a red leather trapping a white horse (Ḥag. 9b; D. 312).

Even privations can serve a useful purpose, in hardening a person against troubles. The Jew is a proof of this.

*23. A year of scarcity will change a weaver [for the better] if he be not proud (Ab. Zar. 26a; D. 200).

Others translate "If a weaver is not humble, his life is shortened by a year,"

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which is by no means to be preferred to the rendering of Jastrow I have adopted. The meaning is, Adversity has its uses if we are willing to grasp them. One is reminded of Shakespeare's lines:

Sweet are the uses of adversity
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.
                              As You Like It, Act II. Sc. i.

All work connected with weaving was despised as being unmanly, and therefore men engaged in this occupation were always of the lowest strata of society. It was forbidden to listen to their songs (Sotah. 48a).

24. Even the wool-scraper is a prince in his own house (Meg. 12b; D. 599).

Cf. "Every dog is a lion at home"; "A man's house is his castle."

25. On the dunghills of Māthā Mehasyā, and not in a palace at Pumbedīthā (Kerith. 6a; Hor. 12a; D. 116).

Two names of Babylonian cities famous for their Rabbinic academies. At one time Māthā Meḥasyā was more renowned than its rival, and this proverb may refer to its superiority. Others explain it as a reference to the fact that this city escaped the misfortunes which befel the Jews in Babylon

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during the fifth century AḌ., and the proverb therefore means, Better is poverty combined with security than riches combined with danger and anxiety.

26. Better is it to eat putrid fish [in peace] than the luxurious dish of the imprisoned (Kerith 6a; Hor. 12a; D. 299).

(The wording is doubtful, but this seems to be the most probable meaning.) Cf. the preceding, and "Better is a dry morsel and quietness therewith than a house full of feasting with strife" (Prov. xvii. 1), and "A bean in liberty is better than comfort in prison."

27. At the door of shops brothers and friends are numerous; at the door of misery there are no brothers and no friends (Shab. 32a; D. 1).

To a similar effect is "The poor is hated even of his own neighbour: but the rich hath many friends" (Prov. xiv. 20). Cf. "The rich never want kindred"; "No one claims kindred with the poor"; "Poverty parteth fellowship."

*28. Thy friend is dead! believe it; thy friend has become rich! believe it not (Git. 30b; D. 281).

Misfortunes are more frequent than good fortune, therefore bad tidings deserve more credence. There is a play on the words for "believe" (’ashar) and "become rich"

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(’ith‘ashshar) which cannot be reproduced in translation.

*29. From one who has inherited, not from one for whom men plunder, [accept gifts]. (Cant. R. to vii. 7; D. 503).

The "one for whom men plunder" is a king or governor. Ill-gotten wealth brings no happiness, whatever its source may be. Cf. "Better a penny with right than a thousand without."

*30. He who eats the fat tail [’alyethā] will have to hide himself in the garret [‘ilīthā]; who eats cress [ḳāḳūlē] may rest quietly by the dunghills [ḳiḳlē] of the town (Pes. 114a; D. 203).

Palestinian proverb. The "fat tail" was a rare and expensive luxury, and one who indulges in it may have to conceal himself from his creditors. On the other hand, the man who lives parsimoniously and within his means can expose himself in the most conspicuous parts of the town. (Note the play of words.)

*31. He whose stomach is full increaseth deeds of evil (Ber. 32a; D. 499).

Wealth breeds insolence. Cf. the Hebrew saying "A lion growls not in a den full of straw but in a den full of meat" (ibid., D. 54); and "They were filled and their heart was exalted" (Hosea xiii. 6), "But Jeshurun waxed fat and kicked" (Deut. xxxii. 15).

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*32. The stomach carries the feet (Gen. R. ch, lxx. § 8; D. 409).

Cheerful prospects stimulate a man's energies. Similarly it is said "The heart carries the feet" (Jalkut to Gen. § 123; D. 311).

*33. Room can always be found for a delicacy (Erub. 82b; Meg 7b; D. 613).

34. A man's Zuzim do his brokerage for him (B. M. 63b; D. 271).

If you have ready cash, you can dispense with the aid of middlemen. The general application is: The wealthy man can attain his ends more easily than the poor man. The Zuz is a small silver coin, a fourth of a Shekel in value—i.e. about 7d.

35. One cannot compare him who sees an empty basket and is hungry to him who sees a full basket and is sated (Gen. R. ch. lxv. § 13; D. 414).

Although neither eats anything, yet the sensations of the two will be different.

36. None is poorer than the dog and none richer than the pig (Shab. 155b; D. 439).

The latter eats anything and is easily contented.

37. Let one use a precious goblet for one day and on the morrow let it be broken (Ber 28a; D. 462).

To be wealthy a short time is better than never.

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38. If thy sieve be stopped up, knock on it (Gen. R. ch. lxxxi. § 2; D. 482).

In prosperity one tends to become forgetful of promises and duties, and it requires strenuous means to bring them to one's mind. Cf. no. 136 below.

Next: Chapter II: Family Life