Occasionally, the sages of the Talmud quote Jewish folk sayings in Aramaic, preceding them with the words hainu de’amri inshi, “This is what people say…” Despite their simplistic exterior, these pithy sayings convey great depth and spiritual insight, from which the sages derived much wisdom. Here is a sampling of these quotes culled from the Talmud and adapted into English. Each quote is accompanied by a few explanatory notes, some of which are taken from the context of where the quote is cited, and some of which are the compiler’s own conjecture.
- On Raising Children
- On Human Nature
- Advice for Life
- On Dealing With Difficult People
- On Effort
- On Marriage
- On Spirituality and the Soul
On Raising Children
1. The quality of a cucumber can be recognized when it is still a blossom.1 Many of a person’s traits are already visible in their earliest years.
2. The prattle of a child is either from his father or from his mother.2 Children adopt the language and attitudes they are raised with. The entire family of Miriam bat Bilga, a woman from a priestly clan who spoke against G‑d, was penalized. Why? Because her harsh and blasphemous words did not appear in a vacuum. They were the result of the mocking and cynical atmosphere of her childhood home.
3. The ewe follows the ewe; the daughter’s actions are the same as her mother’s.3 Rabbi Akiva’s wife married him when he was a simple shepherd and encouraged him to study Torah. Their daughter then did the same for her husband, Ben Azzai, who became a scholar. The sages quote this adage, noting that children learn compassion from their parents.
On Human Nature
4. A pot belonging to partners is neither hot nor cold.4 When more than one person is responsible for something, it is common for neither to take responsibility. It is for this reason, say the sages of the Talmud, that shared spaces are most likely to be neglected.
5. A single sharp pepper is better than a basketful of gourds.5 No matter how many gourds a person may acquire, he will not be able to extract anywhere near the amount of flavor of a single pepper, rich in flavor. In the same vein, one strong argument is worth more than an array of weak ones.
6. In the spoon that the carpenter himself made, the mustard will burn his palate.6 Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, setting ourselves up in messes only we ourselves could have possibly created.
7. Either a friend or death.7 Life without peers is not worth living. We need social interaction to live meaningfully. Likewise, once a person has lived to the point that they no longer have friends, even death becomes a welcome respite.
8. He who has been bitten by a snake is scared of a rope.8 The traumatic experiences of our past can be reconjured by the simplest triggers.
9. In my town I am known by my name. When away, I am known by my clothing.9 When away from home, clothing takes on more significance, as it signals to others who we are and how we view ourselves. In Babylon, the Talmudic scholars were particular to wear identifiable garb so that people would recognize them as scholars.
10. From the fat of the unlucky person, the weasel and the cat make a wedding.10 The weasel and the cat are natural rivals. Yet, when there is fat from which they can both benefit, they set aside their animus to enjoy the bounty. Similarly, a common foe often leads human enemies to set aside their differences and work together peacefully.
11. A hungry dog will even eat dung.11 When we are desperate, we are easily drawn to solutions that we know will never work, like dung that cannot nourish. It is crucial to remember that dung is dung, no matter how hungry we may become.
12. One whose family member has been hanged will not say “hang a fish for me.”12 Words have power. The same words that can be completely neutral to one person can be biting and painful for another.
13. Poverty follows the poor.13 At times it seems as if one misfortune has a habit of dragging more misfortune on its unfortunate heels.
14. When a camel tries to get horns, his ears are cut off.14 It is important to know our limits. When we pursue that which is not due us, we lose that which is rightfully ours.
Advice for Life
15. If you have a fault, be the first to say it.15 The effort to keep something secret can be more scandalous than the blemish itself. Honesty and forthrightness are often rewarded with acceptance and forgiveness.
16. Don’t throw stones into the well from which you drank.16 Always be kind to those from whom you once benefitted.
17. Sell your herbs in a place where herbs grow.17 Competition may be fiercer than in a place where herbs are unknown, but at least there will be purchasers who understand and appreciate the benefits of your wares.
18. Use an expensive goblet today; tomorrow let it break.18 Often we are so worried about what might happen that we do nothing at all. Holding onto a set of expensive cups but never using them lest they break is a perfect example. Sometimes, it is wise and prudent to take risks.
19. Mix feed for an ox, mix feed for oxen.19 If you’re doing a favor for one person, try to include others in need of the same favor. Once a person goes to the effort and expense of feeding a single ox, to prepare for another is not nearly as big an effort.
On Dealing With Difficult People
20. Whether you are right or wrong, don’t swear.20 Even though it is technically allowed, and often the only way a person can defend his good name, it is always best not to take an oath.
21. Don’t do favors for evildoers, and no evil will befall you.21 An indiscriminate favor can end up biting the hand of the benefactor.
22. From your debtor, take straw.22 A precursor to “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” If your debtor offers you payment, even if it is in the form of undesirable straw, take it, lest you get nothing at all. Sometimes, second best is the best available option.
23. If your nephew becomes a policeman, steer clear of him in the marketplace.23 Having a person of authority too intimately aware of your business can lead to no good.
24. Even when you’re minding your own business, your enemy feels threatened.24 Sometimes we perceive things to be threats even when they are entirely innocuous. An enemy sees vicious plotting even behind the most innocent stroll.
25. If an ox runs and trips, a horse is put in its place.25 Less-than-ideal relationships are often hard to break. An ox is far superior to a horse in strength. Yet, when the ox is not available, the master has no choice but to use a horse for his work. And once that happens, the master becomes accustomed to the horse and finds it difficult to switch back to an ox.
26. Better to be cursed than to curse.26 The innocent recipient of a curse knows that he himself has done nothing wrong. The same cannot be said for the one who heaped harsh words upon another. Furthermore, the sages note that the curses a person dispenses ultimately return to their giver and become true for him.
27. According to the camel is its load.27 A load that is small for one camel may overwhelm another. In the same way, each person must give charity according to their means, not comparing their offerings to those of others.
28. Sixty runners run and do not reach the person who ate in the morning.28 Eating a hearty breakfast gives a person the energy he or she needs to face the day with vigor, optimism, and strength.
29. If you lift the load with me, I will be able to lift it; and if you will not, I won’t lift it.29 The effort of two people equals more than the sum of each person’s strengths added together. When we support each other, we can all accomplish more than we could on our own.
30. One who takes revenge due to his zealotry destroys his own house.30 Revenge may feel good in the short term, but it is the avenger that ends up suffering.
31. If your wife is short, bend down and whisper to her.31 As every married man learns, his wife generally has wise words to share—worth listening to, even if it means humbling himself.
32. When our love was strong, we could have lain on the blade of a sword. Now that our love is not strong, a bed of sixty cubits is insufficient.32 Rav Huna overheard a passerby using this comparison and understood that the same truth applies to G‑d and Israel. When we were spiritually attuned, we merited to be together with G‑d in the confines of the Tabernacle. Today, however, there is no place in the world that can contain Him.
33. If a dog barks at you, stay; if a female dog barks at you, leave.33 The woman is the mainstay of the house, and she has the final say on who may stay and who must leave.
On Spirituality and the Soul
34. A thief standing at the entrance of the tunnel calls out to G‑d.34 A precursor to “there are no atheists in foxholes,” this adage tells us that everyone, even a thief, calls out to G‑d in his or her time of need.
36. Shake off the salt, and throw the meat to the dog.36 Even the choicest of foods becomes tasteless without salt. Similarly, it is the divine spark, the soul, that gives life to the body. Once the soul departs, all that is left is a lifeless body of flesh and bone.
37. Wine belongs to the master. Thanks goes to the waiter.37 In the Talmud, this is quoted as a fact of life. But it is also a question. Can it be that the wine belongs to the master but people still give credit to the waiter? Fools fail to recognize that the waiter is but an agent of the master, and that currying favor with the lowly waiter will not get them anything. G‑d is the Master of the Universe, but pagans foolishly worshiped his inanimate agents, the celestial bodies, and other natural phenomena.
Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:14.9.
Bava Kama 92b.12.
Bava Metzia 59b.13.
Bava Kama 92a.14.
Bava Kama 92b.16.
Bava Kama 92b.17.
Bava Metzia 69a.20.
Jerusalem Talmud, Shavuot 6:5.21.
Genesis Rabbah 22:17.22.
Bava Kama 15b.23.
Bava Kama 92a.29.
Bava Kama 92b.30.
Bava Metzia 59a.32.
Bava Metzia 85b.36.
Bava Kama 92b.38.
Sanhedrin 44a.By Menachem PosnerRabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor at Chabad.org, the world’s largest Jewish informational website. He has been writing, researching, and editing for Chabad.org since 2006, when he received his rabbinic degree from Central Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch. He resides in Chicago, Ill., with his family.Painting by Chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman.More from Menachem Posner | RSS© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org’s copyright policy