Proverbs Uttered by Characters in the Stories of the Talmud and the Midrash


Proverbs Uttered by Characters in the Stories of the Talmud and the Midrash

The shift in focus of modern research of the proverb genre from a perusal of proverb anthologies to the study of proverbs in context has generated a series of important studies which have furthered our understanding of proverbs in literary contexts.1 In these studies, the question has already been raised regarding the source of the proverb appearing in the story as to which came first: Did the proverb give rise to the story or vice versa? I tend to accept the view of Galit Hasan-Rokem,2 that the question cannot be answered unequivocally in regard to those proverbs having a structural and logical connection with the story. However, it may be simpler to answer this question in regard to those proverbs whose connection with the story is not structural. In a study of Greek stories recorded from the oral tradition, Loukatos3 distinguished between proverbs playing a local role in the dialogue and the description of the story, and those proverbs which are the key to the story’s plot and constitute an integral part of it. Loukatos sees in the first type an expression of the narrator’s stylistic predilection and, without stating whether this is the usual procedure, he hints at the possibility of the story being the source of the proverb. Henceforth I shall review the genetic question in relation to proverbs which play a role in the dialogue between characters in the Talmudic-Midrashic stories. This study is based on an examination of about seven hundred stories, forty of which contain proverbs uttered by the characters.4

Two unique phenomena contribute to the question as to the function of the proverbs in these Talmud and Midrash stories:

  1. (a) the source of the stories is in the oral literature, but they were written down and came to us only in the written form; since the question as to the source of the proverb is twofold: (i) was the proverb assimilated into the story at its inception, or only when it was written down, and (ii) is the proverb a citation from another context or is the story before us its first context?
  2. the editors of proverb anthologies of the Talmudic-Midrashic literature collected these proverbs without distinguishing clearly between a proverb and an collocation, between a proverb in a story and a proverb in another context and between a proverb that had evidently appeared more than once and one that appears one time only. In other words, despite the presence of proverb anthologies of the Rabbinic literature, not only do they not contribute to the question as to the use of the proverb in context, but they leave unclear both the definition of the proverb and the problem of its identification. These two points are closely related to the genetic question, hence we will begin with them.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio – Issue 9:1999 & Issue 10:1999, an electronic book, available from and other leading Internet booksellers.

In the last two examples the break in context stands out mainly because of the metaphoric relationship between the proverb and its context. Researchers of the proverbs are divided on the question as to whether a metaphoric connection is essential for defining or identifying a proverb. Empirical examination supports the views of those who believe that one of the semantic markers is enough to reveal the proverb in its context, for there are genuine proverbs having a verbal connection with their context.8 For example, the proverb, “Woe to those who are gone and no more to be found.” (G.R. 12, 10, ed. Theodor-Albek, pp. 108-109). In the context of the story, which is transmitted entirely in Hebrew, this is the only sentence in Aramaic, and the deviation from the language sequence is evidence of its being a proverb. The proverb recurs in another story (B.T., Sanhedrin 111a) and has been preserved in the oral tradition until today. Nevertheless, it is useful only in the context of an expression of sorrow for someone who has died, and it is doubtful if the expression “are gone” can be regarded as a genuine metaphor.

In accordance with the last example, it appears that to identify the proverb, even one of the markers is sufficent to break the context and that there is no need to find a metaphoric connection between the proverb and the context. However, the metaphoric connection is not only one of the more authentic markers of the proverb, but it can also shed light on the means by which a proverb, or a particular variant of it, is created. Let us consider two examples.

  1. (a) In both Talmuds there are three versions of the story about the deposition of Rabban Gameliel II from his rule. In all the versions the story opens with a presentation of the background to the fierce confrontation between Rabban Gameliel and Rabbi Joshua and goes on to a description of the confrontation itself, in the process of which the former insulted the latter in public. Consequently, the Sages decided to depose Rabban Gameliel, and when he realized his error he went to propitiate Rabbi Joshua at his home. When he arrived there, Rabban Gameliel discovered that R. Joshua earned his livelihood by hard manual labor. According to one version in the P. T. he says to R. Joshua,

“Is this how you make a living?” (P. T., Berakhot 4,1 & a similar version P.T., Ta’anit 4,1) and according to another version, in the B.T. he says “From the walls of your house it is apparent that you are a charcoal maker.” (B.T. Berakhot 28a). To this R. Joshua in all three versions replies, “Woe to the generation of which you are the leader.” The question about the last statement is a twofold one: are R. Joshua’s words a proverb and, if so, is it a citation or a creation of the narrator? Before we answer, two facts are worthy of mention: (i) in medieval anthologies which took the stories from Rabbinic literature, there is an addendum to the words of R. Joshua: “And woe to the ship of which you are the captain.” (ii) in a different context in B.T., all the great ones of the nations eulogize Abraham and say, “Woe to the world that has lost its leader and woe to the ship that has lost its captain.” (B.T., Baba Batra 91a).

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio – Issue 9:1999 & Issue 10:1999, an electronic book, available from and other leading Internet booksellers.

On the basis of these two examples we can conclude that the absence of a metaphoric connection between the proverb uttered by a character and the story context are not sufficient grounds to prove that the story is the father of the proverb, but it is a necessary condition for such a possibility. A genuine metaphoric connection is always contingent on the open character of a proverb, which enables it to be used in different contexts, thus making it impossible to determine what the original context was.


Permission to publish this article granted by Proverbium (Editor: Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, University of Vermont, USA).
Previously published in Proverbium 2 (1985), pp. 97-108.

The paper was presented in the 8th Congress for the International Society for Folk Narrative Research, Bergen 1984. I thank Prof. Mieder and Dr. Hasan-Rokem for their helpful comments.

1For the most complete listing up to date see: Mieder, W. Intternational Proverb Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography, New York 1982, “context” in the index.

2Hasan-Rokem, G. Proverbs in Israeli Folk Narratives: A Structural Semantic Analysis, Folklore Fellows Communications 232, Helsinki 1982, p. 12.

3Loukatos, D. “Le Proverb dans le conte,” 4th International Congress of Folk Narrative Research, Athens, pp. 229-233.

4Although the proverb lore of ancient Hebrew literature of the Old Testament has been widely studied – e.g. recently Thompson, J. M. The Form and Function of Proverbs in ancient Israel, The Hague: Mouton, 1974; Fontaine, C. R. Traditional Sayings in the Old Testament, Sheffield: The Almond Press, 1982 – there is no comprehensive study of Talmudic-Midrashic proverbs, only of specific proverbs. See Mieder’s bibliography, n. 1 above, “Hebrew”; “Jewish” in the index.

5Seitel, P. “Proverbs: A Social Use of Metaphor,” Genre II, no. 2 (1969), pp. 143-161, p. 145.

6Hasan-Rokem, no. 2 above, p.11

7Seitel, no. 5 above.

8Cf. Silverman – Weinreich, B. “Structural Problems in the Study of the Jewish Proverb” (Hebrew), Hasifrut III, 1 (1971), pp. 85-91, p. 88; Hasan-Rokem n. 2 above, p. 15; Fontaine n. 4 above, pp. 40-41.

9The Hebrew word ‘parnas’ is a dead metaphor for ‘leader’ and is not out of context here.

10Goldenberg, R. “The Deposition of Rabban Gamliel II: An Examination of the Sources,” JJS 23 (1972), pp. 167-190, p. 184.

Ofra Meir
Department of Hebrew Literature
University of Haifa
Haifa 31999