Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Sayings and Stories of the Sages of the Talmud.

"Let me make the ballads of a people and I care not who makes the laws."

The maxims with which the rabbis occasionally endorsed their decisions and the bits of humor with which they relieved the tension of argument, may give a deeper insight into their character than their laws. These morsels of homely philosophy and casual reflections on human experience best reveal, too, their outlook on the world and on life. So in its way the Agada is quite as precious a legacy from the Fathers as the Halacha.

The writing of parables of which some of the rabbis were masters, is almost a lost art; it seems to have died out in literature. But no moral is pointed so aptly as through a tale and no teaching impressed so lastingly as through a story.

Many a Hebrew philosopher like Socrates, the Greek, and the yet earlier prophet (nabi) would make the highway his school-house and the passing crowd his disciples. Darmesteter suggests that the lesson might have been conveyed in somewhat in the following way:

"Who wishes to live long," cries an Agadist in the open street; "who wishes to buy happiness?" The original questions attract a crowd demanding to know the orator's secret. "Thou desirest to live many days," he answers, "thou wishest to enjoy peace and happiness? Keep thy tongue from evil and thy lips from speaking guile. Seek peace and pursue it. Depart from the evil and do good." And paraphrasing these words of the Psalmist (Ps. xxxiv, 13-15), he developed his ideas in the midst of the attentive crowd.

The parables and maxims that follow have been gathered promiscuously and are classified here under appropriate heads.


"Show me your omnipresent God," said the Emperor Trajan to R. Joshua. "He cannot be seen, but let us try to look at one of his ambassadors," replied the rabbi, pointing to the midday sun. "I cannot," said Trojan, "the light dazzles me." "Can you then expect to gaze upon the resplendent glory of the Creator?"

A Roman philosopher asked: "If your God dislikes idolatry, why does he not destroy the idols?" Quickly came the wise reply: "Shall He destroy the sun and the moon because the foolish worship them and thus injure the innocent also?"

"Who denies idolatry may be called a Jew."

"He who possesses knowledge of God's law without fear of Him, the Lawgiver, is like one to whom the inner keys of a treasury have been given, but the outer ones withheld."

"God rejoiceth not at the fall of the wicked." When the angels were about to chant their morning hymn on the day the Egyptians were drowning, God stayed them: "The works of My hands are sinking in the deep and would you sing a song?"

"Without God's law there would be neither heaven nor earth."

"The aim of creation is man's fulfilment of God's will."

"The consciousness of God's presence is the great teaching of religion."

"In all God's creation there is not a single object without a purpose."


"Man should ever say: Whatever the All-merciful doeth is for the best."

"Who hath bread for to-day and feareth for the morrow, is a man of little faith."

"God adjusts the burden to the camel."

"We cannot comprehend either the prosperity of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous."

Rabbi Akiba was alone in the wilderness at night with but a lamp to study the Law, a rooster to waken him, and an ass to carry him. He was inhospitably driven from a village in which he asked shelter, and had to camp in the open fields. A wind blew out his light so that he could not study; a wolf destroyed his rooster; a lion devoured his ass. But at the occurrence of each calamity, he still said: "Praised be God, whate'er He does is for the best." Entering the village next morning, he found its inhabitants slain by robbers.

Complete the providential application.

There is no mediator between Israel and God.

"If misfortune befalls a man, let him not cry to Michael or Gabriel, but let him come unto Me: everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

God scattered Israel through the world that the Gentile might learn the purity of Jewish teaching.


"Prayer without devotion is body without breath."

"Better little prayer with devotion than much, without."

"He who asks God for his neighbor what he needs for himself, his own wants will be first answered."

"Blessed be the mother who sends her children to the House of Prayer."


"Who gains the approval of good men, may hope for that of Heaven."

"One should conduct himself as carefully before man as before God."

"What shall man do to live; kill his (lower) self. What shall man do to die; sustain his (lower) self."

"The righteous are greater in death than in life."

"A good man lost to his age is like a lost pearl. The pearl remains a pearl wherever it may be; only the owner feels its loss."

"Alas for him who mistakes branch for tree, shadow for substance."

"To him who lacks nobility of heart, nobility of blood is of no avail."

"Good men promise little and do much; wicked men promise much and no nothing."

"There are three classes of friends of God; the wronged who seek not revenge; workers for the love of God; cheerful sufferers."

"The righteous need no monuments, their deeds are their monuments."

"Three names are given to a man: the first by his parents, the second by the world, the third by his works."

"The best preacher is the heart, the best teacher time, the best book the world, the best friend God."

"The greatest of heroes is he who turneth an enemy into a friend."

The Study of the law.

"Study is more meritorious than sacrifice."

"A scholar is greater than a prophet."

"The soul of man is the lamp of the Lord; the law is light. God's light (the Law), is in man's hands: man's light (the soul), is in God's hands. Respect His light and he will respect thine."

"The Gentile who studies the Law is as a High Priest."

"Who studies the Law in private, it will proclaim him in public."

"Scholars increase the world's peace. They are called builders for they are engaged in upbuilding the world."

"I have learnt much from my teachers, more from my fellow students, most from my pupils."

"The wise learn from all."

"He only is free who engages in the study of the Law."

"The aim of learning is moral perfection."

Education in General.

In the days when the Temple was still standing, education of the young formed an important part in the life of the Jewish people. They had schools in and out of Judea. Ignorance was despised. "A fool cannot be pious," 'twas said. The studies to be undertaken in accordance with the age of the children, the previous home preparation, the number to a class, were all carefully planned. The curriculum comprised law and morals deduced from Scripture and rabbinic teaching, history, grammar, languages, according to the time, Aramaic, Persian, Greek or Latin. Also to older scholars—medicine, hygiene, astronomy, botany, zoology.

All Scriptural quotation of flowers were applied to children and schools. "Teacher" was the highest title.

"The world depends on the children in the school."

"A city without school-children will be destroyed."

"Touch not mine anointed." These are the school-children. "And to my prophets do no harm." These are the disciples of the wise.

"You should revere your teacher even more than your father. The latter only brought you into this world; the former points the way to the next. But blessed is the son who has learnt from his father, and the father who has instructed his son."

"Who does not educate his children is their enemy and his own."

"Who is best taught? He who has learnt from his mother."

"Who acquires knowledge without imparting it is like a myrtle in a desert."

"Who are you whose prayer has alone been answered?" "I am a teacher of little children."

"Bestow most care on the children of the poor, for from them will go forth the Law."

"Pride is a sign of ignorance."

"A single coin in a jar makes the most noise."

"The rivalry of scholars advances science."

"If thou acquireth knowledge what canst thou lack; if thou lackest knowledge what canst thou acquire!"

Parents and Children.

"Three share a man: God, father and mother. When one honors mother and father, God says He dwells among them; and in honoring them one honors Him."

"Blessed is the generation in which the old listen to the young; doubly blessed when the young listen to the old."

"Do not threaten children with punishment you do not intend to inflict."

"Only when a parent induces a child to commit sin, is disobedience justifiable."

"Do not limit your children to your knowledge, for they were born in another age."

Rabbi Eliezar pointed out to his disciples the example of Damah. His mother often abused him, yet all he would say on such occasions was: 'Enough, dear mother, enough.' Once the priests came to him to purchase a jewel. Finding his father resting against the casket in which it lay, he asked them to come later. They offered him a larger price. He replied, 'I would not disturb my father's rest for all the wealth of the world.' They waited. When his father woke he brought the jewel; they tendered him the larger sum offered the second time. He declined it, saying: 'I will not barter the satisfaction of having done by duty, for gold; give me what you first offered and I will be content.'

Albini allowed none of his five children to open the door for their grandfather or attend his wants. That privilege must be his. Once his father asked for water. On returning he found the old man asleep. So there he remained, glass in hand, until his father awakened.

"Reverence mother and father by neither sitting in their seats nor standing in their places, by not interrupting their speech nor criticising their arguments and by giving heed to their wishes."

"Support the aged without reference to religion, and the learned without reference to age."


The exalted place given to woman in Jewish teaching is in pleasing and remarkable contrast with her inferior position in the orient and throughout antiquity generally. In some respects she is made subordinate in the Jewish law, and is given a comparatively passive place in religious life; but on the whole the sages of the Talmudic era nobly resisted the example of their environment, in the reverence they paid to womanhood.

"God gave more understanding to woman than to man."

"All blessing in the household comes through the wife; therefore should her husband honor her."

"Man should consult his wife, treating her as a companion not a plaything; making her what God intended, a help-meet for him."

"Be careful not to cause woman to cry, for God counts her tears."

"He who loves his wife as himself and honors her more than himself, will train his children rightly."

Rab Jose: "I never call my wife wife, but home."

"He who dependeth on his wife's earnings will be deprived of blessing."

"Who is rich? Who has a good wife."

"Culture in woman is better than gold."

"Woman's sense of shame is deeper than man's."

"He who has no wife is not a complete man."

"Israel was redeemed from Egypt on account of the virtue of its women."