Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Sayings and Stories of the Sages. (Cont.)


"Work dignifies the worker."

"He enjoys life who lives by the work of his hands."

"Work is more pleasing in God's sight than ancestral merit."

"Strip a carcass in the street and take pay for it, and say not: 'I am a priest or a great man and this work is beneath me.'"

The Fourth Commandment makes rest conditional on work.

"God did not dwell in the midst of Israel till they had built a sanctuary."

"Work must not be neglected for study."

"He who says 'I have toiled and not found,' believe him not; he who says 'I have not toiled yet have I found,' believe him not."

"Who does not bring his son up to a trade teaches him to be a robber."

"It is well to add a trade to your studies to be free from sin."

"Position cannot honor the man; the man must honor the position."

"Famine passes by the workman's door."

"Artisans need not interrupt their labors to rise before the passing scholars."

"Rather be a menial than a dependent."

Here is a characteristic bit of rabbinic midrash on a Bible text: "The dove returned ... and in her mouth an olive leaf" (Gen. viii, 11):—

"She said to the Holy One: 'Rather let my food be as bitter as the olive, but received from Thy hands, than honey-sweet but dependent on the hand of man.'"

"It is one's duty to support a slave crippled in his employ."

"O, River Euphrates, why is thy current not heard? My deeds testify for me; what is sown at my shores will bloom in thirty days."

"Judge by deeds not works."

"Say little, do much."

"Like a tree, man is known by his fruit."

"Say not, 'I will do nothing,' because thou canst not do everything."

"One good deed leadeth to another."

"Thy works commend thee; thy works repel thee."

"He who makes another perform a deed, is greater than the doer."

"A worthy action done in this world anticipates and leads the doer to the world to come."

"When God said to Adam, 'Thorns and thistles shall it (the earth) bring forth for thee,' Adam wept and said: 'Lord of the world, shall I and my ass eat from the same crib?' But when God further said, 'by the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread,' Adam was cheered and comforted."


"Truth is the seal of God."

"Jerusalem was destroyed because of the lack of truth-telling people."

"Who breaks his word is as one who worships an idol."

"Thus is the liar punished: even when he speaks the truth, none hearken."

"Truth is heavy, therefore few carry it."

Justice and Honesty.

"Let justice pierce the mountain."

"The judge who renders a true judgment for but one brief hour, is deemed as though he shared with God in the work of creation."

"Judge every man in the scale of merit."

"Judge not your neighbor till you stand in his place."

"Woe to the generation whose judges must be judged."

"Rabbi Phineas hospitably received two strangers. On departing they accidentally left behind them a few measures of barley. They returned a year later. 'Presumably our barley is spoilt by this time: never mind.' 'Nay,' said Phineas, leading them to his barn. He gave them five hundred measures of barley, the product of their few measures, which he had sown in his fields."

He who lends on usury is compared to a shedder of blood.

"Thy neighbor's honor and his possessions should be as dear to thee as thine own."

"Be honest in trade: if goods are damaged, acknowledge it."

"Credit and mutual trust should be the foundations of commerce."

A prince once made a law that a receiver of stolen property should be hanged and the thief go free.

"Not the mouse but the hole is the thief."

"An Israelite must not deceive even an idolater."

"Go to sleep without supper, but rise without debt."

"Rabbi Simon bought a camel of an Ishmaelite and later discovered diamonds under its saddle. 'The blessing of God maketh rich,' said his overjoyed servant. 'Nay,' rebuked the rabbi: 'Return those diamonds; I bought a camel, not precious stones.'"

Alexander, the world conqueror, came across a simple people in Africa who knew not war. He lingered to learn their ways. Two citizens appeared before the chief with this point of dispute. One had bought a piece of land and discovered a treasure in it; he claimed that this belonged to the seller and wished to return it. The seller, on the other hand, declared that he sold the land with all it might contain. So he refused to accept the treasure. The chief, turning to the buyer, said: "Thou hast a son?" "Yes." And addressing the seller: "Thou hast a daughter?" "Yes." "Marry one to the other and make the treasure their marriage portion." They left content. "In my country," said the surprised Alexander, "the disputants would have been imprisoned and the treasure confiscated for the king." "Is your country blessed by sun and rain?" asked the chief. "Yes," replied Alexander. "Does it contain cattle?" "Yes." "Then it must be for the sake of these innocent animals that the sun shines upon it; surely its people are unworthy of such blessing."


"Whoever showeth compassion is as the seed of Abraham."

"Remove from the highway what might endanger the property of others."

"To deserve mercy, practice it."

A sage, meeting Elijah in the thoroughfare, asked him to reveal the worthiest in the passing throng. First he singled out a turnkey. "He was kind to his prisoners." Next he pointed out two tradesmen. The sage ran to them and said, "Tell me your saving works." They were surprised. "We are only poor workmen, said to be cheerful and good-natured; we sympathize with people in sorrow and we try to reconcile friends who have quarreled. That is all."

"Be not cruel to inferiors."

"Rather be thrown into a fiery furnace than bring anyone to public shame."

"He who declines to tend the sick and he who hateth his neighbor, are as though they shed blood."

"Even though thy left hand pushes from thee, let thy right hand draw towards thee."

"Hospitality is a form of divine worship."

"Cast no stone in the well from which thou hast drunk."

"One should not partake of his own meal until his animals are first provided for."

"He who has no mercy on dumb animals should himself suffer pain."

While Moses was tending the flock of Jethro he noticed a lamb stray from the fold. He followed it; it did not stop until it reached a pool and there its slaked its thirst. "Thou dear innocent creature," said Moses, "had I but known thy wishes, I myself would have borne thee in my arms to the water." So he gently carried it back to the flock. Then was a voice heard from heaven exclaiming: "Moses, thou hast shown such compassion for the dumb sheep, thou art indeed worthy to be the shepherd of the flock of Israel."

"Give me your blessing," said R. Nachman to R. Isaac. He replied, "Thy request reminds me of the story of a weary traveler, who, after the day's exhaustion reached a well-watered date tree. Refreshed by its fruit and rested in its shade, he gratefully desired to bestow upon it a blessing. 'What can I wish thee; thou already hast foliage, shade, fruit, water; I can but pray that thy offshoots may flourish like thee,' 'Now, R. Nachman, thou already hast learning, wealth, children; I can only wish that thy descendants may be blessed like thee.'"


"Charity (righteousness) delivereth from death."

"Charity is the salt of wealth."

"He gives little who gives much with a frown, he gives much who gives little with a smile."

"The truly beneficent seek out the poor."

"He who closes the door on the poor may have to open it to the physician."

"Charity is greater than alms-giving; alms-giving is a duty to the poor only; charity both to rich and poor."

"He who gives charity in secret is greater than Moses."

"A miser is as wicked as an idolater."

"Even he who depends on charity should practise it."

Aben-Judah was the most generous of givers to the needy. But storm and pestilence swept away his wealth. There was left but a single field. In contented faith he maintained his family upon that. He only felt the pangs of poverty when the collectors of the poor called and he had nought to give. Then he and his wife decided to sell half their remaining field and hand the proceeds to the charity collectors. "May the Lord restore thee to thy former prosperity," said they and departed. Turning more assiduously than ever to the plough, that very day he unearthed a treasure. When the collectors called the next year he made up the deficiency of the year preceding. On receiving it they said: "Though many exceeded thy donation then, yet we had placed thee at the top of the list, knowing that thy small gift came from want of means, not from inclination."

King Monobases (the son of Helen of Adiabene, who became a proselyte to Judaism), unlocked his ancestral treasures at a time of famine, and distributed them among the poor. His ministers rebuked him saying, "Thy fathers amassed, thou dost squander." "Nay," said the benevolent king, "they preserved earthly, but I, heavenly treasures; theirs could be stolen, mine are beyond reach; theirs were barren, mine are fruitful; they preserved money, I have preserved lives."

Said R. Akiba to the not very charitable Tarphon: "Let me profitably invest some money for you." Tarphon handed his four thousand golden denars. Akiba distributed them among the poor, with the scriptural explanation, "He hath given to the needy, his righteousness endureth forever" (Ps. cxii, 9).

Humility and Patience.

"Teach thy tongue to say: I do not know."

"Meekness is better than sacrifice."

"God teaches us humility. He chose but a low mount, Sinai, from which to promulgate the Decalogue; in a humble bush He revealed himself to Moses; to Elijah, in a still small voice."

"Greatness flees from him who seeks it, and seeks him who flees it."

"Rather be persecuted than persecutor."

"An aged man, whom Abraham hospitably invited to his tent, refused to join him in prayer to the one spiritual God! Learning that he was a fire-worshipper, Abraham drove him from his door. That night God appeared to Abraham in a vision and said: I have borne with that ignorant man for seventy years; could you not have patiently suffered him one night?"

"Seeking the highest good to bestow on Israel, God found nothing better than affliction." ("Sufferance is the badge of all our tribe,"—Shakespeare.)

Rabbi Joshua always advised patience and submission, even under provocation. Once he pointed his advice with the apologue of The Lion and the Crane: While devouring prey, the lion got a bone in his throat. He offered a great reward to whomever would remove it. The crane came forward, inserted his long neck down the lion's throat and extracted the bone. He then demanded his reward. "Reward indeed," said the lion; "was it not sufficient reward that I permitted your neck to escape my sacred jaws?"

Make the application to Israel.

A lover, called from the side of his plighted wife, sent letters to her, faithfully promising to return. Long she waited and many mocked and taunted her. But each time she read her lover's letters, her waning faith was strengthened.

Suffering Israel is the maiden; the unseen God her faithful lover; and the Scriptural promises of redemption are His letters.


"Put not yourself in the way of temptation, for even David could not resist it."

"What the sages have forbidden on account of appearances, is forbidden even in one's innermost chamber."

"Commit a sin twice and you will think it sin no more." The first step counts.

"Evil passion is at first like a cobweb, and at last like a rope."

"The only indication of the Messiah's advent will be the disappearance of oppression."

"Beware of evil's small beginnings; Jacob's favoritism towards Joseph led to Israel's Egyptian captivity."

"What is the idol man carries within him—his evil passion."

"Sinful thoughts are worse than sin."

"A sinner is foolish as well as wicked."

"The end does not justify the means."

"He who deceives his neighbor would deceive God."

"He who denies his guilt doubles his guilt."

"Sin begets sin."

"Ill weeds grow apace; neglect is their gardener."

"Slander is a species of murder."

"Arrogance is a kingdom without a crown."

"The usurer will have no share in the future life."

"He who can testify in his neighbor's behalf and does not, is a transgressor."

"It is sinful to hate but noble to forgive."

"Say not 'sin cometh from God.' He giveth free choice of life and death."

"The wicked, even while living, are called dead."

R. Simeon said: The whole community must bear the blame of the individual sinner, emphasizing his lesson with this illustration:—Here is a boat-load of passengers. One proceeds to bore a hole through his seat, saying, "I am only piercing my own place." What happens? (Draw the inference.)


"There is no repentance without reparation."

"Better is an hour in repentance and good deeds in this world than all the world to come; though better is an hour of the world to come than the whole of this world."

"Even when the gates of prayer are closed, the gates of tears are open."

"When a man has turned from sin, reproach him no more."

"One who has sinned and repented stands higher in God's favor than the completely righteous."

"Repent one day before thy death." i.e. repent every day.

"Improve thyself and then improve others."

"Love those that reprove thee, hate those that flatter thee."

"The love that shirks from reproof is no love."

"He who does a worthy deed acquires an advocate."

"As the ocean never freezes, so the gate of repentance is never closed."

"If you wish your fast to be acceptable to God let it be accompanied by acts of charity and good-will." (see Isaiah lviii.)

"He who says 'I will sin and repent, I will sin again and repent again,' will ultimately lose power to repent."

A ship once anchored at a beautiful island waiting for a favorable wind. An opportunity was offered the passengers to go ashore. Some thought it safer not to leave the ship at all; the wind might rise, the anchor be raised and they would be left stranded. Others went to the island for a while to explore it, eat of its fruits and enjoy its beauties and returned to the ship refreshed and enlightened by the experience. A third group lingered rather long and scurried back as the ship was departing; but they lost their choice places on the boat for the rest of the journey. A fourth party indulged so freely in the island's pleasures, that it was hard to stir them when the ship rang its bell. "There is no hurry," so they lingered. Only after the last warning they made a wild rush, and had to clamber up the ship's sides; so they reached it, bruised and maimed; nor were their wounds quite healed at the close of the voyage. There was a fifth group alas, who drank so deeply and reveled so wildly that they heard neither bell nor warning. The ship started without them and at night-fall wild beasts emerged from their lairs and destroyed them.

Develop the analogy as a story of life.

Death and Immortality.

"Weep for the living mourners, not for the dead."

"Attempt not to comfort one when his dead lie before him."

"None are responsible for their words in time of grief."

"Trust not thyself till the day of thy death."

"This world is the vestibule; the world to come the palace."

To a denier of resurrection R. Gabiha said: "If what never before existed, exists, why may not that which once existed, exist again?"

"The longest life is insufficient for the fulfilment of half man's desire."

"One hour may win future life."

"He who makes the sorrowful rejoice will partake of life everlasting."

"After death one is not accompanied by his gold or his jewels but by his knowledge (Torah) and his good deeds."

Alexander reached the gate of Paradise. "Who is there," asked the guardian angel. "Alexander the Great." "We know him not, only the righteous enter here." Then he more humbly asked for a proof that he had reached the heavenly gate, and a piece of a skull was given to him! Alexander's sages proceeded to test it and finally placed it in one scale as a balance. They poured gold in the other scale, but the small bone weighed heavier. Alexander added his crown-jewels and diadem. The bone out-weighed them all. Then a sage placed a few grains of dust on the bone; up flew the scale! The bone was the setting of the eye. It is never satisfied until covered by the dust of the grave.

Wit and Humor.

"When the wine is in, the secret is out."

"A man's character may be tested in his portion (generosity), in his potion (wine-cup), and in his passion."

"If thou tellest thy secret to three persons, ten know it."

"A light for one is a light for a hundred."

"The sun will set without thy assistance."

"The soldiers fight; the kings are heroes."

"Life is lent, death is the creditor."

"If speech in season is worth one piece of silver, silence in season is worth two."

"Silence is good for wise men; how much more for fools."

"Wisdom increaseth with age,—so does folly."

"The poor who owe nought are rich; the old without ailment are young; the learned without religion are foolish."

"Thy yesterday is thy past; thy to-day is thy future; thy to-morrow—is a secret."

"Sufficient for the hour is its trouble."

"Use thy best vase to-day; to-morrow it may be broken."

Said an Athenian to a Hebrew lad:

"Here is a Pruta (a tiny coin); buy me something of which I may eat enough, leave some for my host and carry some home to my family." The boy brought salt.

A would-be wit took an iron mortar to a tailor, saying: "Put a patch upon it." "I will, if you will make me some thread of this sand."

R. Gamaliel bade his servant bring him something good from the market. He brought—a tongue. To test his judgment, he was next asked to bring something bad; he brought—a tongue. "If good there is nothing better; if bad there is nothing worse."

"Life and death are in the power of the tongue."

"Why should I be slave," said the serpent's tail to its head; "let me lead." "Lead on." First it dragged the body into a miry ditch; no sooner did it emerge than it became entangled in a thicket. Bruised and torn the serpent was extricated only finally to be led into a furnace.

"When the pitcher falls upon the stone, woe to the pitcher; when the stone falls upon the pitcher, woe to the pitcher; whatever mishap, woe to the pitcher."

"Money, lacking for necessity, is found for superfluity."

"Peace is the wisp of straw that bindeth the sheaf of blessings."

"Discord is the cistern-leak whence drop by drop all the water escapes."

R. Joshua met a little girl by the way and asked for some water. She handed him her pitcher, saying: "I will also draw some for the beast on which thou ridest." Quenching his thirst he said: "Daughter of Israel, thou hast followed the worthy example of Rebecca." "Rabbi," said she archly, "Thou hast not imitated the example of Eleazar" (Gen. xxiv 22).


All the Agada material scattered through the Talmud has been gathered into one book called "The Eye of Jacob" (after the name of its author). But popular collections more or less complete have been made in modern tongues. Among these may be mentioned:—Rabbinische Blumenlese by Leopold Dukes; Parabeln, Legenden und Gedanken aus dem Talmud, by Ludwig Seligman; Stories and Sayings from the Talmud, Katie Magnus; Gems from the Talmud by Isidore Myers, the quotations given in the original and translated into English verse: Hebrew Tales, Hyman Hurwitz; 600 Talmudic Sayings, Henry Cohen; Selections from the Talmud, H. Polano.

Immortality of the Soul: Zillah. H. L. Harris.