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Yiddish speakers had at their disposal a rich repertoire of proverbs. The term proverb (Yid., shprikhvort) in a narrow sense refers to complete sentences of anonymous origin that are used in conversation to comment, often metaphorically, on a matter at hand. An example is Patsh zikh nit in baykhele ven fishele iz nokh in taykhele (Don’t pat yourself in the belly when the fish is still in the stream; in other words, “Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched”). Related to proverbs are proverbial phrases, proverbial comparisons, and “winged words.”

A proverbial phrase (rednsart) is an incomplete sentence that the speaker completes by adding a subject: firn shtroy keyn mitsraim (to carry straw to Egypt; a reference to the Israelite slaves in Egypt forced to make mortar from straw; in English, “to carry coals to Newcastle”) or shisn tsvey hozn mit eyn shos (to shoot two hares with one shot; in English, “to kill two birds with one stone”).

Proverbial comparisons usually take the form of a phrase that expresses a high degree of an adjective, adverb, or verb: lang vi der yidisher goles (as lengthy as the Jewish exile) and horevn vi a yidene far peysekh (to toil like a Jewish woman before Passover). When the subject of comparison is a noun or pronoun, the form may take that of a proverb: Er iz geglikhn tsu a khanuke-likhtl (He can be compared to a Hanukkah candle; like a Hanukkah candle, which is not supposed to be used for light, he is of no practical use).

“Winged words” (from a frequently used image in the Iliad and the Odyssey) are quotations, usually from known authors or sources, that have become proverbial. For Yiddish speakers, these lines are usually taken from the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, prayers, or other canonical religious sources. They are sometimes quoted in the original Hebrew or Aramaic, sometimes translated (in whole or in part) into Yiddish. A partially translated Talmudic example is as follows: In dray zakhn derkent men a mentshn: bekoyse bekise un bekase (A person is revealed in three things: in his cup, in his purse, and in his anger; that is by his drinking, by his generosity of lack thereof, and by his temper).

A quotation may be commented upon or parodied. The liturgical formula Ato bekhartonu mikol hoamim (Thou hast chosen us from among the nations) is followed by the comment Vos hostu zikh ongezetst oyf undz? (What did You have against us?). The Talmudic maxim “Where there is no man [to do a job], try to be that man” is parodied as Bemokem she-eyn ish iz a hering oykh a fish (Where there is no man, a herring is also a fish; that is, one makes do with what one has).

The examples cited are mostly connected to Jewish life and culture, but there are many proverbs that show no such connections; for example, Az men makht dos moyl nit oyf, flit keyn flig nit arayn (If you don’t keep your mouth open, no fly will fly in; that is, you don’t get into trouble if you keep your mouth shut). Although most Yiddish proverbs are to be understood figuratively, some have only a literal meaning; for example, Zey hobn zikh beyde lib—er zikh, un zi zikh (The two of them are in love: he with himself and she with herself).

Yiddish proverbs use the formal devices of rhyme, bipartite structure, and repetition of morphological elements (such as the diminutive suffix ele in baykhele, fishele, and taykhele). Two particularly Jewish devices derive from gimatriyah and nutrikn (Heb., notarikon), traditional methods of rabbinical interpretation. The former involves adding the numerical values of the letters in a word; for example, Gelt iz blote (Money is dirt), where the numerical value of the four Yiddish letters in gelt is the same as that of the five letters in blote, namely, 112. Nutrikn interprets words as if they are acronyms; for example, Zikne makht: ziftsn, krekhtsn, nisn, hustn (Old age—spelled with the four letters zayin, kuf, nun, hey—means sighing, moaning, sneezing, coughing).

The largest published collection of Yiddish proverbs is Ignatz Bernstein’s 1908 text, Yidishe shprikhverter un rednsartn (Yiddish Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions), which contains 3,993 entries. Bernstein explains some of the proverbs, but as is true of most proverb collections, the reader finds little information about how and when the proverbs are used.

Suggested Reading

Shirley Kumove, Words Like Arrows: A Collection of Yiddish Folk Sayings (New York, 1985); Shirley Kumove, More Words, More Arrows: A Further Collection of Yiddish Folk Sayings (Detroit, 1999); Beatrice Silverman-Weinreich, “Towards a Structural Analysis of Yiddish Proverbs,” in The Wisdom of Many: Essays on the Proverb, ed. Wolfgang Mieder and Alan Dundes (New York, 1981).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1255, Lazar Blankstein, Papers, 1940s-1973; RG 125, Folklore, Jewish, Collection, ; RG 202, Judah Loeb (Yehude Leyb) Cahan, Papers, 1920s-1930s, 1950s; RG 206, A. Litwin, Papers, 1907-1940s; RG 546, Judah Achilles Joffe, Papers, 1893-1966.