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A Jewish way with words – Part one

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It’s finally summer. And for some people that means it’s time to pull up a chair by water’s edge and dig into that thousand-page novel.

Or not.

If your Canadian summer is just too short for poring over that tome, here is something to stimulate your brain when mercury soars: quotations by Jews, some profound, some sublime, and some just a bit absurd.

Let’s start at the beginning – or should that be “In the Beginning?”. The Torah, Mishnah, Talmud and their commentaries are full of words to the wise, as relevant as ever. The Jewish Education Network has brought together hundreds of quotes. A sampling:

  • “Be pliable like a reed, not rigid like a cedar.” (Eliezer Ben Simon: Taanit 20b)
  • “Drink plenty of water with your meals.” (Berakot 40a)
  • “A Jew who sinned is still a Jew.” (Abba ben Zabdai, Sanhedrin 44a)
  • “Love your wife as yourself – and honour her more.” (Yebamoth 62b)
  • A needle’s eye is not too narrow for two lovers, but the whole world is not wide enough for two enemies. (Ibn Gabirol, Mibhar HaPeninim, c.1050)
  • “Do not take drugs because they will become habitual, your heart will request them and you will also waste money. Even as medicine, don’t use drugs if another medicine is possible.” (12th century commentator Rabbi Samuel ben Meir)

 

The Jewish Quotations site has culled over 3000 sayings from quite an interesting crowd. Where else could you read about the musings of the Chofetz Chaim (“It is no challenge to die like a Jew; the true challenge is to live like a Jew.”) next to those of Woody Allen (“The good people sleep much better at night than the bad people. Of course, the bad people enjoy the waking hours much more.”) You can search by topic (animals, anti-Semitism, books, justice and law, sin and repentance, television, etc.) or by keyword. More classical Jewish gems:

  • “Days are scrolls, you may write on them what you wish.” (Bahya ben Asher)
  • “Wine tops the list of all medicines.” (Talmud, Bava Batra)
  • “The Torah is our life and the length of our days. While loving and studying the Torah, we may be in great danger from our enemies; but if we gave up our studying, we should disappear and be no more.” (Rabbi Akiva)

Jews have always striven to find the right words to describe Jerusalem. Here are two of the best pages devoted to the Holy City, one with traditional quotes:

  • “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning … if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.” (Psalms 137:5)
  • “Ten measures of beauty descended to the world, nine were taken by Jerusalem.” (Kiddushin 49b)

And another page has contemporary quotes:

  • “Through a historical catastrophe – the destruction of Jerusalem by the emperor of Rome – I was born in one of the cities in the Diaspora. But I always deemed myself a child of Jerusalem, one who is in reality a native of Jerusalem.” – S.Y. Agnon, upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1966

Now that you have all this wisdom at your fingertips, what can you do with it beyond quote them to your friends? COEJL, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, put together an interesting lesson plan that brings quotes into the classroom. In their case, they focused on Judaism and the treatment of animals. Students are taught a quote like “A righteous person has regard for the life of his animals,” (Proverbs 12:10) and are then asked to create their own “Talmudic” commentaries. Teachers can easily adapt this lesson plan to teach other Jewish themes (free will, holiness, kindness, humour and adversity, etc.) by substituting the quotes found at the sites mentioned in this column.

If you just can’t get enough of these classic quotes, bookmark the Random Talmud Server, “a chance-guided service for those who love the sea of Talmud.” Every time you refresh the page, you’ll be served up a different piece of wisdom such as:

  • A dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read. (Berachot 55a)
  • Three things restore a man’s good spirits: beautiful sounds, sights, and fragrances. (Berachot 57b)
  • Hanina said: I have learnt much from my teachers, and from my colleagues more than from my teachers, but from my disciples more than from them all. (Taanith 7a)

READ: MEL BROOKS: THE OTHER JEWISH COMEDY LEGEND

Next time, the Jewish quotes keep on coming but we go modern with everyone from Albert Einstein to Elie Wiesel to Larry David. And of course, from the Marx “brothers” – Groucho and Karl.

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