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Hebrew Proverbs: Right from the Source

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The word “proverb” is generally used to refer to a traditional saying that boils down a commonsense observation about life into a pithy adage, often through the use of a metaphor or some other rhetorical device. All languages, it would seem, express the wisdom of the ages using concise sayings that are easy to remember and recall to use for strategic effect. Indeed, the name of the game is knowing the right proverb for the right moment.

In the case of Hebrew proverbs, there’s an extensive arsenal to draw on. In fact, one of the oldest examples of a proverb folklore is the Book of Proverbs, which represents one of the Hebrew language’s greatest contributions to world literature. This book, of course, is part of a longstanding tradition of Hebrew proverbs, from Biblical times through the Rabbinic period, the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment, and right into modern times. As the People of the Book, Jews have long considered a well-turned phrase burnished at just the right moment to be a mark of erudition and eloquence.

Man Reading Bible

Of course, the vast majority of these old Hebrew proverbs are religious in nature and emanate from religious sources, namely the Hebrew Bible and the vast library of exegetical works (works that interpret the Bible). Because modern Israel is a largely secular country, some portion of these proverbs have certainly been relegated to the demographically more limited sphere of Israel’s religious communities. However, there’s still a large number of Hebrew proverbs used by the general public.

In any event, nothing will add stripes to your rank as a speaker of the language like a few pithy proverbs in Hebrew to employ at a choice moment in your conversation with a native speaker. To that end, our lesson today will cover the top thirty Hebrew proverbs along with context examples to help you know when best to use them.

Friends Having a Conversation
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  1. The Top 30 Hebrew Proverbs
  2. HebrewPod101 is Your Proverbial Go-To for All Things Hebrew

1. The Top 30 Hebrew Proverbs

אכול ושתו כי מחר נמות .1

TransliterationAkhol ve-shato ki makhar namut.
Literal translation“Eat and drink for tomorrow we shall die.”
SourceIsaiah 22:13
Parallel English proverbLife is short.
Usage in contextYour friend is trying to convince you to go skydiving with him, but you’re on the fence due to safety concerns. To try to win you over, he uses this phrase.

2. אם אין אני לי מי לי? וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני? ואם לא עכשיו, אימתי?

TransliterationIm eyn ani li mi li? U-kh’she-ani le-’atzmi, mah ani? Ve-im lo ‘akhshav, eymatay?
Literal translation“If I am not for myself, who will be? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, then when?”
SourcePirkei Avot 1:14
Parallel English proverbThere’s no time like the present. [last part]
Usage in contextThis proverb is often quoted in part, depending on the application. For example:

It’s Friday, and you’re considering going to visit the Dead Sea for the first time, but you know you have a work assignment to hand in on Monday. To give you a bit of a push, your friend (who wants you to go with him) says, ואם לא עכשיו אימתי? (Ve-im lo ‘akhshav eymatay?)

Man Looking at Watch

3. מצא מין את מינו.

TransliterationMatza min et mino.
Literal translation“He found his own type.”
SourcePopular
Parallel English proverbLike two peas in a pod.
Usage in contextYour brother, who is a classical pianist, tells you about a date he went on with a classical violinist, to which you reply with this proverb.

4. ואהבת לרעך כמוך.

TransliterationVe-ahavta le-re’akha kamokha.
Literal translation“Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Source Leviticus 19:18
Parallel English proverbSame as in Hebrew
Usage in contextA taxi driver wants to nudge in ahead of you at a merge onto the road. He rolls down his window, signaling for you to let him in, and quotes this proverb.

5. כל אהבה שהיא תלויה בדבר בטל דבר בטלה אהבה. ושאינה תלויה בדבר אינה בטלה לעולם.

TransliterationKol ahavah she-hi tluyah be-davar batel davar batlah ahavah. Ve-she-eynah tluyah be-davar eynah betelah le’olam.
Literal translation“Any love that depends upon a thing is annulled if that thing is annulled. Love that does not depend upon a thing will never be annulled.”
SourcePirkei Avot 5:19
Parallel English proverbTrue love lasts forever.
Usage in contextYou tell your Israeli girlfriend you need to go on a business trip abroad for a couple of months, and ask if she’ll wait for you to return. She replies with this proverb.

Hands Forming Heart Shape

6. כל הפוסל במומו פוסל.

TransliterationKol ha-posel be-mumo posel.
Literal translation“He who invalidates another invalidates himself.”
SourceTalmud Bavli: Kidushin 70:2
Parallel English proverbWhat you spot is what you’ve got.
Usage in contextYou criticize your neighbor for leaving trash outside his front door, and he points to your mailbox full of old mail, quoting this proverb.

Woman Looking in Rearview Mirror

7. עבר יומו בטל קרבנו.

Transliteration‘Avar yomo batel korbano.
Literal translation“Its day passed, its sacrifice was annulled.”
SourceTosefet Masekhet Berakhot 4
Parallel English proverbYou missed the boat.
Usage in contextYou forget your friend’s birthday, but offer to take him out to eat a month later. She replies with this proverb.

8. לכל זמן, ועת לכל חפץ תחת השמים.

TransliterationLa-kol zman, ve-’et le-khol khefetz takhat ha-shamayim.
Literal translation“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under Heaven.”
SourceEcclesiastes 3:1
Parallel English proverbEverything in its own time.
Usage in contextYou ask your father when he’s going to retire already, and he replies with this proverb.

9. תפשת מרובה לא תפשת.

TransliterationTafasta merubeh lo tafasta.
Literal translation“If you grab too much, you grab nothing.”
SourceTalmud Bavli: Sukkah 5:1
Parallel English proverbDon’t bite off more than you can chew.
Usage in contextYou tell your parents you’re going to double major in biochemistry and plasma physics, and your mother replies with this proverb.

10. חזית איש מהיר במלאכתו, לפני מלכים יתיצב.

TransliterationKhazita ish mahir bi-m’lakhto lifney melakhim yityatzev.
Literal translation“Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings.”
SourceProverbs 22:29
Parallel English proverbPractice makes perfect.
Usage in contextYou observe a master falafel hawker flipping the balls high into the air so they land right in the pita, and you say this proverb to your friend in admiration.

11. לעולם יאכל אדם פחות מן הראוי לו לפי ממונו וילבש כראוי לו ויכבד אשתו ובניו יותר מן הראוי לו.

TransliterationLe-’olam yokhal adam pakhot min ha-ra’uy lo lefi mamono ve-yilbash ka-ra’uy lo vi-yekhabed ishto u-vanav yoter min ha-ra’uy lo.
Literal translation“A man should always eat less than is befitting him, dress as is befitting him, and provide for his wife and children more than is befitting him.”
SourceHilkhot De’ah 5:10
Parallel English proverbNone.
Usage in contextThis might be good advice to a friend trying to budget their expenses, as it relates to monetary priorities vis-à-vis one’s earnings.

12. על ראש הגנב בוער הכובע.

Transliteration‘Al rosh ha-ganav bo’er ha-kova’.
Literal translation“The hat burns atop the thief’s head.”
SourcePopular
Parallel English proverbLiar, liar, pants on fire.
Usage in contextYou see that the prime minister is nervous and fidgety in an interview about the criminal embezzlement leveled against him, and you say this proverb in response.

Burglar

13. אין דבר העומד בפני הרצון.

TransliterationEyn davar ha-’omed bifney ha-ratzon.
Literal translation“Nothing can stand before will.”
SourceThe Book of Zohar
Parallel English proverbWhere there’s a will, there’s a way.
Usage in contextYour sister asks you how you’re able to learn so much Hebrew on HebrewPod101.com, and you reply with this proverb.

14. קנה חכמה מה טוב מחרוץ וקנות בינה נבחר מכסף.

TransliterationKno khokhmah mah tov me-kharutz u-knot binah nivkhar mi-kasef.
Literal translation“How much better to get wisdom than gold, to choose understanding rather than silver.”
SourceProverbs 16:16
Parallel English proverbThe greatest wealth is wisdom.
Usage in contextYour grandfather asks you why you’re studying philosophy at university instead of business management, and you reply with this proverb.

15. איזה הוא חכם? הלומד מכל אדם.

TransliterationEyzeh hu khakham? Ha-lomed mi-kol adam.
Literal translation“Who is the wise man? He who learns from all men.”
SourcePirkei Avot 4:1
Parallel English proverbYou can learn something from everyone.
Usage in contextYou complain to your friends about your new roommate, who is very different from you, and they reply with this proverb.

16. כי ברב חכמה רב כעס, ויוסיף דעת יוסיף מכאוב.

TransliterationKi be-rov khokhmah rov ka’as, ve-yosif da’at yosif makh’ov.
Literal translation“For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
SourceEcclesiastes 1:18
Parallel English proverbIgnorance is bliss.
Usage in contextYour boyfriend starts reading the nutritional values label on your favorite ice cream, and you tell him to stop, citing this proverb.

17. צרת רבים חצי נחמה.

TransliterationTzarat rabim khatzi nekhamah.
Literal translation“Suffering when shared is half a comfort.”
SourcePopular (based on Midrash Rabah)
Parallel English proverbMisery loves company.
Usage in contextA group of your employees all gather around to complain about the new strict boss, and you offer this proverb as a slight consolation.

18. איזהו גיבור? הכובש את יצרו.

TransliterationEyzehu gibor? Ha-kovesh et yitzro.
Literal translation“Who is the hero? He who conquers his urges.”
SourcePirkei Avot 4:1
Parallel English proverbDiscipline is wisdom and vice-versa.
Usage in contextYou are about to go for seconds at your favorite pizzeria, and your brother mentions this proverb while reminding you of your newly adopted diet.

Saluting Silhouette

19. אילני סרק קולם הולך.

TransliterationIylaney srak kolam holekh.
Literal translation“Barren trees make much noise.”
SourceGenesis Rabba 16:3
Parallel English proverbAn empty barrel makes the most noise.
Usage in contextYou call out one of your colleagues (a notorious know-it-all who always has something nasty to say about everyone), using this proverb to put her in her place.

20. אין חכם כבעל ניסיון.

TransliterationEyn khakham ke-va’al nisayon.
Literal translation“There is none wiser than the experienced.”
SourcePopular
Parallel English proverbExperience makes the best teacher.
Usage in contextWhen you ask your teacher why she’s given you so much homework, she replies with this proverb.

21. לא הבישן למד ולא הקפדן מלמד.

TransliterationLo ha-bayshan lamed ve-lo ha-kapdan melamed.
Literal translation“Neither does the timid learn nor the strict teach.”
SourcePirkei Avot 2:5
Parallel English proverbNone
Usage in contextThis is something a student might say in criticism of a teacher who does not invite questions, or that a teacher might say of a student who’s too afraid to ask them.

22. דברי חכמים בנחת נשמעים. 

TransliterationDivrey khakhamim be-nakhat nishma’im.
Literal translation“Wise words should be spoken pleasantly.”
SourceEcclesiastes 9:17
Parallel English proverbYou can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
Usage in contextYou ask your friend how best to talk to your neighbors about their loud parties, and he cites this proverb.

23. סייג לחכמה שתיקה.

TransliterationSyag le-khokhmah shtikah.
Literal translation“Silence is a fence around wisdom.”
SourcePirkei Avot 3:13
Parallel English proverbBetter to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.
Usage in contextJust before you raise your hand at your first work meeting, your colleague whispers this proverb in your ear.

Man Zipping Lips

24. והוי זנב לאריות, ואל תהי ראש לשועלים.

TransliterationVe-hevi zanav la-arayot, ve-al tehi rosh la-shu’alim.
Literal translation“It is better to be the tail of the lion than the head of the fox.”
SourcePirkei Avot 4:15
Parallel English proverbBetter the head of a dog than the tail of a lion. (It’s humorous to note that the parallels are opposite!)
Usage in contextYou’re offered a position with a lower salary than your current job, but at a leading firm with lots of opportunity. Your friend offers you this proverb as advice.

25. בור ששתית ממנו אל תזרוק בו אבן.

TransliterationBor she-shatita mimenu al tizrok bo even.
Literal translation“Don’t throw stones into a well you’ve drunk from.”
SourceNumbers Rabba 22
Parallel English proverbDon’t bite the hand that feeds you.
Usage in contextYour father tells you not to criticize your mother’s coddling, mentioning this proverb.

26. אמור מעט ועשה הרבה.

TransliterationEmor me’at va-’aseh harbeh.
Literal translation“Speak little and do much.”
SourcePirkei Avot 1:14
Parallel English proverbActions speak louder than words.
Usage in contextAfter hearing about your plans to finally learn Hebrew, your brother offers you this proverb by way of advice.

Woman Rock Climbing

27. אל יתהלל חגר כמפתח.

TransliterationAl yithalel khoger ki-mefate’akh.
Literal translation“Let not him that girdeth on his armor boast himself as he that putteth it off.”
Source1 Kings 20:11
Parallel English proverbDon’t count your chickens before they hatch.
Usage in contextYou announce to your boyfriend that you’re sure you’ll get the scholarship you applied for, and he replies cautiously with this proverb.

28. חושך שבטו שונא בנו.

TransliterationKhosekh shivto sone beno.
Literal translation“He that spareth his rod hateth his son.”
SourceProverbs 13:24
Parallel English proverbSpare the rod and spoil the child.
Usage in contextYour friend admonishes you with this proverb for letting your grounded son go out to play with his friends after feeling bad for him.

29. שלח לחמך על פני המים כי ברב הימים תמצאנו.

TransliterationShlakh lakhmekha ‘al pney ha-mayim ki be-rov ha-yamim timtza’enu.
Literal translation“Cast thy bread upon the waters, for thou shalt find it after many days.”
SourceEcclesiastes 11:1
Parallel English proverbWhat goes around comes around.
Usage in contextYour grandmother encourages you to give to charity, mentioning this proverb.

30. טובים השנים מן האחד.

TransliterationTovim ha-shnayim min ha-ekhad.
Literal translation“Two are better than one.”
SourceEcclesiastes 4:9
Parallel English proverbTwo heads are better than one.
Usage in contextWhen you finally meet ‘the one’ and bring him home to meet the family, your father happily quotes this proverb.

Cutout of Two People

2. HebrewPod101 is Your Proverbial Go-To for All Things Hebrew

We hope you enjoyed today’s lesson on Hebrew proverbs, and that you found our selection of proverbs useful, interesting, and enlightening. Obviously, it would be a lot to expect anyone to memorize all thirty of these; we recommend working on just a couple at a time. You’ll be sure to get some pleasantly surprised reactions when you whip out a perfectly timed Hebrew proverb with your Israeli friends!

Was there anything related to Hebrew proverbs that we didn’t cover today, or anything we did cover that you’d like to know more about? We at HebrewPod101 are always happy to hear from you, so please feel free to get in touch with us. Until next time, Shalom!

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