Wisdom From The Talmud

Talmud is short for ‘Talmud Torah,’ which means “study of the Torah” in Hebrew. The Torah is the Hebrew term for the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.) The Talmud is composed of several volumes of rabbinical discussions about the interpretation of the Biblical text related to Jewish history, philosophy, ethics, and customs — the meaning and conduct of life, in general.

The central part of the Talmud is the Mishnah, a record of the core teachings of Jewish faith that were previously preserved only orally. Surrounding the Mishnah is the Gemara, the interpretation and commentaries of the Mishnah. The Talmud has no single author. Rather, it is a collection of several volumes, to which Jewish scholars have added their accumulated knowledge over the course of time since about 220 CE. See also Talmud Quotes

The world’s most recognized dictum, the “golden rule,” is based in the Talmud:

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  That is the whole of the Torah, all the rest is commentary; now go and study it – i.e. put it into practice. [Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat, 31a.]

 

The Talmud Study

A righteous man falls down seven times and gets up. – King Solomon, Proverbs, 24:16.

Life is all about the ability to get up from challenge. Greatness is defined as getting up one more time than what you’ve fallen down. The Torah defines someone who’s righteous not as someone who had succeeded, but someone who has persevered. It creates a paradigm of what righteousness is – trying to do what’s right, getting up from failure, and keep moving forward. Charlie Harary

Who is wise? One who learns from every man… Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations… Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot… Who is honorable? One who honors his fellows. – Ben Zoma, Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1

This is my favorite quote because it upends our society’s definitions of these things. We tend to think strength, happiness, wisdom and honor are reliant on external circumstances – how much wealth you have, how strong you are, how much you know…. Jewish wisdom shows all four are internal; it’s all up to the person himself. Want to be rich? It’s about your attitude, not about how much money you have. Want to be smart? You don’t need Einstein’s genes, just the ability to open your eyes and watch people around you. Want to be strong as a hero? It’s in your heart – just be strong enough to do the right thing. Nir Greenberger

If I am not for me, who is for me; and if I am – only for myself, what am I. And if not now, when? – Hillel, Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14

I find this to be the most inspirational and motivating message. I was created for a specific purpose – there is no other ‘me.’ Consider that I am here for others – bearing the ‘me’ in mind, how can I make the difference to the world? Lastly, there’s no time like the present. Rabbi Chaim Cohen

The prattle of a child is either from his father or from his mother. – Sukkah 56b

Children adopt the language and attitudes they are raised with. The entire family of Miriambat Bilga, a woman from a priestly clan who spoke against G‑d, was penalized. Why? Because her harsh and blasphemous words did not appear in a vacuum. They were the result of the mocking and cynical atmosphere of her childhood home.

The ewe follows the ewe; the daughter’s actions are the same as her mother’s. – Ketubot 63a

Rabbi Akiva’s wife married him when he was a simple shepherd and encouraged him to study Torah. Their daughter then did the same for her husband, BenAzzai, who became a scholar. The sages quote this adage, noting that children learn compassion from their parents.

A pot belonging to partners is neither hot nor cold. – Eiruvin 3b

When more than one person is responsible for something, it is common for neither to take responsibility. It is for this reason, say the sages of the Talmud, that shared spaces are most likely to be neglected.

A single sharp pepper is better than a basketful of gourds. – Yoma 85b

No matter how many gourds a person may acquire, he will not be able to extract anywhere near the amount of flavor of a single pepper, rich in flavor. In the same vein, one strong argument is worth more than an array of weak ones.

In the spoon that the carpenter himself made, the mustard will burn his palate. – Pesachim 28a

Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, setting ourselves up in messes only we ourselves could have possibly created.

‘Yeshuat Hashem k’heref ayin.’ The salvation of God is like the blink of an eye. – Pesikta Zutreta, Esther 4:17.

No matter how bleak something may look, salvation could be just around the corner. God can change everything in the blink of an eye. This quote teaches us to always have hope; redemption can come at any moment. Danielle Haas

Either a friend or death. – Taanit 23a

Life without peers is not worth living. We need social interaction to live meaningfully. Likewise, once a person has lived to the point that they no longer have friends, even death becomes a welcome respite.

He who has been bitten by a snake is scared of a rope. – Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:14

The traumatic experiences of our past can be reconjured by the simplest triggers.

In my town I am known by my name. When away, I am known by my clothing. – Shabbat 145b

When away from home, clothing takes on more significance, as it signals to others who we are and how we view ourselves. In Babylon, the Talmudic scholars were particular to wear identifiable garb so that people would recognize them as scholars.

From the fat of the unlucky person, the weasel and the cat make a wedding. – Sanhedrin 105a

The weasel and the cat are natural rivals. Yet, when there is fat from which they can both benefit, they set aside their animus to enjoy the bounty. Similarly, a common foe often leads human enemies to set aside their differences and work together peacefully.

A hungry dog will even eat dung. – Bava Kama 92b

When we are desperate, we are easily drawn to solutions that we know will never work, like dung that cannot nourish. It is crucial to remember that dung is dung, no matter how hungry we may become.

One whose family member has been hanged will not say “hang a fish for me.” – Bava Metzia 59b

Words have power. The same words that can be completely neutral to one person can be biting and painful for another.

Poverty follows the poor. – Bava Kama 92a

At times it seems as if one misfortune has a habit of dragging more misfortune on its unfortunate heels.

When a camel tries to get horns, his ears are cut off. – Sanhedrin 106a

It is important to know our limits. When we pursue that which is not due us, we lose that which is rightfully ours.

If you have a fault, be the first to say it. – Bava Kama 92b

The effort to keep something secret can be more scandalous than the blemish itself. Honesty and forthrightness are often rewarded with acceptance and forgiveness.

Don’t throw stones into the well from which you drank. – Bava Kama 92b

Always be kind to those from whom you once benefited.

Sell your herbs in a place where herbs grow. – Menachot 85a

Competition may be fiercer than in a place where herbs are unknown, but at least there will be purchasers who understand and appreciate the benefits of your wares.

Use an expensive goblet today; tomorrow let it break. – Berachot 28a

Often we are so worried about what might happen that we do nothing at all. Holding onto a set of expensive cups but never using them lest they break is a perfect example. Sometimes, it is wise and prudent to take risks.

Mix feed for an ox, mix feed for oxen. – Bava Metzia 69a

If you’re doing a favor for one person, try to include others in need of the same favor. Once a person goes to the effort and expense of feeding a single ox, to prepare for another is not nearly as big an effort.

Whether you are right or wrong, don’t swear. – Jerusalem Talmud, Shavuot 6:5

Even though it is technically allowed, and often the only way a person can defend his good name, it is always best not to take an oath.

Don’t do favors for evildoers, and no evil will befall you. – Genesis Rabbah 22:17

An indiscriminate favor can end up biting the hand of the benefactor.

From your debtor, take straw. – Bava Kama 15b

A precursor to “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” If your debtor offers you payment, even if it is in the form of undesirable straw, take it, lest you get nothing at all. Sometimes, second best is the best available option.

If your nephew becomes a policeman, steer clear of him in the marketplace. – Yoma 18a

Having a person of authority too intimately aware of your business can lead to no good.

Even when you’re minding your own business, your enemy feels threatened. – Bava Kama 92a

Sometimes we perceive things to be threats even when they are entirely innocuous. An enemy sees vicious plotting even behind the most innocent stroll.

If an ox runs and trips, a horse is put in its place. – Sanhedrin 95b

Less-than-ideal relationships are often hard to break. An ox is far superior to a horse in strength. Yet, when the ox is not available, the master has no choice but to use a horse for his work. And once that happens, the master becomes accustomed to the horse and finds it difficult to switch back to an ox.

Better to be cursed than to curse. – Sanhedrin 98b

The innocent recipient of a curse knows that he himself has done nothing wrong. The same cannot be said for the one who heaped harsh words upon another. Furthermore, the sages note that the curses a person dispenses ultimately return to their giver and become true for him.

According to the camel is its load. – Sanhedrin 49a

A load that is small for one camel may overwhelm another. In the same way, each person must give charity according to their means, not comparing their offerings to those of others.

Sixty runners run and do not reach the person who ate in the morning. – Ketubot 67a

Eating a hearty breakfast gives a person the energy he or she needs to face the day with vigor, optimism, and strength.

If you lift the load with me, I will be able to lift it; and if you will not, I won’t lift it. – Bava Kama 92b

The effort of two people equals more than the sum of each person’s strengths added together. When we support each other, we can all accomplish more than we could on our own.

One who takes revenge due to his zealotry destroys his own house. – Sanhedrin 102b

Revenge may feel good in the short term, but it is the avenger that ends up suffering.

If your wife is short, bend down and whisper to her. – Bava Metzia 59a

As every married man learns, his wife generally has wise words to share—worth listening to, even if it means humbling himself.

When our love was strong, we could have lain on the blade of a sword. Now that our love is not strong, a bed of sixty cubits is insufficient. – Sanhedrin 7a

Rav Huna overheard a passerby using this comparison and understood that the same truth applies to G‑d and Israel. When we were spiritually attuned, we merited to be together with G‑d in the confines of the Tabernacle. Today, however, there is no place in the world that can contain Him.

If a dog barks at you, stay; if a female dog barks at you, leave. – Eruvin 86a

The woman is the mainstay of the house, and she has the final say on who may stay and who must leave.

A thief standing at the entrance of the tunnel calls out to G‑d. – Berachot 63a

A precursor to “there are no atheists in foxholes,” this adage tells us that everyone, even a thief, calls out to G‑d in his or her time of need.

A single coin in an empty flask makes the most noise. – Bava Metzia 85b

When a person rises above a family history of ignorance and apathy toward study Torah, the contrast is immediately apparent.

Shake off the salt, and throw the meat to the dog. – Niddah 31a

Even the choicest of foods becomes tasteless without salt. Similarly, it is the divine spark, the soul, that gives life to the body. Once the soul departs, all that is left is a lifeless body of flesh and bone.

Wine belongs to the master. Thanks goes to the waiter. – Bava Kama 92b

In the Talmud, this is quoted as a fact of life. But it is also a question. Can it be that the wine belongs to the master but people still give credit to the waiter? Fools fail to recognize that the waiter is but an agent of the master, and that currying favor with the lowly waiter will not get them anything. G‑d is the Master of the Universe, but pagans foolishly worshiped his inanimate agents, the celestial bodies, and other natural phenomena.

A myrtle among thorns is still called a myrtle. – Sanhedrin 44a

Even if a person sins, surrounding his soul with thorns and bramble, the essence of the soul remains pure and untainted.

Gam zu l’tova. This too is for the good. – Nachum Ish Gamzu, Talmud, Taanit, 21a

When things get “hard” it reminds me that this too is for the best and I need to reorient my thinking to this realization. Rabbi Yitz Greenman

L’fum tzara agra, according to the effort is the reward. – Ben Hei Hei, Ethics of the Fathers, 5:26.

This is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter where you have started on the ladder of life; it matters how many rungs you’ve climbed. This is the true measure of man. As President Coolidge said: Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” Of course we cannot do anything without God’s help. The choice is in our hands, but the results are in His. Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith

L’Chaim! – a traditional Jewish toast.

Jews appreciate every moment of life. It doesn’t matter if things are going the way you want them, stop and pause, and raise your glass to the delicious opportunity life is giving you right now. You’ll never get that moment back again. Rabbi Jack Kalla

My judical decisions you should carry out, and my statutes you should keep as to walk in them… and you must keep my statutes and my judical decisions, which if a man will do, he must also live by means of them. [Leviticus, 18:4-5]

The Sanctity of Life – The definitive interpretation of these verses is found in a famous passage from the Talmud which says live by means of them, not die by means of them. [Yoma, 85a-b]  The implication is that the preservation of life – and in many cases health, physiological and/or pychological takes precedence over God’s commandments.  For example, in a life or death emergency you can drive on the Sabbath.

Who is Wise?

Ben Zoma says:
  Who is wise?
  The one who learns from every person…
  Who is brave?
  The one who subdues his negative inclination…
  Who is rich?
  The one who is appreciates what he has…
  Who is honored?
  The one who gives honor to others…
  – Talmud – Avot 4:1

Our sages teach that the key to wisdom is humility, and the one thing that blocks our potential for wisdom is arrogance.

Yet the Torah described Moses as the humblest man who ever lived. Moses, who stood up to Pharaoh in Egypt, secured the release of the Jewish people, scaled Mount Sinai, spoke to God face-to-face, and led the Jews through the desert and to the borders of Israel.

How could a man who obviously possessed extraordinary qualities of leadership and strength be described as the humblest who ever lived? Because humility is recognizing that we have tremendous skills, talents, and accomplishments—but knowing that they are all from God. The humble person is not the lowly, hunched-over. It is the person in touch with his greatness, who knows that the greatness has a Source.

Who Is Brave?

Sometimes you gotta stand up and do what’s right.

Ben Zoma says:
Who is brave?
The one who subdues his negative inclination…
(Talmud – Avot 4:1

But our sages don’t cite such feats when discussing bravery. Rather it is the one who conquers his Yetzer Hara—our self-destructive tendencies. What is this Evil Inclination? Is it a little devil with a pitchfork perched on one shoulder—while an angel, in opposition, sits on the other?

Not exactly.

Within all of us exists an inner dialogue, not between good and evil, but between body and soul. The soul is connected to God and wants to do what is right, while the body wants to do what is easy. To live for what our soul wants takes effort. The one who stands up and makes that effort exemplifies true bravery.

Who Is Rich?

The tool for being happy right now.

Ben Zoma says:
Who is rich?
The one who is appreciates what he has…
(Talmud—Avot 4:1

We are all looking for extra something in our lives. Instead of counting our blessings and appreciating all that we have, we are continually focusing on what we don’t have.

God wants us to be happy right now. We are to take pleasure in all that we have, whether it is a lot or a little. If you are not happy with your portion in life, then it doesn’t matter how much is in your bank account. It will never be enough. You can be a miserable millionaire.

Who Is Honored?

Focusing on what is special about each person.

Ben Zoma says: Who is honored? The one who gives honor to others… – Talmud – Avot 4:1

Judaism teaches that honor is the realization that everyone is created in the image of God, and thus deserves to be treated with importance. Honor values people for their essence, for what is precious. This applies even if they seem ordinary or, as seen in the following story, annoying.

May you live to see your world fulfilled,
May your destiny be for worlds still to come,
And may you trust in generations past and yet
   to be.
May your heart be filled with intuition
and your words be filled with insight.
May songs of praise ever be upon your tongue
and your vision be on a straight path before you.
May your eyes shine with the light of holy words
and your face reflect the brightness of the heavens.
May your lips speak wisdom
and your fulfillment be in righteousness
even as you ever yearn to hear the words
of the Holy Ancient One of Old. – Talmud Berakhot 17a

The highest form of wisdom is kindness. —Berakhot 17a

A person’s true character is ascertained by three parameters: his cup – i.e., his behavior when he drinks, his pocket – i.e., his financial dealings, and his anger – Rabbi Ilai, Eruvin 65b.
A prisoner cannot free himself – Berachot 5b.

Anyone who introduces excessive fear into his house will ultimately cause three sins: infidelity, murder, and Sabbath desecration – Gittin 6b.

Be wary of authorities who befriend a person for their own purposes. They appear loving when it is beneficial to them, but do not stand by the other person in his time of distress – Rabban Gamliel, Avot 2:3.

Do not appease a person while he is still angry – Avot 4:18.

Do not celebrate among the mourners, and do not weep among revelers – Kallah 10.

Do not say something that should never be heard, because ultimately it will be heard – Hillel the Elder, Avot 4:2.

Even a poor person who subsists on the charity of others should perform [acts of] charity – Gittin 7a.

If a person says I have worked hard but have not found [success], don’t believe him. [If a person says] I have not exerted myself, and I have found [success], don’t believe him. [If he says] I gave it my all and I have found [success], believe him! – Megillah 6b.

If you have guarded your mouth from evil speech, your days will be peaceful – Derech Eretz Zuta 9.

Just as you are obligated to speak when your words will be heeded, you must remain silent when you know your words will be ignored – Yevamot 65b.

No one is [truly] poor, save for someone who is ill – Nedarim 4a.

No two minds are alike, [just as] no two faces are alike – Berachot 58a.

Once a person has sinned and repeated the sin, [he treats it] as if it has become permitted – Rav Huna, Arachin 30b.

Silence is beautiful for wise people; it is all the more beautiful for fools – Pesachim 99a.

The inclination only desires that which is forbidden – Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:1.

The liar’s punishment is that even when he speaks the truth, no one believes him – Sanhedrin 89b.

The world is a dark place for one who looks to the table of others [for his sustenance] – Rav, Beitza 32b.

There is no community where everyone is rich; neither is there a community where everyone is poor – Jerusalem Talmud, Gitten 3:7.

When we were young [we saw ourselves] as men, now [we are considered] children – Bava Kama 92b.

Youth is a crown of roses; old age is a crown of thorns – Rav Dimi, Shabbat 152a.

Hillel says: Be one of Aaron’s disciples, loving peace and pursuing it, loving mankind and bringing them near to the Torah. – 1:12 Hillel and Shammai

Hillel says: If I am not for myself, who then will be for me?  And if I am for myself alone, what am I?  And if not now, when? – 1:14 Hillel and Shammai 

On three things the world stands: on justice, on truth, and on peace, as it is written, Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates. – 1:18 Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel

Upon three things the world stands—on the Torah, on the Temple service, and on acts of kindness. – 1:2 Simeon

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