June 22, 2024
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June 22, 2024
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One would think that the world of our Eastern European ancestors held the teachings of our holy Torah in the highest esteem. Yet, Yiddish aphorisms regarding Torah belie that notion. To be sure, there are those Yiddish words of wisdom that are filled with praise. There are other Yiddish witticisms however that regard our Torah in a less than positive light. With the festival of Shavuos soon upon us, I present five Yiddish aphorisms that prove to be a mixed bag when it comes to the precious gift Moshe received from the Holy One at Mount Sinai.

Kennen Torah iz neet kayn shtehr tzoo tohn ahn ahvayreh (Knowledge of Torah is no impediment to committing a sin): Commenting on a Gemara that one’s attitude is crucial to the study of Torah (Shabbos 88b), the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) explained that the words of Torah are like drops of rain. If those drops of rain fall on plants, they will produce healthy, beautiful plants. If those drops of rain fall on weeds, they will produce annoying, troublesome weeds. Torah study has produced saints as well as sinners … and all sorts of individuals in between the two extremes.

In dehr Torah iz mehr k’lolles vee broches (One finds more curses than blessing in the Torah): Many wishing to gain knowledge about the fundamentals of Judaism are astonished to learn that, to a large extent, Judaism is predicated upon self-restraint. There are 365 “Thou shalt not” mitzvahs, but only 248 “Thou shalt” mitzvahs in the Torah. Similarly, the curses found in the Torah portions of Bechukosai and Ki Savo far outnumber the blessings that are enumerated. This may be one of many reasons for the saying, “Ess iz shvehr tzoo zyne a Yid (It is difficult to be a Jew).”

Torah koomt nit b’yeroosheh (Torah knowledge cannot be bequeathed): While there are wonderful examples of great Torah scholars who begat other great Torah scholars, it is also true that there were great Torah scholars whose children were oisvorffs (outcasts or rejects) when it came to Jewish observance. In my own community, I witnessed how two successive generations of a revered rabbi rejected the mitzvahs. Yet, thanks to netzach Yisroel (the eternity of Israel) it was bahshehrt (predestined) that I was to cross paths with a Chabad adherent who was the great-grandson of that renowned rabbi.

Dehr yahm iz ohn a bregg, dee Torah iz ohn ahn ekk (The sea is without a boundary, the Torah is boundless): It may have been the great Sage, Reish Lakish, who was the first to draw the analogy between the Torah and the sea when he stated, “Just as in the sea there are small waves between a large wave and the next, so between any two commandments there are the details and the letters of the Torah,” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 8:3). Isn’t it only appropriate that the One who is without beginning or end bestows upon us an eternal teaching that is without beginning or end?

Torah iz dee behsteh schorah (Torah is the best merchandise): Of all the Yiddish aphorisms, this is, perhaps, the one most quoted, given its brevity as well as the fact that it rhymes. It has been a century since RCA Victor Radio coined the phrase “the gift that keeps on giving.” Being both timeless as well as priceless, it is the Torah and not any tangible item made by man that is the gift that keeps on giving. Amazingly, it continues to pique our interest as though we were studying it for the very first time.

As we celebrate the giving of the holy Torah, let us recall that “Kennen Torah iz neet kayn shtehr tzoo tohn ahn ahvayreh.” Let us also remember that “in dehr Torah iz mehr k’lolles vee broches.” Let us bear in mind that “Torah koomt nit b’yeroosheh.” Let us never cease to marvel that “dehr yahm iz ohn a bregg, dee Torah iz ohn ahn ekk.” Above all, let us rejoice knowing that “Torah iz dee behsteh schorah.”


Rabbi Shawn Zell has recently returned to New Jersey, after serving at a pulpit in Dallas. He possesses certification in teaching Yiddish. Rabbi Zell is the author of three books.

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