Yiddish, the traditional language of Eastern European Jews, is wonderfully expressive. Here are some great Yiddish sayings and expressions.
On Being a Mensch
Jews use a Yiddish word to express the notion of being a full, honorable human being: Mensch. Here are some classic Yiddish insights into what constitutes menschlichkeit (being a mensch).
Az ich vel zayn vi er, ver vet zayn vi ich? If I’m going to be like him, who will be like me?
This saying echoes the words of Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14)
Vos m’iz geveynt af der yugent, azoy tut men af der elter. The habits we develop in youth are what we follow in old age.
Az der man iz tsu gut far der velt, iz er tsu shlecht farn vayb! If a man is too good to the world, he could be too hard on his wife!
This classic Yiddish saying recognizes an elusive truth: it’s easy to be kind to acquaintances and people outside our daily lives. It’s more difficult to maintain kindness and patience for those with whom we have to live, cooperate and compromise.
Az me muz, ken men. If you have to, you can.
The Torah cautions us to be scrupulously honest and honorable in business, and contains numerous rules and laws ensuring principled behavior. Yiddish reflects this ethic, offering penetrating advice on business matters.
Ehren is fil tei’erer far gelt! Honor is dearer than money!
Az me ken nit vi me vil, muz men vellen vi me ken. If you can’t do what you like, you must like what you can do.
Mit gelt ken men nit shtoltsiren, me ken es laycht farliren! Don’t be boastful about money, it’s easily lost.
Far gelt bakumt men alts, nor keyn sechel nit. Money buys everything except common sense.
Di kats hot lib fish, nor zi vil di fis nit ayn-netsn. The cat loves fish, but doesn’t want to get her feet wet.
Sometimes you just have to wade in and put in the work to get what you want.
Kinder un gelt is a shaine velt. Children and money make a nice world.
Zog nisht keyn mol az du geyst dem letstn veg. Don’t ever say you’re traveling your last road.
This saying comes from the “Partisan Song” by Hersh Glick, a Jewish partisan resistance fighter who was killed in 1944 at the age of 24. His Partisan Song became a rallying cry for Jews in the darkest days of the Holocaust and still inspires today.
On Love and Family
Di liebe is zees, nor zi iz gut mit broyt. Love is good, but it’s good with bread.
You can't live on love.
Chosen-kalah hobn glezerne oygn. Bride and groom have glass eyes.
We are blind to the faults of those we love.
Eygene, az zey veynen nit, farkrimen zey zich chotshbe. Those who are close to you, even when they don't cry with you, at least they screw up their faces.
Nobody sympathizes with you quite like your loved ones.
Kleine kinder lozn nit shloffen, grosse kinder lozn nit leben. Little children don’t let you sleep, big children don’t let you live.
This echoes the advice of another common Yiddish saying: Kleine kinder trogt men oif di hent, groisse kinder trogt men oifn kop." Little children can be carried in one's arms, while bigger ones are a weight on your head!
On Common Sense
“Seichel’ in Yiddish means common sense. It is actually the Hebrew word for intelligence. In his autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me, Marlon Brando uses the word “seichel” to sum up his view of the Jewish people as a whole: “There’s a Yiddish word, seychel, that provides a key explaining the most profound aspect of Jewish culture. It means to pursue knowledge and to leave the word a better place than when you entered it….”
Me varft nit aroys di umreyne vasser eyder me hot reynes. You don’t throw out the dirty water until you have a clean replacement.
A nar geyt tsvey mol dort vu a kliger geyt nit keyn eyntsik mol. A fool goes twice where a sensible person doesn’t even go once.
A mensch tracht un Got lacht. Man plans and God laughs.
True wisdom means recognizing that not everything is in our control. Judaism urges us to focus on putting in our best efforts while realizing the outcome is the hands of the Almighty.
Az Got zol voynen af der erd, voltn im di mentschen di fenster oysgeshlogn! If God lived on earth, people would break His windows!
Az der soyne falt, tor men zich nit freyen, ober me heybt im nit oyf! When your enemy falls, you shouldn’t gloat, but you don’t have to pick him up either!
Zolst vaksen vi a tsiba'le, mit kop in d'rerd! – You should grow like an onion, with your head in the ground!
Zolst farlirn alle tseyner achuts eynem, un der zol dir vey ton! – All your teeth should fall out except one, and that one should hurt!
Ich hob dich azoi lib, az ich volt dir mayn toit nit gezshalevit. I love you so much I would not even begrudge you my death.
A zissen toyt zolstu hob'n – a trak mit tsucker zol dich ibberforen! May you have a sweet death; a truck filled with sugar should run you over.