Eighteen Sephardic/Ladino proverbs

Book cover - Collection of Sephardic proverbs.

In 1889, Rabbi Meyer Kayserling published a short book of “Spanish Sayings or Proverbs of the Sephardic Jews.” It contained Ladino versions of Spanish sayings that Sephardim continued to use for centuries after the expulsion. Some of the old maxims had fallen out of use in Spain but survived in the Jewish world, while others are still popular sayings in Spain. It also includes a short section of specifically Jewish proverbs.

Two years ago I translated excerpts of this, quoted in Ángel Pulido’s 1904 book Sephardic Jews and the Spanish Language. Here are eighteen of the quoted sayings. The Ladino spellings are Rabbi Kayserling’s. English translations ©2016, 2018 by Steven Capsuto.

He who sells the sun must buy candles.

Quien vende el sol, merca la candela.

A broken pot lasts longer than a whole one.
Mas tura un tiesto roto que uno sano.

If your enemy is an ant, make him a camel when you tell the story.
Si tu enemigo es una urmiga, contalo como un gamello.

If you love a rose, you must ignore the thorns.
Quien quere á la rosa, non mire al espino.

A person who has a quilt but won’t use it deserves no pity.
Quien tiene colcha y no se cobija, no es de agedear.

Better a donkey that carries me than a horse that throws me.
Mas vale un asno que me lleva, que un caballo que me echa.

It is better to fall in a raging river than into gossiping mouths.
Mas vale caer en un rio furiente, que en la boca de la gente.

A sweet mouth opens iron doors.
Boca dulce abre puertas de hiero.

A happy face is as bright as two candles.
Cara alegre, dos candelas.

The camel can see others’ humped backs, and not his own.
El gamello vee solo la corcova de otros, y no la suya propia.

Seeing me is a pleasure; having me is a tragedy.
Quien mi vee mi goza, quien mi tiene mi llora.

Don’t awaken a sleeping lion.
Leon que esta dormiendo, no lo espiertes.

Don’t speak ill of the day until the sun has set.
No hables mal del dia asta que no anochese.

The darker the guilt, the darker the excuse.
Si negra la culpa, mas negra la disculpa.

A yawn travels from mouth to mouth, like wine from one wineskin to another.
El bostezo va de boca en boca, como el vino de bota en bota.

Eating is like scratching yourself: once you start, you can’t stop.
El comer y el arrascar, es todo al empezar.

If the pitcher goes to the well often enough, it will break.
El cantaro va al agua, asta que non se rompe.

Walk with good people and you will become one of them.
Camina con buenos, te haceras uno de ellos.

Further reading

Rabbi Kayserling’s 1889 booklet (with the preface in French and proverbs in Judeo-Spanish/Ladino) can be viewed online or downloaded for free as a PDF from Google Books:

An English edition of Dr. Pulido’s 1904 book about Sephardic Jews and their relationship with Spanish and Spain has been published in the Between Wanderings collection.

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