Collected, with an Introduction,
by Michael Castro



Proverbs are folk poetry. They express a people's collective wisdom, values, outlook, and spirit; and they do it with a turn of phrase that reveals truth gracefully and memorably — and, frequently, with humor. Unlike a written literature, proverbs are known by everyone—literate and illiterate, young and old--passed on as situations demand them  by family, friends, business associates, and acquaintances.

Proverbs connect people, shape attitudes with acquired wisdom, distilled through the ages.  Their familiarity, the “deja-vu“ they genetically project, breeds solidarity. For  Sephardic Jews, scattered in insular communities throughout the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, and Europe, after the century of  persecution and Inquisition that culminated in their expulsion from Spain or Sepharad in 1492, proverbs were  an  important means of passing on and reinforcing values  and identity. They articulated  the  unwritten  laws  of how to be and  how  to  see,  and represented the  distilled wit and wisdom of Ladino, or  Judezmo, the medieval  Spanish with a dash of Turkish, Hebrew and  other  influences, spoken  as  the  main  language  in  Sephardic communities throughout the world until the devastation of the Holocaust.

Ladino and its proverbs set the Sephardim off from their Turkish, Moroccan, Greek or other neighbors, as well  as from Ashkenazic Jews. It reinforced their already clannish  tendencies. (Archaeological finds in Spain suggest that the Iberian Jews maintained their  own  communities there from the time when Sepharad  was  on  the frontier  of  the Roman empire, and through the successive periods  of Visigothic,  Muslim, and Christian rule.) At the same time  Ladino and its  proverbs reinforced links between Sephardic communities, peppering the conversations and negotiations along the international Sephardic trade networks throughout the Mediterranean region. And while Ladino reinforced Sephardic clannishness, its proverbs typically expressed a worldliness and cosmopolitan outlook. As the proverb says:


Quien no tiene su casa, es vecino de todo el mundo.    
He who has no home is neighbor to all the world.

Spanish is an elegant and expressive language. Its inner dynamic encourages  expansiveness  and floridity. Spanish  literature, from Cervantes  to  Garcia Marquez (with the recent notable exception of Borges) has been characterized by the prolix. The proverb, on the other hand, turns on spareness and concision. Sephardic proverbs are particularly notable for their music, wordplay, and wit:

El que corre, se cae.    
He who runs, falls.    

Quien no risica, no rosica.    
Whoever doesn't laugh, doesn't bloom.

Along with concision, parallelism and rhyme are other qualities commonly found in proverbs making the saying easy to imprint on memory. Note, for instance, the parallel structure of,


Si Mose morio, adonay quedo.    
Moses may be dead, but God endures.

or the rhyme of,


Aboltar cazal, aboltar mazal.     
A change of scene, a change of fortune.

While the meanings of many of the proverbs are universal, some almost identical to those found in other cultures, others express viewpoints more specific to the experience of Sephardic Jews as a subjugated and often persecuted minority,

Si los anios calleron, los dedos quedaron.     
If the rings fell off, at least the fingers stayed.

and the profound wound of diaspora and exile,


Quien no sabe de mar, no sabe de mal.     
He who knows nothing of the sea, knows nothing of suffering.

Sephardic  proverbs  speak  with  an  ancient  authority  of  the collective  consciousness. Their particular perspectives subtly remind Sephardim, whether they come from communities in Greece, Turkey, the Middle East,Africa, Asia, Europe, North or South America, of  their identity. Their beauty, grace and worldly wisdom evoke a proud heritage in Spain and its golden age of poetry and philosophy.

These  proverbs have been gathered over the years from  published sources  and from relatives. I have organized them into groupings  that presented  themselves in developing the collection:  Family,  Self- Reliance,  How  to Do It and View It, The Value of Keeping  Your  Mouth Shut, Worldly Wisdom, Human Nature, and God and Mysticism. I am hopeful that these categories will suggest the scope of the proverbs' concerns, and that they will also suggest some of the emphases most important  to the Sephardim, reflecting to some degree both their outlook and  their history. I am particularly indebted to Moshe Lazar's  The Sephardic Tradition:  Ladino and Spanish-Jewish Literature, texts translated by David  Herman  (New  York, W.W. Norton & Co. 1972);  to David  Ramey's collection  from  the Seattle Sephardic Community,  published  as "The  Ubiquitous  Sephardic  Proverb," in The Sephardic Scholar:  Studies in  Sepahrdic  Culture  (The David M. Barocas Volume)“ (New  York, Hermon  Press,  1980). I am also indebted to my father,  Joseph  Castro, born  in Salonica in 1905, who occasionally came out with a proverb  in conversation; and to my cousin Rebecca Camhi Fromer, who allowed me  to draw on her own collection of proverbs derived from family and friends, and who is a constant source of information and inspiration in these and other matters.

Michael Castro
St. Louis, 2008



Casa mia, nido mio.
              My home, my nest.

Quien hijo cria, ora hila.
              To beget a son is to spin gold.

Quien no tiene hija, no tiene amiga.
              To not have a daughter is to not have a friend.

Hija de casar, nave de encargar.
              Daughter to marry, boat to equip.

De vez que vengo lleno, so marido bueno.
              When I come fully, I am a good husband.


Arremediate con lo tuyo y no demandes de dingunos.
              Get by with what you have, & ask nothing from no one.

Dexame entrar, me hazere luar.
              Just let me in, & I'll make my own space.

Paga lo que debes, saves lo que tienes.
               Pay what you owe; know what you have.

Esperar de otros officio de locos.
              To rely on others is to be a fool.
              (Waiting on others is crazy.)

Freite en la aciete, y no demandes de la gente.
              Fry in oil before you beg.

Ayudate, te aydare.
              Help yourself, I will pity you.

Haz cuando puedes, y no cuando queres.
              Do something when you are able, not when you want to.

Mejor solo que al acompanado.
              Better to be alone than with bad company.

A lo que lo echa la persona, al lo que li sale.
              Whatever one says of another is true of oneself.

Cualo es la hermoza, la que te plaza a ti.
              What is beauty--that which is pleasing to you.


Buen corason haze buen caracter.
              A good heart makes for good character.

Non mi mires la color, mirami la savor.
              Don't judge me by my color, judge me by my flavor.

Onde iras, amigos toparas.
              Wherever you go, may you find friends.

Haz bien, y no mires con quien.
              Do good, & don't care about with whom.

Quien no sabe de mar, no sabe de mal.
              He who knows nothing of the sea, knows nothing of suffering.

No me llores por ser prove, sino por ser solo.
              Weep not for my poverty, rather for my loneliness.

Quien no tiene su casa, es vecino de todo el mundo.
              He who has no home is neighbor to the entire world.


Cuando avre la boca se conoce lo que es.
              When one opens his mouth, he reveals who he is.

Cien mezura y una corta.
              Measure one hundred and cut one.

El que corre se caye.
              He who runs falls.

Quien mas hace, mas vale.
              Whoever does much is worth much.

Obras son amorer.
              Works are loves.

Grano a grano, inche la gallina el papo.
              Grain by grain, the chicken fills its intestines.

Mas vale ser coda al leon, que cabezera al raton.
              It's better to be the tail of a lion than the head of a rat.

Hazer y non agradecer.
              Do, but don't brag.

Vivir dias, ver miravillas.
              To live days is to see marvels.


Culebra que no mir morde, que viva mil anos.
              The snake that doesn't bite me, may it live a thousand years.

Faste a amigo con el huerco, hasta que pases el ponte.
              Befriend the hangman until you are over the bridge.

Ningun encarcelado, se puede descarcelar.
              No one is a prisoner, if he can escape.

Aboltar cazal, aboltar mazal.
              A change of scene, a change of fortune.

Si ten dan, toma: si te ajahvan, fue.
              If they give you, take; if they hit you, run.

Si los anios calleron, los dedos quedaron.
              If the rings fell off, at least the fingers stayed.

Cominos macarones, alambicos corazones.
              We ate macaroni, & licked our hearts.

Codrerico es, va se asara.
              He's a lamb, & he will fry.

Boca dulce abre puertas de hierro.
              Kind words open iron gates.

Quien se comio el queso? los ratones.
              Who ate the cheese? The rats.

Quien muncho se aboca, el culo se le vee.
              He who bows down too low exposes his ass.

Si no hay demandador, no hay respondedor.
              If no one asks, no one answers.

Boca que dixo no, dize si.
              The mouth that said no, says yes.

Leon que esta dormiendo, no le espiertas.
              A sleeping lion shouldn't be awakened.

El rey fa hasta donde puede, y no hasta donde quere.
              The king goes as far as he can, & not as far as he wishes.


Quien si serra la boca, moscas no entra.
              A closed mouth, flies cannot enter.

El havlar poco es oro, lo muncho es lodo.
              Little talk is gold, much talk is mud.

Si el callar es oro, el hablar es lodo.
              If silence is golden, speech is muddy.

Asno callado, por sabio cantado.
              A silent jackass is counted among the wise.

Haragan y consejero.
              Lazy and wordy.

Al entendedor, un punto.
              To one who understands, a single word suffices.


Quien con perros se acuesta con pulgas se levanta.
              He who beds down with a dog gets up with fleas.

Como hay dar, hay saludar.
              As one gives, so he is received.

Del loco y el nino se sabe la verdad.
              Truth is found in the mouths of babes & fools.

Lo que no acontece en un mundo, acontece en un punto.
              What the world thinks impossible can happens in a moment.

De boca a boca va fin a Roma.
              From mouth to mouth & on to Rome.

Mira la madre, tome la hija.
              Look at the mother before you take the daughter.

Quien camina por el sol save la savor de la sombra.
              Whoever walks in the sun knows the pleasure of shade.

Quien esta para los bexos deve de estar para los pedos.
              Whoever accepts the kisses must also accept the kicks.

En la ciuda de ciegos, beato quien teine un ojo.
              In the city of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

El mal viene a quintales, se va a miticales.
              Trouble comes in gallons & goes in droplets.

Quien mucho pensa, no se la fada Yersalaim.
              Whoever thinks too much will never reach Jerusalem.

Rey sin gente no vale niente.
              A king without a people is worthless.

Poco oir, poco hablar, poco mal tener.
              Hear little, speak little, suffer little.

Unos tienen las hechas, otras la fama.
              Some have their deeds, others their reputations.

Cuando mucho escuresce, es para amenescer.
              Dawn breaks when it is darkest.

El que te hace riir, te quiere ver llorar.
              He who makes you laugh wants to see you cry.

Quien cae, consiente.
              Whoever falls, feels.

Quien no tiene miyoyo, qui tenga pies.
              He who has no brain, must have feet.

Dueda, buen dia no espera.
              Debts can't wait for better times.

Quien se prestado se vestio, en medio de la calle se quito.
              He who dresses on credit, is undressed in public.

No se espalden los pies mas de las colcha.
              Don't spread your feet further than your blanket.

Pan y queso y dos candelas.
              Bread & cheese & two candles.

Quien vende el sol, merca la candela.
              Whoever sells the sun buys a candle.

Cada subida tiene su abajada.
              Every rise has its fall.

Pepino sin sal se da savor es la tena de Bajor.
              Cucumber without salt tastes like the skin rash of Walt.

El comer y el arrazca hay que al empazar.
              Eating and scratching must have a start.

El trabajo paga las devdas.
              Work pays off debts.


El farto no cree al fambrento.
              The well-fed doesn't believe the starving.

Guay! cuando el amares favla leshon hakodesh.
              Beware when the ignoramus starts quoting scripture.

Cuando ganeden esta acerrado, guehinam esta siempre abierto.
              While the Garden of Eden may be closed, Hell is always open.

El hombre es mas sano del fierro mas nezik del vidro.
              A man is stronger than iron and more fragile than glass.

Poco tura la alegria en la casa del cumargi.
              Happiness is shortlived in the house of a gambler.

El gamello non mira a su corcova.
              A camel doesn't see his own hump.

Ande va la piedra, en el ojo de la ciega.
              Where do they throw rocks, but in the eyes of the blind.

Cada gallo canta en su gallinero.
              Every rooster sings in his own chicken coop.

Cuando te llaman azno mira si tienes cola.
              When they call you a jackass, make sure you don't have a tail.

Quien de todos es amigo, es muy pobre, o muy rico.
              Whoever is everyone's friend is either very poor or very rich.

Quien barbas vee, barbas honra.
              He who sees beards, honors beards.

En la guerra no se esparten confites.
              No one gives out candy during a war.

Un buen pleito trae una buen paz.
              A good fight yields a good peace.

Quien da en primero, da con miedo.
              Whoever gives first, gives with fear.

Quien no risica, no rosica.      Whoever doesn't laugh, doesn't bloom.

Tanto mi lo quero, que no mi lo cree.
              So much is my need, I can't believe my greed.

El mal castigado, sabe bien castigar.
              He who has been severely punished knows how to punish severely.

El palo en verde se enderecha.
              A green tree can straighten itself out.

Grande i chica talamo quere.
              The great & the small all want a marriage bed.

Cuando el gato se va de casa, ballan los ratones.
              When the cat leaves the house, the rats dance.

Quien quiere ser servidor, es mal sufrido.
              The person who desires to serve suffers the most.

En la boca tengo un grillo, qui me dice: dilo, dilo!
              I have a cricket in my mouth that says: "Tell him! Tell him!"

Llagas untadas duelen ma no tanto.
              Honorable wounds hurt, but not much.

Ninguno sabe loque me alma consiente.
              No one knows what my heart feels.

Quien quere a la rosa, no mira al espino.
              Desiring the rose, one overlooks the thorns.

Cuanto mas tienes, mas quieres.
              The more you have the more you want.

El haragan es consejero.
              The lazy one is the advisor.


Si no viene la hora del dios, no cae la oja del arbol.
              Without God's decree, not a leaf falls from the tree.

Si Mose morio, adonay quedo.
              Moses may be dead, but God endures.

El Dio es tadrozomas no es olvidadozo.
              God may act slowly, but He never forgets.

Al haragan el dios le ayuda.
              God helps the lazy.

Al xefoj se senten las bozes.
              When the last prayer is said & done, you finally hear the voices.

Quien al cielo escupe, en la cara la cae.
              Whoever spits at the heavens, hits himself in the face.

En el escuro es todo uno.
              In the darkness, all is one.

Pasa punto. pasa mundo.
              A moment passes, a world passes.

El dios da la llago, y el da la medicina.
              God inflicts the wound & provides the medicine.

El dios tiene cargo, y de de la horfigo del campo.
              God even takes care of the ant in the field.