Man Thinks, God Laughs, a Reader Writes and a Columnist Contemplates

Yiddish Proverb Has a Rich and Varied History

Thinking It Over: Thomas à Kempis was a 15th-century German ecclesiastic and author of the Catholic classic “De Imitatione Christi.” There, for the first time, we find our maxim put into rhyme.
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Thinking It Over: Thomas à Kempis was a 15th-century German ecclesiastic and author of the Catholic classic “De Imitatione Christi.” There, for the first time, we find our maxim put into rhyme.

By Philologos

Published May 05, 2013, issue of May 10, 2013.
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A reader signing herself Goldele asks if I know anything about the origins of the well-known Yiddish proverb “Der mentsh trakht un got lakht,” “A man thinks and God laughs.”

The knowledge that the future, whether conceived of as the result of blind fate or of a divine plan, is not under our control is surely as old as humanity; probably no language lacks a proverbial way of expressing this. The Bible’s way, in Chapter 19, Verse 21, of the book of Proverbs, is “Rabot maḥshavot b’lev ish v’atsat adonai hi takum,” “Many are the thoughts in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the Lord shall prevail.”

In Western literature, the oldest formulation of the idea can be found in Homer’s “The Iliad,” where Achilles, mourning the death in battle of his comrade Patroclus, declares:

Alas, what a useless promise I made then, the day I tried to cheer up Menoetius [Patroclus’s father] at home, telling him that when I’d sacked Troy, I’d bring his splendid son back to him, and with him his share of trophies. But Zeus does not bring to fulfillment all things which men set forth.

The fifth-century-BCE Greek poet Pindar has the line, “For now I am hopeful, although a god controls the outcome.” And in Latin we find this echoed in the second-century BCE Plautus’s “Sperat quidem animus; quo eveniat dis in manu est” (“Whatever the mind may hope for, that which happens is in the hands of the gods”) and the first-century BCE Publilius Syrus’s “Homo semper aliud, fortuna aliud cogitat” (“Always man thinks one thing, fortune another”).

None of this, of course, explains the specific origins of Yiddish “Der mentsh trakht un got lakht.” For that, we have to start with another verse in the book of Proverbs. This one is 16:9, “Lev adam yeḥashev darko va’adonai yakhin tsa’ado,” “A man’s heart plans his path and the Lord directs his steps.” Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, the standard Bible of Catholicism, renders this as “Cor hominis disponit viam suam, sed domini est dirigere gressus eius,” and its use of the Latin verb disponit, “disposes” or “arranges,” for the Hebrew yeḥashev, “plans,” inadvertently, I believe, sets the stage for a chain of developments.

The initial link in this chain is Thomas à Kempis, a 15th-century German ecclesiastic and author of the Catholic classic “De Imitatione Christi.” There, for the first time, we find our maxim put into rhyme. (Picked up by Christian poets in medieval Spain from their Muslim, Arabic-writing neighbors, rhyme first entered Western literature several centuries before à Kempis’s time.)


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