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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This took the form of “Homo proponit sed Deus disponit,” and there can be little doubt that à Kempis, who, like any erudite churchman of his age, knew the Latin Bible practically by heart, was influenced in his choice of proponit-disponit by Jerome’s Proverbs 16:9. Human beings, he was saying in an inter-textual commentary, only think they can make future dispositions. In reality, they merely propose.

Since à Kempis’s rhyme was reproducible in all the Latin-derived vernaculars of Europe, it quickly spread to them, too. Although there seems to be no documentation on which came before which, French l’homme propose et Dieu dispose, Italian l’uomo propone e Dio dispone and Spanish el hombre propone y Dios dispone soon followed. So did English “Man proposes and God disposes,” made possible by the large vocabulary absorbed by English from French after the Norman conquest of Britain.

German, however, was never affected by French in this way. (That’s one of the main reasons that it seems so different from English, even though the two are, historically, kissing cousins.) And so when the Germans felt the need for their own version of “God proposes but man disposes,” they took the German verb denken, to think, rhymed it with lenken, to direct or guide, and came up with “Der Mensch denkt und Gott lenkt,” “Man thinks and God directs.”

And yet, in Heinrich Heine’s immortal words, “Wie christelt sich, jüdelt sich” — “Whatever gentiles have, Jews want, too.” If German had “Der Mensch denkt und Gott lenkt,” why not Yiddish? The problem was, however, that while Yiddish had the Germanic verb lenken, it didn’t have denken, whose place had been taken by (the also Germanic) trakhten. What rhymed with trakht? Farakht, “scorns”? The Jewish God was not that cruel. Makht — “makes”? Makes what? Lakht — “laughs”? Eureka!

I’m not claiming that it happened by such a conscious process of selection. Language generally develops by unconscious processes. But the prerequisites were there. Lakht rhymed with trakht, Jews traditionally had a sense of humor about their God and ascribed one to Him, too — and “Der mentsh trakht un got lakht” was so much more delightful than “Der Mensch denkt und Gott lenkt” or “L’homme propose et Dieu dispose.” The thought of God gently laughing on His heavenly throne at our vain dreams and calculations rather than sternly redirecting them like a traffic policeman makes Him seem — well, so much more human.

And so Yiddish, the last of the languages dealt with in today’s column to have acquired a “Homo proponit sed Deus disponit”-like proverb, ended up with my favorite.

He who laughs last, laughs best.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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