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.
wikimedia
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.)

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


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.