The Arty Semite

A Catalan Jew's Concise Wisdom

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

“Tell a blind man his house is on fire and he will reply, ‘I wish I could see that!’”

“I don’t like having white hair but I like even less when it falls out. Isn’t it sad to worry about the loss of something one dislikes?”

“My son, I prefer to see you hunting lions than running after a woman.”

“A wise man is asked what he thinks of marriage. His reply: “It’s a month-long magnificent experience, followed by a lifelong nightmare.”

These and over 750 other incisive observations were collected around the year 1300 by the Catalan Jewish author, Judah (Jafuda) Bonsenyor. The resulting anthology, although apparently never translated into English, appeared in February from Les Éditions de la Merci as “Words of Wisdom From a Catalan Jew,” rendered into French by the poet and translator Patrick Gifreu. As Gifreu points out in a perceptive introduction, the 13th century was a “golden age of Catalan Judaism,” for scholars such as Nahmanides and others. After medical studies, Bonsenyor followed in the footsteps of his father, Astruc Bonsenyor, a Royal interpreter and translator. King James II of Aragon likely asked Bonsenyor to compile this book as a manual for the royal children. Most Catalan Jews of the day published in Hebrew or Arabic, the two main languages of intellectual discourse. Bonsenyor’s book remains the only surviving example of a Catalan Jew in the Middle Ages expressing himself in the Catalan language.

As you might expect, there is a high degree of Yiddishkeit in “Words of Wisdom,” inspired by such previous collections of maxims and proverbs as “Choice of Pearls,” (Mibḥar ha-Peninim) which has long been attributed to Solomon Ibn Gabirol. One Sukkot-themed maxim from Bonsenyor informs us that a man should try to be like a yellow citron (etrog), i. e., good through and through. Under the heading of “Pride and Arrogance” is the following: “We tell a prideful man who won’t deign to speak: ‘Talk! God himself spoke to Moses.’”

Bonsenyor also adapts the familiar Talmudic adage “Honor your doctor before you need him” to read as follows: “Honor your physician before you are ill.” Other proverbs whose origins remain unknown were translated from the Arabic, but were quite possibly written by Jewish authors, who published in that language at the time. This intriguingly savory document is proudly presented in the author’s preface by “I, Jafuda, Jew of Barcelona, son of Astruc Bonsenyor…”

Watch a slide show about Catalan Jewish landmarks here.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Catalan, Books, 13th Century

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!
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “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."
  • 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.