Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East

The bitterness of poverty (Aḥiqar 105)

Posted by jac/cdc on March 23, 2007


טעמת אף זעררתא מררתא ומררא חסין
ולא איתי זי מריר מן ענוה


I have tasted even bitter medlar and the bitterness of endives,
but there is nothing that is more bitter than poverty.

As a follow-up to the preceding post’s theme of wealth and poverty, here is an observation about poverty from Aḥiqar. As with so many proverbs, the artfulness of this one lies in the metaphorical twist of meaning between the lines: “bitter(ness)” in the first line refers to literal, physical bitterness of medlar (small crab-apple-like fruit) and endives; but in the second line it has a metaphorical meaning, referring to the much more “bitter” experience of poverty.

As with the previously discussed proverb, we might be tempted to treat this as a neutral observation. However this would miss the point of proverbs. A couple of quotes from an entertaining article by Bert O. States (Troping through Proverbia, The American Scholar. 70/3 [2001]: 105–12) make the point:

Poetic metaphor is usually concerned with theme rather than thesis, reflection or recognition rather than practical action or behavior (106).

Proverbs, however, are not intended to enlighten as much as they are intended to light the way toward the right course or to justify what one would have done anyway . . . (108).

In other words, proverbs are both: they identify or help us “recognize” situations as a particular type, but in orienting us to the character of the situation at hand they also imply a preferred course of action.

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