In the course of my readings of ancient rabbinic texts I was recently surprised to encounter a familiar-sounding proverb which translates roughly as "A bird in the hand is better than a hundred in flight." This quotation, so similar to a common English one, was employed by the midrashic author to illustrate a quintessentially Jewish idea, inspired by a passage from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes (4:6): "Better is a handful of quietness than both the hands full of labour and striving after wind."
Typically, the rabbis of the Midrash applied this sentiment to the world of Torah study, observing that "a person who has studied a small amount of halakhot, but has mastered them, is preferable to one who has studied large quantities of halakhot and Midrash, but has not truly mastered them."
Intrigued by the parallels between the midrashic proverb and its English equivalent, I turned to Bartlett's Familiar Quotation. Here I was able to unearth a number of variations on the saying. As expected, there was no mention of either the Midrash or the book of Ecclesiastes.
Some of Bartlett's references were to sixteenth-century English authors who used the proverb in manners that were very unlike the Jewish sources. Not surprisingly, the lesson was applied most commonly to affairs of the heart. Thus, in Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde, the love-struck Rosader is advised to turn his romantic attentions to the shepherdess Aliena, who is already favourably disposed towards him, rather than to the fairer Rosalynde who does not know he is alive. "One bird in the hand is worth two in the wood," he is counselled; "better possess the love of Aliena than catch furiously at the shadow of Rosalynde."
Another author of the time, Thomas Lodge, adds sardonically that such advice is "better for the birders, but for birds not so good"...
The same proverb reappears not long afterwards in Cervantes' Don Quixote. Here too it is proffered as a piece of romantic advice, only this time it comes from the hero's loyal companion Sancho Panza, as he urges Don Quixote not to delay in declaring his love for his cherished Dulcinea.
It should be noted parenthetically that Cervantes may have had some Jewish connections. An entry under his name appears in the Encyclpedia Judaica which reviews a number of theories to the effect that the Spanish novelist stemmed from "New Christian" (i.e., converted Jewish) stock. Such claims should not be taken too seriously however, since they tend to be made about almost every important figure in modern Spanish history. Even if were to concede that Don Quixote's creator was of Jewish ancestry, it is inconceivable that he would have been familiar with obscure midrashic texts.
The conviction that "a bride in the hand" should be snatched up, rather than waiting indefinitely for a better candidate, does appear in talmudic sources. A succinct formulation of the idea is ascribed to the Babylonian sage Samuel, who expresses it in characteristically halakhic terms: "A man should betroth a woman even on the Ninth of Av, lest another suitor beat him to her."
None of this really helps explain how a maxim from a fourth-century Jewish text resurfaced in sixteenth-century England or Spain. Such uncharted wanderings are however quite common in the history of proverbs and sayings, which are usually transmitted by mouth rather than by the written word, and express fundamental human truths that are common to all nations and cultures.
|This article and many others are now included in the book|