The Phrase “Standing on One Foot” in Parallel Literature to the Talmud

As has been called to my attention, the phrase “standing on one foot” may be found, for example, in the Satires of Horace, which include a criticism of Lucilius, whose copiousness Horace resolved to avoid: “In hora saepe ducentos ut magnum versus dictabat stans pede in uno” (“Often in an hour, as though a great exploit, he would dictate two hundred lines while standing on one foot”). Cf. Horace, Satires, Epistles, and Ars Poetica, edited and translated into English by H. Rushton Fairclough (Cambridge, MA, 1942), Book I, Satire 4:9-10, pp. 48-49, dated ca. 35 BCE. Fairclough notes that “standing on one foot” is proverbial for “doing without effort.” The parallel of the phrase is striking, and yet it need not surprise us that people of different cultural backgrounds find similar expressions, common themes, or other parallels. The question is whether in a given instance a historical influence of one on the other can be documented, or in the absence of historical evidence, whether an understanding of the one clarifies and helps us to understand the other better. The issue is thus not merely to find parallels in Latin or other non-Jewish literature to the phrase “standing on one foot.” In the case of Hillel’s statement in Avot 2.4, the Greek σχολή and σχολαστικός may give us an insight into a possible word-play in the Hebrew, and all the more so regarding the ambiguous passages about the ten batlanim: are the batlanim idlers who in any event have nothing better to do (as implied by the ordinary usage of the term), or do the passages refer with approbation to ten men who out of their concern for the community’s welfare avoid other remunerative occupations? Similarly, in the case of regel-regula, the Latin opens up a range of literary and perhaps even historical perspectives, which the literal Hebrew understanding of regel would never suggest.

Raphael Jospe, “Hillel’s Rule,” The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 81, No. 1/2 (July-October, 1990), 50, n8.

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