Humor in the Jewish Torah
29 SEP 2017
Humor within the context of the Jewish Torah is somewhat of a dichotomy. The well-known guidebook to Jewish life, Pirkei Avos, states that it is not good for a person to be a joker all the time. In addition, there are many instances cited within the Torah condemning laughter and frivolity, making Judaism appear to have little tolerance for levity. On the other hand, many of the festivals, weekly rituals and biblical passages would suggest otherwise. This apparent contradiction requires a closer look.
1 A Humorous Twist
Jews celebrate an entire month of mirth. From the first day of the Hebrew month of Adar, Jews are praised for increasing their joy, laughter and general merriment. A clear statement in the Gemarah suggests the following: “Mi she nichnas adar, marbim b'simchah” “One who enters Adar should increase his happiness.” The holiday of Purim, when Jews dress in costume, deliver care packages to friends, and enjoy a festive meal amidst an atmosphere of joviality, is in this month. The source for this behavior is found in the essence of the Purim story. An evil viceroy tried to wipe out the entire Jewish nation, and instead was hanged on the very gallows he erected for hanging the Jews upon. The simple twist of irony (a clear and obvious form of humor found within the Torah) gave birth to the levity of the season making Purim the holiday of laughter.
2 Wine Brings Joy And Cheer
Jews use wine as a means to elevate the celebrator to a higher spiritual level through gaiety and joy. For example, during the many joyous holidays that Jews celebrate such as Purim, Simchas Torah (actually called “The Joy of Torah”) and Shavuous, they are obligated by the Torah to be merry and relaxed, and wine is a conduit for achieving this lighthearted atmosphere. For example each week, during Sabbath wine is present to consummate the holiness of the day and to bring joy to the observer.
3 And Sarah Laughed
When the barren, post-menopause Sarah is told that she will have a child, she does a natural thing; she laughs out loud. This laughter was chastised, but when Abraham laughed as well, he was praised. Commentators note that Sarah's laughter was one of ridicule and disbelief, while Abraham's contained only joy. This is why Abraham's laughter was considered a good thing, while Sarah's was not. It is apparent from this passage that Judaism does not condemn laughter, in fact, laughter is considered praiseworthy. Ridicule, on the other hand, is not tolerated.
4 The Last Laugh
Possibly the most commonly recited instance of humor is the Shir Hama'alos prayer from the Torah that is said before reciting the grace after meal on Sabbath and holidays. The verse states “Then will our mouths be filled with laughter” referring to the coming of the Messiah. According to Jewish belief, in one moment, the Messiah will come, and all the tragedy, tears and oppression will be overturned, and the Jews will be able to fill their mouths with the laughter of relief. This is another instance of bringing humor into life through the juxtaposition of tragedy and redemption.
5 Appropriate Laughter
The Torah clearly states that hurtful and frivolous laughter such as sarcasm, mockery or degradation are unacceptable forms of expression. Scoffers and laughter from derision are condemned. For example, the Gemarah (Sotah 42) states that a scorner will not merit the “Divine Presence in the World to Come”. The wise King Solomon warned against trying to give constructive criticism to a scoffer. Yet, while they take a firm stance against frivolous and scornful mockery, Jewish sources are replete with instances of humor and good-natured wit being used appropriately. For example, Rabba, a Rabbi during the time of the Talmud, would begin each class with a joke to set the mood (Pesachim 117). Proverbs suggest that laughter is the best medicine (Proverbs 17:22). There are further instances where even God laughs at the enemies of the Jews suggesting good-natured wit and light-hearted humor is accepted.