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Some Religious Roots of Jewish Humor

Bennett Muraskin
August 26, 2017

by Bennett Muraskin

No matter how bad things get, you've got to go on living, even if it kills you. --Sholem Aleichem

THE STEREOTYPE of the funny Jew is relatively new. Traditionally, Jews were the butt of antisemitic jokes. Among themselves they made fun of the gentiles, but it was far too dangerous to take that act on the road. The Haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment, loosened the hold of rabbis and introduced Jews to modern secular European civilization, and they soon became its greatest proponents. Freedom of expression included the right to be funny in public.

The plain truth is that Judaism as a religion is not funny, starting with the Torah. True, Abraham and Sarah laugh when God tells them that they will produce a child in their old age, and when her son is born, she names him Isaac, which means "he shall laugh" -- but his life is grim. He is nearly murdered by his father, a traumatic event, to say the least. In his old age, Isaac becomes blind and is deceived by his wife Rebecca into giving his blessing to his younger son, Jacob, rather than his older son, Esau. Is anybody laughing?

I met a Reform rabbi, a woman no less, who thought it was funny when Zipporah, Moses' wife, grabbed a sharp stone and circumcised her son in a hurry to avert God's wrath. This is a blatant case of child abuse, but the rabbi found it hilarious because Zipporah, who was not Jewish herself, acted as a mohel.

Go figure.

The Jewish Bible, or Tanakh, includes the Book of Ecclesiastes, which says there is a time to laugh and a time to cry — but it is devoid of humor, and its overall tone is quite pessimistic. The only book of the Tanakh that many consider humorous is Esther, which is also one of only two books in the Tanakh where God does not appear. Maybe that is not a coincidence. The Persian King Akhashveresh is a buffoonish character. He loves a good party and drinks to excess. For entertainment he demands that his queen Vashti dance naked. Haman is the villain, but he is forced to honor Mordecai by parading him around town leading his horse. Esther stages a scene to make it look like Haman is trying to seduce her. Of course, there is also a serious side to the Book of Esther: Jewish lives are in danger, and after Haman's plot is foiled, the Jews take their revenge on their enemies. Still, it is the comical side of Purim that survived in the Jewish imagination and it has inspired Jewish humor throughout the ages.

The celebration of Purim has been associated with the staging of plays based on the Book of Esther, called purim shpils, as far back as the 15th century. These plays included parodies of the traditional story, mockery of authority figures, and even obscene jests. It was a kind of topsy-turvy carnival day for Jews when the forbidden was permitted. It is widely accepted that the modern Yiddish theater grew out of the purim shpil. It also provides a link to modern Jewish humor -- but a better candidate is no doubt the wedding jester, known as a marshalik or badkhn, who emerged around the same time as the purim shpil. He was the master of ceremonies and entertainer rolled into one, whose job was to provoke laughter -- and strangely enough, to move the bride to tears. In many ways, he was a forerunner of the Catskill Borscht Belt tumler.

WHAT ABOUT the Talmud? Not much funny there, either. The halakha (Jewish law) is as dry as matse, but there are a few humorous passages in the agada, the non-legal portion of the Talmud. It should be no surprise that one humorous episodes has a Purim theme:

Raba said: It is a man's duty on Purim to drink on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordecai. Raba and Zera joined together in a Purim feast. They got drunk and Raba arouse and cut Zera's throat. On the next day he prayed on Zera's behalf and revived him. Raba said: A miracle may not occur every time.

--Megillah 7b

Here is another story that appears to satirize hairsplitting, the rabbinic method of argument known as pilpul:

A baby pigeon that is found within fifty cubits of a pigeon coop is assumed to belong to the coop's owner. If it is found outside fifty cubits, then it belongs to whoever finds it. Rabbi Jeremiah asked: If one foot of the pigeon is within the fifty cubits and one foot is outside, who does the pigeon belong to? It was for this that they expelled Rabbi Jeremiah from the academy.

--Baba Batra 23b

There is also a story that appears to suggest that there should be commonsensical limits to study.

Rabbi Kahana once went in and hid under his teacher's bed. He heard him chatting with his wife, joking and having sex with his wife. He said to his teacher: "One would think that you never tasted this dish before." His teacher said, "Are you here? Get you because you are being rude." Kahana replied, "It is a matter of Torah and I am required to learn it."

--Berakhot 62a

There is a similar story about a student who follows his master into the privy to learn the proper way to do you know what. (That story stinks.)

The Talmud relates that one teacher used to tell a few jokes to his class to relax his students before turning to serious study, but none of these jokes are recorded. Considering that the Talmud consists of endless discussions among rabbis, the omission of humor clearly indicates that it was considered a waste of time. In fact, "it is forbidden to fill one's mouth with laughter in this world," according to Brakhot 31a -- except to make fun of "idol worship."

BE THAT as it may, one may still chuckle over the story of a man who bet another man that he could provoke Hillel to anger. He repeatedly interrupts Hillel's preparation for the Sabbath with inane questions, but each time Hillel patiently answers them. Finally the man complains that "I laid a wager of 400 florins that I could make you angry and you caused me to lose." To which Hillel replies, "It is better for you to lose 400 florins — and even another 400 — than for Hillel to get angry." (Shabbat 30b-31a)

Although not funny itself, there is one heartwarming story in which Elijah the prophet declares to a skeptical rabbi that clowns were likely candidates for a place in heaven, because "they cheer the depressed and sorrowful. Whenever they see a sufferer, they join him and by merry talk they help him forget his grief." (Ta'anit 22a)

Midrash may not be Talmud, but it is still of ancient vintage. There we find an edifying story featuring the Roman emperor Hadrian, who despite his role in brutally suppressing the Bar Kokhba rebellion receives favorable treatment in some rabbinic literature. In Leviticus Rabbah 25, Hadrian rewards a farmer who plants a fig tree in his old age in the hope that his sons will eat the fruit. When a younger farmer approaches Hadrian with an offering of fruit, expecting the same reward, Hadrian ordered his soldiers to throw the fruit back in his face. "Bruised and half-blind, the schemer returned to his home. 'How did you fare,' asked his wife greedily. 'I fared excellently,' replied the husband. "Had I taken citrons, I would have died of the blows.'"

JEWISH HUMOR is typically viewed as a survival tool invented by a diaspora people accustomed to living in hostile environments. Since Jews lacked the power to overcome the indignities they suffered, they released their frustrations by mocking their own foibles. Self-deprecation is an expression of the marginal status of Jews in gentile society.

There is a good deal of truth to this perspective, but it is incomplete. It fails to take into account the divisions within the Jewish community between the rabbis and the wealthy, on the one hand, and the proste mentshn (the common people) and the apikorsim (heretics or free thinkers) on the other. The prevailing religious ideology taught that Jews ought to accept their fate and pray for the coming of the messiah, but many Jews, usually the poorer ones, could not suppress their discontent with the status quo. This discontent was often manifested in the irreverent, ironic outlook on life that became the hallmark of Jewish humor.

As Sholem Aleichem, the greatest Jewish humorist, said, "To ridicule is a Jewish quality . . . When is a Jew not inclined to joke, not God forbid, out of joy, but on the contrary, because of troubles, poverty, sickness and worries about making a living? There is not greater pleasure than to stand in the street or in the synagogue and laugh at the leaders of the community, the rich men . . . Jewish legend has created many wits and jokers. The stories about them, and in their name, are often profound and cutting and dipped in the acid known as satire." When he was in a better mood, he said, "Laughter is healthy -- doctors prescribe it." Indeed, this is humor with a humanist flavor.

Far earlier than Sholem Aleichem came Kalonymous Ben Kalonymous , a poet and a translator in late, late 13th century-early 14th century France near an Italian border a region known as a center of Jewish free thought during the Italian Renaissance. His specialty was satire, which he directed at the foibles of Jews and Christians alike: their hypocritical community leaders, their arrogant, rich, charlatan doctors, and foolish nobles. He also wrote a famous parody of Purim in the style of a Talmudic tractate.

His irreverent verse earned the condemnation of the leading rabbis. Here is a prime example of Kalonymous' writing:

". . . the Jew is a luckless creature, for he must shun all jest and play.

And must pore night and day over Mosiac and rabbinic lore, and books which he may think a bore.

The Bible is not half enough. Commentaries there are and other stuff

In which erudite he must be . . . in things particularly small, of no significance at all."

CHRISTIAN AUTHORITIES made it their business to encourage Jews to convert. These converts were then considered apostates by the Jewish community. Some turned against the Jews, spreading malicious slanders that became the basis for antisemitic persecution. Jews fought back with their wit.

One comical story depicts an apostate in service to the king, who claims that Moses is still alive and that he performs miracles. Jewish community is paralyzed with fear when the king gives the Jews three days to produce him on penalty of death. While the Jews devote themselves to fasting and praying, a clever Jew steps forward to save the day. He dresses up like Moses and presents himself to the king.

"What miracles can you work for me, Moses?" asks the king.

"Your Majesty," says the man, "I'm prepared to work a miracle for you such as you've never seen before. Bring me a tub filled with boiling oil and throw your counselor in it, and I'll not only pull him out unharmed, I promise he'll be twenty years younger!"

Hearing this, the counselor turns pale. "Your Majesty," he says, his knees shaking, "there's really no need for such a test. It's clear as day that this man is really Moses." And so the king sends the man home with great honor, and there is merriment and joy among the Jews.

The khasidim laughed and danced to show their devotion to God, but I have been unable to determine the substance of their merriment. What is clear, however, is that their opponents, known as mitnagdim, had a field day ridiculing the khasidim for believing that their rebbes could work miracles. Here is a popular joke:

Two disciples were bragging about the relative merits of their wonder-working rabbis. One said, “Once my rabbi was traveling on the road when suddenly the sky became overcast. It began to thunder and to lightning and a heavy rain fell -- a real deluge. What does my rabbi do? He lifts up his eyes to Heaven, spreads his hands in prayer and immediately a miracle happens! To the right darkness and a downpour -- to the left, darkness and a downpour. But in the middle, clear sky and the sun is shining!”

“Call that a miracle?” sneered the other disciple. “Let me tell you what happened to my rabbi. Once he was riding in a wagon to a nearby village. It was on a Friday. He remained longer there than he intended and, on his way back, he found that night was falling. What was to be done? He couldn’t very well spend the Sabbath in the middle of the field, could he? So he lifted his eyes to Heaven, spread out his hands to right and left, and immediately a miracle took place! To the right of him stretched the Sabbath, to the left of him stretched the Sabbath -- but in the middle it was Friday!”

Hershel Ostropolier was a legendary wit and jester who lived in the Ukraine from 1770 to 1810. He earned a meager living as a jester in the court of a khasidic rebbe, but he could not resist mocking their pretentions. As reflected in the following story, he also directed his sarcasm at the exploiters of the poor within the Jewish community.

Some townsmen fell to discussing the vexing question of the rich and the poor as they sat around the stove in the House of Study. They exchanged opinions on the inequality of life: while heaven to some, it was hell for others.

"Ah, if men could only live a life of ease -- if poverty were abolished from the world!" one of them, a professional mendicant, chimed in.

"Certainly poverty is hell," another seconded him. "Life is confoundedly hard when you haven't got a copper. You listen to me -- I know how to remedy this evil. If people would follow my plan, they would put all they own, cash as well as property, into a common fund and then each one would draw upon it according to his needs. Believe me, there would be enough for everyone. Isn't this a fine plan?”

"Indeed it is," they all agreed. "And what have you got to say to this Hershel?" one of them demanded.

"It's a masterly plan, but the question is how to carry it out. I'll tell you what," Hershel suggested to the proponent of the novel idea. "Let's divide the task: I'll undertake to get the endorsement of the poor and you can tackle the rich."

JOHA WAS THE counterpart to Hershel Ostropolier among Mizrakhi or Eastern Jews. After he is turned away from a wedding in a rich household because of his ragged clothes, he returns dressed regally. He is quickly admitted and seated at the head table. Joha proceeds to stuff food into his sleeves and pockets. When the father of the bride demands that he explain his bizarre behavior, he replies, "Sir, you turned me away when I came to the door in ragged clothes. But when I returned wearing fine clothes, you invited me in with great honor. It is clear that you were inviting only my clothes. So they are eating the feast." And then Joha, paying no more attention to the host, continued eating. "Eat some more, sleeves! Drink heartily, pockets!"

I can already hear the reader yelling, "What about Chelm stories?" To be honest, I find them foolish rather than funny. One of the few I like tells the story of a silly girl who, although not even married, imagines that after she is married, she will bear a son who will die when he turns 13. She begins to wail and everyone around her joins in until the entire town is up in arms. The rabbi calls on the townspeople to chant psalms. When the only person in town who was not born in Chelm points out that their fears are based on a series of false assumptions, calm is restored. The rabbi, however, takes credit: "You see, my fellow Jews, nothing helps in a time of trouble than chanting psalms. It never fails!"

This little survey ends before the massive Jewish immigration to America from 1880 to 1924, followed by the meteoric rise of Jewish comedians from Groucho Marx, George Burns and Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Alan King and Jerry Lewis, to Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, to Jackie Mason, Jerry Seinfeld and Billy Crystal, to Molly Berg, Joan Rivers and Roseanne Barr, to Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman.

These Jewish comedians were a new breed because their audiences were not limited to a Jews, like the bakhns of old. Further, the Jews in their audience were secularized Jews, whose identity as Jews was based more on cultural attributes like humor than traditional religious observance.

At the end of the day, the best humor is meant to subvert the status quo. When it comes to speaking truth to power, Jews have been the among the masters. This trait, I contend, has its roots in the Jewish tradition of arguing with God. My final story is a prime example.

The rabbi ordered a pair of new pants for the Passover holidays from the village tailor. The tailor, who was very unreliable, took a long time finishing the job. The rabbi was afraid that he would not have the garment ready for the holidays.

On the day before Passover, the tailor came running all out of breath to deliver the pants.

The rabbi examined his new garment with a critical eye.

"Thank you for bringing my pants on time," he said. "But tell me, my friend, if it took God only six days to create our vast and complicated world, why did it have to take you six weeks to make this simple pair of pants?"

"But Rabbi!" murmured the tailor triumphantly, "Just look at the mess God made, and then look at this beautiful pair of pants!"

I submit to you that this story is as Jewish as any passage from the Torah read in a synagogue Sabbath service -- if not more so.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.