Jewish Humor: It’s Older Than You Think
Hershey H. Friedman
Linda Weiser Friedman
Our ancient Jewish texts — the Torah, Talmud and Midrash – have influenced the Jewish people in a major way, and all are replete with humor and wit. (Really!) This humor has had a profound effect on the way the Jewish people see the world and has sustained us through millennia of hardships and suffering. Inevitably, it has influenced a tremendous body of humor that is uniquely Jewish. This oeuvre of Jewish humor has, itself, influenced several generations of comics, as well as many genres of humor.
Mr. Greenberg occasionally liked to partake of the forbidden meat. He went to a restaurant way at the other side of town where no one knew him, took a table near the kitchen, and placed his order. As it would happen, his Rabbi stopped in to use the pay phone, noticed him at his table, and came over to chat. Naturally, just as Greenberg was trying to devise a good reason for being in a treife restaurant, his order arrived, a whole roast suckling pig with an apple stuffed in its mouth. Greenberg immediately exclaimed: “Funny way they have of serving fruit here!”
There are those who believe that the Bible and the Talmud are devoid of humor, that Jewish humor is a modern manifestation not in evidence before 19th century Europe. In fact, in our new book, God Laughed: Sources of Jewish Humor (Transaction, 2014), we demonstrate that the Hebrew Bible does include humor – and lots of it. However, to truly appreciate much of this humor one must be well versed in the Hebrew language. Language‐based humor — like puns, alliteration, and wordplay — does not translate very well. We have included numerous examples of Biblical humor from several broad categories, including: irony, sarcasm, wordplay, humorous names, humorous imagery, and humorous situations. While it is true that the Hebrew Bible employs many sorts of humor, its primary purpose is not to entertain. The major goal of the Hebrew Bible is to teach humanity how to live the ideal life. Accordingly, much of the humor found in the Hebrew Bible has a single purpose: To demonstrate that evil is wrong and even, at times, ludicrous. The punishments meted out to wrongdoers are often designed to mock them and to hoist them by their own petards.
That the Talmud and Midrash are also filled with humor is not surprising given that the Talmud and Midrash are oral traditions based on the Torah, which is the written law. The Talmudic sages were educators. Like most good educators they used various approaches, some involving humor and wit, to make their points. This may partially explain why approximately 1,500 years after its closing, the Talmud is still a fascinating work. The sages of the Talmud, smart and sharp and educated, frequently employed various forms of humor in expressing themselves. These include:
• Satire was used, for example, to poke fun at heretics and nonbelievers and so demonstrate that the Torah way of life was ideal.
• Irony: For example, the Talmud notes that God punishes measure for measure — mistreat the stranger in your land and you will become a stranger.
• Sarcasm is also used in the Talmud as a way of deriding heretics and nonbelievers. The Talmudists often had to deal with heretics who tried to prove their superiority by asking difficult questions, and Rabbis Gamliel, Yehoshua b. Chananiah, Akiva, and Abuhu were especially skillful at being able to answer nonbelievers. In addition, there seems to have been a healthy competition between sages living in Israel and those living in Babylon, resulting in sarcastic comments on both sides.
• Exaggeration and hyperbole were tools used for emphasis and to get the attention of an audience. For instance, one Talmudic sage in attempting to demonstrate how awful was the Temple’s destruction, claimed that 600,000 individuals each were killed in each of 600,000 cities. Another ridiculed this claim, explaining that there was not even enough room for that many reeds in the places described, let alone people. (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 57a)
• Wordplay, including plays on people’s names, was used extensively as a device to teach important lessons. Wordplays on names are used to indicate an individual’s true character.
• Humorous Sayings: The Talmud respected the popular sayings of the people and even demonstrated how many aphorisms can be derived from the Bible. The Talmud itself is a rich source of wonderful sayings about all types of people and situations.
• Allegories, Parables, and Fables: Several of the Talmudic sages were expert at fox fables. Parables and fables were used to teach important lessons and also to make lectures interesting.
• Humorous Anecdotes: Many Talmudic stories were meant to teach important lessons, for example, that even great sages can have weak moments. One scholar was saved from sinning with a prostitute by his tzizit (fringes worn on the corners of a four‐cornered garment), which got caught on the steps leading to her bed. (Babylonian Talmud, Menachos 44a)
• Humorous Cases, Absurd Questions, and Strange Proofs: Rabbi Yirmiyah was known as a sage who asked his teacher humorous questions in order to make him laugh (Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 23a). Many humorous questions and cases were discussed primarily in order to derive legal principles.
Our personal favorite is all the times we see mortals arguing with God. Starting in the Torah with Abraham negotiating with God in order to save Sodom from destruction, and all through the Talmud and Midrash. For example, the famous argument over the “oven of Aknai” during which a Heavenly voice taking one side of the argument is rejected by the sages who declare that the Torah “is not in Heaven.” How did God react to this rejection of His “halachic decision”? The Talmud informs us that God laughed and said, “My children have triumphed over me. My children have triumphed over me” (Babylonian Talmud Baba Metzia 59b).
A very pious rabbi dies at a ripe old age and goes straight to Heaven. There, he finds a large table, surrounded by several learned men, all studying the Talmud. Many are his former teachers and students. The table is laden with all kinds of wonderful food— kishke, kugel, knaidlach and much more. The men noshed as they studied.
One of his former students exclaims, “Rebbe, we’re so happy you’ve finally joined us! Come, have something to eat!” The Rabbi surveys the scene, looks over the food and asks, “Who’s the mashgiach (kashrus supervisor) here?”
The man looks at the rabbi incredulously and replies, chuckling, “This is Heaven! God is the mashgiach!”
The old man ponders this for a long, long time, stroking his beard, eyes closed, deep in thought. The others regard him with great anticipation, awaiting his learned words. At last, the rabbi speaks. “OK,” he finally says, “I’ll have some fruit. On a paper plate.”
When Elijah the prophet was asked by Rabbi Beroka if any of the individuals around them in the marketplace were going to Heaven, he pointed out two people and said: “These two are destined for the world to come.” Rabbi Beroka asked them what they did, and they replied: “We are merry‐makers, and we cheer up people who are depressed” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanis 22a.) So we know that jesters go to Heaven when they die. That’s how important humor is to God.
The authors: Hershey H. Friedman is professor of business in the department of finance and business management at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, where he directs the business program. His research and teaching interests include business statistics, marketing, humor studies, Jewish business ethics, Biblical leadership, and online education. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Linda Weiser Friedman is professor of statistics and computer information systems at Baruch College of the City University of New York. Her research and teaching interests are varied and include business statistics, object-oriented programming, humor studies, Jewish studies, online education, social media, and all things technology. Email her at email@example.com
You can buy their book, God Laughed: Sources Of Jewish Humor, here.
“In this lighthearted but thoughtful study, professors Friedman and Friedman step outside the bounds of their own academic disciplines to trace the origins and evolution of Jewish humor from religious texts. Citing numerous sources including the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, and the Midrash, the authors do a thorough and convincing job of identifying the presence of humor, especially the distinctive elements of self-deprecation and irony, in the Torah. Instances in which God invites argument from humans—including Abraham’s defense of the lives of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah—are presented as logical precursors to jokes at the deity’s expense, as they make clear the notion that candid conversations are not viewed as heretical. Lay readers will appreciate the leavening of what could have been a dry recital with multiple examples of contemporary jokes, and examples from TV shows includingSeinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. . . . [A] fun read.”