Tremendous pressure is placed on one who addresses the role of humor within a Torah perspective. The push to “open with a joke” is intimidating enough when the subject matter is standard fare, but when the subject is humor itself, the sense is that the bar is significantly raised as to the quality of the opening quip.
In an attempt to evade that pressure, let us instead open with a disclaimer: this article is not of humor, but about it. It is not a collection of jokes, nor is it a discussion of the preponderance of Jewish comedians and humorists.
The question that faces us is: is there a special room within our philosophical house for the comedic arts? And if so, is that room tucked away near the basement—a concession to human weakness—or somewhere more prominent, in the main living area, where it is not only an accommodation but a prominently displayed venue in which our loftier aspirations are expressed?
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan was once asked if there are any jokes in the Talmud, and his response was, “yes, but they’re all old.”
Humor is useful on a practical level, most notably in the realm of education and pedagogy. The benefits of humor in this area are acknowledged by the Talmud both by advocacy and by example. In the former sense, we are told approvingly that Rabbah, prior to beginning his lecture, would open with a milta dibidichuta, a humorous remark. As a result, his students, notably described as “rabanan” (which would counter the notion that such a method is only necessary or appropriate for children) had their “hearts opened” to learning. The Talmud practices as it preaches. It is related that Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan was once asked if there are any jokes in the Talmud, and his response was, “yes, but they’re all old.”
Jokes with a “Hechsher”
A cursory reading of the Talmud’s text validates that assertion. An informed reading may yield that jokes are not only present in the Talmud, but abundant. The Talmud’s pun in reference to bedikat chametz1 is well-known; finely-tuned eyes have uncovered many more, as documented in an extensive article in the Bar-Ilan journal Badad.2 As the author of that article, Binyamin Engleman, notes, the message is twofold: that the sages of the Talmud were capable of joking and, more significantly, that these jokes were worthy of memorializing in the Talmud itself (as he puts it, “jokes with a hechsher”).
Perhaps we can suggest that in addition to humor’s practical, functional benefits within a religious context, it also has a primary role to play in a religious worldview—one that not only assists and reduces crises, but that actually comprises a vital part of one’s perception of one’s world. The Talmud3 teaches that God’s schedule is comprised of daily activities assigned to four quarters of the day, including one devoted to “playing with the Leviathan.” Understandably, this last detail has provoked inquiry: is there a theological or religious value to this statement being included in the Torah Shebe’al Peh? The challenge of interpretation aside, what moral or halachic lesson is conveyed here?
A cynical mindset can neutralize the very lifeblood of the religious worldview.
Rabbi Hershel Schachter4 cites Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik as suggesting that the statement is important for the mitzvah of vihalachta biderachav, or imitatio Dei (following in God’s ways). In the context of delivering a eulogy for Rabbi Moshe Shatzkes, the Rav suggested that this information helps the individual realize a more Godly personality by recognizing that one does not have to “take everything so seriously.” To relate to this idea as more than a rhetorical device requires a consideration of how such a concept can be a fundamental attribute of the perfect God.
It seems that the Rav’s intent was to highlight humor (or, in this case, playfulness) as an indication of one’s awareness of the relative importance, or lack of same, contained in various elements of life. Humor thus represents one’s ability to maintain an accurate perspective, recognizing that significance is both an absolute (i.e., something either matters or it does not) and a relative concept, and as a function of the second aspect, important things matter more when other things matter less. If humor is defined solely as possession of this perspective, it is fair to say that God in His omniscience maintains the ultimate “sense of humor.”
As such, imitatio Dei in this regard represents one’s striving to keep the events of life in perfect perspective—to the extent that humans can strive for perfection. This ability has religious value in another primary sense as well. The Jews have been gifted the Torah, the text of ultimate significance and importance. The ability to appreciate this gift on any level will necessarily require a capacity to recognize and to act on perceiving greatness and grandeur; otherwise, no gift of any quality will be worth bestowing. This notion is reflected in the comments of the Ramban concerning the dramatic display surrounding the giving of the Torah, which he interpreted as a test of the Jewish nation’s capacity to appreciate magnificence.5
If the above is true, then it follows that a crucial component to this appreciation is the recognition of varying and contrasting degrees of significance and insignificance. Accordingly, the Jew’s attempt to hone his sense of humor, when appropriately executed, can be understood as an effort to develop his ability to appreciate and thus understand any degree of the magnificence of the Torah’s message, in addition to being an attempt to view the world in a manner closest to that of God’s viewpoint, thus fulfilling the vihalachta biderachav mandate.
“Filling Our Mouths with Laughter”
Such an understanding may yield a new interpretation of one of the primary “anti-laughter” texts, a passage in the Talmud6 which prohibits “filling one’s mouth with laughter in this world.” This exhortation is derived from the familiar verse of “Shir HaMa’alot” recited before Birkat Hamazon on Shabbat and yom tov, “Az yimalei schok pinu, [Only] then shall our mouths be filled with laughter.”
The interpretation of this prohibition, which is cited in Shulchan Aruch,7 is subject to some debate and analysis. Aside from the meaning of the injunction, an additional question exists as to its normative status. Some authorities seem to view this as a genuine prohibition based on scriptural derivation, while others view it as a rabbinic enactment. And there is a school of thought that understands the Talmud’s statement to refer to a trait of extra piety (middat chassidut) rather than an actual prohibition. It has been suggested that the last position is reflected in the words of the Chida in his Ya’ir Ozen when he writes that people are generally “not careful” about this precept.
It is of particular interest to us that the prohibition—such as it is—appears to have an expiration date, and further, that the entire prohibition is deduced from a context advocating laughter. The phrasing is that “mouth-filling laughter” should not take place in this world, and the source verse itself is focused on a future time when such laughter will be appropriate.
In light of our understanding above—that a sense of humor is meant to approximate the Divine perspective on worldly events—we might be able to suggest a different meaning for this injunction. Perhaps the intent is to convey that as much as humans attempt to understand the world through God’s eyes, we will also be constrained from doing so due to mortal fallibility and, even more significantly, limitation of vision and understanding. A “full mouth,” connoting complete and total understanding, is not a possibility in this world. However, once history unfolds in all of its clarity—once the Divine plan is apparent—then, as the expression goes, we will be able to “look back and laugh.” Until then, we strive, in imitation of God, to cultivate His perspective, but we maintain awareness that we will always be flawed in that attempt.
The goal of a religiously desirable sense of humor is to enhance the appreciation and understanding of that which is truly meaningful and eternal. To pursue humor that is a mechanism of stripping significance and importance is clearly the antithesis of what a Jewish sense of humor should represent. This is true not only because of the vastly significant concerns of humiliation and assault upon human dignity that can accompany such attitudes, although they are enough reason. In a fundamental way, a cynical mindset can neutralize the very lifeblood of the religious worldview.
We strive to laugh, to smile, to be able to place events and issues into a context that allows us to flourish as servants of God. However, all of this aspiration is not only unrealized, but is actively negated if we “laugh too hard”; meaning that we are laughing with too much abandon, or with too much “hardness”—too much severity, unkindness or cynicism. It is not an easy balance; it is one that takes wisdom, sensitivity and perspective, and lacking those qualities, guidance from those who possess them.
All of this has implications not only for how we generate humor but for how we consume it as well. Only the truly extraordinarily talented (and usually not even they) can sustain themselves on their own sense of humor. If we are acknowledging a value to laughter, we are, by necessity, at least occasionally turning to external providers of that mirth. Accordingly, it is important to ensure that these sources do not convey more than that which is desired. Without question, the risks are many. The venues and contexts can certainly breach modesty standards—to say the least—and weaken sensitivities in that important area. The comedy itself can be hostile and aggressive and diminish one’s ability to empathize with others. The humor may, through its treatment of its subject matter or even its choice of subject matter, inappropriately minimize the sanctity, reverence and even decency that are demanded in relevant contexts. One who chooses to be a consumer of the comedic offerings of modern society must both choose carefully and work diligently at maintaining internal firewalls against all types of spiritual corrosion.
As a whole, the engagement with general culture and liberal education poses both challenges and potential benefits of significant magnitude. Maximizing the latter while successfully navigating the former is the ongoing mission of those who opt for such engagement. The realm of comedy and humor is firmly situated within this spectrum as well, with its own unique components. Jewish tradition, through texts, culture and theology, points clearly to both the risks and rewards of living a life of laughter. Through the careful attention to the lessons contained within, may we soon merit to see the day when laughter may justifiably fill our mouths.
1. Pesachim 9b
2. Binyamin Engleman, “Humor Mutzhar, Galuy vi-Samuy bi-Talmud Bavli,” Badad, vol. VIII (winter 5759).
3. Avodah Zarah 3b
4. Nefesh HaRav, p. 69
5. Commentary to the Torah, Ex. 20:17
6. Berachot 31a
7. Orach Chaim 560:5
Rabbi Daniel Feldman is an instructor of Talmud in the Mazer Yeshiva Program of Yeshiva University, as well as an instructor in the Sy Syms School of Business. He is the author of numerous books and articles, and serves on the editorial board of Tradition. Rabbi Feldman is the spiritual leader of Ohr Saadya of Teaneck, New Jersey, where he resides with his wife, Leah, and their children. This is an excerpt from a longer article which will appear in the forthcoming volume (Spring 2013) Towards an Orthodox Jewish Perspective on Culture in the Orthodox Forum Series (Yeshiva University Press, Ktav), edited by Yehuda Sarna, Series Editor Robert S. Hirt.