The Origins of Jewish Humor

The words “Jewish Humor” may conjure up visions of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Seinfeld, Jackie Mason, Larry David, Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, or many others.

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The wikipedia entry on Jewish Humor concentrates on Eastern European (Yiddish and other) Humor, since that has a direct lineage to American Jewish Humor which most of us are familiar with.

However, Jewish Humor can actually be traced all the way back to the Bible and Talmud, which is what I will concentrate on in this post. The main source for the material here is a 2-volume Hebrew anthology of jewish Humor first published in 1948 (and republished in 1971) by Ephraim Davidson (אפרים דוידזון), which I don’t believe was ever translated into English: “Our Smiling Mouth” (שחוק פינו).

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Before we get started, I have to warn you that Scriptural Humor is not really of the LOL (Laugh Out Loud) persuasion. Rather, it makes use of satire and playful theatrical anecdotes to get certain points across powerfully and memorably.

In the following TED Talk, comedian Chris Bliss makes an interesting point about the power of humor as a communication device:

At around 7:45 minutes Chris explains that there are two distinct ways of communicating information: through fear (“listen up, or else!”) or through comedy. Fear releases Adrenalin in your body, and that causes you to put up a defensive mental guard, whereas humor releases Endorphins, which cause you to experience mental pleasure and lower your defensive guard. Humor, therefore, increases your receptiveness, your retention, and your desire to communicate the message to others (we all love to repeat jokes we have heard).

Biblical Humor

The very first example in Davidson’s book is from Genesis 4:9:

And God said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

This is one of many anthropomorphic depictions of God as a conversational partner. Now, if this were written in serious and dry language, you might immediately object: if God has infinite powers, why would he have to ask Cain where his brother is? But, the fact that the author puts you into a situation that has a comic element to it (especially Cain’s smart aleck response) allows you to view the scene differently: suddenly, Cain is portrayed as a sheepish dog hiding beneath the couch because he knows he did something bad. Thanks to the humor, we are able to focus in on the fact that Cain is displaying guilty feelings, and that those are somehow innately built into him even before God punishes him.

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And, by the way, this is not even the first time God and man play hide and seek. In Genesis 3, the whole scene can be categorized as physical comedy. First, you have the smooth-talking seductive serpent handing Eve the apple, and then in verses 8-10 there is an almost slapstick comedy dialog:

And the Lord God called to man, and He said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I am naked; so I hid.” And He said, “Who told you that you are naked?…”

This, like many later Biblical and Talmudic passages, depicts God as having a playful sense of humor. Why not? If man was created in the image of God, and man has a sense of humor, then surely God should have an even greater sense of humor.

A second example in Davidson’s book is from Genesis 37:19-20 when Joseph’s brothers make fun of him behind his back as they scheme to kill him:

So they said one to the other, “Behold, that dreamer is coming. So now, let us kill him, and we will cast him into one of the pits, and we will say, ‘A wild beast devoured him,’ and we will see what will become of his dreams?”

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First, they call him “that dreamer”, and then they say jokingly “what will become of his dreams?”. This is a different form of humor – sinister humor, where the villain makes fun of his victim, but the audience knows that the tables will soon be turned and the joke will be on them. Remember that the Biblical narrator is aware that you know he’s there as an intermediary to the story. I mentioned this in other posts in reference to narration of the form “until this very day”. There, the narrator adds explanatory parenthetical remarks to his readers to explain, for example, the name of a city as it was known in the period the story took place and what the same city is called in his own day.

The next humorous incident, according to Davidson, is in Exodus 14:11 and this introduces a new kind of humor that will later come to be known in Yiddish as kvetching, (AKA the Jewish art of whining):

They said to Moses, Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt?

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The kvetching intensifies in Numbers (Bamidbar) 11 and the Jews in the desert suddenly remember all the wonderful “free” food they had in Egypt in verse 5:

We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.

In verse 12, Moses kvetches to God about the people kvetching to him:

Was I pregnant with this entire people (האנכי הריתי את כל העם הזה)? Did I give birth to them (אם אנכי ילדתיהו)? that You say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a male nanny carries a nursing baby (שאהו בחיקך כאשר ישא האומן את היונק)?

The visual Moses offers God here is of himself being pregnant with the entire people of Israel and then giving birth to them and nursing them. The Hebrew above is even funnier than the English because it uses a male version of nanny or baby nurse (אומן/אומנת – ommen/ommenet) which does not really exist in the masculine form since it implies breast-feeding a baby.

But the comedy does not end there, in the very next scene in the same chapter, God gets angry with all the kvetching by Moses and the people and he promises them a full month of all-you-can-eat meat buffet:

And to the people, you shall say, ‘Prepare yourselves for tomorrow and you shall eat meat, … not one day, not two days, not five days, not ten days, and not twenty days. But even for a full month until it comes out your nose and nauseates you…

At this point, Moses wants to make sure God understands what he’s signing up for. Feeding 600,000 people meat for a whole month sounds pretty far-fetched to him – where is God going to come up with enough sheep, cattle and fish in the middle of the desert?:

Moses said, “Six hundred thousand people on foot are the people in whose midst I am, and You say, ‘I will give them meat, and they will eat it for a full month’? If sheep and cattle were slaughtered for them, would it suffice for them? If all the fish of the sea were gathered for them, would it suffice for them?”

But God has a trick up his sleeve: he fulfills his promise in a surprising way by providing the Israelites with flocks of quails in individualized portions (שליו – slav). Moses can’t argue with that. The people got meat for a month.

In the book of Judges 9:8-15 we find Jotham’s Parable, which can be categorized as “talking tree humor”:

The trees went forth to anoint a king over them. And they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us’, but the olive tree said to them, ‘Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honor God and men, and go to wave over the trees?’…

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There are many other examples in Davidson’s book, but I think you get the idea. If you read the Bible with this attitude in mind, you will find many more examples on your own.

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Here is one from the Song Of Songs 4:1. I’m not sure I would recommend this as a pick up line in a bar: “Your hair is like a flock of sheep streaming down the Gilead Mountains.”

And finally, the old adage: “silence is golden” has a Biblical origin in Proverbs 17:28: “A silent fool may pass for a wise man”. This one sounds straight out of a fortune cookie.

Talmudic Humor

Many people think the Talmud is just a collection of dry Halachic laws and arguments. This is true for parts of it, but certainly not for all or most of it (and even in the dry Halachic arguments there is always a little bit of competitive playfulness and wordplay).

The Aggadaic stories of the Talmud are truly brimming with good humor, where very little is taboo. Even God himself is the target of many jokes. The best source book is the giant anthology compiled by Chaim Nachman Bialik, Israel’s national poet. In his introduction, Bialik says: “The Halacha has a stern disposition, while the Aggadah has a smiley face”.

Let’s start with some linguistic humor. Imagine you are a student at one of the Ivy league Yeshivahs in Babylon, and a fellow student has returned from his honeymoon. Since he just met his new bride on their wedding night, you want to ask your friend: “well, how is she?”. The Talmud (Berachot 8:1) has distilled this whole conversation down to two humorous words.

You ask him: “Matsah or Motseh?” (מצא או מוצא), which translates to “Found or Find?”. This is based on two Biblical passages. One is from Proverbs 18:22:

“He who has found a wife has found goodness”

and the second is from Kohelet 7:26:

“And I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets, her hands are bonds; whoever is good in God’s sight will escape from her, and a sinner will be taken by her.”

For a much more interesting look into this and other funny, sad and surprising Talmudic stories, I highly recommend “A Bride For One Night: Talmud Tales” by Dr. Ruth Calderon, a member of the Israeli Knesset and a great secular Talmud scholar and writer:

The Golden Rule in the Talmud is expressed in Hillel’s saying: “Don’t do unto others what you would not have them do unto you” (מה ששנוא עליך אל תעשה לחברך). This is sometimes called the “negative form” of the rule, while “Love your neighbor as yourself” (ואהבת לרעך כמוך) is the “positive form” (which is a stronger requirement).

But this saying doesn’t just appear in the Talmud as a one-liner. It appears as part of a short humorous story in Shabbat:31a, where a person wants to convert to Judaism, but only if it can be taught to him in the space of time that he can stand on one foot without losing his balance.

Today we call this scenario the Elevator Pitch: you meet a prospective client on an elevator, and have to convey to him the essence of your product before the elevator reaches its destination:

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On another occasion it happened that a certain pagan worshipper came before Shammai and said to him, ‘Convert me to Judaism, on condition that you can teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Thereupon he pushed him away with a tool which was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, he said to him, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor, that is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary; go study.’

The Talmud is known for its brevity, and this story takes brevity to a humorous extreme:

Bruria

It is also one of the few feminist stories in the Talmud. The main character is Beruriah, one of the few women quoted as a sage in the Talmud. She was the wife of Rabbi Meir and the daughter of Rabbi Hananiah Ben Teradion, who is listed as one of the “Ten Martyrs.” She is greatly admired for her breadth of knowledge in matters pertaining to both halachah and aggadah, and was very involved in the halachic discussions of her time. In this story, she has a brief encounter with Rabbi Yosi where he asks her for directions:

“Rabbi Yosi the Galilean was going along the road. He met Beruriah. He said to her, “By which road shall we go to Lod?” She said to him, “Galilean fool! Did not the sages say, ‘Do not talk too much with a woman’ [Mishnah Avot 1:5, b. Nedarim 20a]? You should have said, ‘By which to Lod?'”

Here Beruriah pokes fun at the sages who said men should minimize their discussions with women. She asks the Rabbi why did he use 8 words “By which road shall we go to Lod?”(4 in Hebrew: באיזו דרך נלך ללוד) when he could have used half the number of words, thereby shortening the conversation with a woman: ‘By which to Lod?’ (2 in Hebrew: באיזה ללוד). Besides the stinging humor in her response, it is interesting to note that the Rabbis who edited the Talmud (hundreds of years after Beruriah) could have chosen to omit this story or turn it around in some way, but they chose to leave it in as is. This demonstrates how open the Talmud is to opposing opinions, as long as they are logical and well-argued, and, preferably, stinging and humorous…

Many Talmudic stories exhibit physical humor. We might even call it slapstick: humor involving exaggerated physical activity which exceeds the boundaries of common sense. Here is a short example from Baba Kama 60b. The context is someone who gets multiple contradicting demands from two sides and can’t satisfy both of them:

I will tell you a parable: a man had two wives, one young and one old. The young one used to pluck out his white hair (she wanted all his hairs to be black), whereas the old one used to pluck out his black hair (she wanted all his hairs to be white). He thus finally was left bald on either side.

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Another Talmudic story with physical humor is the famous story of Resh Lakish jumping into the water because he sees Rabbi Yochanan bathing naked and mistakes him for a woman:

yochanan

One day R. Yochanan was bathing in the Jordan, when Resh Lakish saw him and leapt into the Jordan after him. Said he [R. Yochanan] to him: ‘Your strength should be for the Torah’. ‘Your beauty’, he replied: ‘should be for women’. ‘If you will repent’, said he, ‘I will give you my sister [in marriage], who is more beautiful than I’.

The background to this story is that Rabbi Yochanan was the top Talmudic scholar of his day, famous throughout the Galilee, and Resh Lakish was the leader of a gang of thieves who was converted into a Rabbinic student by this encounter.

There is a story in Nedarim 66b which mixes linguistic humor with slapstick situational humor. The story is about linguistic misunderstandings between a husband from Babylon and his Israeli wife. They both speak Aramaic, but with different dialects, and certain words have different meanings in each.

A certain Babylonian went up to the Land of Israel and took a wife [there]. ‘Boil me two [cows’] feet (Trei Talfei)’ he ordered, and she boiled him two lentils (Trei Talfei in Israeli Aramaic), which infuriated him with her.

The wife misunderstands her husband’s Babylonian pronunciation, and interprets the word ‘Telaf’ as ‘lentils’ instead of ‘feet’ – so she serves him two lentils. Another version: Boil me two (meaning ‘some’) lentils, and she boiled him (just) two lentils, taking him literally. The story continues:

The next day he said, ‘Boil me a griwa’, so she boiled him a griwa.

‘griwa’ in Babylonian Aramaic means ‘more’, but in Galilean Aramaic it means ‘a huge amount’, so she made him several pots of lentils… he’s not happy.

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The misunderstandings continue:

‘Go and bring me two bezuni;’ so she went and brought him two candles.

He is asking for two Melons, and she brings him two candles. So far it’s mostly linguistic humor, but now it turns into into a hilarious bit of slapstick:

‘Go and break them on the head of the Baba’. Now Baba ben Buta was sitting on the threshold, engaged in judging in a lawsuit. So she went and broke them on his head.

The husband tells her to go break the candles on the gate (Baba), but she goes out and sees the famous judge whose name is Baba ben Buta. He is sitting in a court of law and judging people. She goes right up to him and breaks the candles over his head… some commentators have interpreted this story as an example simple linguistic and cultural misunderstandings, while others see it as the wife’s rebellion against her husband’s unrelenting demands.

Numerous slapstick Talmudic scenes are open to many interpretations, some more hilarious than other. For example, did you know that the Talmud is filled with bathroom humor? I’m sure you can start to see the comedic possibilities…here is one from Brachot 62a. The English translation in the link above is not quite as open to humorous interpretation as the original Hebrew, so I will take some liberties with the translation.

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Rabbi Akiba said: Once I went into the bathroom after Rabbi Joshua, and I learnt from him three things: I learnt that one does not daven (נפנין) east and west but north and south; I learnt that one does not bid farewell (נפרעין) to one that is standing but only to one that is sitting; and I learnt that you wipe with the left hand and not with the right.

Here’s my not-so-standard interpretation.

Scene 1: Think of north-south as in a map (up and down) rather than east-west (left-right). Now imagine the two of you standing side by side at the urinal, relieving yourselves while reciting the blessing. Davening to the left and right may leave you both in a, well, damp situation.

Scene 2: If you had to leave and shake the other person’s hand to bid farewell. Well, better that he be sitting than standing and turning to you to shake your hand.

Scene 3: Oh, and if you are going to shake his right hand while he is sitting, he’d better follow the Halachik law of wiping with his left.

Sorry… that last one is a bit disgusting…but if you read the rest of the actual discussion in the Talmud, it’s not much better. They argue over why you shouldn’t wipe with the right.

I will close the Talmudic section with a joke on…God. This is a famous story that I analyzed in another post, but will repeat here again: Rabbi Eliezer summons God to help him prove his point in an argument with other Rabbis, and even though God shows up, the end result is not what Rabbi Eliezer had hoped for…

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The story tells of a rabbinic counsel meeting where Rabbi Eliezer was frustrated because he kept getting overruled by the majority. On this specific case of “Achnai’s Oven” (the specifics don’t matter here), he says: if I am right, let this tree uproot and fly away. And the tree flies away. The rabbis are not amused: you can’t bring evidence from a tree, they tell him. He doesn’t give up: if I am right, let the river flow upward. The river flows upwards. The rabbis are equally unimpressed: you can’t prove a legal claim by water flowing upward. He persists: if I am right, let the walls cave in. The rabbis shrug it off and Rabbi Yehushua ridicules him even further by humorously scolding the walls for threatening to fall. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer goes all out: if I am right, a voice from heaven (בת קול) will say so. A voice from heaven is heard saying: why do you torment Rabbi Eliezer? Halacha should be like he says. The rabbis talk back to the voice saying: “Lo Bashamaim Hi” (לא בשמים היא), authority is not in the heavens any more, a quote from Deuteronomy 30:12. They jokingly say to God: you wrote in the bible that the law goes by the majority (אחרי רבים להטות) – so stay out of our argument. And God smiles and kvells to himself twice: my children have outwitted me, my children have outwitted me (נצחוני בני, נצחוני בני).

I hope you agree that the humor in this dialog is worthy of Woody Allen. The other Rabbis treat Rabbi Eliezer as a lunatic who went off the deep end, but they play along all the way to end where they pretend to hear God say: “my children have outwitted me” and he even repeats it twice, like a grandfather who just let his grandson beat him at checkers. Summoning God personally into a Talmudic argument is too ridiculous to warrant a serious response. God does not make appointments and show up to support his fans. That is a concrete personification of God synonymous with idolatry. The Rabbis laugh it off and play along (but the story has a biter ending – follow the link above to my other post to read it).

Post Talmudic Jewish Humor

The first Jewish work mentioned in Davidson’s book which is a complete spoof is a satirical work by Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, a Provençal Jewish philosopher and translator from the 13th century. You can read an interesting article about him in the Jewish Quarterly Review. He wrote some serious works, but the one I want to share with you is a Purim Seder which he fashioned exactly like a Passover Seder, except that the only point of his Purim Seder is to get as drunk as possible.

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It starts out in a spoof on Pirkei Avot’s famous lineage of passing down the Torah. Havakbuk (חבקבוק) is a merge of the prophet Havakuk (חבקוק) and Bottle (בקבוק). He received from Carmi (כרמי) which means Vineyard, and so it passes down to Ahasuerus (the Persian king who hosted drink-a-thons) and on to… Bibi. No, not Israel’s prime minister (I hope). He explains that when the month of Adar starts, Jews must cleanse their houses of water so that all available cups and receptacles will be filled with wine. He spoofs the four questions, the four sons, Dayenu, and all the familiar themes of the Seder including Chad Gadya, Purim-style. Here’s one small excerpt:

מעשה ברבי גרגרן ורבי יינא סבא ורבי חמרן ורבי שכרן ורבי בקבוק שהיו אוכלים ושותים בסעודת פורים כל היום וכל הלילה והיו משתכרים עד שנפלו תחת השולחן וכוסם בידם. ולמחרת מצאום תלמידיהם מתגוללים זה על זה. ואמרו: רבותינו, הגיע זמן פת של שחרית.

A story of Rabbi Tipsy and Rabbi Tanked and Rabbi Buzzed and Rabbi Wasted who were eating and drinking at the Purim feast all day and all night and got so drunk that they fell under the table with their glasses in hand. In the morning, their students found them rolling over each other, and they said: Rabbis, it’s time for some breakfast.

Here is another one from the Davidson’s book which combines visual humor with linguistic humor:

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You have to know a bit of Hebrew to appreciate this. It’s a mock query to a mock sage asking a mock question: what happens if a mouse falls into a jar of honey? The sage answers in 5 Hebrew words: we interpret (פרשנו) that a mouse (רעבתן) in honey (שבדבש) would ignite/purify (נתבער) and burn (ונשרף). However, the amazing thing is that you can read the response in 4 ways: right to left, top down, bottom left to right, and bottom to top, and in all four directions you get the exact same words (replacing final Peh ף and Nun ן with standard Peh פ and Nun נ as needed). Quite a mental feat!

Besides some of these example, there is another whole volume and a half of Davidson’s book devoted entirely to Jewish humor in the middle ages and in the modern era, but later periods are also covered in many other books. I chose to concentrate on these early samples because I believe they have been neglected by many historians. One of the best recent books on Jewish Humor is No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Library of Jewish Ideas) By Dr. Ruth Wisse:

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Early Israeli Humor

I will leave you with a taste of early Israeli humor. This is from the 70’s, when Israeli Film and TV were in their infancy. It features two famous stars of that era: Arik Einstein and Uri Zohar. Watch them tell the story of the many waves of Zionist immigrants from different diasporas, and how each, in turn, makes fun of the ones that follow:

2 Comments

  • brycesutherland says:

    Excellent writing. David Steinberg started out with Biblical humor. I recall his act on the Smothers Brothers show (CBS) years ago. Thanks connecting the dots. TED video is great.

  • jayplaner says:

    Hi there, great article. I was just wondering whether you had an ‘about you’ section – I’d like to quote you in an essay I am writing about Woody Allen. Thanks.

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