What does Jewish Humour say about Judaism?


What is Jewish humour?  Despite the many books that have been written about Jewish humour, does it really exist? Humour is the ability to laugh. Nietzsche writes[1] about the virtue of laughter, “…the ‘higher man’ remains within the abstract element of activity and never raises himself, even in thought, to the element of affirmation. There are things that the higher man does not know how to do: to laugh, to play and to dance. To laugh is to affirm life, even the suffering in life. To play is to affirm chance and the necessity of chance. To dance is to affirm becoming and the being of becoming.” In Laughter[2], he writes, “I have canonised laughter; you Higher Men, learn – to laugh!”


If laughter and humour is life affirming, as oppose to life negating, this tells us something about the Jewish people. They are life affirming even in the most difficult circumstances and have the ability to laugh rather than become depressed, which according to Nietzsche would be life negating. This might explain Jewish humour related to anti-Semitism and the Diaspora, which constitute the bulk of Jewish humour.


There is another aspect of humour, which is not life affirming, but expresses scepticism. The first time the Torah mentions laughter it says[3] that Abraham and Sarah were old, well on in years; the course of women had ceased to be with Sarah. And Sarah laughed at her insides, saying, “After I have withered shall I again have clear skin? And my husband is old!” This expressed scepticism of the Divine promise that Sarah would give birth to Isaac at ninety-nine years old. Sarah was admonished for laughing, since she should have had more trust in G‑d.


Such sceptical humour is also found in Jewish folklore. In a small Russian Shtetel, the community council decides to pay a poor Jew a ruble a week to sit at the town’s entrance and be the first to greet the Messiah when he arrives. The man’s brother comes to see him, and is puzzled why he took such a low-paying job. “It’s true,” the poor man responds, “The pay is low. But it’s a steady job.”


Whereas life-affirming humour is positive, sceptical humour, as with the matriarch Sarah, is viewed as negative. There is a category of Jewish humour which can undeniably be considered Jewish. Whereas the bulk of Jewish humour consists of anecdotes adapted to Jewish scenarios and the Jewish personality, this is also found in other cultures, like “three Jews, three opinions”. However, there are a number of jokes, which are exclusively Jewish. This category includes humour derived from Jewish teachings. As the Jews of Eastern Europe, despite their hardship, or possibly because of the financial hardship, were steeped in Jewish teachings, the Midrash and Talmud, they applied anecdotes from these texts to modern-day situations.


To illustrate this, the Midrash[4] relates that a Jew passed the Roman emperor Hadrian and greeted him. The emperor was furious at being greeted by a Jew and had him executed. The next day, another Jew passed the emperor and deliberately did not greet him, so as not to offend him, as the other Jew did the previous day. The emperor, after inquiring who he was, had him executed for daring not to greet a Roman emperor.


This episode, related in the Midrash, is the source to the following joke that demonstrates that gentile anti-Semitism will always exist whether with provocation or without. Ignace Paderewski, Poland’s post-World War 1 premier was discussing his country’s problems with President Woodrow Wilson. “If our demands are not met at the conference table,” he said, “I can foresee serious trouble in my country. Why, my people will be so irritated that many of them will go out and massacre the Jews.”  “And what will happen if your demands are granted?” asked President Wilson. “Why, my people will be so happy that they will get drunk and go out and massacre the Jews.”[5]


Another famous Jewish pleasantry relating to mother in laws is also based on ancient teachings. In a small 19th century Russian shtetl, two families negotiate with a prominent yeshiva to provide two students as husbands for their daughters. The two young men set out for the town. En route, Cossacks attack their wagon, and one of the men is killed.


When the survivor finally arrives in the town, a fight breaks out between the mothers of the two unmarried girls. Each claims that the young man is the intended groom for her daughter. The man himself can shed no light on the matter and the case is brought before the rabbi. The rabbi finally rules, “Cut the boy in half and let each girl be given half of his body.” The first mother says, “Oh, no! Don’t kill him. My daughter will give up her claim.” The other mother says, “Go ahead and cut.” The rabbi stands up and points to the second woman. “That is the mother in law.”


This story is the reworking of the Biblical tale with King Solomon and two prostitutes[6] who both gave birth in the same house but one child died. Each claims that the remaining child is theirs. King Solomon rules that the child should be cut in two with a sword and each mother should get half the baby. One woman begs him not to cut the baby, rather give her the live child. The other woman says cut it in two, whereupon King Solomon recognises the merciful woman as the real mother.


The question to be asked is whether, from a Jewish perspective, laughter for its own sake is positive. Is laughter productive? Although, it reflects a life-affirming attitude, what does is achieve?


King Solomon writes,[7]’I said to myself: Come I will experiment and enjoy pleasure. That, too, turned out to be futile. I said of laughter, it is mad! And of joy, what does it accomplish!’ Furthermore, he writes,[8] ‘Grief is better than gaiety – for through a sad countenance the heart is improved. The thoughts of the wise turn to the house of mourning, but the thoughts of a fool to the house of feasting.’


To complicate the issue, King Solomon makes an opposing observation,[9] ‘So I praised enjoyment, for man has no other goal under the sun but to eat, drink and be joyful: and this will accompany him in his toil during the days of his life which G‑d has given him beneath the sun.’  How do we reconcile these two opposing perspectives?


The Talmud[10] explains that when joy and laughter are associated with a Mitzvah, for lofty purposes, then they are virtuous; however, when laughter is for its own sake, it is unproductive and foolish. To illustrate this, the Talmud relates that Rabbah, one of the greatest Talmudic sages, would say something humorous before opening his lecture to his students, and they would laugh. But immediately afterwards he would sit in an atmosphere of trepidation and begin his lecture.


Similarly, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, writes[11], ‘….when a man utters a pleasantry in order to sharpen his wit and rejoice his heart in G‑d, in his Torah and service, which should be practised joyfully, as Ravah was wont to do with his pupils, prefacing his discourse with some witty remark, to enliven the students thereby.’ Thus, the Jewish attitude to laughter is not just positive but necessary as a tool to prepare the mind of a student to comprehend lofty wisdom, similar to a rabbi opening a sermon with a joke to open up the crowd before delving into deeper matters. Laughter in itself is thus neither good nor bad, but depends on the context and purpose.


This purpose of laughter is inconsistent with what Nietzsche was discussing. According to Nietzsche, laughter itself is virtuous, and Higher Men should aspire to it. However, according to the Talmud, laughter is only good when used for a purpose that is higher than self, to acquire wisdom or to attain spirituality.


A further and more profound inconsistency with the theory of Nietzsche is that Judaism does not necessarily believe in humour as life affirming, in accepting reality, as opposed to life negating, rejecting reality. On the contrary, humour should be used to reject and transform reality.


The Midrash[12] relates that four rabbis, Rabbi Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar be Azarya, Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Akiva, were walking in Jerusalem, following the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans. They arrived on the Temple Mount and saw a fox roaming on the site where the Holy of Holies stood. Three Rabbis wept but Rabbi Akiva was laughing. They turned to Rabbi Akiva and said, “You always surprise us, why are you laughing?” He responded, “Why are you weeping?” They said to him, “Shall we not weep when we see a fox roaming on a place about which it says in the Scripture[13] no stranger should draw near?


Rabbi Akiva responded, “For this precise reason I am laughing, since just as the prophecy of Uriah[14] has come true, so too the prophecy of Zechariya,[15] which says that the streets of Jerusalem will be full of Jewish youngsters playing, will also be fulfilled.


Thus, in Jewish teachings, laughter is used neither as a sign of despair nor as a sign of affirmation and acceptance but rather as a demonstration of firm trust that the situation will be transformed through happiness. This idea is deeply ingrained in Chassidic teachings. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov once said[16] that his disciples were able to transform a distressing situation through joy and dancing, more than he was able to achieve through meditation.


I would like to think that this statement of the Baal Shem Tov might indeed reflect the depth of thought of Nietzsche, “There are things that the higher man does not know how to do: to laugh, to play and to dance.” However, in Chassidic thought, it is not through the ability to be life affirming that the students are superior but rather through the ability to be transformational through laughter and dancing.













[1] Z IV Of the Higher Man, 14, p. 303

[2] 20 p. 306

[4] Lamentations Rabbah 3:200

[5] Jewish Humour, by Joseph Telushkin

[7] Ecclesiastes 2:1

[8] Ecclesiastes 7:3

[10] Tractate Shabbat 30b; Pesachim 117a

[11] Tanya Chapter 7

[12] Lamentations Rabbah 5:18

[13] Numbers 1

[14] Jeremiah 26

[15] Zechriyah 8

[16] Commentary Mekor Mayim Chaim in Baal Shem Tov, Tavo, p. 244