Counting Teeth: Humour in the Rabbinic Literature
By Simon Holloway:
Part One: Is it Okay to Laugh?
Q: Why did Queen Esther merit to rule over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces of the Persian empire?
A: Because she was descended from Sarah, who lived to the age of 127!
Okay, so it’s not a particularly funny joke, I’ll grant you. It appears in the midrash to Esther (Ester Rabbah 1:8), and is said by Rabbi Akiva to a room full of sleeping students in an effort to get their attention. According to Rabbi Chanokh Zundel, in his 19th century commentary on Midrash Rabbah (Etz Yosef, ibid), it was Rabbi Akiva’s way to speak “words of jest” (מילי דבדיחותא) in order to keep his classroom focused.
The tradition of telling jokes in order to better deliver one’s message is not only of great antiquity but possesses a fine rabbinic pedigree as well. The Talmud is replete with instances of lexical levity, and most of them are funnier than Rabbi Akiva’s Esther joke. I would like to provide something of a catalogue (though it is far from exhaustive) of jokes within the Talmud, and to cap it off I would like to share with you a few of my favourite examples from the world of mediaeval rabbinic humour.
Before we commence, it would be disingenous of me to pretend that this tradition doesn’t have its detractors. A famous maxim has it that one of the ways in which the Torah is acquired is through a reduction of merriment (Eliyahu Zuta 17:6), and Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai rules that one is forbidden to fill one’s mouth with laughter in this world (Berakhot 31a). This is a ruling, incidentally, that no less an authority than the Shulchan Arukh adopts as normative halakha (Orach Chayim 560:5).
An aversion to mockery may have underlined the reason behind a prohibition of theatres and circuses (Avodah Zarah 18b), and may have also been the reason behind Rabbi Zeira’s not laughing at Rabbi Yirmiyah’s terrible joke in Niddah 23a—although it really is a terrible joke. Rabbi Akiva himself once remarked that levity brings one to lewdness (Avot 3:13), and that references to “mirth” in the Torah are all references to idolatry (Tosefta, Sotah 6:6). Since he employs humour as a pedagogical tool, it may be that he had in mind this distinction between mockery and other legitimate forms of making fun.
Indeed, the different motivations of those who attempt to make others laugh is important, with parodying scholars being universally condemned. Rabbi Yirmiyah, whose tasteless attempt at humour I referred to above (although you’ll note that I didn’t relate it; you can look it up for yourselves), was the subject of no small amount of controversy. In fact, he was even thrown out of the academy for one of his terrible jokes.
The Mishna (Bava Batra 2:6) discusses the ownership of a dead bird. In the event that it is within fifty cubits of a dovecote, it belongs to the owner of the dovecote, but if it is more than fifty cubits away it belongs to whomever discovers it. What if it should be precisely between two dovecotes? In this unlikely scenario, the Mishna rules that one should divide the bird (or the value of the bird) in half. Enter Rabbi Yirmiyah.
Rabbi Yirmiyah enquires as to what should happen if one of the bird’s legs lies within fifty cubits from a dovecote, but the other leg lies outside that perimeter (Bava Batra 23b). It seems a simple enough question, and no more improbable than the other hypothetical scenarios that the sages discuss, and yet we are told that it is for this that Rabbi Yirmiyah is thrown out of the study house. As Tosafot point out, his question doesn’t seem out of the ordinary for a Talmudic passage—can something else be going on here?
They resolve that the issue is a logical one: once we have measured fifty cubits to the first leg, we obviously don’t need to keep measuring. Rashi says something similar, but with an important twist: Rabbi Yirmiyah was expelled because he was harassing the sages—overburdening them, to be precise, with more technicality than the case required. This implies a degree of intentionality, which fits well with the description of Rabbi Yirmiyah as a parodist in Niddah 23a. In line with that depiction, I would like to offer an alternate view—as suggested by Prof. Eliezer Diamond in “But Is it Funny? Identifying Humour, Satire, and Parody in Rabbinic Literature”, Jews and Humor (Studies in Jewish Civilization 22; ed. Leonard J. Greenspoon; Purdue University Press, 2010).
The statement immediately prior to Rabbi Yirmiyah’s is made by Rabbi Hanina, who identifies a crucial distinction: if the bird is found within fifty cubits of one dovecote, but the majority of sages rule that it belongs to a dovecote further away, we follow the majority. This is an important technicality, since the obligation to follow the majority and the obligation to ascribe the bird to the nearest dovecote are both considered biblical obligations and of therefore equal weight. Rabbi Yirmiyah’s contribution to the discussion does not further it in any meaningful way, but detracts from it substantially.
Not only this, but it is potentially framed as a mockery of Rabbi Hanina himself. Elsewhere, the Mishna rules that one who walks even a single cubit beyond the maximum distance allowable on Shabbat may not return until Shabbat has finished (Eruvin 4:11), to which Rabbi Hanina notes that one who has one foot outside of this border and one foot within it is considered to be as one who is outside of it altogether (Eruvin 52b). A comparison of this statement by Rabbi Hanina in Eruvin and the question of Rabbi Yirmiyah in Bava Batra show that, linguistically, they are virtually identical. Is Rabbi Yirmiyah making fun of Rabbi Hanina?
This is an important question, since more depends upon it than a simple understanding of a Talmudic passage. Is the wrong type of humour enough to get one expelled from the academy? Certainly, mockery without the humorous component is enough to have one demoted—as was the case with Rabban Gamliel, whose shaming of Rabbi Yehoshua led to his being temporarily replaced (Berakhot 27b-28a). Since humour so frequently has a parodic component it may be that many felt easier with avoiding it altogether.
Of course, if the subject of mockery is one whom we are enjoined upon to ridicule—an idolater (Megillah 25b), a sinner (Qiddushin 81a) or an apostate (Berakhot 10a), for example—then knock yourself out. Suddenly, everybody’s a comedian.
In the following instalment, I would like to provide a catalogue of my favourite examples of humour from the Talmud and rabbinic literature and, in the final instalment, a few “jokes” from the period of the Rishonim. In some cases, these are attempts at making fun of specific people, although in most instances they derive from a basic principle: if you can make ‘em laugh, you’ve got their attention.