Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Rebbetzin's Responsa #1: Why does my rabbi tell un-funny jokes?

[Those who have been around for a few years may remember seeing me post this elsewhere. If so, יישר כחך.]


To the honored and beloved Rebbetzin's Husband, Shlit”a,

I have long been confused by the rabbinic sense of humor, or lack thereof.

My rabbi makes so-called jokes like “How do we know that Yaakov wore a hat? Because the pasuk says ‘And Yaakov left Beer Sheva,’ and we know he wouldn’t have gone out without a hat!” and “How do you know G-d is a baseball fan? Because the Torah starts, ‘In the big inning!’”

And my current rabbi is not the exception; I have heard similarly un-funny jokes from my yeshiva rabbis as well as shul rabbis since my childhood. Why is this? Why do none of the rabbis I meet have a sense of humor?!


You ask a very good question, my son. When I listen to my rabbinic friends repeat the same joke they have been telling for years, I am reminded of Bruce Wayne’s comment to Alfred regarding party guests: “Keep them happy until I arrive. Tell them that joke you know.” (Batman Begins, 2005, naturally)

Allow me to first build up your question, before attempting to respond. You see, the rabbinic paucity of humor is all the more surprising in that it is a modern phenomenon. Back in the days of the Gemara, rabbis engaged in all manner of humor:

Slapstick - Bar Kappara in Nedarim 50b-51a does the talmudic equivalent of dancing with a lampshade on his head.

Sarcasm - Rav Nachman in Eruvin 36a tells Rava, “Sure, I’ll answer you when you eat a barrel of salt!”

Puns - Rava in Pesachim 9b asks, “Is a chuldah [rodent] a prophetess?” This is a play on the name of Chuldah the Prophetess.

Nicknames - Students called Rav Hemnuna “cold fish” for being unable to answer their questions, on Kiddushin 25a. It’s a play on המנונא Hemnuna, which is close to חמנונא Chamnuna, or “warm fish.”

Black comedy - Perhaps the most famous Talmudic joke, the declaration in Berachos 64a, “Torah scholars increase peace in the world!”

I can just see your sides splitting from all of these witticisms - and there are more like them! Let's not forget that the sages of Israel, in particular, were perpetually rolling with laughter in response to the comments of their Babylonian counterparts (Beitzah 14a, for example). So the question, really, is not why Torah scholars have no sense of humor. Rather, it is why today’s rabbis have not continued the tradition from earlier times.

1. It is appropriate here to quote a certain scholar, חכם אחד, who has alleged that the lack of humor is only found in Orthodox rabbis. He contends that it is not so much that the rabbis are not funny, as that they are using only old jokes, out of fear of creating something new.

2. The Kura d’Milcha sought to provide an answer based in halachic principles. He noted the traditional belief that נתקטנו הדורות, the generations have shrunk, and argued that this applies to the rabbinic sense of humor as well.

It is true that some apply "generational reduction" only to spiritual stature, but the Kura d’Milcha pointed out that this is clearly not the case, for the Tzlach (end of Pesachim) applied this axiom to physical stature.

3. The Levi Tzedek, on the other hand, considered the Kura d’Milcha’s answer legitimate proof that the rabbinic sense of humor is not entirely dead. Barely concealing a guffaw, he told his talmidim, “Had the Kura d’Milcha lived in our day, between his bizarre understanding of Torah and my laughter we might have brought Mashiach!”

After calming down, the Levi Tzedek argued that the answer lies in an explicit Gemara (Berachos 31a): “One is not permitted to fill his mouth with laughter in this world [post-Temple]… until the nations say, Gd has acted greatly with these people.” Clearly, then, your rabbi is un-funny because he is grieving for the Beit haMikdash.

As far as the post-Temple cases of humor in the Gemara, those sages did not live “in this world” - their holiness was such that they felt as though they were living in the time of the Beis haMikdash, and so they could laugh.

In closing, I must pay tribute to one of the few rabbis I have known who could tell a funny joke. Rabbi Philip Kaplan told me the following joke many years ago:

A yeshiva student gets married, moves into a home with his wife, and comes to his rabbi before Succos to ask how to build a Sukkah. The rabbi points him to certain pages in Gemara Succah, and to a long comment of Rashi that digests the discussions on those pages into a set of clear instructions.

The student follows the instructions to the letter, spending days meticulously acquiring the proper materials, then building and decorating his fine Succah. The first night of Succos, though, a mild wind demolishes the entire structure.

On Chol haMoed the student re-builds the structure, only to have it again collapse at the first gust of wind. The student tries a third time, but again meets with failure.

The student, devastated, comes back to his rabbi and tells him the story. The rabbi listens patiently, then smiles knowingly and tells his student, “Yes, you're right - Tosafos asks that question!”

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