The Religious Truth behind Jewish Humor

Oct. 25 2021

In Genesis 17 through 26—read in synagogues during this time of year—the Hebrew root meaning “to laugh” or “to jest” appears with unusual frequency, mostly relating to the patriarch Isaac, whose name comes from the same root. Today, Jews are well known for their comic abilities, and according to a 2013 survey, 42 percent of American Jews mention a sense of humor as a key part of their Jewish identities. Chaim Steinmetz, however, seeks a deeper religious truth behind Jewish humor, and finds one in the following joke:

A man posed a riddle to his son: “What’s purple, hangs on the wall, and whistles?”

When the son gave up, he answered: a herring.
“A herring?” the son said. “A herring isn’t purple.”
“Nu,” replied the father, “they painted the herring purple.”
“But hanging on a wall? How does a herring hang on a wall?”
“Aha! You nail the herring to the wall.”
“But a herring doesn’t whistle,” his son shouted.
“Nu, so it doesn’t whistle.”

The joke is funny because of its very absurdity, which brings Steinmetz to Scripture’s use of the Hebrew word for laughter:

[Most of its appearances in Genesis] indicate the joy and shock Abraham and Sarah have when learning they will have a child in old age. The same is also used when Lot tells his sons-in-law that their home city of Sodom is about to be destroyed. They do not believe him, for his words are “like a joke in their eyes.”

The double reference to laughter highlights that both events are improbable to the point of being funny. And indeed they are. To an observer at the time, the possibility that a major city like Sodom will disappear, or that a childless, wandering, elderly couple will be progenitors of a great civilization seems ludicrous. The funny thing is, this strange outcome is precisely what occurs; and it is here that the Jewish love for humor begins.

The greatest Jewish joke is ever-present: that am Yisrael ḥai, [the people of Israel live], that a small nation beat ridiculous odds time and time again. Just like the elderly couple Abraham and Sarah, Jews were expected to disappear; instead, they continue to thrive, year after year. Isn’t that laughably absurd? Yes, it is; and that’s why the first Jewish child was named Isaac, meaning “he will laugh.”

Read more at Jewish Journal

More about: Genesis, Isaac, Jewish humor, Judaism


The Right and Wrong Ways for the U.S. to Support the Palestinians

Sept. 29 2023

On Wednesday, Elliott Abrams testified before Congress about the Taylor Force Act, passed in 2018 to withhold U.S. funds from the Palestinian Authority (PA) so long as it continues to reward terrorists and their families with cash. Abrams cites several factors explaining the sharp increase in Palestinian terrorism this year, among them Iran’s attempt to wage proxy war on Israel; another is the “Palestinian Authority’s continuing refusal to fight terrorism.” (Video is available at the link below.)

As long as the “pay for slay” system continues, the message to Palestinians is that terrorists should be honored and rewarded. And indeed year after year, the PA honors individuals who have committed acts of terror by naming plazas or schools after them or announcing what heroes they are or were.

There are clear alternatives to “pay to slay.” It would be reasonable for the PA to say that, whatever the crime committed, the criminal’s family and children should not suffer for it. The PA could have implemented a welfare-based system, a system of family allowances based on the number of children—as one example. It has steadfastly refused to do so, precisely because such a system would no longer honor and reward terrorists based on the seriousness of their crimes.

These efforts, like the act itself, are not at all meant to diminish assistance to the Palestinian people. Rather, they are efforts to direct aid to the Palestinian people rather than to convicted terrorists. . . . [T]he Taylor Force Act does not stop U.S. assistance to Palestinians, but keeps it out of hands in the PA that are channels for paying rewards for terror.

[S]hould the United States continue to aid the Palestinian security forces? My answer is yes, and I note that it is also the answer of Israel and Jordan. As I’ve noted, PA efforts against Hamas or other groups may be self-interested—fights among rivals, not principled fights against terrorism. Yet they can have the same effect of lessening the Iranian-backed terrorism committed by Palestinian groups that Iran supports.

Read more at Council on Foreign Relations

More about: Palestinian Authority, Palestinian terror, U.S. Foreign policy