The Religious Truth behind Jewish Humor

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.”

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Read more at Jewish Journal

More about: Genesis, Isaac, Jewish humor, Judaism

The Arab Press Blames Iran Rather Than Israel for Gaza’s Woes

Following the fighting between Israel and Islamic Jihad over the weekend, many journalists and commentators in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia didn’t rush to condemn the Jewish state. Instead, as the translators at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) note, they criticized the terrorist group for “operating in service of Iranian interests and thus inflicting suffering on the Gaza Strip’s residents.” One Saudi intellectual, Turki al-Hamad, wrote the following on Twitter:

It is apparent that, if at one time any confrontation between Israel and the Palestinian organizations would attract world and Arab attention and provoke a wave of anger [against Israel], today it does not shock most Arabs and most of the world’s [countries]. Furthermore, even a sense of human solidarity [with the Palestinians] has become rare and embarrassing, raising the question, “Why [is this happening] and who is to blame?”

I believe that the main reason is the lack of confidence in all the Palestinian leaders. . . . From the Arabs’ and the world’s perspective, it is already clear that these leaders are manipulating the [Palestinian] cause out of self-interest and diplomatic, economic, or even personal motives, and that the Palestinian issue is completely unconnected to this. The Palestinian cause has become a bargaining chip in the hands of these and other organizations and states headed by the [Iranian] ayatollah regime.

A, article in a major Arabic-language newspaper took a similar approach:

In a lengthy front-page report on August 7, the London-based UAE daily Al-Arab criticized Islamic Jihad, writing that “Gaza again became an arena for the settling of accounts between Iran and Israel, while the Palestinian citizens are the ones paying the price.” It added that Iran does not want to confront Israel directly for its bombings in Syria and its attacks on Iranian scientists and nuclear facilities.

“The war in Gaza is not the first, nor will it be the last. But it proves . . . that Iran is exploiting Gaza as it exploits Lebanon, in order to strengthen its hand in negotiations with the West. We all know that Iran hasn’t fired a single bullet at Israel, and it also will not do this to defend Gaza or Lebanon.”

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Read more at MEMRI

More about: Gaza Strip, Iran, Islamic Jihad, Israel-Arab relations, Persian Gulf