The Religious Truth behind Jewish Humor

October 25, 2021 | Chaim Steinmetz
About the author:

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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