Talmudic Humor and Its Discontents
by Ezra Brand
In honor of Purim, I’d like to discuss a few aspects of humor in the Talmud. But first, a short overview of topic of Jewish humor in general.
A lot has been written about Jewish humor. A very good overview of Jewish humor in general is that of Avner Ziv in the second edition of Encyclopedia Judaica, under the entry “Humor”. However, most of the piece is about Jewish humor from the eighteenth century and on, with only a little bit at the beginning about humor in Tanach, the Talmud, and the time of the Rishonim. He writes a fascinating few lines in the beginning of the entry:
What is generally identified in the professional literature as Jewish humor originated in the 19th century, mainly, but not exclusively, in Eastern Europe. Today in the U.S., Jewish humor is considered as one of the mainstreams of American humor.
At the beginning of the 19th century, sense of humor was not associated with Jewishness. Herman Adler, the chief rabbi of London, felt impelled to write an article in 1893 in which he argued against the view that Jews have no sense of humor. It is perhaps interesting to note that not only Jews but non-Jews as well consider today “a good sense of humor” as one of the noble characteristics of Jews.
Even H.N. Bialik had a similar sentiment about the lack of humor in earlier Jewish sources: “To our great distress, there is very little humor in our literature. It is hard to find five continuous lines in Tanach with humor.” The above-mentioned Avner Ziv writes elsewhere: “Even in the Talmud there appear references (though few) to humor, but in total there is not a “treasury” of humor […] not until the end of the 19th century did there appear anything but a few references to Jewish humor.”
However, David Lifshitz begs to differ. In 1995, he wrote an entire doctorate on the topic of humor in the Talmud. He wasn’t the first to collect pieces of humor from the Gemara. Efrayim Davidson collected humorous pieces from throughout Jewish literature in chronological order, starting from Tanach and ending with Modern Hebrew literature. A few articles discuss different aspects of humor in the Talmud, and there are some seforim that collect humorous pieces from the Gemara. However, by far the most comprehensive discussion is that of Horowitz.
As mentioned, Lifshitz wrote an entire dissertation on the topic, running to 312 pages. He writes that the view that there isn’t a substantial amount of humor in earlier sources is mistaken. He feels that this mistake stems from the fact that there has been little research done on the subject of humor in the Gemara, which in turn stems from the fact that humor is looked at as lowly “leitzanus.” Therefore, the great amount of humor in the Gemara was ignored.
One specific aspect of humor in the Gemara is critical humor. Although not necessarily the best example of humor in the Gemara, this genre of humor caused some uncomfortableness, which I will also discuss.
Here are some Gemaras where critical humor is used, taken at random. (Translations are from Soncino, with slight changes.)
1) Kiddushin 79b:
R’ Yosef son of R’ Menasia of Davil gave a practical ruling in accordance with Rav, whereupon Shmuel was offended and exclaimed, “For everyone [wisdom] is meted out in small measure, but for this scholar it was meted out in large measure!”
2) Yoma 76a:
And it long ago happened that R’ Tarfon, R’ Yishmael and the elders were seated and occupied with the portion referring to the manna, and also R’ Eleazar of Modi’in commenced [to expound] and said: “The manna which came down unto Israel was sixty cubits high.” R’ Tarfon said to him: “Modite! How long will you rake words together to bring them up against us?” --He answered: “My master! I am expounding a Scriptural verse.”
3) R’ Yosef said in the name of R’ Yehuda in the name of Shmuel: “The halacha is as Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel”. Abbaye said to him: “The halacha is [etc.], from which it would follow that they [the Sages] dispute it!” –He said to him: “What practical difference does it make to you?” –He replied to him: “It should be for you as a song” [Rashi: “This is a parable of fools […] ‘Study!’ the student says to the fool: learn both truth and mistakes, and it will be for you as a song!”].
A famous responsum of the Chavos Yair, R’ Yair Chaim Bachrach, discusses the harsh language sometimes used by one Amora against another. This tshuva was made famous by the Chafetz Chaim, who printed it at the beginning of his Chafetz Chaim. The Chavos Yair is at great pains to show how each “insult” is in fact a subtle compliment. For example, he says that when R’ Sheshes says, as he often does, on a saying of Rav, “I say, Rav said this statement when he was sleeping,” that this is fact a display of R’ Sheshes’ great respect for Rav that he never could haved erred so easily. A more difficult kind of attack to explain is the “ad hominem” attack, where one Amora attacks another Amora personally.
Interestingly, some want to say that these kinds of attacks are much more frequent in the Bavli than in the Yerushalmi. In a Hebrew article by Yisrael Ben-Shalom, “ואקח לי שני מקלות לאחד קראתי נעם ולאחד קראתי חבלים”, the author shows many instances of negative criticism by Chachamim in the Bavli that don’t appear in their parallels in the Yerushalmi. Recently, R’ Achikam Kashet has drawn up a long list of 82 basic differences between the Bavli and the Yerushalmi in his very impressive אמרי במערבא (n.p. 2010). This difference is number 53 (page 889).
Later, the Ra’avad was one of the more harsh attackers. When he disagreed, he did so in very strong terms. In general, he was most harsh in his hassagos on the Razah. The following is one of the harsher attacks:
הנה שם השם שקר בפיו וזאת עדות על כל שקריו ופחיזותיו אשר אסף רוח בחנפיו להנבא שקרים ולהתעות הפתיים והסכלים בעדיי אחרים אשר נתעטר בהם ספרי הסירוס אשר חיבר.
Closer to our own time, R’ Yitzchak Isaac Halevy, author of Dorot Harishonim, is famous for his harsh language he used against people he disagreed with. While in his magnum opus, Dorot Harishonim, this language is generally used against maskilim and non-Jews, his harshness was not limited to them. R’ Halevy’s biographer notes:
While Halevy had his reasons which led him almost singlehandedly into battle against the foremost historians, he, in turn, became the target of a formidable list of critics [...] Undoubtedly, Halevy’s sharp pen was an added factor that irked many to retaliate in kind. Halevy’s inordinate style of writing might have been a carryover from a number of classic rabbinical works […] Thus Halevy’s correspondence relating to his own followers at times was penned in a tone which was similar to that reserved for the targets of his ire in the Dorot Harishonim.
After discussing many sources in Chazal of negativity, Efrayim Elimelech Urbach writes that although in the Beis Medrash the Chachamim could be very harsh with each other, in the “real world” a big stress was put on talmidei chachamim looking out for each other, and on the respect that a talmid chacham deserves. It seems clear that although internally there were strong disagreements, towards the outside, there was strong cohesiveness, and the less disagreement and strife exhibited in public, the better. In other words, what goes on the Beis Midrash, stays in the Beis Midrash! In our own time, one of the controversial passages in R’ Natan Kamenetski’s Making of A Godol was the story of R’ Aharon Kotler calling a red-headed student who interrupted his shiur with a question “parah adumah.” Marc Shapiro, in one of his recent posts (paragraph 3), makes the same point: that certain off the cuff remarks were never meant to be publicized.
To end off on a not-so-Purim-like note, I’d like to note a word of caution. In our own time, where recording devices are ubiquitous, talmidei chachamim must be far more careful about what they say and how they say it. Even if a talmid chacham says something in a setting where it is perfectly acceptable, such as in a “Beis Medrash”-like setting, with a recorder the statement can easily be spread outside these “walls.” We have reached a point where עין רואה ואזן שומעת, וכל מעשיך בספר נכתבין (Avos 2:1) is not just true in Shamayim, but on Earth also.
 In a previous post on the Seforim Blog, Eliezer Brodt discussed some parodies from Medieval times and on. Another previous post discussed some modern Purim parodies. Some of my favorite modern parodies are those by Moshe Koppel, a Professor of Computer Science in Bar-Ilan University, who has contributed to the Seforim Blog. Professor Kopple has produced a number of parodies of “pashkevillim.” (“Pashkevillim”—“broadsides” in English—are large notices stuck on walls in Chareidi neighborhoods, especially in Meah Shearim. They are often polemical, and written in a flowery Hebrew.) A sampling of these parodies, as well as an interview with Koppel, can be seen here. A parody of his about fundamentalist anti-science is a favorite of R’ Natan Slifkin.
 See the bibliography in Eli Yassif, The Hebrew Folktale, Bloomington 1999, pg. 500 n. 96; see also the bibliography of the Encyclopedia Judaica article in the next footnote.
 Volume 9, pg. 590-599. It first appeared in the 1986-1987 Yearbook, one of the many yearbooks that were published as a supplement to the first edition of Encyclopedia Judaica. I remember reading that the reason that there wasn’t an entry on “Humor” in the first edition of the Encyclopedia is because the editors couldn’t find someone someone qualified to write it. I could not find the source for this recently.
 ח"נ ביאליק, דברים שבעל פה, ספר ראשון, דביר, תל אביב תרצ"ה, עמ' קמד. This quote and the next are taken from Lifshitz, Humor (see next footnote), pg. 11.
 דוד ליפשיץ, איפיונו ותיפקודו של ההומור בתלמוד, חיבור לשם קבלת התואר דוקטור לפילוסופיה, רמת גן תשנ"ה. I have not read enough of the doctorate to get a feel for how good of a job he did. One major lack in this work is an index, especially since such a large amount of texts from the Talmud are quoted. It is often difficult to find where a source is discussed.
 אפרים דוידזון, שחוק פינו, חולון תשל"ב. The layout is very similar to that of Bialik’s “Sefer Ha’agadah,” which Davidson was clearly influenced by. Many translations of passages from Aramaic to Hebrew are taken from Sefer Ha’agadah (with ascription).
 See, for example, בנימין יוסף פארקאש, עת לשחוק, הוסיאטין תרע"ד.
 These sources in the Gemara are brought by Lifshitz, Humor, pg. 158-183. See also a wide variety of sources in this vein which are brought and discussed by E.E Urbach in his Sages (Hebrew ed.), pg. 557- 564.
 R’ Yitzchak Blau, at the beginning of a lecture entitled “Does the Talmud have a Sense of Humor?” (available on YU Torah) only mentions the following categories “play on words”; “slapstick”; “sharp lines”. He does not mention critical humor, even though it is fairly common in the Gemara, for obvious reasons. As an aside most of the lecture is not about the Talmud and humor, but how someone should spend his free time. R’ Blau’s opinion on the matter has caused some controversy, see Hirhurim blog here and here.
 Lifshitz, Humor, pg. 160.
 Lifshitz, Humor, pg. 165
 Lifshitz, Humor, pg. 172.
 Siman 152.
 In later editionsof Chafetz Chaim, this addition is generally printed at the end.
 In דור לדור: משלהי תקופת המקרא ועד חתימית התלמוד, ירושלים תשנ"ה, עמ' 235-250.
 R’ Kashet made a similar list of basic characteristics (in Hebrew “לשיטתם”), this time with specific Tannaim and Amoraim, in his earlier, just as impressive, קובץ יסודות וחקירות (Yerushalayim 2004). The issue of “Leshitasam” is a fascinating topic in its own right. Research into this topic only began in the mid-eighteenth century, especially with the publishing of R’ D.Z. Hoffman’s (German) Mar Samuel. This sefer/book caused a small storm in its time.
 Quoted by Twersky, Rabad of Posquierres, Cambridge 1962, pg. 121 n. 24. See Twersky there for more such examples. For a list of hassagos of this sort in the Ra’avad’s hassagos on Mishneh Torah, see Davidson, Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works, Oxford 2005, in the chapter on Mishneh Torah.
 R’ Asher Reichel, Isaac Halevy, New York 1969, pg. 64-65.
 Pg. 564 (idem, footnote 10).
 The Gemara itself seems to say so explicitly. See the story in Sanhedrin 31a, where the Gemara first brings a halacha regarding a member of a beis din that has just paskened:
תנו רבנן מניין לכשיצא לא יאמר הריני מזכה וחבירי מחייבין אבל מה אעשה שחבירי רבו עלי תלמוד לומר (ויקרא יט, טז) לא תלך רכיל בעמך ואומר (משלי יא, יג) הולך רכיל מגלה סוד
The Gemara then goes on to bring the following story:
ההוא תלמידא דנפיק עליה קלא דגלי מילתא דאיתמר בי מדרשא בתר עשרין ותרתין שנין אפקיה רב אמי מבי מדרשא אמר דין גלי רזיא:
It is not clear what the nature of the “secret” thing that had happened in the beis medrash was. Rashi simply says that the talmid spoke lashon hara. It is possible that in the heated discussion in the beis medrash, someone had made an off the cuff remark that was not meant to be heard outside the walls of the beis medrash. When the talmid revealed what was said 22(!) years later, he was expelled from the beis medrash for his impropriety. Alternatively, it is possible that he had revealed some internal disagreement about a halacha that the Chachamim wanted to appear unanimous, similar to the case of the psak of a beis din brought before. Either way, the story proves our point.