Off the Pulpit

Make ‘Em Laugh

Humor is the balancing pole of the tightrope of life, and Jews have always used humor to remain upright. So for example, the Talmud teaches that if a fledgling bird is found fifty cubits within a man’s property, it belongs to the owner of the property. If it is outside fifty cubits, it belongs to the person who finds it. A reasonable law, surely. 

Along comes Rabbi Jeremiah and asks a question that actually got him thrown out of the academy: “What if one foot is within fifty cubits and one foot is outside fifty?” I can just imagine the Rabbis in the next seats giggling as he asked. 

Humor goes all the way back to the bible, where some scholars argue that the book of Jonah is a satire. In a world where prophets give long speeches and no one repents, Jonah gets an entire city to repent with six words, is swallowed by a fish, and the book ends with the question whether a compassionate God should not save repentant human beings “and also much cattle?” Pretty funny.

What other tradition that has a patriarch named ‘laughter’ (Isaac)? I like to think our ancestors have always laughed, always joked, always understood that to be serious is not be solemn, and a sermon should have a smile.