Friday, 13 March 2009

Shabbat Comic Relief

This one isn't fully written up,


Hope it still amuses.



Forty days and forty nights spent Moses on top of Mount Sinai.

But, the Bible tells us he was delayed.

Ki boshesh moshe they gathered together to create this golden calf.

The Talmud[1] picks up the slightly unusual word boshes – delayed - and use it to create an  entire conversation between the people and Satan.


 "Where is your teacher Moshe?" taunted Satan

 "He has gone up to heaven." Responded the people

"It's six o'clock he's not back yet. He must be dead."


It's a pun. The Hebrew word boshesh – being read not as delayed, but as in 'at six'

And my how we laughed.

Well maybe not.

But this is Rabbinic humour at work.

And in a week, when we have lurched from Purim to Comic Relief it is perhaps especially worth having a look into Jewish humour.


Remarkable how many elements of what we would now recognise as quintessentially Jewish humour have ancient roots.

The children of Israel are fleeing Egypt. Before them lies the sea, behind them Pharaoh's horsemen are in hot pursuit. "And the children of Israel lifted up their eyes… and said to Moses,

המבלי אין קברים במצרים לקחתנו למות במדבר

'What, are there no graves in Egypt that you had to take us into the wilderness to die?'" (Exodus 14:11).

It's a perfect line.

The grammar, the attitude, the psychology it's all there, some three thousand five hundred years ago.


And what about this?

I'm making my way through tractate Hagigah and came across[2] the following debate between Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hanania and a philosopher at the Court of Caeasar in Rome.

They debate, neither in Latin nor Hebrew, but sign language.

The philosopher made a gesture to symbolise a people from whom God had turned his face.

The Rabbi made a gesture to symbolise God's hand stretched over us.

The Romans asked the philosopher, what did you show the Rabbi.

He said, a people from who God had turned his face.

And what did he show you in return.

Said the philosopher, 'I do not know.'

Said the Romans, 'a person who doesn't understand what they are shown in gestures shouldn't debate in gestures before the King, and they took the philosopher off to kill him.


Maybe the joke has lost something in the last 1500 years, but when I read it I thought immediately of the greatest Jewish joke I learnt from my father.


Many of the great Jewish jokes, of both ancient and modern times involve a triumph over the non-Jewish potentate of their age.

And specifically a triumph over their scholars, philosophers and intellectuals.


The great Professor of Loic wanted to learn Talmud.

Never manage.

Give me a test of logic

Two Jews come down a chimney, one has a dirty face, the other a clean face – who washes their face.

Dirty, no dirty looks at clean and thinks clean. Clean looks at the dirty and thinks dirty, washes his face

Oh, give me another test

Two Jews come down a chimney, one has a dirty face, the other a clean face – who washes their face.

Clean, no both. The clean looks at the dirty and washes his face. The dirty sees the clean and thinks, if he, with such a clean face is washing his face, surely I should also.

Oh, give me another test

Two Jews come down a chimney, one has a dirty face, the other a clean face – who washes their face.

Both, no nether. The dirty one looks at the clean one and thinks his own face is clean. The clean one looks at the dirty one and seeing that the dirty one doesn't wash his face he doesn't bother either.

Oh, give me another test

Two Jews come down a chimney, one has a dirty face, the other a clean face – who washes their face.

Neither? No, how is it ever possible for two people to come down the same chimney and to be dirty and the other clean. The whole question makes no sense.

This is Talmudic logic.


In the world of the absurd.

In the world of humour we can always triumph. And maybe the tougher it is to survive in the real physical world, the more our energy and intellectual passion is directed into the world of the absurd.

There are even jokes told in which the Jews triumph over the Nazis.

But this is one of my favourites – Jews triumphing over the Communists, told at the height of Soviet power.[3]


At four in the morning a line forms infront of a baker in Moscow. At six in the morning the vendor appears and says, 'comrades. I'm sorry there won't be enough bread for everyone. We have to ask all the Jewish comrades to leave.'

At eight o'clock the vendor re-appears and says, 'we are sorry we've just been informed we are going to get less wheat than we thought. We have to ask all the non-Communist party members to leave.

One hour later the vendor re-appears and addresses the Communist party members, 'I am so sorry we've just been informed that our allocation of wheat for the week has been cancelled. We won't have any bread this week.'

And the members of the communist party file away cursing under their breath, 'Those damn Jews, get all the privileges.'

Jewish humour will even take on God.

Most of these gags paint God as something not far away from a bumbling, gullible fool.

And these gags base themselves on the opening moments of the book of Job, a moment that feeds one of the more extraordinary Midrashim in the tale of the Binding of Isaac.


God is boasting to Satan about how wonderful Abraham is

When Satan says, ha!, you've hardly tested him at all.

If I were to ask him to offer even his own son as a sacrifice, the Rabbis have God responding, indignantly, he wouldn't resist.

Go on then – says Satan, calling God's bluff.

God's been suckered! As one might say some three thousand years later.

Less funny, this one, more poignant.

And it is here that Jewish humour finds its strength.


In the world of the absurd, in a world where the normal relationships of power and the normal stresses and strains of existence are turned upside down humour allows for a New World Order, not only in the world political, but also personally.

It takes a brave soul to tell jokes in the face of tragedy, and I don't personally do much joke telling in the hospital room or the house of mourning.

But even here a joke can reframe, take the sting out of our pain, not by changing what is beyond our powers to change, but by reframing the experience we are having.


One last joke.

Max Gelberg was seventy-two years old when his wife died. After six months of mourning, Max decided life must go on, so he began a strict program of physical fitness.

After a few months of regular workouts, Max felt and looked wonderful. Friends would stop him on the street and ask him, 'Max, is that you? I didn't recognise you! You look sixty!'

With this encouragement, Max continued on the exercise program, he went on a diet and arranged some minor plastic surgery. His friends, seeing him on the street would stop and say, 'Max, is that you? I didn't recognise you! You look fifty!'

Max was delighted and decided to move to Florida so he could take advantage of the sun. He took up a permanent spot on the local muscle beach. The following winter he met up with an old group of friends, 'Max,' said one, 'I didn't recognise you! You look thirty-five!'

That was all Max needed to hear, he started dating and soon won the heart of a pretty college student. They arranged to be married.

Standing under the wedding canopy, Max's old Rabbi peered out at the groom with astonishment, 'Max, is that you? I didn't recognise you! You look twenty-five!'

Max was ecstatic, but as bride and groom were preparing to leave for their honeymoon – wham – Max is struck by a passing car and killed instantly.

Reaching the gates of heaven Max is furious and demands to know who is responsible for this tragedy. Eventually he muscles his way into the office of the Almighty.

'I don't believe this,' Max shouted, 'I finally get my life together and poof! Tell me, what have you got against Max Goldberg.'

'Max?' The Almighty replies, 'Max Gelberg, is that you? You look terrific, I didn't recognise you!'


There is no blind stupidity, no claiming that the physical place in which we have found ourselves through time is not horrible.

Just that a chink of light has been brought to bear on the shadows.

A chink bright enough to shine even in the gloomiest of political and personal situations.


Thank God, quite literally for Jewish humour.

Happy Shabbat Comic Relief.

[1] Shabbat 89a

[2] Hagigah 5b

[3] From Telushkin, Jewish Humour, p.121

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...