In the Talmud, the Rabbis taught that humor is valuable in Torah study, as it warms people’s hearts and brings joy into the learning. For example, before starting to lecture or teach, Rabbah “would tell a joke. The rabbis would laugh. Then he would sit down and in a state of awe would begin the day’s lesson” (Shabbat 30b). Religious education and humor go together nicely.
Humor also presents a challenge to the educator, as it can serve as a distraction and lead to frivolity, and the the Rabbis were sensitive to this, too. One episode in Nedarim 50a shares how one rabbi tried to conquer his delight in humor.
On the day that Rabbi laughed, punishment would come upon the world. So he said to Bar Kappara [who was a humorist]: “Do not make me laugh, and I will give you forty measures of wheat.” He replied, “But let the Master see that I may take whatever measure I desire.” So he took a large basket, pitched it over,placed it on his head, went [to Rabbi] and said to him, “Fill me the forty measures of wheat which I may demand from you.” Thereupon Rabbi burst into laughter, and said to him, “Did I not warn you not to jest?” He replied, “I wish but to take the wheat which I may [justly] demand.”
Societies from pagan times to the present have had certain times when the usual societal discipline was relaxed or completely done away with (think of ancient spring festivals and present-day Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnival in Europe). For us, Purim is a time when we drink wine, and the usual discipline is often thrown off. The custom of the Purim shpiel, the whimsical play put on by yeshivah students and community members, is the most prominent example of this practice.
The history of the Purim shpiel merits examination. In the 15th century, Ashkenazi families created humorous plays based on parody rhymes of the Book of Esther. Eventually, these grew into public performances, often of a bawdy nature. By the following century, it was customary for Purim shpiels to be staged performances in the home, and wealthy families brought in performing companies to stage elaborate productions. By the 18th century, the shpiel branched out to include other Biblical episodes, and grew to include musical instruments and longer narratives. At times, the content was deemed offensive; for example, the leaders of the Jewish community in Hamburg banned all Purim shpiels in 1728. Today, the Purim shpiel varies from congregation to congregation. It tends to be light-hearted, festive, and replete with silly costumes and play-acting.
Fortunately, the humor that is on display in Purim shpiels and other religious contexts is not only therapeutic, but it can help us learn as well. Studies have shown that humor helps people retain learning. Studies over the past 15 years have yielded interesting data on the positive role of humor in learning:
- Students in a statistics course retained more knowledge when the lectures included humorous material that related to the course material.
- Students were more likely to log into an introductory psychology course when they had a professor who made self-deprecating jokes and included cartoons and other topical material in lectures.
- A 1999 study demonstrated that students perceived instructors who injected humor in the classroom as being more intelligent and concerned with students than instructors who did not.
- Laughter, which reduces stress hormones such as cortisol, can even be used to lighten the atmosphere in a classroom during a test, and can improve students’ performances on those tests.
While concerned educators will rightly point out that humor should not take over in a class setting, because students will consider everything to be a joke and there will be little learning, these studies show that humor is nevertheless helpful in many situations. Rav Ovadia Yosef expresses his concerns on this subject in a responsum (Yechave Da’at V, no. 50):
I have seen in writing that the Gaon, Rabbi Shimon Sofer, died from the anguish he suffered in the wake of the insults hurled at him by the Rav Purim. May the good Lord atone for this. G-d forbid, then, that this custom should continue, and especially not in the holy yeshivot, which must serve as an example of love, honor and awe of Torah. It is a mitzvah to forcefully object and absolutely abolish this evil custom, the word minhag (custom) being a transmutation of the word Gehinnom.
Of course, frivolity, mockery, lashon hara (hurtful speech), and insensitivity are not the goals, nor are they acceptable outcomes, of humor in religious life or in education. I recall Purim shpiels that went overboard in roasting educators at the yeshivah. Clearly, some of those rabbis felt hurt by what some of the students considered to be holiday jokes. Some who witnessed this banned Purim shpiels.
Recently, a public figure went beyond even the extended limits of the shpiel. New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind was eventually forced to apologize in February 2013 for dressing in blackface during a Purim celebration. The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement saying that Mr. Hikind had shown “terrible judgment” in his choice of costume, which showed insensitivity to the long-standing history of racial bigotry in the United States and was particularly reprehensible in a public figure who was a strong opponent of anti-Semitism.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook taught that joy does not involve evading evil and the challenges of life, for this would not be true joy; rather, there must be a constant desire to integrate life and join with a greater spiritual force, and this can arouse true joy (Ein Ayah Berakhot, no. 61). Humor can be used to bring in new life perspectives and elevate one emotionally, creating the potential for new spiritual heights.
May we learn to bring joy into all that we do and may it be the type of joy that elevates us and those around us to higher purpose.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”