Rachelli Prawer
More in love with my land and my people every day

Our mouths shall be filled with laughter

A screenshot from Eretz Nehederet's satirical sketch on the US congress hearings on antisemitism (YouTube, screenshot)
A screenshot from Eretz Nehederet's satirical sketch on the US congress hearings on antisemitism (YouTube, screenshot)

“The charm that repels a boggart is simple, yet it requires force of mind. You see, the thing that really finishes a boggart is laughter. What you need to do is force it to assume a shape that you find amusing.” (J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)

* * *

There’s an old joke about two Jewish men sitting on a bench reading newspapers.

“Why are you reading that rubbish?” asks one.

The other replies: “In your newspaper, you get to read about antisemitism, pogroms and how everyone hates us Jews. According to mine, we are all doctors and lawyers, own the media and control the world!”

The beauty and tragedy of this joke is that though supposedly originated in 19th century Russia, it was easily modified in 20th century Europe and could believably take place today in any country in the world, perhaps with digital media replacing the newspapers.

There’s no doubt that humour is a classic Jewish mechanism for coping with tragedy, and often the blacker the better.

Those who have not experienced significant adversity don’t always understand this response. They see it as callous and understand it to mean that we are taking perverse pleasure in pain and suffering, especially the pain and suffering of others.

Others understand it implicitly.

J. K. Rowling’s boggart, a magical shapeshifter that takes the shape of the observer’s worst fear, is destroyed by laughter. In creating the boggart, she understood that one of the most effective ways to dispel our fears is by laughing at them.

Robin Williams, arguably one of the world’s funniest people, said in 1989: “You look at the world and see how scary it can be sometimes and still try to deal with the fear. Comedy can deal with the fear and still not paralyse you or tell you that it’s going away.”

There’s no doubt about it, humour helps us cope with adversity. But there’s much more to it than that.

Rabbi Tatz explains, in the name of his teacher Rabbi Moshe Shapira z”l, the spiritual function and meaning of laughter. Humour relates to resolution via the unexpected. The funniest jokes are those that take a totally unexpected turn at the end, even if their content is deeply disturbing or tragic.

You wouldn’t expect to find humour in religious texts; most people equate holy with reverent, and humour with irreverence. But, as Rabbi Tatz highlights, the Torah is in fact one long black comedy.

At the very moment of their total despair, Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, himself reassuring them that their grave sin of selling him has ultimately led to his promotion to viceroy and their subsequent survival in the midst of famine.

While giving instructions to kill every Jewish baby boy to ensure the Jews’ saviour does not survive, Pharoah himself protects Moshe in the royal palace.

And who can deny the clear irony of Megillat Esther where Haman is literally hung on the gallows he prepared for his adversary, Mordechai, and the day chosen by Haman for literal and complete Jewish genocide becomes a day of national “feasting and rejoicing”? In planning the annihilation of the Mordechai and all the Jews, Haman unknowingly orchestrates his own destruction.

Humour raises our spirits and makes it easier to bear the unbearable. But it also reminds us that despite our current state of desperation, present tragedy and pain do not predict eternal suffering; on the contrary, “according to the pain is the reward” (Avot 5:23). Redemption can and will come from the most unexpected place.

אָ֤ז יִמָּלֵ֪א שְׂח֡וֹק פִּינוּ֮ וּלְשׁוֹנֵ֢נוּ רִ֫נָּ֥ה אָ֭ז יֹאמְר֣וּ בַגּוֹיִ֑ם הִגְדִּ֥יל ה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת עִם־אֵֽלֶּה׃” (תהילים קכו)”

“Our mouths shall be filled with laughter, our tongues, with songs of joy. Then shall they say among the nations, ‘G-d has done great things for them!’” (Psalms 126)


I highly recommend this recent shiur from Rabbi Tatz shiur on Purim and Laughter.

Some of the dark Jewish humour that got us through the first few agonising weeks of the war:

For (often dark) humorous insights and perspectives on the current war and Jewish life today, check out this YouTube playlist, or these hashtags on Instagram: @eretznehederet, @ask_dani, @guy_niceguy @moshe_korsia, @miritg, @lestaiman, @shutuplyle among many others.

About the Author
Rachelli is a doctor and currently works as a freelance medical writer. She moved to Israel from Australia 7 years ago, and currently lives in the beautiful Judean hills of Gush Etzion with her husband and 3 children.
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