Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

Sarcasm in the Torah, God in Search of Man and Rebuke Bava Metzia 29-31


Sarcasm in the Torah

Our Gemara on Amud Beis warns of various careless financial practices:

And Rabbi Yoḥanan says: In the case of one whose father bequeathed him a great deal of money and he seeks to lose it, he should wear linen garments, and should use glass vessels, and should hire laborers and not sit with them to supervise. 

A unique feature of this Talmudic passage is that it seems to be resorting to sarcasm. Sarcasm is a particular human style of communication that employs irony and indirectly communicates criticism and hostility. Often, sarcasm is a passive aggressive remark, made by those who do not feel empowered to express themselves directly.

If so, why would the Gemara resort to sarcasm here? 

There are other Jewish sources for sarcasm as well. Here is a brain teaser: Name two places in the Chumash that are sarcastic:

Kayin defensively responds to God‘s inquiry on the whereabouts of Hevel, “Am I, my brother’s keeper?” (Bereishis 4:9). 

When the Jews were in a state of panic, thinking that they were facing certain doom as Pharaoh’s army was closing in on them by the Red Sea, they sarcastically complained: 

“Is there a shortage of gravesites in Egypt that you had to bring us out to the wilderness to die?” (Shemos 14:11)

In both of these instances, the sarcasm and passive aggressiveness came from a feeling of being cornered, such as how Kayin felt when questioned by God, or how the Jews felt trapped. The powerlessness and fear allows aggression to come out only indirectly.

We must ask ourselves, then why would our Gemara need to resort to sarcasm? The Rabbis were providing a reasonable and important message, so why obstruct it with unnecessary sarcasm and irony?

There is some fascinating research, which seems to show that there is a social function for sarcasm, which actually can aid learning and creativity, notwithstanding the more frequent toxic effects of hostility and passive aggressiveness.

Researchers Huang, Gino, and Galinsky (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 131 (2015) 162–177, “The highest form of intelligence: Sarcasm increases creativity for both expressers and recipients”) studied the communication patterns and learning that occurs when ideas are expressed sarcastically. They found:

“Both expressing and receiving sarcasm, regardless of its content, can facilitate creativity by increasing abstract thinking. We also identify a factor, interpersonal trust, that helps reduce the relational cost of sarcasm for both parties but still allow organizations to take advantage of its creative benefits.”

Yet, the toxicity of sarcasm cannot be ignored: 

“Because sarcastic remarks often express the poisonous sting of contempt (Gottman & Silver, 1999), they can undermine relationships and harm communication in organizations. For example, Fredrickson and Losada (2005) analyzed 60 management teams and identified sarcasm as a form of negative communication among team members and an important cause of poor performance in struggling teams.”

In one study they cited, it was found that:

“When participants expressed sarcasm toward or received sarcasm from a trusted other, creativity increased but conflict did not. We discuss sarcasm as a double-edged sword: despite its role in instigating conflict, it can also be a catalyst for creativity.”

It would seem that the jarring, challenging and conflicting effect produced by sarcasm, can also inspire a certain degree of letting go of preconceived notions, reconsidering, and creativity. This might be similar to the process how on Seder night we do odd things in order to stimulate curiosity in the children, כדי שישאלו התינוקות (see Shulchan Aruch OC 473:7.) Artists use satire which also can be a form of sarcasm to the authorities and rigidly held beliefs. Sometimes it might be out of fear of persecution, and so it is done humorously indirectly (such as anti vax or election deniers who might perform songs on YouTube, in the hopes that they won’t be banned as “misinformation” because, after all, it is just a song.  Unfortunately, that did not work out well for Michoel Green. Our media overlords do not tend to have a good sense of humor.) Other times, it might just be social critique done in a challenging and humorous manner to force people to confront themselves in a way the other otherwise might not.

Sarcasm might be analogous to tickling or other forms of intrusive discomfort that can either be seen as playful or disrespectful. Much of it depends on the intention and the trust in the relationship.


God in Search of Man

Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses an important exemption in the mitzvah to return a lost object. Should the person be of a dignified status, and lost items be of such a nature that the person would not even pick up his own possessions in those circumstances, he is then exempt. For example, imagine a bag of apples that is scattered all over the street, and requires bending down on one’s hands and knees to retrieve them. It is very possible that, even if it was your own apples, you would not crawl on your hands and knees and bother to gather them up in the middle of a busy street. Therefore, if it’s somebody else’s lost items, he is also exempt. Even so, the Gemara tells us that it is considered beyond the letter of the law for a righteous person to perform the mitzvah anyhow. 

Be’er Mayyim Chayyim (Bereishis 18) draws on this ethical idea and applies it to God. The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 15) compares God’s descent into the impurity of Egypt to a Cohen who defiles himself by retrieving a lost object in a cemetery. 

We recite a similar idea on most Motzai Shabboses (Megillah 31a);

אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: כׇּל מָקוֹם שֶׁאַתָּה מוֹצֵא גְּבוּרָתוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אַתָּה מוֹצֵא עִנְוְותָנוּתוֹ. דָּבָר זֶה כָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה, וְשָׁנוּי בַּנְּבִיאִים, וּמְשׁוּלָּשׁ בַּכְּתוּבִים. 

Having mentioned the haftara read on Yom Kippur, the Gemara cites that which Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Wherever you find a reference in the Bible to the might of the Holy One, Blessed be He, you also find a reference to His humility adjacent to it. Evidence of this fact is written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, and stated a third time in the Writings.

כָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה: ״כִּי ה׳ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הוּא אֱלֹהֵי הָאֱלֹהִים וַאֲדוֹנֵי הָאֲדוֹנִים״, וּכְתִיב בָּתְרֵיהּ: ״עוֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפַּט יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה״. שָׁנוּי בַּנְּבִיאִים: ״כֹה אָמַר רָם וְנִשָּׂא שׁוֹכֵן עַד וְקָדוֹשׁ וְגוֹ׳״, וּכְתִיב בָּתְרֵיהּ: ״וְאֶת דַּכָּא וּשְׁפַל רוּחַ״, מְשׁוּלָּשׁ בַּכְּתוּבִים, דִּכְתִיב: ״סוֹלּוּ לָרוֹכֵב בָּעֲרָבוֹת בְּיָהּ שְׁמוֹ״, וּכְתִיב בָּתְרֵיהּ: ״אֲבִי יְתוֹמִים וְדַיַּין אַלְמָנוֹת״. 

It is written in the Torah: “For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords” (Deuteronomy 10:17), and it is written immediately afterward: “He executes the judgment of the fatherless and widow” (Deuteronomy 10:18), displaying his humility in caring for even the weakest parts of society. It is repeated in the Prophets: “For thus says the High and Lofty One that inhabits eternity, Whose name is sacred” (Isaiah 57:15), and it is written immediately afterward: “In the high and holy place I dwell with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Isaiah 57:15). It is stated a third time in the Writings, as it is written: “Extol Him Who rides upon the clouds, Whose name is the Lord” (Psalms 68:5), and it is written immediately afterward: “A father of the fatherless, and a judge of widows” (Psalms 68:6).

God goes above and beyond the call of duty to reach out to Man. 


Speaking Up Against Sin

Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses the biblical directive to rebuke a sinner. The verse states (Vayikra 19:16): “הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ You shall admonish, and indeed admonish your fellow country man.”  

Biblical Hebrew has an idiomatic word form where a verb is repeated, presumably to connote emphasis.  The halachic implications of this emphasis are discussed in our Gemara:

Rava said to him: “Hocheach” indicates that one must rebuke another even one hundred times. “Tokhiach” teaches another matter: I have derived only the obligation of a teacher to rebuke a student. With regard to the obligation for a student to rebuke a teacher, from where is it derived? The verse states: “Hocheach Tokhiach” to teach that one is obligated to rebuke another in any case that warrants rebuke.

Word one of admonish teaches an obligation to be persistent. Word two of admonish teaches that one may even go beyond what might be considered protocol.

Despite our Gemara learning that there is emphasis and imperative to admonish, even 100 times, the Gemara elsewhere (Yevamos 65b) teaches a mitigating idea:

Just as it is a mitzvah for a person to say that which will be heeded, so is it a mitzvah for a person not to say that which will not be heeded. One should not rebuke those who will be unreceptive to his message. Rabbi Abba says: It is obligatory for him to refrain from speaking, as it is stated: “Do not reprove a scorner lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you” (Mishley 9:8)

Rashi (ibid) explains the rationale of the Gemara as derived from the doubling of the word to admonish, thus effectively reading it, as “admonish in a way that is an effective admonition”. 

Rashi’s explanation of the Gemara Yevamos invents a derasha that is not found in our Gemara in Bava Metzia.  The Maharsha in Yevamos seems to be asking this question of Rashi, though indirectly. Yismach Moshe (Devarim 1) elaborates on the question, asserting that it is not merely an additional derasha, but one that is contradictory to the one in Bava Metzia. Our Gemara learns from the first word “admonish”, that there is an imperative to admonish thoroughly, even 100 times.  Thus, the repetition of the word admonish indicates an intensification, to even admonish a teacher.  Yet, in Yevamos, at least the way Rashi would explain it, the second admonish mitigates the imperative, so that one should not admonish a person who won’t listen.  Yismach Moshe also points out a logical problem with Rashi. If we already learn that a person is obligated to rebuke even 100 times, this would imply rebuking a stubborn person who is not listening, which contradicts the Gemara in Yevamos that says we should not rebuke a person who won’t listen. Technically, one could differentiate between a person who is quite stubborn and takes 100 times to break through and convince them versus someone who will never listen, but Yismach Moshe rightfully asserts that is a rather unlikely distinction.

Therefore Yismach Moshe suggests the following answer. The basis for not rebuking someone who will not listen comes from the ruling of Gemara Beitzah (30a), which says that one should not rebuke people who will not listen, as it is better that they be erring due to lack of knowledge instead of intentionally violating.  Thus, Gemara Yevamos, says if you estimate that a person won’t listen, then better not to admonish him in the first place.  On the other hand, if you estimated incorrectly, and gave him admonition, and he did not listen, now you must continue even 100 times because there no longer is a reason to hold back so that he errs instead of acting deliberately. Since he was already rebuked, “the cat is out of the bag”, and he is sinning deliberately. Therefore, there is an obligation to continue to rebuke.  Additionally, our Gemara also learns that one is to even admonish a rebbe, as one might think he would be unlikely to listen to a student. The verse repeats itself to encourage against making that assumption. But that does not contradict the teaching in Yevamos, which says after all, if one truly believes the person won’t listen, it is best not to start up at all.  

We might ask, granted, there is no longer a reason to hold back once the first rebuke began, since there is already a demonstration of knowledge and  nonetheless a will to sin, but why should one keep rebuking?  What is the function of a continuous rebuke if the person clearly is not listening?  One might answer, since there is no downside, we should hope against hope, that somehow the rebukes will eventually penetrate. Or, we can say that even if the person will not listen, it is good for the bystanders and even the observer to object. This is either to maintain personal standards or to simply defend the honor of the Torah. (Rav Soloveitchik develops this idea differently, see Reshimas Shiurim on our Gemara.)

About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.
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