Anecdota

Laughter is the Best Medicine

Dr Maurice Mizrahi – Humor in the Talmud, Part 1 (Mishpatim)


Dr Maurice M. Mizrahi B”H
D’var Torah on Mishpatim Humor in the Talmud, Part 1 In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we
read If you see the ass of one who hates you lying
under its burden, you shall not leave it with him, you shall help him to lift it up. [Exodus
23:5] From this and similar verses came Tza’ar ba’alei
chayyim, which means “the suffering of living creatures”, and is the Jewish principle that
bans inflicting unnecessary pain on animals. Now, if you are enjoined to relieve the suffering
of an animal belonging to one who hates you, then surely you must to do the same for an
animal of one who does not hate you. And if you should do it for an animal, surely you
should also do it for a human being. This is an a fortiori argument, kal vachomer in
Hebrew, one of the ways the rabbis extracted commandments from the Torah. The Talmud tells a humorous story based on
this verse. I will use it as a springboard to explore humor in the Talmud in a series
of divrei Torah. Indeed, the Talmud itself tells us that Rabbah, a 4th-century Sage,
always began his lectures with a joke, and only afterwards did he start seriously teaching
halachah. [Shabbat 30b] So the Talmud, in Tractate Bava Metzia, tells
us that Rabbi Ishmael son of Rabbi Yosei was walking on a road when he met a man carrying
a load of sticks. The man put the sticks down, rested, and then said to Rabbi Ishmael, “Load
me up.” The rabbi was required to help him, according to our verse. It was a hot day and
Rabbi Ishmael, who was overweight, asked the man: “How much are your sticks worth?”
The man answered: “Half a zuz”. So Rabbi Ishmael paid him half a zuz, thinking
it would get him out of his obligation. But he was careful to point to the sticks and
say “Hefker!”, meaning “Ownerless!”: I declare these sticks ownerless. This was
important, so that, if anyone took them, he would not be charged with theft.
The man then said, “I claim ownership of these ownerless sticks. Then, turning to Rabbi
Ishmael, he said again: Load me up! The rabbi understood that this perpetual-motion-machine
game could go on forever, so he gave the man another half zuz and again declared the sticks
ownerless. Seeing that the man was again about to claim them again, he added, “I have declared
the sticks ownerless, except to you!” and walked away!
Now, the Rabbis, upon hearing this story, wondered: Can something be declared ownerless
with a condition attached? They concluded: No, it cannot, but Rabbi Ishmael had to stop
the man somehow, and did it with mere words. Also, the Rabbis asked, was not the rabbi
an elder for whom it was undignified to take up a load? [They answered:] Yes, but he acted
beyond the requirements of the law. [Bava Metzia 30b] Here is another funny story, from Tractate
Sukkah. How does one celebrate Sukkot on a ship? Rabbi Gamliel says that if someone erects
his Sukkah on the deck of a ship, it is invalid, because it could easily be blown away. But
Rabbi Akiva declares it valid. One time both of these rabbis were traveling on a ship during
Sukkot. Rabbi Akiva, true to his own teaching, erected a Sukkah on the deck of the ship.
The next day the wind blew it away. So Rabbi Gamaliel turned to Rabbi Akiva, and said,
disingenuously, “Akiva, where is your Sukkah?” [Sukkah 23a] Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi once suffered from a disorder
of the bowels and asked his colleagues, “Does anyone know whether apple-cider bought from
a non-Jew is prohibited or permitted?” Rabbi Ishmael son of Rabbi Yosei replied,
“My father once had the same complaint, and they brought him apple-cider bought from
a non-Jew, which was seventy years old. He drank it and recovered.”
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi then said to him, “You had this information all along and you let
me suffer?” [Avodah Zara 40b] Rabbi Ishmael could well have replied: You
never asked me before! The next story teaches us that you must be
very, very careful on what you say to the high and mighty. The Emperor of Rome wanted the Jews to assimilate
completely in the Roman Empire, so he proposed to Rabbi Tanchum, Come, let us all be one
people. The rabbi answered, Very well, but we are
circumcised and cannot possibly become like you, because our circumcision cannot be undone..
So why don’t YOU become circumcised like us?
The Emperor was miffed at having been bested, and replied: You have spoken well. Nevertheless,
anyone who gets the better of the king in a debate must be thrown to the lions. So they
threw the rabbi to the lions, but the lions did not eat him.
One of the Emperor’s advisors whispered in the Emperor’s ear: The lions did not
eat him because they are not hungry. The Emperor replied: “Well, let’s test
this theory.” And he had the advisor thrown to the lions. And the lions ate him. [Sanhedrin
39a] Be very, very careful on what you say to the
high and mighty! Beruriah, wife of rabbi Meir, was a Talmudic
scholar in her own right, and often challenged the rabbis on their rulings. She became famous
for her sharp wit. Tractate Eruvin gives us this example: Rabbi Yosei the Galilean went on a journey
and met Beruriah on the way. He asked her, “Excuse me, what road should
we take in order to get to Lod?” She replied, “You stupid Galilean! Did our Sages not
teach, in the Mishna: “Do not talk too much to women” [Avot 1:5] ? You should have asked:
How to Lod? [Eruvin 53b] So she was jokingly telling the rabbi, “If
you preach that you should not talk too much to women, then you should have phrased your
question with as few words as possible!” This will be all for this week. Join me again
soon for another edition of Humor in the Talmud! Shabbat shalom!

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