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11 Tishrei 5763 - September 17, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Home and Family
Using Jokes

by R' Zvi Zobin

With a subject as provocative as this one, I must first make some important disclaimers.

1. This article is not intended to be a collection of Jewish jokes.

2. Neither is this going to be an article on the psychology of jokes.

3. I do not intend to suggest that a cheider rebbe learn to be like a professional comedian or that a shiur be like a rollicking comedy show.

The obligation to "serve Hashem with joy" requires that the joy emanate from an appreciation of the value of the work being done. Nodov and Avihu, the two sons of Aharon, were consumed by heavenly fire because they offered up an unacceptable sacrifice. My first Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Nosson Ordman z'l, explained that before offering the sacrifice, they first imbibed some alcoholic drink. Their joy came from the drink; therefore, it was rejected. Wine can be used with discretion to enable a person to attain a suitable state of mind. Its potency can be used to help a person relax and thereby to enable him to appreciate the true fortune of his situation. However, it is only a means and therefore should be used with discretion.

Similarly, humor has its place in the instrument-case of the educator. Used well, a joke can be a powerful tool:

1. To relax a class.

2. To lower the barrier between rebbe and student.

3. To drive home a point clearly by showing a comical result.

4. To soften a personal criticism by wrapping it in a joke [not, of course, one that pokes fun at the student!].

5. To defuse tension.

6. To enable a person to see the comedy of his own actions through a third person.

Humor can be used destructively by making one student a laughingstock in front of others. Sarcasm is a whip of biting thorns that can flay a tender soul. Cynicism can undermine precious values. Satire can poke fun at respected beliefs.

All these devices can be powerful weapons in the war against the enemies of Torah. But, as the Chofetz Chaim warns in his Mishne Brura, their use can ingrain into the user habits which may prove morally destructive.

A teacher who feels that he needs to subject an individual to a taunt, should do so only if he is also prepared to offer a full-hearted apology if the pupil takes it the wrong way, if the taunt did not come out as expected, or if it turns out in the end that it was not justified. A misapplied jibe, though meant well, can destroy a child's self image, leaving him maimed for life.

Excuses such as "It was only a joke! / I didn't really mean it! / I was just saying..." for careless criticism are lame excuses for anybody. For someone in the role- model level of the teacher, whose words carry so much weight, such excuses are admissions to criminal action.

Only too often, a pointed joke can come out wrong because the person making the joke bears some grudge against the person to whom the joke is directed. Subconsciously, that negative feeling displays itself as an `accidental' nuance that reveals the latent animosity. The speaker himself might be entirely unaware of his manner of delivery. He might have genuinely intended to tell a harmless joke. But it results in a vicious barb that penetrates deep into the heart of the recipient. And all those standing around hear the taunt and witness his shame.

Therefore, a teacher should be extra careful not to direct a joke at anyone whom he does not genuinely like. Not only is there a greater risk of the joke `going sour,' but also he will find it more difficult to make a heartfelt apology if it would be so required.

The teacher who wants to `give' should be prepared to `take' as well. He should be able to suffer a counter- joke graciously and laugh at himself when bettered. If not, he stands to lose respect in the eyes of his audience who, above all, expect fairness from their teacher.

Two true stories illustrate the two faces of humor:


A man brought his young lady home for the first time to meet the family. The young lady was very pleasant, but diminutive. After she left, a member of the family, famous for her sharp tongue, remarked to him, "She's very nice, but where are you going to keep her? Under the table?" Because of that remark, the man gave up the girl. He never found a wife. He lived out his years as a lonely bachelor and died a miserable death, alone.


Reb Fish was an wizened old Satmar chossid who had been through the camps and lived in Kiryat Mattersdorf, Jerusalem. From afar, he would spot a victim. He would home-in and place himself in front of the man. "Can you give me something, please?" he would ask. Automatically, the victim's hand would go to his pocket for some small change.

"No! Can you give me a smile?" and if the victim did not `pay up,' Reb Fish would tickle him or poke him with his stick until he was laughing. Eventually, he became a conditioned reflex. Just seeing him from the other end of the street made everyone smile.


There are several different types of jokes.

1. Political jokes, or jokes based on political situations, are only funny if the listener knows the background.

During World War II, Rommel went to visit Copenhagen. He stayed for a few days in a fancy hotel. A large crowd gathered to try to catch a glimpse of the famous general. After he left, the crowd remained. A policeman asked one of the bystanders, "Why are you still waiting here? You know that Rommel left."

"I know," the man replied, "but you know that wherever Rommel goes, Montgomery is hot on his heels."

In its time, this joke was very funny. But nowadays, it would leave most people cold.

2. Ridiculous jokes tend to be seasonal. Like the moron jokes, or the elephant jokes of the late sixties.

Question: How do you fit your elephant in an Austin Mini?

Answer: Two in the front and two in the back.

They tend to be era/group specific. So you might not understand `their' jokes, and `they' might not understand your jokes.

3. Sick jokes rely for their humor upon the repulsiveness of the idea. Intrinsically, they are distasteful, encourage morbid thoughts and undermine ethical values. They have no part in a teacher's repertoire.

4. Banana-skin jokes depend upon our tendency to laugh at the misfortune of others.

At an art gallery, a man sat down to admire an exhibit of oil paintings. "What an original talent!" he told the artist, who was standing nearby. "How I wish I could take home those glorious colors."

"You're going to get your wish," replied the artist. "You're sitting on my palette!"

In some ways, they are similar to sick jokes and share some of their characteristics. The humor aims for a `belly-laugh' rather than for intellectual stimulation. Nevertheless, they can be useful insofar as they can help a person see the funny side of what might be intrinsically an unpleasant situation. This can help a person through tough times.

5. Misquotes of the sayings of Chazal should be treated with care, so as not to be disrespectful.

Ten measures of thievery were sent down to this world. Nine were given to Rome -- and the tenth they stole.

6. Corrupting the words of Tanach in order to make a joke has met with disapproval.

A talmid of R' Aharon Kotler told me that once he was part of a group of students walking with R' Kotler in Lakewood. They were about to cross a road when the traffic light turned red against them. As they were waiting to cross, he quipped to R' Aharon, "Lo yaavor al ho'edom!"

R' Kotler rebuked him for misusing a verse of the Torah.

7. `Clever' quips are pithy sayings that often express real truths.

Intelligence is when you spot a flaw in your boss' reasoning. Wisdom is when you refrain from pointing it out.

8. Children's clever quips:

When R' Yehonoson Eibshitz was a little child, he once told someone that he knew the whole of Shas. "Yes!" he said, "you can open any gemora you like and point to any letter and I'll tell you what it is!"

But be careful about laughing at all the quips a child makes because it can encourage chutzpa.

9. Ethnic jokes are jokes that make fun of the bad traits of other people.

A Jew, a peasant and a fool were each sentenced to a year in prison. Each was allowed to take one commodity into the cell with him. The Jew requested a complete Shas. The peasant asked for 365 bottles of vodka. The fool asked for 1,000 packets of cigarettes. Each got his request.

At the end of the year, the Jew's cell was opened. Out he came, an expert in every masechta of Shas. Then they opened the cell of the peasant. He staggered out, drunk and suffering from advance cirrhosis of the liver. Finally, they opened the cell of the fool. He came out with a big smile, holding a cigarette between his fingers. "Hey! Anyone got a light?"

Ethnic jokes can be insulting and some people might object to them on ethical grounds. The teacher, in his position as role model, should tread carefully before indulging.

10. Self-derogatory jokes are similar to ethnic jokes, except that we laugh at ourselves.

A Jew came to a bus stop and found a long line of people waiting to get on. "Oy!" he groaned loudly, "if you had what I've got, you'd let me go to the head of the line."

He was quickly ushered to the head of the line. Eventually, the bus came but it was so crowded that the driver would not allow anyone on. "Oh!" groaned the man to the bus driver, "If you had what I've got, you'd let me get on the bus."

The bus driver apologized and let him on the bus. After he had paid his fare, the man looked around and saw that all the seats were taken. "Oy!" he groaned loudly, "If you had what I've got, you'd let me sit down." Hurriedly, someone gave up his seat and he sat down next to another Jew. "Tell me," asked his seatmate, concernedly, "What have you got?"

The man gave him a knowing smile. "Chutzpa!"

11. Other-religions jokes laugh at the illogic of other religions.

A Catholic priest finally convinced a Jew to convert to Catholicism. At the conversion ceremony, the priest took some water and said to the Jew, "You were born a Jew but now you are going to become a Christian."

Then the priest sprinkled the water on the Jew three times, each time saying, "You were born a Jew but now you are a Christian."

After the ceremony, the priest reminded the Jew of various practices, including the prohibition of eating meat on Fridays and eating fish, instead.

One Friday, he happened to pass the house of the converted Jew and smelled the odor of roasting meat emanating from his home. "So soon after his conversion and he's breaking the laws already?" the priest said to himself.

He drew near and looked into the window. He saw the Jew taking some water and sprinkling it over the roasting meat, saying, "You were born meat but now you are fish!"

As with ethnic jokes, the teacher should use his discretion and take into consideration the feelings of his audience.

12. Ethical jokes are powerful tools to illustrate our faults.

I once heard Rabbi Sholom Schwadron z'l delivering one of his famous droshos in a town which tends to sleep late on Sunday mornings. In his talk, he related how he always davened with a minyan every morning at 7:30 a.m. One Sunday, when he was abroad, he arrived at his usual time, being used to life in Israel where Sunday is the same as any other weekday.

When he got there, he found the door locked. He waited and waited until, at 8:15, the gabbai finally came to open up.

"Where is everybody?" Rabbi Schwadron asked.

"Today we start at 8:30," explained the gabbai.

Rabbi Schwadron was puzzled. "Why? What is happening today?" he asked.

The gabbai looked at him in amazement. "Don't you know? Today is Suuuuunday!"

At that point, we all laughed.

It is impossible to capture in print the tone with which Rabbi Schwadron said the word "Sunday". But it made us realize, more than a thousand words, the ridiculousness of us, all religious Jews, wasting the first part of Sunday mornings simply because our non- Jewish neighbors have nothing else to do except lie in bed.

Jokes such as these form a significant part of the educator's armory. The skillful maggid can twist his audience around his little finger by getting them to laugh at his anecdotes, and then pointing out that really they are laughing at their own faults.

13. A pun relies for its humor upon the play of two similar- sounding words. Usually they cannot be translated into another language.

How does a prisoner escape from jail? He rubs his hands together until they are sore. He takes the saw and cuts his bed in half. Two halves make a (w)hole. He climbs through the hole and shouts until he is ho(a)rse. Then he jumps on the horse and gallops away.

To be effective, the audience must be familiar with the various words and their similar sounding counterparts.

14. If a student is missing an obvious point, you can tell him the following joke:

Sherlock Holmes was out camping with his friend Dr. Watson. One night, Mr. Holmes woke up his friend and said to him, "Look up and tell me what you see."

Dr. Watson looked up and said, "I see a clear sky full of stars."

"What do you deduce from that?" Sherlock asked him.

Dr. Watson thought for a moment and then said, "There are so many galaxies, each with billions of stars. I see such wonder and order; it could not have sprung up by itself."

"Good! responded Mr. Holmes, "but there is something else you can deduce."

Dr. Watson thought again for a few moments. "I'm sorry. I cannot think of anything else."

Sherlock smiled, "My dear Watson, someone has stolen our tent!"

As a child develops, different things will amuse him. You can make a one-year-old laugh just by playing `peek- a-boo' with him. The two-year-old will laugh over a funny-sounding word and he will repeat it over and over again. The three-year-old is amused by `bathroom' jokes and he can be a source of embarrassment when he makes one of his comments in public. Gradually, the child gains a feeling for words and he builds up his word bank of different words from different sources. Also, his power of visualization develops. So, six-year-olds like `punny' jokes and `ridiculous' jokes. Older children might test your tolerance by telling you `off- color' jokes that they heard in school.

A person needs a good sense of humor just to `stay afloat' in today's world. But it can also be a powerful and remedial tool.


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