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Laugh for God's Sake: Where Jewish Humor and Jewish Ethics Meet

Laugh for God's Sake: Where Jewish Humor and Jewish Ethics Meet

by Stanley J. Schachter

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KTAV Publishing House, Inc.
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6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

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Where Jewish Humor and Jewish Ethics Meet

By STANLEY J. SCHACHTER KTAV Publishing House, Inc.

Copyright © 2008 Stanley J. Schachter
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60280-018-2

Chapter One


For the "haves" of society, money is an intoxicating spice. Buying and selling, lending and borrowing, savoring the uses of money to accumulate pleasures of every kind, take up a major share of their time and attention. For life's "have nots," the situation is drastically different. The amassing, protection and wide uses of capital are of little consequence to those whose fundamental need is to be able to put food on the table. By the simple fact of being chronically in need, the poor of our communities constitute an ethical challenge. Their very existence compels us to consider whether and to what extent a society is obligated to help its needy members.

The Jewish answer to this challenge has always been emphatic, proclaiming that no community may close its eyes or its hands to the plight of its poor. Jewish ethical teachings do not budge on this point, insisting that even when the community assists from communal funds, no individual may avoid personal participation in helping the poor. Remarkably, in Jewish teachings, the obligation to give extends even to those who are the recipients of charity. They too are required to set aside a sum, no matterhow tiny, for those who are even less fortunate.

The Torah's rules of charity contain a novel feature. Lending money to the poor, provided that the loan is free of interest charges, is considered an act of charity. This may even strike us as being in conflict with the very idea of charity. It must seem strange that the recipient of the loan has been saddled with the burden of repayment. In what way does a loan qualify as charity? How does it promote and advance the ideal of a generous, giving society if a donor has the option of lending rather than outright giving?

One possible answer is that the law speaks from the persistent reality that there are always people who are in no position to give away money. In the Torah's view, they are not exempt from the requirement to perform acts of charity. They may therefore meet their obligation through a loan. Perhaps too, the Torah is shrewdly aware of how painful it is for some people, even those who are favored with surplus means, to part with their money. Providing the alternative of an interest free loan might make available assistance which would otherwise not be forthcoming.

Rabbinic law differentiates loans for commercial needs from loans to alleviate the misery of the poor, permitting interest charges to the former alone. The Torah's term for interest is nesheh, literally a bite, the kind that a ferocious beast inflicts upon its prey. Jewish religious law understood interest charges on loans to the poor as yet another affliction. By forgoing interest on this kind of loan, the lender relieves the recipient of an additional financial burden, and thus it may be considered an act of charity.

Regardless of the chosen instrument of charity, whether by outright giving, by loan, or by any creative means we may devise, the underlying ideology of Judaism's social concerns is that a society does not rise to the level of a good society until it becomes an obligated society.

This ideal was often tested under the grim circumstances of people in dire need. Jewish humor does not spare the tension between society's haves and have-nots. It takes us into a realm where money is needed for bread, simply to sustain life. It is a witness to the eternal contest that unfolds when the poor must appeal to the conscience of the rich, not knowing whether the answer will be "yes" or "no." It is here where we meet the contrast between empathy and indifference. We set the stage with two jokes.

A beggar Jew wandered from village to village searching for a person who would take pity on him. He stumbled into a village where he was overcome by the delicious aroma of freshly cooked food coming from an open window. He knocked at the door hoping for a bite to eat. A woman opened the door and demanded to know what he wished. "Please," he said, "I'm a poor man. I haven't had a decent meal for days. I beg you to please help me." She replied, "Would you eat some cold soup?" Eagerly, he answered, "Yes!" "In that case," she said, "come back tomorrow; the soup is still hot!"

* * *

Two strangers meet in the market. One says to the other, "Lend me a hundred rubles." The other responds, "One hundred rubles? I don't even know you." The first one sighs and says, "People never fail to amaze me. Here no one will lend me money because no one knows me. In my home town, no one will lend me money because they do know me."

* * *

What is the common denominator linking these two jokes? It is the lop-sided relationship between the person in need of help and the one who can as easily help or not. We can imagine the unsympathetic housewife chuckling at her verbal cleverness. We can picture her pleasure as she repeats the story to a friend. Meanwhile, the hungry beggar remains as he was; for him nothing has changed. He must continue his search for someone else who may or may not help him.

The second story presents the plight of the poor less starkly but with the important insight that there is at bottom no advantage to being either known or unknown. Nor does the nature of the need matter at all. This joke leads us to the somber conclusion that an appeal for help can as easily fall on deaf ears as on receptive ears.

Both jokes have in common the unevenness of the playing field in the encounter between the haves and the have-nots. This is a given that never changes. The goal of tzedakah as a central pillar of Jewish ethics is to make irrelevant whether or not we know anything about the person in need. Hunger is hunger, misery is never less than misery, and it is of no account that the hungry, suffering person may be too lazy to seek or hold a job. Neither defects of personality nor harmful life habits should be allowed to obscure the fact that he is hungry or in pain. Seen in this light, the task is always to look to the person and not to the outer appearance.


Following the funeral service, the rich man's coffin was slowly escorted to the cemetery. During his lifetime, the deceased was known for his indifference to the poor. A line of relatives followed behind the coffin, their faces lined with sorrow. Suddenly a bedraggled beggar, dressed in rags, joined their ranks and wept bitterly as he walked. One of them asked him, "Why are you weeping? He was no relative of yours." The beggar replied, "That's why I'm weeping."

* * *

A wealthy skinflint died. His son did not shed a tear. During the procession to the cemetery, beggars lined the route, rattling their charity boxes. The son suddenly burst into sobs. He was asked, "What made you cry now and not earlier?" He answered, "Now I know for certain that my father is dead. Charity boxes are rattling and he isn't running away."

* * *

A poor man stood before a rich man and told him that they had been children together in the same town. The rich man looked at him and said contemptuously, "You are mistaken. I have never seen you before, and I have no intention of helping you." The poor man pointed a finger at the rich man and shouted, "Tomorrow you will be a dead man." The rich man was suddenly frightened. In truth, he did know who the poor man was. They had been playmates in childhood. "I apologize," he said, "I do remember you now. I will help you, but first you must tell me what you meant when you said that tomorrow I will be dead. Were you threatening me with harm?" "Oh no," the poor man replied, "but do you remember that I had a brother?" "Of course, I remember him well," said the rich man. The poor man continued, "My brother is no longer alive, but on the day before he died, he also didn't know who I was."

* * *

Two volunteers came to a wealthy man to request his support for several indigent Jews. Knowing his ungenerous nature, they expected to be turned away or, at best, to be dismissed with a pittance. To their surprise and pleasure he told them that he would make a substantial gift. He promptly wrote out a check and handed it to them. They thanked him profusely and left, congratulating themselves on their success. An hour later the two solicitors were back at the rich man's home. Apologetically, they said to him, "We are grateful to you for your wonderful contribution, but you neglected to sign the check." The rich man waved his hand at them, "I certainly did not forget to sign my name. I believe in anonymous giving."

* * *

The trustees of the community Passover Relief Fund called on a householder to ask for his generous support. He declined, saying, "I am not contributing to the fund because I have a poor brother who needs my help for the holiday." The next day the brother appeared before the trustees and requested assistance for the holiday. They turned to him in puzzlement, "We cannot help you because your brother is already assisting you." The poor man groaned, "It's true that he's my brother, but he doesn't give me one red cent!" The trustees paid a second visit to the wealthy brother and said to him, "You deceived us. You have neither helped your brother or any other poor soul with their holiday needs." The selfish man responded in a haughty voice, "I certainly did not deceive you. All that I told you is that I have a poor brother. I did not say that I have given him something. Surely, if I don't help my own flesh and blood, you can't expect me to give to complete strangers!"

* * *

A poor man sought out a prosperous relative in order to ask for a job. The relative inquired, "Are you acquainted with bookkeeping?" "No," came the reply. "Then please tell me what you are able to do," the rich relative asked. The poor relation replied, "I'm good at giving advice." The rich man thought for a moment and declared, "Here are ten rubles. Please advise me what is the quickest way I can get rid of you."

* * *

A notoriously stingy man of means died. In heaven a committee of angels examined his life's record and could not find a single act of charity. Immediately they seized him and began pushing him towards Hell. He protested furiously and screamed at them, "You are making a terrible mistake. I belong in heaven. Forty years ago I performed a great act of charity. I saved a starving man from death. I gave him a penny to buy a slice of bread." Again the angels searched their records and discovered that it was true. With a great flutter of their wings they flew to God's throne and asked the Holy One, "What shall be the correct verdict for this man?" God summoned His heavenly tribunal and deliberated with them. Their decision was unanimous, "Give him back his penny and let him go to Hell."

Chapter Two


The Jewish ethical tradition looks to the Bible for its inspiration, and sees in the Torah's creation saga the source of its attitude towards work. God labored for six days to create the world, and God fashioned human beings in His image (Genesis 1:1). It's a tight, bare bones way of saying that what's good enough for God should be good enough for us. If work, any kind of work, is not beneath the dignity of God, we who are made in God's likeness should never consider work beneath our dignity. The interpreters of Judaism always viewed work in the most positive light, as both a blessing and an obligation. Jewish sages over the centuries were exemplars of their own teachings. The most renowned teachers of Judaism included sandal makers, cloth dyers, field-laborers, black-smiths, and ordinary day laborers. The skilled and the unskilled among them shared the same status, and an employer did not automatically stand on a higher pedestal than an employee. Ancient tales tell of acclaimed Torah teachers who provided for their families by performing the most menial tasks, demonstrating that what counts are honest, conscientious labor by the worker and respectful consideration by the employer.

The Jewish understanding of labor has a long history. We are taught that fathers were duty bound to teach a craft to their sons (BT Kiddushin 29a). A Mishnah sadly observes that idleness and indolence often lead to sin (Avot 2:2). We tend to think that laws benefiting workers are the hall-mark of modern, enlightened societies, yet Talmudic legislation, almost two thousand years ago, established standards governing minimum pay, safety requirements, collective bargaining and health safeguards. Where varying rates of pay for identical work prevailed in the same community, a worker could insist that he be paid at the average rate, not at the lowest one (BT Baba Metzia 87a). If local custom included meals and lodging as part of a pay package, employers were forbidden to deny these perks to their workers (Mishnah, Baba Metzia 7:1). During the many centuries when farm labor was the predominant form of work, field hands were granted the right to eat of the farm produce while working in the fields, but employers were forbidden to pay their workers in kind as a portion of their wages (ibid. 10:5). As a general rule, workers were hired by the day and were to be paid at the end of each day's work. An employer deliberately delaying payment faced public scorning by being declared a robber (BT Baba Metzia 11a). In all of these cases we glimpse highly developed ethical practices aimed at protecting and elevating the dignity of the worker. Judaism regarded the rights of the worker as embedded in the divine plan of creation.

Similarly, Judaism did not neglect the legitimate needs of the employer. They were given the right of monetary redress against employees guilty of carelessly destroying the employer s tools, or of negligent or sloppy work (Maimonides, Sehirut 13:7). This legislation grew out of constant pre-occupation with the interactions of workers and employers. The goal was always to raise both groups to a higher sense of mutual responsibility. Better times occurred when Jewish communities, responsive to rabbinic guidance in all areas of Jewish religious life, responded also to rules governing the work place. When the Jewish ethical tradition was an integral part of Jewish life, it demonstrated a persistent ability to bring ever higher expectations into one of the basic realms of human relationships. Separated by almost two millennia from the earliest records of such efforts, we may ask if these laws were always effective. Did the realities of daily life in the work place mirror the ethical ideals?

Jewish humor provides a portrait of the gap that often marred the relationships between workers and bosses. It exploits the tensions in which the two sides are often embroiled. Jokes in this category did not have to be overly inventive. Life itself supplied the raw material. On one side were employers, forever carping about the quality of work. On the other side were the workers protesting management practices, inadequate compensation and a disagreeable work environment. These jokes speak to us from a world brimming with mutual distrust. They carry the ring of truth because they derive from real life situations. They are convincing because the clashes they describe parallel situations known to employees and employers alike. In true democratic spirit, these jokes have no favorites, assigning blame and culpability equally to either side or to both. We can read them for the easy laughs they provide; we can also see them as shrewd commentaries on human nature describing people hardly different from ourselves; people who are caught between the two poles of selfishness and a higher ethic of behavior. Reflected in them too is a brooding sadness over a world in which material progress is often accompanied by increased harshness in the work place. It is a short step to sense in these jokes a yearning for the higher standards reflected in the Jewish legal tradition.

The jokes in this section are snapshots of workers and bosses in adversarial relationships, each trying to outmaneuver and best the other, each regarding the other as no better than a necessary evil. We begin with two examples.


Excerpted from LAUGH FOR GOD'S SAKE by STANLEY J. SCHACHTER Copyright © 2008 by Stanley J. Schachter. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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