In honor of the upcoming “Joke Day” which is on July 1st:

“Knock. Knock”
“Who’s There?”
“Jewish Who?”
Jewish Treats”….Ok, not so funny, but, when you get to the bottom of it, Joke Day is hardly a Jewish holiday. Perhaps you are wondering how a day for jokes and laughter cannot be a Jewish day? After all, so many stand-up comedians and comedy writers are Jewish.

Jews like to laugh, it’s true, and Jews like to make others laugh. Indeed, making people laugh is considered a great mitzvah. Once, the Talmud tells us, Rabbi Beroka was walking in the market with the Prophet Elijah. Rabbi Beroka wished to know who in the crowd had a share in the World to Come. When Elijah pointed out two men, Rabbi Beroka asked them: “What is your occupation?” They replied, “We are jesters, when we see men depressed, we cheer them up. Furthermore, when we see two people quarreling, we strive hard to make peace between them” (Taanit 22a).

Making others laugh is a wonderful thing, but not when it is at someone else’s expense. A good practical joke is one in which the teller, listener and subject all laugh together. Practical jokes are problematic on two accounts: they either embarrass someone or cause someone to be frightened. Embarrassing someone is equated by the rabbis to killing them: “He who publicly shames his fellow is as though he shed blood” (Bava Metzia 58b). So too, Choshen Mishpat, the section of the Code of Jewish Law that covers business law, notes that frightening another person is forbidden.

Since the purpose of a practical joke is almost always to frighten (even mildly) or embarrass another person. Therefore, practical jokes are best avoided. That does not, however, mean that comedy isn’t an acceptable Jewish art form!

This Treat was originally posted on April 1, 2014.

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