A Word with Rabbi Moshe Taub

Shul Chronicles 61

By Rabbi Moshe Taub

(Originally published in Ami Weekly Magazine)


Make ‘Em Laugh

Talmudic Parodies, Litzanus, and Kosher Laughter


In the spirit of Purim…

Let us a take a walk through the celebrated Royal Library of Metz, the very same library where the legendary story of the Maharal and the Golem that he had created was first discovered.

Oh, look over there, right above the Ibn Ezra’s highly recommended ‘Ben Porim’ on the life of the matriarch Leah is the first edition of Meseches Edomim, MiTalmud Bulshevik. Some shitos are of the opinion that its original name was ‘Bava Commie’.

Lets open it up and see what it says….

Wait. Let me get serious for a minute. In my attempt to write Purim Torah I may have lost the reader.

There is no famous Royal Library of Metz–although, somehow, that is where some claim the famous Golem story was first discovered (while there is tradition of the Maharal creating a Golem, the famous story surrounding it and known to many is, at best, overstated. See Yarchon Ha-M’ohr 62:4. Cf. Nifloes HaMaharal, by Reb Yudel Rosenberg).

Nor is there a seferBen Porim”, rather the Ibn Ezra comments (Bereishis 29:17) on a Karaite’s book, titled Ben Ephraim, where a claim is made that when the Torah says that Leah’s eyes were “rakos (weak/light)” there is a missing aleph (!!) and it should be read “arakos” (long). To this the Ibn Ezra says that perhaps the Ben Ephraim stole the aleph for himself…I will let the reader put two and two together.

As for Meseches Edomim (Tractate Reds)…that is ‘real’ and we will discuss it, and other “purim mesechtos” in a moment.

Yes, explaining my opening jokes defeats their purpose, for as Rav Sadia Gaon explains, humor and laughter is the sudden self-realization of a fundamental truth. So I will instead abandon my attempt at coy humor and Purim Torah, and instead discuss humor in Torah hashkafa and history.

There is a theory that Jews’ purported wonderful sense of humor is due to their painful history. In other words our love for laughter is born out of a coping method. Problem is, many other nations have suffered. Somalian humor anyone? Kurdish knock-knock jokes? I think not.

According to Mel Gordon, a professor of theater arts at the University of California, Berkeley the birth of Jewish humor took place around 1661 in the wake of Bohdan Chmielnicki and his band Cossacks, which in turn brought about the job of a badchan. In fact the Council of the Four Lands (a vaad that we will discuss in a future column) would eventually desire to ban the increase frivolity that was taking place; and they did, with one exception: the badchan.

Of course laughter goes back much further than this. Famously, the gemera teaches that Rabbah would begin his shiurim with milei divdichusah (something humorous) so as to get his ‘students to laugh’ before a shiur would begin (Shabbos 30b). In fact, I would even suggest, that one could find humor in gemera itself. One example: The gemera in Taanis (23b) relates how R. Mani approached R. Yitzchak ben Elyashiv for a beracha that his wife becomes beautiful. The gemera informs us that the blessing worked and she indeed became beautiful (see shu’t Tzitz Eliezer 11:41 for how this gemera relates to modern cosmetic/elective surgery in Halacha). However, R. Mani returned a few days later asking that she be reverted to her plainness for she had become insufferable and haughty! See also Megilla 25b where pesukim are used to sharply and wittily mock avodah zara.


Back to Purim Torah:

Before we go on it should be noted that some view the entire enterprise of Purim Torah and Talmudic parodies in a negative light. The Biur Heitiv (siman 696:13) for instance remarks that it is forbidden to read Meseschtas Purim - a composition of Purim Torah in the form and style of gemera - as it makes litzanus out of divrei chazal. Others agree; namely the Davar Shmuel (siman 123; although I could not find it inside) and, in present day, the Nitei Gavriel (Zinner, Purim) in the name of the Bris Mateh Moshe (on the hagada).

Some, however, take a different approach to the concept of ‘Purim Torah’. In fact Mesechats Purim was written in the 14th century by Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, who wrote many other legitimate sefarim (some mussar oriented, like ‘aven bchen’) and who was a scion of the one of the most prominent families in Ashkenaz. It was first published in 1521 and has seen many printings since.

Allowing for a small amount frivolity on Purim, even at the expense of out great teachers – e.g. the Purim Rav, has a long history, as does its many detractors. To be sure, a Purim Rav does not have carte blanche. Although some of the laws of busha are lightened on Purim (like the takana of the Geonim to pay restitution for embarrassing another when no other physical damages are involved; see Mishpitei Torah volume 1 page 47 and footnote #4 at length), to purposefully cause embarrassment is clearly forbidden.

In fact, it is recorded that Rav Shimon Sofer (the Michtav Sofer), son of the Chasam Sofer and younger brother to the Ksav Sofer, while serving as chief rabbi of Krakow died on Purim 5643 (1883) due to the shock and pain he felt as a result of the sharp words of that year’s Purim Rav!

On the other hand some of the most prominent yeshivos allowed, and still allow for a Purim Rav. It has been recorded in many places how Rav Kook was the most famous Purim Rav in Volozion Yeshiva’s history as he was able to imitate the rosh yeshiva, the Netziv, to-a-tea! A historical aside, Rav Kook gave over his ‘purim spiel’ in ivrit –as opposed to the usual Yiddish – to the shock of the maskilim who could not believe a member of this Yeshiva was so proficient in Hebrew grammar. The Netziv’s family would go on to ‘return the favor’ as Rav Yitzchak Charif, the Netziv’s great grandson, was chosen as the Purim Rav in Rav Kook’s yeshiva and was able to sharply mimic Rav Kook.

Over the years there have been many other imitators of Mesechtas Purim: Meseschtas Edomim (Reds) was published in Tel Aviv in 1923. This ‘massechta’ is made up of 24 dafim, encompassing 5 perakim.  It would be humorous if it weren’t so horrifying; the parody is dedicated to someone who was killed by the Communists in 1920. It opens with an authentic quotation from Megillah 25b: Litzanus is forbidden accept when it is to deride the wicked”.

The term ‘Reds’, of course, is used colloquially as a reference to communists. The 'mishnah' begins “All are Red, there is no difference between Red and White, apart for the name alone. Rabbi Yarkan says the Yerokin (Greens) are included. 'Rashi' says that the Gemara will explain who the Yerokim are. On 3a, for example, we see that “the Whites call 'Zhid!' (Jew) loudly, while the Reds say it quietly”, i.e., they are both anti-Semitic.

In the 'Gemara' (3b) Rabbi Yarkon 'darshens' Vayikra 13:49 (“And the affliction shall be deep green or deep red…”) to prove that in regards to plagues both Green and Red are the same. By 'Green' he means the armed peasants who fought both the red and white armies.

Another example would be Talmud Yankee, made up by several ‘Mesechtos’, published in the turn of the last century and making fun of the am-haratzus found then in America. In chapter 4 of Mesechta America the ‘Mishnah’ reads: “One who teaches Bar Mitzvah boys must teach him to read even if he sounds like a rooster…and must teach him a Dvar Torah for it is a prescribed makkos tzibbur (communal suffering)”. The ‘gemera’ comments: “the bar mitzvah teacher must stand next to the boy at the bima so as to whisper in his ear what to do…”  

During the prohibition era, when most alcoholic beverages were banned in America, a man by the name Gershon Kish (likely a non de plum) wrote Mesechta Prohibition. The opening ‘mishnah’ reads: “All are allowed to drink…” The ‘gemera’ asks “Pshita (this is obvious)!?” Answers the ‘gemera’ “When was this for? During prohibition in America…” ‘Rashi’ translates prohibition as ‘yavash’ (dryness).

Even today we find such “purim gemeras”. Mesechta Yechi is a parody written by a Lubavitcher chossid living in Tzfas expressing his opposition for a movement among his fellow Chassidim, and, most recently, Mesechta Netanyahu by an unknown author.

The gemera (Berachos 31a) tells the story of a wedding where the chachomim were becoming overly joyous and celebratory. They asked Rav Hamnuna to sing them a song and he used this as an opportunity to rebuke them. He sang “Vivay lanu Limisnan, Vivay Lanu Limisnan” (Whoa to us for we will die, whoa to us for we will die). While this certainly caused the chachomim to act in a softer manner, Rav Elya Lopian asks, would it not have sullied the joy of the chasan and kalla as well? He explains that certainly the Torah allows for joy and laughter, but the only way to know if how we are accomplishing it is bderech hatorah or not is to think about yom misa (day of death). Only one who is joyous for the wrong reasons would thereby get depressed, while others, who are celebrating bruach hatorah would not.

When we celebrate this Purim let it be bderech hatorah, not at anyone’s expense, and only so as to grow bdveikus el Hashem.


Daf Yomi takes place nightly at the Young Israel of Greater Buffalo, 105 Maple Road, after the evening services. For complete schedule call 634-0212 or visit their web site at 

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