Laughter and Judaism: Torah Reading Introduction - Rosh Hashanah Day I 5778
Oct 1st 2017

Schwartz, an elderly man, is resting peacefully on the porch of his small hotel outside Boca when he sees a cloud of dust up the road. He walks out to see who could be approaching: It is a Southern farmer with a wagon.

“Good afternoon,” says Schwartz.

“Afternoon,” says the farmer.

“Where you headed?” asks Schwartz.


“What do you have in the wagon?”


“Manure, eh? What do you do with it?”

“I spread it over the fruit.”

“Well,” says Schwartz, “you should come over here for lunch someday. We use sour cream.”

From Groucho Marx to Jon Stewart, many comedians have been Jewish.  Humour is an important marker of Jewish identity. In 2013, the Pew study of Jewish identity indicated that 42 per cent of Jews view humor as a particular feature of our identity.

The Jewish penchant for humour, goes back to our Torah reading. Sarah laughs when God tells Abraham the unlikely news that he and his ninety-year-old wife will have a son.  God instructs them to name the child “Yitzhak,” which means, "he shall laugh.” 

The late sociologist Peter Berger thought that Jews loved humor, because it “sees through the façades of the social order, and discloses other realities lurking behind the superficial ones.”

Meir Soloveitchik recently wrote: Superficially, the Jews appeared to have been rejected by God, … [with] lives devoid of any reason for joy, for celebration, for laughter. But to think this is to … miss out on a life of Torah that …could bring joy, and to fail to understand what every Jew in prayer once confidently predicted: that one day the pattern would shift; … the expectations of anti-Semites would be shattered, and … a return to Zion would be vindicated: …Then was our mouth filled with laughter....

The birth of Yitzhak changed expectations and reversed what was anticipated. Thus it has been for much of Jewish history. As we gather together on Rosh Hashanah, we remember Yitzhak, and turn to God asking for a year of life, love—and laughter.

Redeeming Laughter, Peter L. Berger  (2014)