Yesterday (here), I noted that R. Zeira seems to have had a biting sense of humor that he used to enable himself to do introspection, as well as to direct mussar at others. I later remembered, however, that there is more than meets the eye in R. Zeira’s exchange with R. Yirmiyah. The Gemara in Berachot 31a cites from R. Yochanan in the name of R. Shimon bar Yochai that it “is forbidden to fill one’s mouth with laughter in this world” – that is until the time of Moshiach. The Gemara even notes that Reish Lakish never filled his mouth with laughter after hearing this!
However, it seems that not every member of Chazal was equally convinced by this prohibition. Specifically, R. Yirmiyah and R. Zeira disagreed – R. Zeira took this particularly seriously and R. Yirmiyah – not as much. R. Yirmiyah made it his life’s mission to make R. Zeira laugh – or at least that is how Rashi understands the following Gemara:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת נדה דף כג עמוד א
בעא מיניה רבי ירמיה מר‘ זירא: לר“מ דאמר בהמה במעי אשה ולד מעליא הוא קבל בה אביה קידושין מהו? למאי נפקא מינה – לאיתסורי באחותה. למימרא דחיי? והאמר רב יהודה אמר רב: לא אמרה ר“מ אלא הואיל ובמינו מתקיים! אמר רב אחא בר יעקב: עד כאן הביאו רבי ירמיה לר‘ זירא לידי גיחוך ולא גחיך.
רש“י מסכת נדה דף כג עמוד א
לידי גיחוך – שחוק בכל תחבולות הללו עסק ר‘ ירמיה להביא ר‘ זירא לידי שחוק ולא שחק דאסור לאדם שימלא פיו שחוק ור‘ זירא מחמיר טפי.
R. Yirmiyah, however, was not successful. He must have thought that R. Zeira had no sense of humor, was just a bit too serious. R. Zeira, I imagine, got a bit annoyed – “I think it’s forbidden to laugh – why are you trying to get me to laugh with these [bad] jokes?!”
However, this was not the end of the story. One day, a confusion between R. Yirmiyah and R. Zeira causes R. Zeira to eat tevel, and it is all R. Yirmiyah’s fault. Instead of just noting the sin, R. Zeira responds with a brilliant, biting, and quite extensive piece of humorous mussar. I can just imagine R. Zeira thinking “you think I’m not funny – I just think you use jokes at the wrong time. However, there is a time and place for everything. If a joke will be in service of self-improvement, I’m all for it. Even more, I’m funnier than you!” And if my opinion means anything – R. Zeira’s jokes are better.
And it should be noted, this doesn’t just fit with the Yerushalmi in Demai. The Bavli’s version takes on a deeper meaning as well. In the Bavli, R. Zeira makes the comment about R. Yochanan, the one who originally said it was assur to laugh! It seems that they were on the same page – there is a time and place for everything, and jokes that help mussar penetrate are by no means forbidden sechok.