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: Continue reading My Jokes are Funnier than Yours… When I Choose to be Funny
One phrase that is often pointed to as a proof of “yeridat hadorot”, the inevitable decline in spiritual stature as time marches on, is a line that appears in Shabbat 112b. In the context of praising R. Yochanan, the Gemara remarks that either “he was not human” or “he is the [ultimate?] human”. R. Zeira then adds “if the earlier generations were like angels, then we are people; if the earlier generations were people, we are donkeys.” This is classically taken as a mixture of praise our forefathers and mussar for us. However, as R. Aryeh Klapper has convincingly noted, this Gemara has a fare bit of humor mixed in as well. The Gemara continues that if we are donkeys “we are not like the donkeys of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa and Pinchas ben Yair, but rather like other donkeys.” This alludes to two stories in Shas, one in which one donkey refuses to eat food which has not had terumah and maasrot properly taken, and the other where the donkey refuses to eat when stolen and ends up being freed and returns home (perhaps related again to tevel, though different version are quoted). Rabbi Klapper notes that if one imagines someone getting up to give this as a mussar shmooze, while the point will get across, it will also elicit a laugh. “We are donkeys – and not special donkeys…” To start with mussar and then tell long stories about bright frum donkeys is a way to ensure they everyone knows you are speaking partially tongue in cheek. Take the mussar, but not too hard. Continue reading Magical Donkeys, Mussar, Introspection, and Humor