Every week during the school year, I turn out a set of notes for the Jacob Hirshleifer UCLA Faculty Tanakh Study Group; it’s a duty I took over from Jack when his health would no logner allow him to handle it. For a while, I was editing out the references to individuals (and the weekly Jew-joke at the end) and posting the notes here, but gave that task up as too time-consuming; the notes assume more familiarity with the text, and with Hebrew, than can reasonably be assumed for the RBC audience. (More, for example, than I would have if I weren’t part of the group.)
This week, though, something came up that I thought might be worth sharing. We were discussing Gen. 18:9-16, where the ninety-year-old Sarah laughs at God’s promise that she and her ninety-nine-year-old husband were about to become the parents of a son. God is annoyed, which raised two questions: whether the God of the Torah had a sense of humor, and whether the humans who wrote and compiled it did.
The existence of the camel and the giraffe, it was noted, answers the question about the Creator, but not about the sensibility of the authors of B’reishit (the Book of Genesis) and the rest of the Torah. That then links to another question: Did the authors and redactors of the Torah have a sense of humor?
We were hard-pressed to find humorous passages in the Torah itself: that is the Five Books of Moses. The rest of the Hebrew Bible (the Prophets and the Writings) lightens up somewhat: Esther and Jonah are both comical – it has been said that Sefer Esther is the first instance of the Purimspiel, the satirical play that traditionally follows the ritual reading of the text on the Feast of Purim – and there is a suggestion that “the prophet Elisha” is a parody of Elijah. (That would make me feel much better about the forty-two children torn to bits by bears for making fun of “Elisha’s” baldness.)
The Talmud is full of comic passages: for example, the list of restrictions and exceptions that render unenforceable the rule of stoning to death the stubborn and rebellious son is deliberately drawn out to the point of absurdity, and includes a slightly obscene discussion of the precise extent of pubic beard that would make a child old enough to be held responsible for his actions but young enough to still qualify as a “son” who can be stoned for disobeying his parents.
This reminds us that the Torah is an Israelite document, while the Talmud is a Jewish one.
Not that the Torah, or even B’Reishit itself, is entirely devoid of humor. One nominee might be the story of Dinah: the massacre is carried out on the third day after the circumcision of the bridegroom-to-be and his kinsmen, “when they were still sore.” [This may not seem funny to you, but I recall myself at age 14 howling with laughter.] Jacob’s trickery over the speckled livestock certainly has a Reynard/B’rer Fox flavor to it. But overall, Moses (on the traditional attribution) cannot fairly be ranked with Fielding or Petronius or Mark Twain among the masters of humorous prose.
If we take the Gospels as Jewish documents of the Talmudic period, the contrast with the Torah is also stark; R. Yeshua’s sly wit appears again and again, tempering his anger. Some of it, alas, is largely untranslatable. Consider Luke 11:37-39:
And as he spake, a certain Pharisee besought him to dine with him: and he went in, and sat down to meat.
And when the Pharisee saw it, he marvelled that he had not first washed before dinner.
And the Lord said unto him, Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness.
“Ravening”? Howzzat again?
To make sense of this, it’s important to recall that Jesus would have addressed his (Jewish) disciples in Aramaic, a relative of Hebrew, rather than in Greek. The word St. Luke uses is ἁρπαγῆς (arpages), which seems to refer to the action seizing something greedily, like a pirate or a wild beast. So “ravening,” which before it came to mean just “very hungry,” had the meaning of “tearing into something,” as a lion tears into a lamb, or a raven into carrion, isn’t a terrible translation. But it also doesn’t make much sense in context. At least not in English.
In Hebrew, the word that is the opposite of “kosher” – ritually clean and therefore fit to eat – is טְרֵפָה “tereyfeh,” familiar as the Yiddish or Yinglish “treyf.” But the literal meaning of טְרֵפָה is “ravened”: i.e., torn by wild beasts. That is, the archetype of un-kosher food is carrion, or, as we would say, “roadkill.”
So, according to Luke, Jesus accuses his Pharisee opponents of having kosher dinnerware and treyf hearts. Now that’s a put-down.
Luke’s Greek makes a different wordplay, accusing the Pharisees of rapacity: i.e., greed.
As far as I can figure out, there’s no way to get any of this humor into English; “a mouthful of piety and a heart full of roadkill” would be faithful to the sense, but far from literal.