Last week’s article condemned leitznus – the destructive nature of wasting human resources, intellect and creativity to the world of recreation and entertainment. This week we will examine the flip side – when jokes, laughter and entertainment are positive, and even encouraged. When is leitzanus permitted? Is a medical clown a valid profession? What happens when people go overboard with permitted leitzanus? How is halacha different on Purim, Shabbos and Yom Tov? Different forms of entertainment will also come under scrutiny: is attending a play permitted? What kind, and when? What is the source for celebrating a wedding with a meal? Some wedding expenditures seem excessive and unnecessary. What falls under that title, and what does not? Of this and more in the coming article.
In this week’s parasha, Yaakov Avinu celebrates his weddings with Rochel and Leah, the holy Matriarchs. Yaakov had intended to marry Rachel after shepherding for seven long years for her father Lavan, but on their wedding night, Lavan exchanged Rachel for Leah. The Torah describes this wedding: “So Lavan gathered all the people of the place, and he made a feast” (Bereshis 29:22). When Yaakov realized the trick, he asked for Rachel’s hand as promised, to which Lavan responded, “Complete the [wedding] week of this one, and we will give you this one too, for the work that you will render me for another seven years” (Bereshis 29:27). First, Lavan demanded Yaakov rejoice the full seven days with Leah, after which he could marry Rachel. But not for free, obviously – he would have to work for seven additional years.
Chazal tell us (Avos D’Rabbi Natan chapter 1; Yerushalmi, Moed Katan 1:7) that the detailed description of the festivities – the meal at the wedding, and the seven-day feasting — teach us how to celebrate weddings: a festive meal is served at the wedding, followed by seven additional days of feasting, nowadays celebrated as Sheva Brachos. In addition, another halacha is taught here; a wedding celebration cannot double as another celebration (Rambam, Hilchos Ishus 10:14; Beis Yosef EH 64:5-6). Therefore, marrying during a holiday is forbidden, as well as celebrating two weddings at the same time.
Leitzanus at Weddings
Is leitzanus permitted at wedding celebrations? The Gemara describes (Kesuvos 17a) how Rav Shmuel Bar Rav Yitzchak would dance at weddings like a lunatic with a myrtle branch for simchas choson v’kalla. The dance must have been very strange because Rabbi Zeira criticized him, claiming his behavior was not proper for a talmid chacham. However, when a pillar of fire appeared at his deathbed, Rav Zeira announced that he had been wrong. Rav Shmuel bar Yitzchok’s behavior was appropriate, and he was the greatest man of his generation. (A pillar of fire appears only at the deathbed of the one or two greatest people in a generation.)
The Maharil rules (Aseres Yemei Teshuva, 17): “One should be careful not to make jokes to give people the impression he is a fun person to be around, and to joke about things just to cause them to laugh. Joking around is a grave sin, for it begins with suffering and ends with Gehenom. However, for simchas choson v’kalla joking is a mitzva. Excessive praising is also a mitzva then – complimenting the bride for being beautiful and pious.” This ruling also appears in Elya Rabba (603:3).
What’s so important about the mitzva of simchas choson v’kalla? Why is it important enough to warrant unleashing destructive leitznus?
When the Clown is Invited to Gan Eden
The Maharil adds other occasions to the blanket permit on leitznus. What are those similar occasions? Are they all-out permits, or are permits limited? To what extent?
The following Gemaras describe occasions in which joking and humor were praised as a big mitzva:
In Ta’anis 22a we hear about Rabbi Broka Chozah who was accustomed to meeting Eliyahu Hanavi in a marketplace. Eliyahu Hanavi would point out to him various people who were bnei olam haba – worthy of the next world. One day, when Eliyahu Hanavi pointed out two people, he asked them who they were and what they did to merit such great reward. It turned out that the two were jesters. “When we hear someone is sad, we hurry over to make him happy. We tell him a good joke to raise up his spirits. And if we hear of two Jews involved in a fight, we use our sense of humor to help them make amends.”
Another Gemara (Nedarim 50b) described a disciple of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi called Bar Kappara. This student would make every effort to amuse his teacher. The Gemara describes two occasions in which his rebbi refused to be amused. Nevertheless, Bar Kappara succeeded in doing so. One such occasion was at the wedding of one of Rabbi Yehuda’s children. This Gemara teaches us that everything, even a good thing, must be done in good measure.
A Time to Laugh
Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of all men, writes: “Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heaven… A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time of wailing and a time of dancing” (Kohelet 3:1-4). When is the “time to laugh”?
Last week we explained the danger of setting the powers of laughter and mirth free. However, as the Rambam teaches us, everything in the world has a time and place and we must always aim for the golden middle path. What is the middle path in this matter?
Serious people have many advantages. But a heavy, serious attitude can become burdensome.
The two jesters in understood that mirth and mockery is dangerous, but when used as a tool, can serve an important purpose. A sad person sees everything negatively, and a few well-placed jokes can lift the gloom and dissipate depression. Feuds can be defused with a humorous line, allowing rivals to see reality in a positive way.
As Shlomo Hamelech says: “Everything has an appointed season.” Those two jokesters knew when the time for laughter was, and as a result– were invited to their eternal reward.
Simchas Choson V’Kalla
My rebbe, Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Herschler zatal, once told me that the reason Chazal were so interested in prompoting simchas choson v’kalla is because, as we see from this week’s parasha, when thinking rationally, a newlywed couple should really be deeply anxious and frightened. Marriage is a life-altering decision, where one locks himself with a partner to whom he must be dedicated for his next seventy or eighty years, without really knowing who he is and how his personality will play out on life’s stage.
Everyone is afraid of changes and marriage is certainly one of the greatest changes, which plays out in multiple ways throughout life.
For this reason Chazal instituted the mitzva of simchas choson v’kalla – to ease a newlywed couple’s transition into married life, to oil the move and make it light, easy, and fun. This is where the badchan comes in, the merrymaking friends that make fools of themselves, and everyone who joins in the simcha to help the couple transition peacefully.
Rabbi Aryeh added a side point – while spending on things to make a statement or impress friends or relatives is unnecessary and harmful, something that is important to the bride or groom – be it a certain flower, color scheme, or band — although it may seem ridiculous to spend so much for a few short hours (or minutes!) when they say it’s important it apparently helps them divert their attention from the challenges of the upcoming transition.
Simchas Choson V’Kalla — Forbidden Leitznus
The Ben Ish Chai (shana I, Shoftim, 18) writes: “It is a great mitzva to make a bride and groom happy at their wedding and make jokes, so they rejoice. The merit for doing so is tremendous. However, one must be careful not to violate the slightest prohibition, even a rabbinic one. And certainly it is forbidden for men and woman to dance together, or even for women to dance where men can see them. Making jokes, even silly ones, is a big mitzva, but laughing about mitzvos or prohibitions, or laughing at others, is forbidden.”
The Taz adds (OC 660:5) that singing the Kaddish prayer at weddings was rampantly accepted. He warns that doing so is a grave sin, because Kaddish must not be recited unnecessarily. Songs at weddings should only speak of Hashem’s kindness, and when the badchan makes jokes that involve psukim or other holy concepts, the Taz writes “praiseworthy is he who refrains from it”.
Recommended Sense of Humor
When besides for weddings is humor recommended? Apparently not only depressed people or those at crucial crossroads need a bit of humor. In Pirkei Avos we read (chapter 6:5) that one of the 48 paths to acquiring Torah is “reduced laughter”. The term “reduced” (as in “reduced sugar”) indicates that there is some laughter, but less. It does not eliminate laughter completely. This leads us to understand that every person needs to laugh a little. One who wishes to acquire Torah must limit his laughter to the barest minimum, spending most of his day focused and serious. What is the minimum necessary?
The Gemara (Shabbos 30b) recounts how Rebbe would begin every lesson with a witty remark. After the students laughed a little, he went on to teach a lesson in due respect and awe as required from teachers of Hashem’s Torah.
The Tiferes Yisroel (Avos 6, Yachin 85) explains this Gemara. While Torah acquisition requires awe and respect, humor helps people wake up and brightens their spirit. However, the Tiferes Yisroel adds, only words of Torah leaders should be chosen — humor intended to transmit messages of morals and wisdom. Childish humor is usually void of any wisdom and does nothing to wake up students. On the contrary, it upsets the mind and logic. This, he explains, is the meaning of the Mishna (Avos 3:10) “Rabbi Dosa the son of Hurkinas would say: Morning sleep, noontime wine, children’s talk and sitting at the meeting places of the ignoramus, drive a person from the world.”
The Tanya also writes (Igros, 120; 137) that playing pranks and engaging in foolishness, even as a means for achieving happiness, is wrong. No mitzva can result from a prohibition, and engaging in foolishness does not cause real joy. As for a light joke to change the mood, the Ba’al HaTanya compares it to eating and drinking. One who eats to honor Shabbos or to have energy to learn Torah, or tells a joke to relax before learning or to lighten his heart to be able serve Hashem properly, harnesses humor for the positive. When used for the opposite of G-d’s service, humor becomes evil.
Rabbi Tzddok Hakohen (Tzidkas Hatzadik 260) permits all jokes intended to eliminate sadness. Even if the result is merely external cheerfulness, which does nothing for true inner happiness, it is permitted. Laughing helps one to lighten up and learn better and subsequent Torah study will inject meaning and inner joy.
One who jokes around without taking advantage of his emotional state for spiritual pursuits will be left with external happiness and inner depression and restlessness. This is why the Gemara says (Brachos 31a) “One should never fill his mouth with laughter in this world” – one who fills his mouth with laughter expresses that he has nothing better to do with himself.
The Magen Avraham (307:22) and Mishna Brura (307:59) forbid Purim jest, permitting only a comic performance that is related to the Purim events. Rabbi Tzadok Hakoehn (Tzidkas Hatzadik 260) writes that comic portrayal of Haman on Purim is included in permitted leitzanus since it makes fun of avoda zara.
The Ya’avetz (Mor U’ketzia 307, Magen Avraham footnote 22) rules that all year round one may attend Jewish performances that recount Hashem’s miracles, such as plays of Megillas Esther, Dovid and Goliath, etc.
On Purim, the Gemara notes a special permit (Sanhedrin 64b): young boys customarily jumped around in strange ways on Purim (presumably in outlandish and perhaps even dangerous ways). Halacha notes (Rama OC 695:2) that damages on Purim or those that occurred in the course of simchas chasan v’kalla are exempted from payment. This seems to indicate that the actions are permitted in these contexts.
Leitznus of Avoda Zara
Another form of permitted leitzanus is mocking avoda zara. As Chazal tell us (Megillah 25b; Sanhedrin 63b) all leitznus is forbidden except leitznus of avoda zara. This permit is noted in halacha (YD 147:5) and includes both idols and their worshipers (Meiri Megillah 25b).
Rabbi Tzadok Hakoen (Tzikdas Hatzadik 260) writes that one who feels he is free of a specific sin can make fun of those who transgress it, but one who might have transgressed it, even slightly, has no right to make fun of those who do. Only mocking avoda zara is permitted to all, since the drive to transgress it has been eliminated.
There are times when solemn earnestness leads to depression, sows discord, or plants worry. Dissipating the heaviness though humor and jokes is a mitzva. However, one must ensure that the jokes remain within proper halachic boundaries and include no laughing at another’s expense, mocking holy topics, or repulsive language.
Certain occasions also call for a lighter spirit: weddings or Purim celebrations are times when rejoicing and light-heartedness is a mitzva.
Throughout the day, joking and light-heartedness can be used as a tool for opening students to their studies and as a means for a higher purpose.Mocking avoda zara is always permitted, in any form.