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November 29, 2015 / 17 Kislev, 5776
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Why Do Rabbis Make Jokes at Serious Times?

It’s even more strange when the jokes come at our holiest times of the year.

Rabbis Make Jokes

Jews are funny. I mean that in two ways. Jews make good jokes and we also do things that are funny sometimes. And by funny things, I mean odd.

My impression is that preachers are pretty serious when they speak from the pulpit. I think that the same could be said for imams. But for some reason, rabbis are always telling jokes.

I resisted it for years. But it’s almost expected that rabbis will tell rabbi jokes from the pulpit. So I have been doing a little bit more humor once in a while and generally the feedback has been positive. I find this incredibly strange.

It’s even more strange when the jokes come at our holiest times of the year.

This year I had 175 people sitting in silence and reverence following a solemn Kol Nidre service. I opened my remarks with a joke. I felt so uncomfortable. But it seemed to me that no one else felt uncomfortable at all. They loved it.

I did the same thing before Neilah. The inspirational talk began with a joke. It worked. People listened. People complimented me. Believe me, I get complaints all the time. No one complained about the jokes.

I don’t get it. I can’t even imagine a Catholic Priest making a joke during their service. I can’t imagine a politician speaking at a serious event and cracking a joke. I’d wager that jokes would not be acceptable in yeshivos either. Most serious yeshivish and chasidish places would not be cool with jokes during a serious drasha.

For some reason in more liberal orthodox shuls and the Conservative and Reform synagogues, jokes are expected. It feels inappropriate to me and I felt a bit hypocritical cracking a couple jokes but it seems to be expected and certainly acceptable. So I conformed and it was successful. But I felt uncomfortable.

I don’t know that I have any particular insight or explanation for this phenomenon. I guess it could be seen as a defense mechanism against the seriousness of the day. Though I am not sure why we need it and others do not. It might be because we don’t take things as seriously as other groups. I hope that’s not the reason. Is it because without humor people would not pay attention? That would be very sad.

Jewish humor developed as a way of coping with oppression. Maybe it’s just so much a part of our collective psyche that we can’t shake it. I don’t have the answer. But I just had to get this off my chest.

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About the Author: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D. is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at finkorswim.com. Connect with Rabbi Fink on Facebook and Twitter.

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9 Responses to “Why Do Rabbis Make Jokes at Serious Times?”

  1. Angee Sluder says:

    When I attended church, my favorite Pastors were always the ones that worked humor into their services. This world is full of horrors, atrocities, and betrayals. It's easy to be come cynical and disillusioned. When we go to church, we're not only looking to reconnect with G-d, (though that should be the ultimate goal,) we're looking to heal the wounds on our souls that were inflicted by the world. And, as the saying goes: "laughter is the best medicine"!

  2. Any comedian will tell you. I remember an instructor who asked me, ‘Why do you think everything is so damned funny!?’ in a bit of an angry tone. I said, ‘It beats the hell out of crying.’

  3. don't conform if you don't feel it in your gut that it is right it probably isn't

  4. David11 says:

    Ravasaid begin every lecture with a MILSA DEBICHUTA, a joke. I don’t remember the cite, but it exists. BTW Norman Vincent Peale told jokes, so did Bishop Fulton Sheen.

  5. I don't know about any of you all out there, but I welcome…and gravitate towards…and even make up my own jokes …just to keep from crying about the Jewish Condition…!

  6. I don't know about any of you all out there, but I welcome…and gravitate towards…and even make up my own jokes …just to keep from crying about the Jewish Condition…!

  7. Isadore says:

    I don’t agree with jokes during the service. There’s a time and place to draw attention to yourselves. In any case, we are treading on Holy Ground.

  8. Ch Hoffman says:

    Rabbis make stupid jokes at the most inappropriate times because the granting of semicha is not predicated on the recipient having an ounce of common sense whatsoever

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