The Talmud relates several stories about the rather unusual relationship of R. Yehudah HaNassi (Rebbe) and his student and friend, Bar Kappara. Though the latter was mostly known for his sharpness of mind, the Talmud also showcases the sharpness of his personality and speech.
At some point, this understandably led Rebbe to censure him (Moed Katan 16a) and try to prevent Bar Kappara from going too far – something that makes the following two stories even more perplexing than they already are (Nedarim 50b-51a).
In the first story, Rebbe promises Bar Kappara a handsome prize if he refrains from making him laugh. The Talmud prefaces this by explaining that when Rebbe laughed, it would bring calamity to the world. Maharsha explains that Rebbe’s own pain would absorb the punishment that would otherwise come to the world. Laughter would take his mind off of that pain and allow the punishments to reach their default targets. Yet, prize or no prize, Bar Kappara clowns it up and makes Rebbe laugh.
Several commentaries ask how Bar Kappara could do this when the consequences were so dire. But before we discuss that, we need to consider the second story appearing immediately afterward. There, Bar Kappara entertains Rebbe and his family at Rebbe’s son’s wedding. He does so by asking Rebbe about the derivation of some words in the Torah that describe various forms of sexual immorality. After stumping Rebbe, he offers his own witty word plays. He only does so, however, on condition that Rebbe pour him a cup of wine and Rebbe’s wife recite some sort of song. Apparently, the wordplays are so clever that they comply each time he asks them to do so.
Here it is not only Bar Kappara’s behavior that needs justification, as not only did Rebbe allow Bar Kappara to continue his questionable behavior, he was even willing to accept Bar Kappara’s somewhat demeaning conditions for it. The question is further strengthened by the Talmud’s report that Bar Kappara’s behavior here was problematic enough for Rebbe’s daughter and son-in-law to walk out in apparent protest.
And if you say that Bar Kappara’s word plays were divrei Torah – and hence worth the price – it is not at all clear that Bar Kappara added anything to our understanding of the Torah. Nor does it appear that they were meant as bona fide drash, in which he was informing us of some Authorial intent to have these word plays discovered and deepen our understanding of the passages in question.
Yet Bar Kappara’s jokes may have been Torah nevertheless. That is because there are really two parts to Torah study. The first is the learning of information. Without that, you cannot even get started. Understandably, then, it is usually the center of our focus. But by itself, it is not enough. Torah knowledge must then be internalized to the point of heartfelt identification with its values and practices. In the case of Bar Kappara, it is not enough for us to simply know that certain sexual practices are forbidden. It is just as important for us to feel how antithetical they are to the Jew’s essence and religious personality. Hence the value of Bar Kappara’s words was not in their content, but rather in their impact. By using humor, he could bring home what simple study in a beit midrash could not.
There is a good reason very few rabbis have followed the path of Bar Kappara. As Rebbe’s son-in-law and daughter must have felt, laughter is a two-edged sword. Even if Bar Kappara helped Rebbe and his guests internalize the truly problematic nature of sexual immorality, some of them could have also misunderstood and thought that there is no problem with off-color jokes or treating great rabbis in a casual and irreverent manner. I remember once being involved in the writing of a get. It was not an especially acrimonious divorce, but there is almost always tension in such situations. To diffuse the tension, the rabbi presiding told an innocent and pleasant joke. Big mistake! At that point, the husband mistook the rabbi for a “chevraman,” and told his own completely inappropriate joke. Perhaps it takes a Bar Kappara to know where to draw the limits.
Yet even if we must be careful with when and how to tell our stories and jokes, we must also understand that they have an important role to play in the internalization of Torah. For it was not just Bar Kappara but ultimately no less a figure than Rebbe who taught us to make room for the substantial benefits of a truly good joke!