Judaism Today: What’s So Funny About Rosh Hashana?

This year’s High Holy Days began on September 16 with two days of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and ended ten days later with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Talmudic tradition teaches that Rosh Hashana ushers in the month whose astrological sign is Libra — the scales of justice — in order to highlight its theme of allowing God to judge us. Sometimes He finds us virtuous and worthy of reward; at other times He sentences us to cosmic punishment. Rosh Hashana’s solemn role of affirming that God judges us makes its central theme of laughter difficult to understand.

Is laughter really the motif of this most solemn day, a day that attracts more Jews to synagogue than any other? Regular worshippers are accustomed to finding the meaning of the day in the Torah portion designated for public reading on that holiday. On Rosh Hashana, chapters 21 and 22 of Genesis are read; they chronicle the birth and early life of Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac, history’s first-born Jew. Even from conception, laughter surrounds his life. In fact, out of the 13 scriptural references to “laughter,” nine occur in the context of Isaac’s life. His name means “he shall laugh,” and it is the name that God instructed Abraham and Sarah to give him after they had laughed about his birth. It must have been comic, after all, to imagine that a 90-year-old woman and her 100-year-old husband would become first-time parents.

Talmudic tradition demands that the shofar (ram’s horn) be blown 100 times on Rosh Hashana in a complex sequence of notes composed so as to sound just like hysterical laughter. With the meaning of Isaac’s name as well as the laughing sound of the horn all integrated by the day’s reading of the Torah portion, Rosh Hashana is not only the day of judgment, it is also the day of laughter.

Scholars have categorized thousands of jokes to analyze what makes people laugh. Their research reveals that people laugh at things that violate a sense of how things ought to be. A pompous mayor who slips on a banana peel is funny. A tramp who falters and sprawls on the sidewalk just seems sad.

Likewise, the sexual innuendo that provokes howls of laughter among school boys and titters among stock-brokers, elicits yawns of indifference from hardened prison inmates. The joke assaults notions of human refinement, thereby causing laughter. To the depraved, it is not a joke; it is reality.

The only reason that we laugh at cartoons of talking animals is because of our underlying conviction that only humans were given the gift of speech. A joke can only be funny in the context of a fixed framework which it contradicts.

One of the hallmarks of modern liberalism is that it has absolutely no fixed framework at all. In the absence of any system of inviolable, religiously based absolutes, there are no unthinkable acts to perform; there is nothing to violate. In a world in which everything floats, humor has nothing solid to thrust against.

This helps to explain the laughter and joyfulness that permeate the family life of religious Americans who typically favor discipline and order. Conversely, it also sheds light on the grim seriousness with which the modern American liberal seems to go about the business of life. (One cannot help but recall the famous joke that so faithfully reflects feminism’s humorlessness: How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb? That’s not funny!)

Certain genres of jokes are vanishing from our national repertoire. For example, humor based on stay-at-home dads no longer resonates when working moms are so common. America’s evolving social standards are not introducing new humor genres to take the place of those excised. On the contrary, the political correctness doctrine banishes humor and laughter entirely, precisely because humor presupposes an existing standard. If nothing is unthinkable, nothing can be funny.

Clearly one purpose of the modernist project is to eliminate all existing standards. The unintended consequence will be the dreary and somber atmosphere that was characteristic of life behind the old Iron Curtain.

Talmudic Tradition has it that Abraham, through his renowned kindness, attracted thousands of devotees to Judaism. Yet, a full three generations later, by which time the world’s Jewish population ought to have reached large numbers, the Bible (Genesis 46) indicates a total Jewish population of only 70 souls.

The Talmud explains these surprising demographics as the inevitable con-sequence of viewing kindness and compassion as the only governing principles of good. Kindness attracts a following — justice and order keep it. Abraham had focused on the Almighty’s capacity for unrestrained love and compassion. Isaac, the icon of Rosh Hashana, introduced an awareness of God’s firm hand into Jewish culture. Many of the disciples drawn by Abraham’s gentle nature were later repelled by Isaac’s unpopular emphasis on law, which left a core following of 70.

Yet it is the structure of law that defines boundaries and allows humans to live among one another. One of the tractates of the Talmud, Ethics of the Fathers 111:2, exhorts, “Pray for the welfare of legal authority — without it, men would destroy each other.” The origin of legal authority and its best validation is the model of divine authority. For this reason, civil authorities like kings would often head the church, too. They were aware that their acceptance of God made it more logical for their subjects to accept them.

In other words, my children are more likely to obey my rules and, later, society’s if they grow up watching me accept God’s rules. Children of parents whose vehicles sport bumper stickers that read “Question Authority” will grow up doing just that. They will also become hard to live with.

Humans are by nature reluctant to submit themselves to a higher authority. Showing how treasured human moments like laughter depend on that submission helps to persuade us that civilization depends upon allowing God to judge us. That is the paramount message of the High Holy Days and accounts for its laughter motif. It also accounts for why Orthodox synagogues traditionally eschew solemnity and somberness and instead fill the High Holy Days with laughter and joyful celebration.


Daniel Lapin (born 1947) is an American Orthodox rabbi, author, public speaker, and heads the American Alliance of Jews and Christians. He was previously the founding rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, California. and the former head of Toward Tradition, the Commonwealth Loan Company and the Cascadia Business Institute. Lapin currently hosts a daily television program with his wife Susan and provides spiritual advice to people through his website.

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