Laughter has endured a rather hostile reception in the history of philosophy. In his Republic, Plato famously sought to abolish laughter from his ideal state, claiming that laughter was an irrational and unstable human behaviour which negated self-control. Laughter, Plato thought, had no place in a rational society. Plato was either playing a rather elaborate philosophical prank or he would simply faint at the decorum in parliaments today. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the great English political philosopher, was also dismissive of laughter. Hobbes felt that laughter was a product of man’s selfishness and reflected a cowardly desire to ridicule others.
Laughter has also received rather mixed reviews in Jewish thought too. The Talmud (Brachot 31a) states that it is forbidden to fill one’s mouth with laughter in this world. The Talmud also subsequently records the astonishing feat of the amoraic sage, Reish Lakish, who never once filled his mouth with laughter. Seemingly, pure laughter is reserved for a redeemed world where Divine peace prevails.
Yet, in spite of this seeming disapproval of laughter, the Talmud in other places portrays a much more welcoming attitude towards this jolly trait. The Talmud (Shabbat 30b) explains how Raba began his classes with a series of jokes to lighten the spirits of his students. Raba believed that a light-hearted and humorous educational environment was infinitely more productive than a stern joke-free classroom. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Avodah Zara 3b) enigmatically reports that God Himself dedicates a specific hour of each day to laughter and joy. Evidently, laughter has an important role to play in Judaism.
The most significant endorsement of laughter comes from the Torah itself. The very first outburst of laughter recorded in the Torah occurs when Avraham is informed that he and Sarah will yet have a child at their elderly age. Avraham “fell on his face and laughed…” When Sarah overheard the same news a few verses later, she too chuckled to herself: “Sarah laughed within herself [bekirbah] saying, “After I have grown old could I become supple again, and my husband is old!?”
Both Avraham and Sarah react to God’s promise of a child with laughter, yet the response God offered these outbursts differed drastically. After Sarah’s bout of laughter, God accused her of cynically questioning His influence over the world, “God said to Avraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Will I, who am old, indeed bear a child? Is anything beyond the Lord?” God evidently disapproved of Sarah’s laughter. Importantly, God issued no such rejoinder to Avraham. Instead God instructed Avraham to name his son Yitzchak after his jovial outburst, ‘he shall laugh’. Why does Avraham’s laughter receive Divine approval while Sarah’s chuckle is swiftly dismissed?
Onkelos’ translation of the Torah picks up on the fact that Avraham and Sarah laughed in very distinct ways . Onkelos translates Avraham’s laughter as a particularly joyous form of laughter. Sarah’s laugh, on the other hand, is translated simply as “she laughed.” Building on this subtle nuance, Rashi explains that there exist two radically distinct forms of laughter. Laughter can be cynical and doubting, dismissive of the possibility of overcoming obstructions. This laughter mocks the possibility of the extraordinary. Sarah’s laughter doubted that reality could be any different to how it is at this very moment: “After I have withered, shall I again have delicate skin?”
However, laughter can also be noble, lifting one beyond routine expectations and pettiness to envision a radically novel perspective of the world. Avraham laughed at the realisation that his dream would be realised and that his future would indeed be radically different. Humour exists within the dawning revelation that contradictions can be true. Laughter is the ability to appreciate paradox, to realise that periods of great weakness can also give birth to the moments of greatest significance. Avraham’s laughter was filled with hope, with the belief that paradoxes can be miraculously overcome. Sarah’s momentary chuckle simply accepted reality as it was.
At the outset of the twentieth Century, philosophers began examining the positive role laughter plays in society. In 1900, the French philosopher Henri Bergon wrote his Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Bergson felt that we laugh at society’s inconsistencies and paradoxically strange habits. Such laughter allows us to live with and perhaps even correct our quirks. In 1905, Sigmund Freud also published a book dedicated to analysing jokes and their relationship to our consciousness. Freud argued that history’s most successful leaders, Moses in particular, had a sense of humour. This trend affected Jewish thought too. In 1905, Rabbi Pinchas Kohn of the Hildesheimer seminary also published a book entitled Rabbinic Humour: From Ancient to Modern Times. Kohn argued that a good sense of humour and the ability to laugh can be traced to the very first moments of the Jewish tradition.
In very different ways, all these thinkers highlighted the importance of laughter and humour for today’s age. Rabbi Kohn felt that one instance of humour which characterised the Jewish perspective on laughter most clearly could be found in the talmudic tractate of Taanit (22a). The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Beroka, who was strolling in the local market wondering to himself who would merit the world to come. Elijah the prophet suddenly appeared to him and pointed to two jesters who habitually cheered people up when depressed. Furthermore, when they saw people arguing, they would use their humour to make peace between the parties. They, Elijah announced, would merit the world to come.
The Talmud interestingly connects the ability to laugh – a sense of humour and irony – with the development and maintenance of healthy and peaceful relationships, be they personal, professional or otherwise. The ability to laugh allows one to not take oneself and one’s opinions overly seriously and permits the consideration of other perspectives. With the inability to laugh comes an inability to acknowledge the contradictions inherent in every society and relationship. The well-timed joke shows the other party that there may be disagreement, but those differences are not insurmountable and do not necessarily spell the end of all meaningful dialogue. Laughter overcomes separateness and closure. Similarly, Avraham’s laughter took joy in the possibility of the impossible. That is why it is specifically the jesters who merit the world to come. They can inject humour into the most serious of moments and make people appreciate that great difficulties are always pregnant with hope. Perhaps laughter really is the best medicine.