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Congregation Beth El

Michigan's oldest synagogue in continuous use since 1885

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A man is out in the woods when he comes across a bear. Frightened for his life, he runs as fast as he can to escape the bear and hides in a cave. He is horrified to find that the bear has run after him into the cave, and now the man is trapped. He closes his eyes and begins to recite "Sh'ma Yisrael" in anticipation of his final moments. When he is finished, he opens his eyes and is surprised to see the bear in front of him with his eyes closed - also praying. The man thinks to himself "how lucky am I to be cornered by what must be the only Jewish bear! We're mishpocheh - I'm saved!" And then he listens more carefully to the bear's prayer "hamotzi lechem minhaaretz"

Whether or not you found this particular joke funny, we cannot deny the place of humor and laughter in Jewish tradition. There have been many proposals as to why Jews seem to always be involved in the comedic arts, no matter what the circumstances. In my opinion, the best explanation comes from a very unlikely source, novelist Tom Robbins. In his book “Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climate” (yes that is actually the name of the book), one of the main characters talks about laughter as a physical force and that one can “fashion a shield out of laughter.” This is essentially what Jews have done; we have used laughter as a means of protecting ourselves emotionally and spiritually even in the most difficult situations.

Laughter has power. One might argue that the importance of humor and laughter in Jewish life is only a modern development; however even in our traditional texts we find evidence of laughter’s importance. We read in Tractate Ta'anit in the Babylonian Talmud the story of an Amora (a late Talmudic sage), Rabi Beroka. Rabi Beroka used to frequent the shuk (market) at Beit Lefet. Elijah the prophet would often appear to him, and Rabbi Beroka once asked him if there was anyone in the marketplace destined for olam ha-bah, the world to come. Elijah pointed out three people in the shuk who were assured of this eternal reward. One was a man who had no tzitzit, and appeared not to be Jewish. Rabbi Beroka was surprised and asked the man what he did. He found that the man was a jail guard who risked his life to save Jewish women who were at risk of attack from their non-Jewish oppressors. He also hid his Jewishness from these oppressors so that they would tell him of upcoming decrees against the Jews so that he could notify Jewish leaders and work to annul the decrees. Elijah then pointed to two other men who were guaranteed a place in olam ha-ba. Rabbi Beroka asked the two men, “what do you do?” to which they replied, "we are comedians, and we cheer up those who are depressed.” Making people laugh is comparable, according to the Talmud, with saving lives!

The rabbis were way ahead of their time on this one. More and more scientific and medical studies are being published that show that laughter can in fact make us healthier in general and in some cases help fight serious illness. Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, have discovered laughter can help keep your heart healthy. Dr. Michael Miller indicated people should combine regular exercise with 15 minutes of laughter a day for good cardiovascular health. "It is conceivable that laughing may be important to maintain a healthy endothelium, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease," said Miller. Increasingly, studies are demonstrating that laughter and humor boost immunity, diminish pain and help people deal with the stress of life. Just a few fun experiences a week will elevate feel-good serotonin levels and help boost your immune system and improve your health.

As we enter into Pesach and the springtime that inevitably comes with it, may we find many opportunities to laugh, chuckle, giggle, snicker, hoot, snort, cackle, chortle and guffaw, and may our shields of laughter be strong.  

Rabbi Segal