Rosh Hashanah humor: It’s no laughing matter

I occasionally thought of Aristotle’s inability to understand the comic spirit, and decided that I had a better sense of humor than the ancient Greek thinker.

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September 28, 2019 19:31
3 minute read.
A ROSH Hashana card depicts the ‘kohen gadol’ (high priest) pouring oil over the menorah

A ROSH Hashana card depicts the ‘kohen gadol’ (high priest) pouring oil over the menorah. (photo credit: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL/WIKIMEDIA COMMON)

Grand, solemn days like Rosh Hashanah have their funny side. Over the many decades I spent in the pulpit, I never knew whether I would walk home subdued or smiling. I worked hard on my sermons, presenting themes as vast and varied as God and man, Judaism and mankind, faith and fallibility, hope and hopelessness. But sometimes I could hardly repress grinning at the human comedy that played out in the congregation, sometimes involving me personally.

I occasionally thought of Aristotle’s inability to understand the comic spirit, and decided that I had a better sense of humor than the ancient Greek thinker.

Freud said that Jewish humor had two distinguishing features: It made us laugh, and it served our interests. Theodor Reik, his friend, student and colleague, added two more features of Jewish humor: It wasn’t merry, and it had an emotional intimacy. Freud accepted Reik’s suggestions, which I applied to my own rabbinical situation. 

Synagogue life on Rosh Hashanah had its humorous moments but they weren’t merry. They provoked grins and not guffaws. They had their emotional intimacy: One had to be Jewish and in synagogue to see that there was a funny side to the awesome High Holy Days. It served our interests. It cemented the bonds between us and made the Almighty a virtual member of our congregation.

Think of my dilemma as Torah reader (baal keriah) when a congregational elder was called to the Torah and clearly and solemnly said the blessing al akhilat maror, traditionally recited before eating the bitter herbs at the Passover Seder. All I could do was to keep a straight face, declaim “Amen,” and go on with the Torah reading. I may have compromised the bounds of halacha (Jewish law). Thankfully, the Bible says that God enjoys a laugh and I hope He will forgive me on the Day of Judgment

Think of my dilemma as shofar blower (baal teki’ah) when I struggled to get a note out of the shofar and I (and everyone else) heard a congregant say, “Sho far sho good!”

Think of my dilemma as the preacher. One year I preached about Jewish demography. The theme arose out of the Torah readings, which on Rosh HaShanah deal with parents and children and our longing for continuity. Applying the theme to the contemporary situation, I said every family should have at least four children. After I ended I saw Lou stand up and signal to his wife, after which both left the synagogue. During the week I asked him, “Lou, what was that about?” The answer came, “I was signaling, ‘You heard what the rabbi said, more children per family! Let’s go home, we’ve got work to do!’”

Or the year when I was the prayer leader for morning services (baal shacharit) and I got to the end, to the Avinu Malkenu prayer, and the cantor hadn’t turned up. I was no singer and had trepidations about praying the service with the choir. The president came onto the podium and said, “Can you play for time?”

“I’ll pray for time,” I said, and sang Avinu Malkenu!

“Can you run the service?” asked the president.

“I’ll have to. Send me the choirmaster!” I replied, and sang, Avinu Malkenu!

The choirmaster came up and between lines of Avinu Malkenu we worked out an ad-hoc program with the choir doing the main singing parts. Baruch HaShem, thank God, we got things going, though with a sinking hart. By the time of the haftarah, the reading from the Prophets, the cantor had arrived. He had felt unwell and stopped into the local hospital on the way. He did daven, pray, beautifully but it took me years to get over the shock.

That year I wasn’t in the mood to laugh and, thank God, the congregation forgave me so generously that I asked God for a special effort to forgive all of us for our sins.

The writer is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and former president of the Australian and New Zealand rabbinate.


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