All Jewish jokes can be divided into 3 categories. Here is a sample of each and brief explanation of its category:
1. Three rabbis were talking over a regular Sunday morning breakfast get-together.
Rabbi Ginsberg says, “We have such a problem with mice at our schul. The shammos sets all kinds of baited traps but they kept coming back. Do either of you learned men know how I can get rid of these vermin?”
The second rabbi, Rabbi Cohen, replied, “We have the same problem at our synagogue, we’ve spent all kinds of gelt on exterminators but the problem still persists. Any suggestions?”
The third rabbi, Rabbi Slosberg, looked at Rabbi Ginsberg and Rabbi Cohen and told the following story:
“Rabbis, we had the same problem with mice at our synagogue. We tried traps, exterminators, even prayers; but nothing worked. Then one Shabbos after services were over a brilliant idea came into my mind. The next Shabbos I went to the synagogue about an hour before services started. I brought a big wheel of yellow cheese and placed it in the center of the bima. Well, soon, hundreds of mice appeared on the bima and headed for the cheese. While they were feasting on the cheese, I bar-mitzvahed all of them. I have never seen any of them in shul again!”
Category – self criticism. This is probably the most common type of Jewish joke.
(These jokes don’t only deal with people and by no means are directed in only one direction of the religious spectrum. I know I said I would bring only 1 example but – I was just kidding. Here’s a classic one making fun of Halacha: Q: Is one permitted to ride in an airplane on the Sabbath? A: Yes, as long as your seat belt remains fastened. In this case, it is not considered that you are riding, rather, that you are wearing the plane).
2. “On a train in czarist Russia, a Jew is eating a whitefish, wrapped in paper. A Gentile, sitting across the aisle, begins to taunt him with various anti-Semitic epithets. Finally, he asks the Jew, ‘What makes you Jews so smart?’
‘All right,’ replies the Jew, ‘I guess I’ll have to tell you. It’s because we eat the head of the whitefish.’
‘Well, if that’s the secret,’ says the Gentile, ‘then I can be as smart as you are.’
‘That’s right,’ says the Jew, ‘And in fact, I happen to have an extra whitefish head with me. You can have it for five kopecks.’
The Gentile pays for the fish head and begins to eat. An hour later the train stops at a station for a few minutes. The Gentile leaves the train and comes back.
‘Listen, Jew,’ he says, ‘You sold me that whitefish head for five kopecks. But I just saw a whole whitefish at the market for three kopecks.’
‘See,’ replies the Jew, ‘You’re getting smarter already.'”
(Category – Making fun of others, namely Goyim)
3. About a century or two ago, the Pope decided that all the Jews had to leave Rome. Naturally there was a big uproar from the Jewish community.
So the Pope made a deal. He would have a religious debate with a member of the Jewish community. If the Jew won, the Jews could stay. If the Pope won, the Jews would leave.
The Jews realized that they had no choice. They looked around for a champion who could defend their faith, but no one wanted to volunteer.
No one wanted to be the one to risk losing a debate with the pope. Finally an old man named Moishe said that he would do it, since if no one did, the Jews would be forced to leave. He asked only that neither side be allowed to talk during the debate. The Pope finally agreed.
The day of the great debate came. Moishe and the Pope sat opposite each other for a full minute before the Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. Moishe looked back at him and raised one finger.
The Pope waved his fingers in a circle around his head. Moishe pointed to the ground where he sat.
The Pope pulled out a wafer and a glass of wine. Moishe pulled out an apple.
The Pope stood up and said, “I give up. This man is too good. The Jews can stay.”
An hour later, the cardinals were all around the Pope asking him what happened. The Pope said: “First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that there was still one God common to both our religions.
“Then I waved my finger around me to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground, showing that God was also right here with us.
“I pulled out the wine and the wafer to show that God absolves us from our sins. He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?”
Meanwhile, the Jewish community had crowded around Moishe, amazed that this old, almost feeble-minded man had done what all their scholars had insisted was impossible! “What happened?” they asked.
“Well,” said Moishe, “First he said to me that the Jews had three days to get out of here. I told him that not one of us was leaving.
“Then he told me that this whole city would be cleared of Jews. I let him know that we were staying right here.”
“And then?” asked a woman. “I don’t know,” said Moishe. “He took out his lunch and I took out mine.”
(Category – polemics. In addition to the quasi-theological “debate” presented here, there is a deep philosophical belief hiding in this joke. Many times, we are the vessel Hashem uses to protect ourselves, even when we don’t ourselves realize it or understand how)
The role and importance of humor is a topic discussed and researched in great length over centuries. The 3 main theories on humor are all very relevant to Jewish life through the ages. Be it the “Relief Theory” which as a persecuted minority we would have been in great need of, or be it the “Superiority Theory” which asserts and strengthens ones’ identity by looking down on the other. Also very understandable considering Jewish life in the past 2000 years. The third and I think most “Jewish” theory on humor is called the “Incongruity Theory” that has to do with the element of surprise and the difference between what one expects and what actually occurs.
Or in the words of the 18th century English writer William Hazlitt: “Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.”
Not settling for reality as it is and expecting, no – demanding, that reality be different, be more, is one of the core concepts in Judaism and Jewish life. It is the essence of not only the upcoming holiday of Purim but our belief in redemption and Mashiach, as well. A strong example is found in the story of rabbi Akiva when witnessing the destruction. See here
Please feel free to add in jokes of your own that fit the different categories. (Keep appropriate! I’d say “would you tell your parents that joke?”. The problem is – I know most of your parents too well!)