Just a Joke?


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So I got to thinking, people tell a lot of jokes, but do some of them have deeper meanings, or could some of them have deeper meanings if we saw them coming from a different source, if for example we put them into the mouths of prophets or gurus? So I thought it a bit further. And I took a very standard Jewish joke and put it into the mouth of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of hasidism who according to legend is the type of guy you meet and you're gonna be transformed somehow. That's really all you need to know about him for this exercise.

So the Baal Shem Tov has been traveling to do a very special mitzvah, to help a man make sense of a donkey that continues to come to his home, and more importantly to help the soul of the donkey, in a previous incarnation a very spiteful landlord who had mistreated the guy, make peace so it can move forward. Along the way he stops at a an inn. He is tired, yes, but he also knows he has something to accomplish at this inn. He orders a bowl of hot soup from the innkeeper, a busy man who seems preoccupied with everything. The soup is delivered to his table and the Besht, the Baal Shem Tov, pauses for a moment to inhale the scent of the salt and meat and root veggies. "Innkeeper," he calls. "Taste this soup."

The innkeeper glances up with one eye from an inventory sheet. "Is something wrong with your soup? My daughter Rochel made it earlier today."

The Besht shakes his head and smiles. "Innkeeper. Taste this soup."

The innkeeper shifts his weight from one foot to the other and taps on the counter in irritation. "Is it not hot enough for you? That bowl's straight from the hearth."

The Besht chuckles warmly and smiles. "Innkeeper... Taste this soup."

"Okay okay." He says with resignation. "I'll taste the soup. So where's the spoon?"


So what do you think? Is there deeper meaning to our jokes? Does it become more apparent in the mouth of someone we'd take more seriously on spiritual matters? Do you have an example also that you'd like to share?

Most, most... Have hidden or deeper meanings.

As they say; "There is truth in jest."

I am not even going to comment about "spiritual matters" as they matter not (to me.) But, jokes are used as away to have a go, mention something or whatever.....

"sorry!!! I meant to get it here by 10!"

"haha no worries, my hair has gone gray but thats ok..." something like this translates to: "you "%£"£5 idiot i have been waiting here for ages move your ass."
Dauer, I saw this first thing this morning and it has intrigued me during the day. Its often been said that "context is everything" and perhaps this is at the heart of it. Another thought was of something I read long ago concerning the actual/intended meaning of any piece of literature or work of art, whether such is restricted to the original intention of the artist. My thoughts on that one - such as they are - is that whatever the academic answer may be, the meanings given WILL vary and escalate from the original intention!

What also came into my mind was some of the stories of Nasruddin - (I think associated with Sufism?) Most could be told as simple jokes and would raise a smile as such. Yet once known as "spiritual" (yuk!) the search begins for "depth", and maybe, alas, pride in "seeing" the depth!! Maybe we should leave it with a simple chuckle!! And maybe we assimilate the "meaning" at some level beyond the discriminating mind according to our genuine need?

Nasruddin was seen on hands and knees beneath a lighted lamp post, apparently searching for something. "What are you looking for?" he was asked. "I have lost a key" . "So you dropped it over here did you?" "No" says Nasruddin, "I actually dropped it way over there" "Then why are you searching here?" "Well, here there is more light" replied Nasruddin.

Anyway, thanks for the thought.


Your entire first paragraph goes along with some of the thoughts that have passed through my mind about it. Personally I do think there is most certainly an intended meaning, and yet there are so many ways to go beyond it. We could treat it as sacred literature that is meant to be interpreted, we could ask what was in the mind of the author, we could ask what it says about the society that produced, how a metaphysic might relate to the science of today or the science of days past, etc. The real issue I suppose is authenticity, but I find the easiest way to get around that is to be up front about the mode in which I'm engaging a particular text (and as I've been using the word text I do mean both written and oral texts.)

When you described Nasruddin, it reminded me very much of a specific hasidic master who in stories tends to be shown as very simple, like the knowing fool, only a bit more simple in presentation. (example story at the end of the post.) But Nasrudin and Reb Zushia of Hanipol bring up another issue, that I think you briefly touch upon, which is the disarming power of humor, the way it can catch us off guard and break through barriers, and also the issue of how religions have used this in the past as a "way in" where otherwise there might have only been a wall. But that also speaks to the much larger way that humor can be used to disarm, separate and aside from religion, when otherwise there only seems to be a wall. Anyway, this is an example of Reb Zushia, excerpted from page 50 of Wrapped in a Holy Flame by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

So here is Reb Zushya. One day he arrives in a little town, looking like a beggar, and he sits in the beit midrash, the house of study. He is sitting there waiting for someone to offer him food because he would not speak up. Finally, someone brings him some food -- but he doesn't look at it or even touch it. Then he says, "Rebboina Shel Olam, dear God, Zuzhya is hungry! Zushya is hungry! Please give him something to eat!" Then he looks at the bowl, "You gave him something to eat!" And he makes a blessing.


Yes, I agree about humour as being often the resolving of conflicts, expecially in the conflicts within ourselves that derive from a lack of self-acceptance (which is linked in my own mind to the refusal of grace and in consequenece the need to "justify" ourselves) Seeing ourselves - or others - warts and all, and being able to laugh and "accept" (The alternative is the story of the courtier in the fairy story who heard a cow mooing, and thinking it was the Princess, said:"Listen, how beautifully she sings.")

And perhaps a little laughter at myself is due here.............after saying in my previous post........the search for depth begins, and maybe, alas, pride in seeing the depth.......I find myself having to say I fail to see the implications of your story of Zushya!! All I see is perhaps an implied lack of trust in providence, which reminds me of the following......

A Rabbi is walking along a mountain path, with a huge drop on one side. He slips, falls over the edge, but manages to grab hold of an over-hanging branch. He clings on, looking down at the long long drop beneath. He looks up and cries..."If there is somebody up there, help me!" Then a great big voice booms from out of the clouds..."There IS somebody up here. I WILL help you! Just let go of the branch and the Eternal Arms will lift you high". The rabbi again looks down, then shouts....."Is there ANYBODY ELSE up there?!!!!)


I think that joke is probably a little similar. Although in the case of Zushya, he was demonstrating what it means to really pray for something, when one is truly in need. In Judaism there are a lot of obligatory prayers, for everything, and it's most of it is formulaic. In addition to prayer services, there is prayer for eating, for using the bathroom, meeting a scholar, seeing a wonder of nature, etc.

So he was demonstrating how it would be to put oneself in an actual position of need, not that it should be literal since hasidism has generally been against asceticism, and coming from that place in prayer instead of simply saying the words.


Thanks for the clarification! I have always loved many Hasidic tales. There is quite a collection of them in a book I have called "The Spirituality of Imperfection". Once in a bookstore I did see a collection by Martin Buber, but unfortunately kept my money in my pocket.

Thanks again
these "hasidic tales" are hilarious... hope this isn't intended as a stereotypical slur, as it isn't, but u got me thinking... what is it about jews that make them so funny..? loads of great jewish comedians/comediennes... is it these hasidic tales..?

Actually, the only hasidic tale was the one about reb zushia. In my first post I took a very common joke and changed it by placing a hasidic rebbe in the story. This is the way it normally reads, as plainly as possible. I'm not going to dress it up and make it more interesting.

A guy orders soup at a restaurant. The waiter brings it to him. He looks at the soup, calls the waiter over. "Taste this soup." "Is there something wrong with your soup, sir?" "Taste this soup" "If you'd like some fresh salt or pepper I can get it for you." "Taste this soup." "Is it too hot or cold for you?" "Taste this soup?" "Alright, I'll taste it. Where's ths spoon?" "Aha!"

imo Jewish humor largely developed as a coping mechanism, as a way to deal with all the persecution.