Back to This Week's Parsha| Previous Issues
Torah Attitude: Parashas Ki Savo: Not always a laughing matter
The High Holidays will soon be upon us, and we do not have much time to prepare. The Mishnah does not prohibit laughter, but teaches that in order to acquire Torah one must limit one's involvement in laughter. "Laughter and light-headedness leads a person to immorality." The problem starts when entertainment is just for the sake of entertaining and having fun, rather than teaching a lesson. Even seemingly harmless comedy also has a negative influence, and will distract a person from studying Torah. The kind of laughter that stems from happiness and satisfaction is a healthy expression of feeling good. "When G'd will return the captivity of Zion … then our mouths will be filled with laughter."
As the summer is coming to an end and most people have returned from their vacations, we find ourselves in the middle of the month of Elul. The High Holidays will soon be upon us, and we do not have much time to prepare. Many housewives are already busy cooking and baking, making the culinary preparations for the holiday season. But we must not forget the other preparations that we need to get ready for the Days of Judgment. It is imperative that we look back at the past year and do some serious introspection. In this way, we can see what we have accomplished, and where we hold in our personal growth, striving to fulfill the commandments of the Torah. This is a most appropriate time to get back to the forty eight things we have been dealing with in Torah Attitude since Pesach.
The last few items on the list of requirements needed to acquire Torah, that we discussed, dealt with certain necessities that we are told not to over-indulge in. We have already gone through the issues of earning a living, sleeping, and worldly pleasures. The next item mentioned in the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 6:6) is to limit our laughter. The Mishnah does not prohibit laughter, but teaches that in order to acquire Torah one must limit one's involvement in laughter.
However, earlier in Pirkei Avos (3:17) it appears that laughter is a totally negative conduct. In that Mishnah Rabbi Akiva says, "Laughter and light-headedness leads a person to immorality." Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto (Path of the Just, Chapter 5) elaborates on this and explains that the laughter mentioned in that Mishnah is laughing at another person and being sarcastic. Poking fun at others makes a person lose his guard, and slowly but surely he will feel that everything is permissible. Rabbi Luzatto continues and says that every sensible person understands that immorality is not acceptable. It totally breaks down the family values that a decent society is built upon. However, when a person gets involved in mockery and sarcasm he will lose sight of what is right and wrong, and he may slowly fall in to a life of immorality.
Entertainment for the sake of entertaining
King David starts Tehillim (1:1) praising the person "who does not follow the advice of wrongdoers, and does not go along the path of the sinful, and does not sit together with those who are sarcastic." The Talmud (Avodah Zorah 18b) explains that this is not limited to sarcasm but includes any form of entertainment such as watching clowns and other forms of comedies. Even if it is not directed at making fun of any specific individuals, nevertheless it drags a person down until one loses the ability to judge in earnest the real values in life. The Talmud (Megillah 25b) permits us to scorn wrongdoers, such as idol worshippers, and in this way comedy can be used to show society its own shortcomings. The problem starts when entertainment is just for the sake of entertaining and having fun, rather than teaching a lesson. King David praises a person who keeps away from this kind of entertainment and instead has a desire to study the Torah (see ibid 1:2). This teaches us, says the Talmud, that the two do not go hand in hand, for such entertainment brings a person to abstain from studying Torah
Abstain from studying Torah
Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon, the Mashgiach of Lakewood Yeshiva, asks, what does the Talmud mean when it says that "it brings a person to abstain from studying Torah"? While someone watches this kind of entertainment, he obviously is not studying Torah. So why does the Talmud say it "brings" him to abstain from studying Torah? Rabbi Solomon answers that the Talmud here teaches us that even after watching such entertainment it will affect the person, and disturb his ability to study Torah. While he is listening to a lecture or studying with a partner, comments and whole scenes from what he watched will pop into his head and distract him from his learning. It is common knowledge that parents must supervise and be careful what they allow their children to watch. Most people will not allow their young children to watch violent scenes, and similar inappropriate material. The Talmud (Avodah Zorah 18b) also mentions the bad influence of violent entertainment, such as bullfights, but takes it a step further and gives us to understand that it is not only damaging for children, it is destructive for adults as well. The Talmud (ibid) goes even further and teaches that even seemingly harmless comedy also has a negative influence, and will distract a person from studying Torah.
Laughter from happiness
On the other hand, the kind of laughter that is mentioned in the Mishnah, that discusses what is required to acquire Torah, is of a totally different category. This Mishnah refers to the kind of laughter that stems from happiness and satisfaction. The Talmud (Pesachim 117a) relates how the great sage, Rabbah, would make some light comments in the beginning of his lecture in order to open the minds of his disciples, as this would help them to better understand what he was teaching (see Torah Attitude: Parashas Shelach, June 3, 2010: Happy to breathe). Such laughter is a healthy expression of feeling good and being happy with one's lot in life. Modern-day psychologists also recognize the therapeutic effects of laughter. This kind of laughter is a positive conduct as long as it is limited to its right measure.
Not fully rejoice
One of the best known chapters of Tehillim is the Shir HaMa'alot (Tehillim 126) that is customarily sung before Benching on Shabbos and Yom Tov, as well as on other festive occasions. In this chapter King David refers to the final redemption from our present exile and says, "When G'd will return the captivity of Zion … then our mouths will be filled with laughter." The Talmud (Berachos 31a) says that this teaches us that until our redemption we are prohibited from filling our mouths with laughter. Although we have much to be happy about and many opportunities to engage in laughter, King David reminds us that we have not yet reached the time when we can fully rejoice. As long as we are in exile, we must always remember the suffering of our brothers and sisters whose lives are in danger and the many who suffer in various ways. We must also keep in mind G'd's pain as His beloved children still remain in exile and suffer in so many ways. It is acceptable to laugh in some measure, as we learn from the fact that limited laughter is needed to acquire Torah, but to laugh constantly and extensively, and sometimes in a very loud voice is not appropriate. Such uncontrolled laughter indicates that we neglect our situation in exile.
Redemption and salvation
As we prepare ourselves for the New Year we pray to G'd that the coming year shall be a year full of Divine blessings. One of our main focuses is to pray for a year of redemption and salvation so that we may experience the gathering of the exile. And then our mouths will truly be filled with laughter.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
P.S. If you have any questions or enjoyed reading this e-mail, we would appreciate hearing from you. If you know of others who may be interested in receiving e-mails similar to this please let us know at email@example.com .
Shema Yisrael Torah Network