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Does Jewish Law Allow Pranks?

Does Jewish Law Allow Pranks?

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Question:

I am an office manager, and I like to lighten up the atmosphere a little at work. I thought it would be fun to play some very harmless practical jokes, such as putting a piece of tape over a wireless mouse so it wouldn’t work, and when the person would turn it over, there would be a funny note, or putting food coloring in the coffee milk, etc.

I’m just wondering what halachah says about things like this. Should I hold myself back from playing practical jokes?

Reply:

The Case for Practical jokes

The Talmud relates that Rabbi Beroka used to frequent the marketplace in Bei Lefet, and he would at times be accompanied by Elijah the Prophet. One time, while they were conversing, two men passed by, and Elijah remarked that these two were destined to have a special portion in the World to Come. Rabbi Beroka then approached and asked them, “What is your occupation?” They replied, “We are jesters. When we see someone depressed, we cheer them up; furthermore, when we see two people quarrelling, we strive hard to make peace between them.”1 So as you can see, Judaism considers it a great mitzvah to lighten the atmosphere and cheer people up.

But can this extend to practical jokes? Apparently, in some cases, it does. In fact, they used to play practical jokes in the Holy Temple itself!

Playing Practical Jokes in the Holy Temple and at Weddings

The Talmud describes the scene which took place Hoshana Rabbah in the Holy Temple:

The Jews would bring date-palm branches and lay them down on the ground alongside the altar. That day was called "[the day of] laying down the branches." They would then snatch the lulavim from the hands of the children and eat their etrogim.2

The commentary of Tosfot explains that snatching the lulavim and eating the etrogim did not constitute an act of robbery, nor was it forbidden, because this was a customary part of the boisterous merrymaking that took place that day.3 Based on this, Tosfot extends this exemption for merrymaking to another case as well.

There used to be a custom that at a wedding, some young men would ride horses before a groom, fighting and jousting with one another. In the course of the fight, one would sometimes tear the other's clothing or injure his horse. Tosfot asserts that these young men would be exempt from liability, since this was the customary way of making merry before a groom.

The reasoning behind this exemption is that the sages did not want to restrain the joy of the mitzvah, and therefore, following the rule that “that which the court declares ownerless is ownerless,”4 they ordained that a person is not liable for damages caused in the course of his merrymaking.5 Another explanation is that it is assumed that when people get together to celebrate a joyous event, they are well aware that something might go wrong and minor damages might be incurred, and therefore they forgo their right to demand compensation for those damages.6

Rabbi Isserlis codifies this ruling with regard to the young men who ride before the groom, adding, however, that “if it would appear to the court that they should create an enactment against this, they are so empowered.”7

Purim Fun

In the laws of Purim, Rabbi Moses Isserlis adds:

. . People who snatch things from one another in the course of merrymaking do not violate the prohibition of robbery, and this is the custom, provided that they do not act inappropriately, as judged by the city's notables.8

. . Some authorities say that if one person caused another person damage as a result of Purim rejoicing, he is exempt from having to make compensation.9

Thus, not only is playing practical jokes on one’s friend permitted, there is a special dispensation if you caused damage in the course of merrymaking!

Hold Your Horses!

However, before you go out and give your mischievous side free rein, it should be noted that this exemption only applies to unintentional10 and relatively minor damages that were done within the course of merrymaking. It does not, however, apply to any intentional or larger damages.11 Also, embarrassing others in public is always prohibited.12

Additionally, the above exemption does not extend to damages caused while under the influence of alcohol, which one is always held liable for.13

Furthermore, according to Jewish law, one is not allowed to steal even if it is done as a joke with the intention to return the item. This holds true even if one intends to pay the victim back double, which is the usual penalty for stealing in Jewish law.14

Rabbi Yoel Sirkes, known as the Bach, explains that there really is no contradiction between this law and Rabbi Moses Isserlis’ dispensation for Purim merrymakers. Ordinarily, it is indeed prohibited to steal and damage even with the best of intentions. However, Rabbi Moshe Isserlis is referring specifically to a time when it was customary for this sort of merrymaking to take place.15 Only in such an instance, if people caused minor damages16 in the course of merrymaking, they would be exempt from paying.

And even then, many rabbis cautioned against stealing or damaging in the course of merrymaking, saying that “those who wish to guard their souls should distance themselves from this.”17 18

Furthermore, there are those who hold that nowadays, one who damages must pay, for today “our joy is not on the same level as that of days of old.”19

Back to the Office

In conclusion, while nowadays it would be hard to exempt someone from payment for damages caused in the course of merrymaking, the very fact that this exemption even exists attests to the importance of making others joyful. Therefore, as long as you aren’t stealing or damaging in jest (or transgressing other prohibitions like embarrassing someone), not only should you not hold yourself back from playing practical jokes, but on the contrary, you should do so knowing that it is a great mitzvah to bring joy to others.

Footnotes
1.
Talmud Taanit 22a.
2.
Talmud Sukkah 45a, according to Rashi’s reading of the text.
3.
Tosfot s.v. “miyad” on Talmud Sukkah 45a, first explanation.
4.
Talmud Yevomot 89b and Talmud Gittin 36b.
5.
See Darkei Moshe on Tur, Orech Chaim 696.
6.
See Gra on Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 696:8.
7.
Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 378:9. This is in line with what the Terumat haDeshen (Psakim 210) write with regard to the law of exempting the perpetrator from payment for damages in the course of merrymaking: “However, I see, and my heart tells me, that that this matter requires a great fence. If, Gd-forbid, one would ambush another in this place, the mitzvah of circumnavigating the bimah [on Hoshana Rabbah] would be lost out of fear of harm from one’s enemy. Further, the sin of one who would harm another at this time would be greater than in another place and at another time, for he mocks the holiness of the synagogue and he performs this mitzvah with a transgression. Further, he does it while the Torah is upon the bimah . . .”
8.
Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 696:8.
9.
Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 695:2.
10.
Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 695:2, Magen Avraham ad loc.
11.
See Mishnah Berurah 695:13 in the name of the Bach.
12.
See Talmud Brachot 43b: “It is better for a man to cast himself into a fiery furnace than to shame his fellow in public.”
13.
Pischei Choshen, Hilchot Nezikin 1:10, citing the Rambam, Hilchot Chovel u’Mazik 1:11. See also Piskei Teshuvot 695, fn. 43. Although they may not always be “liable to heaven” they would still need to pay for damages.
14.
For example, the victim is poor and you know he won’t normally accept charity, so you therefore concoct a scheme by which you would be obligated to pay him double. This is forbidden under Jewish law, lest you get used to stealing. Rambam, Hilchot Geneiva 1:2; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 348:1; Shulchan Aruch Harav, Hilchot Gezeilah u’Gneivah 3. Rabbi Moses Isserlis himself does not seem to be in any disagreement with this ruling, as is illustrated by the fact that he does not disagree with the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch ad loc.
15.
Bach, Choshen Mishpat 378:9.
16.
See Mishnah Berurah 695:13 in the name of the Bach.
17.
See Ba’er Haitiv on Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 696:8, where he quotes Rabbi Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz, the Shalah, and others who warn against this practice.
18.
Additionally, although we have described how they used to play practical jokes in the Holy Temple, and based on that Rabbi Moseses Isserlis rules that one who causes damage in the course of his merrymaking cannot be held liable, there are other ways of describing what took place in the Temple.

Tosfot (in its alternative explanation), as well as Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, known as the Rosh, explains that on Hoshana Rabbah, after the fulfillment of the mitzvah of lulav and etrog, immediately (miyad) the children would take apart their own set of four species, eat the etrogim and play games with the lulavim. Thus, he explains that the word “miyad” (in the Mishnah at the beginning of the article) is to be translated as “immediately” not “from the hand of.” Based on this, there is no source to permit damage caused in the course of merrymaking. He therefore rules that one would be obligated to pay for any damages caused in the course of jousting or merrymaking (See Teshuvot HaRosh 105:5).His son, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, known as the Tur for his classical halachic work, rules likewise (see Tur, Choshen Mishpat 378).

19.
Aruch Hashulchan 696:12.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Chana Chicago April 1, 2015

I think whenever playing a joke you must know the person who you are carrying it out on/for. If they are a big joker and someone who you KNOW will find it funny, by all means. If they are someone who is prone to stress at work or you think they might take the joke the wrong way, don't do it. I am a nurse and I know if someone did that to me I would be very stressed because I have so much work to get done and a mouse not working would really take away from my ability to quickly/safely/efficiently do my job.

I will also say, there are a great many ways to provide joy and merriment. Leave a note in people's mailboxes saying you appreciate their work/detailing kind things they have done. Bring a snack for the office. Hide little gifts around with kind notes that people will see and enjoy. Be creative. It doesn't have to be a 'prank' per say if it's not the best way to reach out to a coworker or lighten the mood. Reply

Simcha March 13, 2015

I think it should be clarified that Rav Shurpin is allowing these practical jokes under the assumption that no one in the office is upset/offended by these jokes. The Rav clearly states that he can continue with his jokes, "knowing that it is a great mitzvah to bring joy to others." If his jokes do not cause joy, except to himself, then they would be forbidden, as they come at the expense of someone else. It seems that the Rav does not specify this, due to his assumption that the jokes aren't harming the other workers. Otherwise, this person wouldn't have raised the question, as clearly it is forbidden to harm other people. Reply

Ester New Florida March 13, 2015

you have control of your self. I'm not saying your not allowed to be friendly and funny, but there is a place in time, so at work for example its not the best place to make pranks and jokes, but some where else for example on Purim. Its also important to make sure that if you do a prank your doing it to someone who doesn't mind it, if you do it to someone that really doesn't like it he/she may get very mad and its not going to lead to best situation. Reply

Jan Shuman March 12, 2015

This would create a hostile work environment for me and give me stress. I'm already worried enough about doing a good job and would not want to waste time getting help if my mouse didn't work or cleaning up something in the kitchen. This is extremely bad judgment and fosters ill-will and hard feelings. I don't make jokes at others' expense and want people to respect me and not pull a prank on me. That's juvenile and stupid and contrary to good, ethical work practices. Don't do it. Reply

Katriel Melbourne March 12, 2015

But people get upset when a joke is played on them. This may be embarrassing and on this basis prohibited? Reply

Pinchas Onay Johannesburg March 11, 2015

Excellent answer. There is such concealment of light at the moment.
Everybody LIGHTEN UP - literally and figuratively
BESIMCHA BESIMCHA BESIMCHA Reply

Grump and Pout Toronto March 10, 2015

Know your audience, please Ugh. A prank can mess up my whole day. I am a funny person and I love funny shows, but I hate it when people come up from behind me or do things like putting tape over a mouse even with a funny note, or some of the other things listed. They derail my train of thought and I will dislike the person for ages.

Purim is annoying for me outside of the parties. Colored coffee cream would be-- probably annoying, but I'd do a compulsory laugh if I knew we were in the week before and try to show humor for the sake of my friends. Reply

Yosefa Sora Chicago March 10, 2015

Don't do it!!!!!!!!!!!!!! That's atrocious! To make fun of someone who's feeling stressed that his mouse doesn't work and he can't get his work done. The embarrassment someone feels when he finds the note. Not everyone thinks things like this are funny. I wouldn't trust someone who tampered with food even if it were harmless food coloring. Forget it! Reply

Sarah Masha West Bloomfield March 10, 2015

Excuse me, but this seems to be the person's first time being a manager. You can tell jokes, you can be friendly, but....you are the boss! You cannot do anything that will negatively affect the work being done, or you will loose all credibility. When you tell people to get to work they will not believe it is serious.

Lightening the mood is possible, but not so easy. You cannot affect work, you cannot seem to pick on one person over another. Even a small waste of time is not okay. You can be the person who posts oddball comics in the break area.

How would you feel if your boss made a fool of you? Well, what do you think the butt of your practical joke will feel like?

Rather than lightening the mood this way, try for pleasant and calm atmosphere. Remove tension, and be the boss you want to work for. Reply

Angela Richland March 10, 2015

I'm a person who doesn't enjoy pranks. I'm so busy at work I would be upset if my mouse were taped down or if food coloring were added to my drink. Once someone stole my clipboard when I layed it down, and I panicked until the culpret returned it. I see this is against Jewish law. Another person will have a different personality from me and would enjoy the joke. Naughty me hid someone's cell phone just to see his reaction. He didn't get upset. He knew what I had done. I can't take my own jokes. Now I realize I am WRONG. Reply

Youree Greely Colo March 10, 2015

ok What of the person who does not enjoy or find pranks amusing ?
Or of not knowing the difference between a "prank" a "lesson" or a confrontation?. Reply

Anonymous March 10, 2015

Awesome answer!! Thanks for posting this! Reply