Laughing has been an important part of Judaism since biblical times. Many are familiar with the famous story of Abraham and Sarah, who were not able to have children together until reaching an unnaturally old age. When G‑d’s messenger gave the couple the happy news, they both laughed (albeit for different reasons). Because of this laughter, the heir to Judaism was named Yitzchak (Isaac), which means “laugh.” What a laugh Abraham and Sarah had together!

The history of Jewish merrymaking does not end in the Bible. We find in Talmudic times (about two thousand years after Abraham and Sarah) the account of how a great sage, Rabbah, used to begin each of his lessons with a joke. Yes, a joke.

In typical Talmudic fashion, we must analyze why he would begin the most serious of studies with some light-hearted merriment. Our rabbis explain this by saying that a good joke opens the mind to learning (as opposed to a bad joke, which opens the mouth to groans). The rabbis further illustrate this point by giving a metaphor for this phenomenon. It is like a parent who must bend down to pick up his child. Through lowering himself, he is able to ultimately raise the child. In our case, by allowing the mind to be involved with something a bit less weighty, ultimately the mind will be raised to new heights.

But what is the source of the Jewish sense of humor? Is it nature or nurture (it was knocked into our heads together with the haftorah for our bar mitzvah)?

As always, the answer is a bit of both. The fact is that Judaism is big on self-examination and self-effacement. If we can take the biggest heroes of our history and dissect their actions, we certainly must be able to give a little giggle at our own foibles. The self-effacement part comes from realizing how little we have accomplished compared to the great Egyptian civilization that built the pyramids (hey, wait, we built the pyramids).

Actually, it comes from realizing that we are truly nothing compared to the Almighty. Mix in a bit of cynicism (after all, Jews probably invented small print), sarcasm (you do know what that is, right?), and a healthy dose of neurosis (taken from a combination of factors, like Jewish parents and the constant challenge of balancing a physical existence with spiritual goals), and voila! We have the funny Jew.