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?


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.