A Purim Shpil and a Joke

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A Purim Shpil and a Joke

Purim Torah is a term used to describe humorous and satirical writings customarily read on the Jewish holiday of Purim. Purim Torah can be simple or elaborate, and require no qualifications to write, other than a good sense of humor. With easy access to word processors and printers, making Purim Torah has never been easier.

Purim Torah authors, often displaying an amazing grasp of Jewish knowledge, playfully use some of the far-fetched methods of Talmudic logic and Biblical exegesis in order to reach absurd conclusions. In Ashkenazi culture, it is often also referred to as a Purim Shpiel, from the Yiddish for play.

A Talmudic source for Purim Torah may be a passage in the “Bavli” (Hullin 139b) which serves as a model for subsequent “Purim-Torah.” The passage in question relates how a visiting rabbi was challenged to find references to Mordecai, Esther, Haman and Moses in the Torah. The sage responds to the riddles with audacious, clever puns.

For example, ignoring the traditional vocalization, he finds an allusion to Haman in Genesis 3:11: “Is it from (hamin) the tree…” (hinting at the villain’s hanging); and to Esther in Deuteronomy 31:18, where God says, “I will surely hide (haster ‘astir) my face” (recalling Esther’s refusal to disclose her origins to the king)…

From these Talmudic beginnings we can trace the development of a whole genre of Purim parodies, wherein Jews would affectionately poke fun at the world of Talmud and Halakhah. From the 12th century, Jews in Italy, southern France (Provence) and elsewhere were producing parodies on the Talmud, liturgy and other familiar pillars of Jewish life.

A typical “Purim Tractate” (Masekhet Purim) might follow the form of the Tractate Pesahim which deals with the regulations of Passover, except that all the stringent laws concerning the removal of leaven are now applied to water and non-alcoholic beverages, which are not to be tolerated on the holiday. A special roster of biblical and rabbinic authorities populates these works. Alongside such drunkards as Noah and Lot we might encounter the prophet Habakbuk (“the Bottle”); as well as Rabbi Shakhra (“Drunkard”), or the commentary of Rasha (“Wicked”).

In modern times especially, the format has been used to satirize a variety of social phenomena, from American Judaism to Israeli politics. Particularly among German Jews there also developed the institution of the “Purim-shpiel,” a rowdy play on the Megillah story (or other theme) traditionally performed on Purim. Absorbing a number of different traditions, from the German theater as well as from Jewish exegesis, these productions took great liberties with plot and characterization, such that Mordecai might appear as a pathetic buffoon, Haman as a tragic figure, and so on. Such irreverence could of course be tolerated only at Purim time.

Jokes, Jewish jokes, and everyday jokes with a Purim twist have recently joined the canon of what is considered Purim Torah. Scholars debate the legitimacy of such jokes as Purim Torah or simply Jewish Humor. So for your Purim pleasure, here are a few good jokes.

Mahmoud Ahmedinijad, Iran’s (Modern Persia’s) latest President, called George W. Bush on the phone late one night. “I’ve had a remarkable dream, Mr. Bush”, he said, “and it’s something you should know about.”

“Well Mr. Ahmedinijad, what was your dream all about?”, queried the President.

“I dreamed that the USA had gone through an enlightening reformation,” he said, “and in front of every house was a huge banner.”

“That’s intriguing, Mr. Ahmedinijad, Tell me, what did it say on these banners?”, asked Bush.

“They all said the same thing: Allah is God, Allah is great”, stated Mahmoud, as if he could taste victory.

“It’s quite odd that you should call me about a dream, as I had one the other night as well”, said Bush.

“And what was your dream about, Mr. Bush?

“I dreamed that Iran had gone through a reformation as well, and on every house was a flagpole.”

“So, what was on the flags?” asked the Iranian.

“I have no idea”, said Bush, “I can’t read Hebrew.”

Back in cowboy times, a westbound wagon train was lost and low on food. No other humans had been seen for days, and then the pioneers saw an old Jew sitting beneath a tree.

“Is there some place ahead where we can get food?”

“Vell, I tink so,” the old man said, “but I wouldn’t go up dat hill und down de udder side. Somevun tole me you’d run into a big bacon tree.”

“A bacon tree?” asked the wagon train leader.

“Yah, a bacon tree. Vould I lie? Trust me. I vouldn’t go dere.”

The leader goes back and tells his people what the old Jew said. “So why did he say not to go there?” a person asked. Other pioneers said, “Oh, you know those Jews – they lie just for a joke.” So the wagon train goes up the hill and down the other side. Suddenly, Indians attack them from everywhere and massacre all except the leader who manages to escape and get back to the old Jew.

Near dead, the man shouts, “You fool! You sent us to our deaths! We followed your route, but there was no bacon tree, just hundreds of Indians who killed everyone but me.”

The old man holds up his hand and says, “Vait a minute.” He quickly picks up an English-Yiddish dictionary and begins thumbing through it.

“Oy, I made such ah big mishtake! It vuzn’t a bacon tree…”It vuz a ham bush.”

Chag Purim Sameach

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