In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jewish Humor

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Uniqueness of Jewish Humor
  • Primary Sources: Jokes and Short Stories
  • The Blossoming of Modern Jewish Humor in Eastern Europe
  • The Comic Characters of Jewish Humor
  • Jewish Humor in Europe under Nazi Occupation
  • The Destiny of Jewish Humor

Jewish Studies Jewish Humor
Arie Sover
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0117


Jewish humor is a vast field of Jewish studies that includes many aspects, including different periods, different types, different contents, and a variety of languages in different geographical locations. Research on Jewish humor began at the end of the 19th century. Since then, scholars have endeavored to answer several key questions: (1) is there a distinctive Jewish humor? Some argue that there is no compelling evidence that a unique Jewish humor does, in fact, exist. (2) How can one define Jewish humor? Some scholars suggest that Jewish humor was created by Jews, relates to Jewish culture, and is meant for Jews. (3) What are the origins of the modern Jewish humor? Accounts differ: some find its origins in the Enlightenment at the 18th century and the emancipation of Jews that followed in western Europe. Others find the sources of Jewish humor in the Talmud and midrash literature and others who find them in the Bible. (4) Where was modern Jewish humor created? Most scholars argue that it started and first flourished in eastern Europe, the domicile of the majority of Jews until the Holocaust in the 20th century. (5) What are the reasons for the formation of Jewish humor? The broad answer shared by most researchers is that the unique Jewish experience that served as the foundation of modern Jewish humor, is based on two core components: Jewish history, and literacy. Jewish history is rife with particularly difficult experiences—expulsion of the Jews from their homeland, wandering from place to place for over two thousand years, humiliation by the host populations in Europe, life in ghettos, anti-Semitism, persecution, expulsion, and pogroms culminating in the Holocaust. In addition, the existence of a unique Jewish literacy, including Bible studies, the Midrash, and oral quibbling (“Pilpul”) were integral parts of Jewish culture and education A new study contends that the modern Jewish humor that appeared between the 18th and 19th centuries in eastern Europe, is the result of a unique encounter of three major components: A – Jewish wisdom, including critical thinking and creativity. Two thousand years of Jewish literacy, based on continuous learning, the study of the Talmud, and critical thought, sharpened the Jewish mind and its creative abilities, which are both qualities crucial to modern Jewish humor. B – Jewish self-humor. Jewish people were continuously distressed with their harsh experiences: the harsh economic and social conditions, anti-Semitism, blood libels, pogroms, and massacres. These realities forced them to develop cognitive psychological coping mechanisms, leading to the development of their unique self-humor. C – The Jewish Emancipation and the rift in Jewish society (18th–19th centuries). As a result of the Emancipation, for the first time European Jews lived in complete legal equality with the gentiles. Jews were now free to leave the ghettos, enter higher education, work in any profession they wished, and integrate into the modern world. The 18th century also saw European Jewish society split into three contending groups: Hasidim, Mitnagdim, and Maskilim. This created a deep rift among them. The tension resulting from these two elements, the entry into modern life and the rift in Jewish society, was one of the important sources for the creation of modern Jewish humor, as expressed in the jokes created by each group directed against the others and by the humorous literature created by the Maskilim. The conjunction of these three elements resulted in the creation of a unique Jewish humor. However, some researchers argue that no categorical evidence exists to support the fact that it is the Jewish experience that gave birth to Jewish humor. (6) When was Jewish humor defined as a cultural concept? Some scholars argue that it was so defined at the end of the 19th century. The majority of the Jewish people lived in three socio-geographic centers where the core of Jewish humor was created, developed, and flourished: eastern Europe from the 19th century until the Holocaust in the middle of the 20th century, the United States of America from the end of the 19th century to the present, and Israel from the 20th century to the present. The different shades of Jewish humor can be detected from each of the three areas. This study focuses on these three locations, although it is important to point out that Jewish humor flourished also in other Jewish centers, such as central Europe, western Europe, Russia, Latin America, and the Middle East. This article focuses on the important bibliographic sources that examine Jewish humor in all its variety, including the Bible, the Talmud, midrash, literature, jokes, caricatures, cinema, and theater, in an attempt to answer the aforementioned questions and many others. The works cited in the article are scholarly sources, except for a few books and anthologies of Jewish humor. In these cases they will be indicated as such.

General Overviews

Jewish humor has been studied from many aspects, including sociological, cultural, psychological, linguistic, and historical. Freud 2014 (originally published in 1905) examines the psychological aspect and structure of jokes. Even though Freud’s writing is not necessarily related to Jews, most of the jokes in the book are from the treasury of Jewish jokes. Freud was the first who ascribed to Jews the quality of self-humor; humor in which Jews laugh at their own attributes and shortcomings. After Freud, self-humor became an accepted concept published in many later studies. Davies 2010 (originally published in 2002) argues that there are other peoples who have self-humor to some degree but those who laugh at themselves to an extraordinary degree and at a high level of humor are the Jews and the Scots. However, Davies adds that none of these groups, including Scots, display in their self-humor the depth, richness, and scope of Jewish self-humor. Ben-Amos 1973 raises the idea that a unique “Jewish humor” is a myth, which was started by Freud and continued by many other researchers, but is without any scientific foundation. Following from Ben-Amos 1973, Oring 1983 is a challenging article, which seeks to test whether scientific proof exists for the widely held belief among many researchers that there is such a thing as “Jewish humor.” (For more on this subject, see Oring 2010 [cited under the Jewish Joke]). Oring 2018 examines the first two books of Jewish jokes that appeared in 1810 and 1812 that were published in German. These are the earliest books of Jewish jokes found so far. Oring compares the two texts in terms of content and period. Friedman and Friedman 2014 identifies the source of the birth of Jewish humor in the Jewish canon, namely, the Bible, Talmud, and midrash. According to the authors, these texts contain an abundance of wit and humor, such as irony, sarcasm, word play, funny characters, and humorous stories and situations. Stora-Sandor 1984 investigates the development of Jewish humor from the Bible to the 1980s. The volume focuses on an analysis of humorous literary texts written by some of the greatest Jewish writers, including Kafka and Woody Allen. Sover 2021 argues that the Bible does not contain even one complete text that can be said to have been written in a humorous style, and, given that the massive twenty-four volume composition that is the Bible, contains 306,758 words, and only thirty-three words that indicate laughter (some of which have different meanings from what we interpret the word today) or are related to humor, this seems to be no more than a drop in the ocean. Sover claims that the scholars that have sought to find humor in the Bible were wrong twice over. First, by trying to force through their interpretations of the existence of humor on the Bible, even though it is almost completely devoid of it. Second, they were looking for the wrong thing. They were looking for humor instead of seeking out the essential components from which modern Jewish humor sprang, namely, freedom of thought and critical thinking. Had those researchers sought the critical thinking that served as the foundation of Jewish wisdom, that first essential component of Jewish humor, within the Bible then they would have found greater joy and rewards in the Book of Books. Wisse 2013 examines Jewish humor throughout the history of the Jewish literature and popular culture. The author focuses on major locations where Jewish humor flourished: eastern and central Europe, the United States and England, and finally Israel. Wisse contends that the blossoming of Jewish humor in eastern and central Europe in the 19th century is a result of the social rift that took place in Jewish society and stemmed from the tensions that arose between three Jewish groups: Maskilim (the Enlightenment movement), Hassidim, and Mitnagdim (traditionalists).

  • Ben-Amos, Dan. “The ‘Myth’ of Jewish Humor.” Western Folklore 32.2 (1973): 112–131.

    DOI: 10.2307/1498323

    Ben-Amos attempts to prove, contrary to the opinions of Freud and many others, that Jewish humor is a myth. He claims that scholars who have asserted the existence of a unique Jewish humor have not based their arguments on reliable sources. Ben-Amos negates the notion that Jewish humor passes from one generation to the next. He believes that Jewish humor is the result of specific socioeconomic factors.

  • Davies, Christie. The Mirth of Nations. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2010.

    A comparative analysis of jokes of several nations from an historical point of view and in the context in which they are told. With regard to Jewish humor (pp. 51–107), Davies denies arguments that Jewish self-mocking humor is a result of oppression and anti-Semitism experienced by Jews. He maintains that other types of Jewish humor, not solely self-mocking humor, are uniquely Jewish and are not found among other peoples.

  • Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. New York: Routledge, 2014.

    The first research of its type, Freud engages in the psychological motivation for the use of humor through an analysis of various types of jokes. Most of the jokes are taken from Jewish folklore. Freud states that Jewish jokes are stories created by Jews and aimed at Jewish characteristics. Freud was the first who ascribed to Jews the quality of self-humor. Originally published in German as Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten (Vienna: F. Deuticke, 1905).

  • Friedman, Hershey H., and Linda Weiser Friedman. God Laughed: Sources of Jewish Humor. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2014.

    The book focuses on the origins of Jewish humor, finding its sources in the Bible, Talmud, and (Midrash) midrash. The authors argue that satiric irony and self- humor can be found in this canon in witty texts that reflect the way in which the Jews viewed the world. The authors suggest that the humor served as a means to cope with the adversities in life that Jews experienced throughout their history.

  • Oring, Elliott. “The People of the Joke: On the Conceptualization of a Jewish Humor.” Western Folklore 42.4 (1983): 261–271.

    DOI: 10.2307/1499501

    In this article, Oring argues that many scholars attribute to the “People of the Book” the title of “People of the Joke” as well. He claims that this view is not based on scientific evidence. Therefore, in this study, he searches for proof to support the concept of “Jewish humor.” The main questions raised in the article concern the concept, the characteristics, and the sociological aspects of Jewish humor.

  • Oring, Elliott. The First Book of Jewish Jokes: The Collection of L. M. Büschenthal. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018.

    This book is a translation of a collection of jokes published in 1812 in German (translated as “Collection of witty notions from Jews as a contribution to the characterization of the Jewish nation”). The study is designed to stimulate the search for earlier examples of Jewish joke books that contribute to a better understanding of the development of the Jewish jokes. It was found that many of Büschenthal’s jokes (three quarters) are taken from an earlier book also in German edited by Judas Ascher, which is probably a pseudonym. In his book, Ascher refers in the foreword to another German source of Jewish jokes (translated as “Anecdotes of good Jews”) that has yet to be identified.

  • Sover, Arie. Jewish Humor: An Outcome of Historical Experience, Survival and Wisdom, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2021.

    This is a wide-ranging book that spans from the period of the Bible to the present day and includes a wide spectrum of styles that are expressed in various fields, such as the Talmud, poetry, literature, folklore, jokes, movies, and television series. This book is a complicated mosaic based on three central components of Jewish life: historical experience, survival, and wisdom. The book focuses on three socio-geographic regions where most of the Jewish people lived and where Jewish humor was created, developed, and thrived: eastern Europe, the United States, and Israel. The author takes a different approach in considering that humor is not a self-sufficient entity; rather, it is interwoven with the reality and life experiences of those who produce and consume it. Therefore, to reach the creative roots of Jewish humor, he refers to the entire tapestry of Jewish life throughout the long history of the Jewish people, while focusing on the primary factors that influenced the development of Jewish humor.

  • Stora-Sandor, Judith. L’humour juif dans la littérature: De Job à Woody Allen. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1984.

    DOI: 10.3917/puf.stora.1984.01

    The author examines the development of Jewish humor from its biblical and Talmudic origins to the ghettos and shtetls of the 19th century and on to the 1980s. Her work focuses on an analysis of humorous literary texts written by some of the greatest Jewish writers, including Franz Kafka and Woody Allen. Stora-Sandor weaves a leitmotif that runs through the Jewish experience in treating the creative influences on Jewish humor.

  • Wisse, Ruth R. No Joke: Making Jewish Humor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400846344

    The book examines the formation of modern Jewish humor from the 19th century to the present day. It deals mainly with Jewish humor literature but also with folklore. It focuses on a number of location in which Jewish humor has developed in various local languages and in which it was created and thrived: Yiddish, German, and Russian in eastern and central Europe; English in the United States and England; Hebrew in Israel.

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