Laughing Out Loud
Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, “It is forbidden for a person to fill his mouth with laughter in this world.”
This statement, found not on our daf but in Masechet Berachot 31a, is based on a verse in Tehillim that we say (sing) before Bircat Hamazon on Shabbat and Holidays. “Then our mouths will be filled with laughter, and our tongues with joy.” When is “then” — the time when it will be permitted to fill our mouths with laughter and joy? When “the nations will say: Hashem has done great deeds with them (i.e. the Jewish nation).” (Tehillim 126:2) It would seem that the time referred to is the era of Mashiach, when there will be no more threat to the Jewish People and the nations of the world will learn to know Hashem.
This teaching regarding the prohibition against laughter in our time is cited as halacha in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 560:5, “It is forbidden for a person to fill his mouth with laughter in this world.” The Mishna Berurah explains that the reason for this prohibition is that too much rejoicing might cause one to forget the mitzvahs. He adds that, according to the Taz and the Prisha, even when rejoicing in fulfilling a mitzvah, such as at a wedding or on Purim, one should not fill his mouth with laughter.
In our sugya we learn that Rabbi Yirmiyah asked Rabbi Zeira what the halacha would be in a certain hypothetical case. This case has roots in various Torah laws but is one that involves extremely unusual circumstances. These circumstances not only make the case appear absurd, but would also be an impossible case in reality, as the gemara explains. So why did he pose this question? Rabbi Yaakov bar Ada explained that Rabbi Yirmiya was trying to get Rabbi Zeira to laugh, but did not succeed.
Rashi elaborates that Rabbi Yirmiya posed this incongruous scenario in order that Rabbi Zeira laugh, in addition to other times in Shas that we find Rabbi Yirmiya acting in a similar way with the same motive in mind. Despite Rabbi Yirmiya’s efforts, Rabbi Zeira did not show amusement, based on the prohibition against laughter taught by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Rashi concludes by saying that Rabbi Zeira was “more machmir,” implying that he was even stricter than the prohibition taught by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
How can we understand the basic dispute between these two great Talmudic Sages regarding laughter? One approach I
have heard is that the prohibition taught by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is a ban only on “full-mouthed laughter,” as opposed to a mild and restrained show of amusement. Both Rabbi Yirmiya and Rabbi Zeira agree that unbridled laughter is forbidden in this world, whereas a lesser degree of laughter is permitted according to the letter of the law. This can be seen in the verse from which Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai derives the prohibition: “Then our mouths will be filled with laughter.” The implication is that now our mouths may not be filled with laughter — only “then” in the future — but even now our mouths may contain a lesser degree of laughter than would be deemed as “filled with laughter.”
Rabbi Yirmiya felt that it was correct to permit laughter, and he acted accordingly. He wanted to convince Rabbi Zeira to do likewise, thinking that it would bring him closer to Hashem, as the verse states in Tehillim 100:2, “Serve Hashem with happiness.” Although Rabbi Zeira agreed that the ban was only on full laughter but not on “partial laughter,” he felt that he would come closer to Hashem if he abstained from even a small degree of laughter. He was “machmir on himself” — being stricter than required by the letter of the law — since he felt that this approach better suited his connection with Hashem. And this is what Rashi means when saying that Rabbi Zeira was “more machmir.” He refrained from any laughter, acting beyond the letter of the law after his careful contemplation of his own traits, choosing the correct personal path to follow, the path that would best serve him to best serve Hashem.
An anecdote. Years ago, I learned Torah with other students from a Rabbi whom I noticed never laughed. Even when he told a story related to the subject matter that the students found quite humorous, I was astonished to observe that he didn’t even crack a smile. After a while I worked up the nerve and asked him why he didn’t laugh with us. He quoted to me the teaching of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai regarding being careful with laughter nowadays in order not to diminish the seriousness with which he regarded the situation of the world from the time of the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. He added, however, that if I or any other student felt like laughing, it was perfectly okay for us to do so, as long as the levity did not get out of hand.
- Nidah 23a