Finding the Funny on Shabbat

Jews using humor to deal with suffering is a tale as old as…well…Jews, probably. I always think of the Sarah Silverman quote — “Comedy puts light into darkness and darkness can’t live where there’s light. So, it’s important to talk about things that are taboo because otherwise they just stay in this dark place. They become dangerous.”

In Michael Krasny’s book, “A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means,” he lauds the generations of Jews who have found humor in suffering, displaying “a dogged resilience in the face of dreadful, even lethal adversity.” Comedian and writer Julia Weiss notes that a “big component of finding joy is the act of laughter because it is so healing. It’s a way to take power away from what is causing you pain.” 

During tough times, humor has often functioned as our greatest weapon. It brings out our instinctive and universal resiliency — and can heighten our ability to fight bigotry, racism, antisemitism, and crises. Humor allows us to gain control in situations where it can seem like we’re hopeless.

Okay cool. What does this have to do with my Shabbat dinner?

Oneg (joy) is one OneTable’s core values. Rooted in the teachings of the prophet Isaia, over time oneg has become not only an aspect of Shabbat, but one of the mitzvot (commandments) we should do our utmost to fulfill on Shabbat. Can we be “commanded” to be happy? No. But we can take seriously the commandment to try. Here are six tips to help you find your joy on Friday night:

  1. Go for Gratitude: Psychologist Lea Waters suggests using the WWW method: What Went Well? Expressing gratitude during times of uncertainty is linked to higher levels of optimism, lower levels of stress and depression, better physical health, and an improved immune system response.
  2. Notice the Little Things: In the midst of say, a global pandemic or an overdue uprising against systemic racism, Shabbat may not feel like a joyful occasion. Focus on the “little onegs” — connecting via Zoom, making signs together for tomorrow’s protest, HOW GOOD IS THIS CHALLAH. Recognize them, appreciate them, and let yourself find joy in them. 
  3. Say it Out Loud: Jane McGonigal notes in her book Superbetter that one form of gratitude is especially powerful — not just feeling grateful, but actively expressing it to others. She says, “every time you express gratitude to others, it amplifies the positive emotion you feel.” Being grateful doesn’t mean you are ignoring the stress; it means that you are putting it into perspective. 
  4. Don’t Forget the Punctuation Mark: Rabbi Zalman Schacter Shalomi teaches that Shabbat is the period in an otherwise run-on sentence. According to recent feedback, 93% of OneTable users feel like the days blend together more than usual and two-thirds say they don’t look forward to the weekend in the same way. Planning for Shabbat in advance gives you and your friends something to look forward to all week, and is a way to punctuate the otherwise run-on days with joy.
  5. Use The Best Medicine: Find yourself in a group of strangers on Shabbat? Weiss recommends finding things that you connect on and sharing what you find funny as good starting points. In general, she also recommends group games like paper telephone, charades, and celebrity. Laughter can do wonders to a group dynamic. She called it the “laugh of recognition.” When people share a laugh, they share an experience and build connections. Laughter puts people at ease. 
  6. Follow the Science: As Weiss notes, “Laughter is a form of release. It lets us take off some of the burden of what we are carrying and it releases oxytocin.” Oxytocin is often referred to as the empathy hormone because it helps bond people. Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford found that laughter correlates with increased pain threshold, perhaps by heightening the release of endorphins – chemicals that should also improve social bonding (BBC).

There’s a great story in the Talmud that tells of Rabbi Barota who is walking through a bustling market one day. Lost in the thought, he ponders who among us will merit the World to Come. At that very moment the Prophet Elijah appears before him and points to two jesters in the busy square. All around them people are smiling and laughing. They, say the Prophet, will merit the World to Come. 

Shabbat is our weekly taste of the World to Come, the world as it should be, not as it is. Let’s celebrate it with laughter and joy. 

Julia is a senior at Davidson College and is the Shabbat chair of their Jewish Student Union. In her free time you can find her listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, studying hygge, watching the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, or perfecting her coffee frothing technique.

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