By Rabbi Asher Lopatin
In Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s “2000 Year Old Man” sketch, Brooks plays an ancient man who knows pretty much everything there is to know about the world, and is happy to answer questions. For instance, the two storied comedians discuss the origins of words. “Egg,” the 2000 year old man explains, comes from the sound of a chicken laying an “eeeeggggg.” You have to hear the 1960’s records to get the full sense of humor.
Shabbat 77 starts in a serious way, continuing a discussion of exactly how much wine you have to carry into a public domain on Shabbat to be liable for violation. It then veers to a comparison of blood and wine, and whether Rabbi Natan and Rabbi Yossi ben Yehudah agree on how much dried blood carried into a public domain will make you liable for punishment. Yet, just when things begin to look especially serious — from wine and milk to blood — the daf takes a humorous detour. First, it asks the questions every elementary school (and adult) learning Hebrew asks: Is gmi’ah (a gulp) spelled with an aleph or an ayin? (Both letters are silent.) It continues with a whole list of ayin vs. aleph spelling questions, and easily resolves them with verses.
From light-hearted spelling questions, the Gemara moves on to science, which is serious on the one hand — Rav Yehudah says in the name of Rav: Everything God created was for a purpose — but ultimately devolves into delightedly amused observations about the idiosyncrasies of the natural world. For instance, the rabbis note that the tiniest things in the world, mosquitoes and gnats, scare the greatest creatures in the world, elephants and the great Leviathon. If we thought we were supposed to take this all without a chuckle, the Gemara explicitly tells us:
Rabi Zeira saw Rav Yehudah at the door of his father in law’s house, and saw that Rav Yehudah was in a humorous mood (b’dicha da’ateih). And he knew that anything he would ask him about the world, Rav Yehudah would have an answer for him.
This is Carl Reiner interviewing Mel Brooks, the 2000 year old man, ready to explain everything on earth!
The questions are wild: Why do rooster eyelids open from bottom up, as opposed to every other creature? And the answers are logical, but somehow, we are just not sure that they are serious: Because roosters go to sleep on the beams (above the fire place?) and the smoke would blind them unless their eyelids opened in this way.
Or: Why are the antennae of the grasshopper (or ant) moist? Answer: Because it lives in the plains (arava) and if it hit a tree with hard antennae it would go blind.
The questions get even sillier when Rabi Zeira ask Rav Yehuda about derivations of Aramaic words: Why is a barrel called kufta? Because [people will say]: Turn it over (kuf) and sit on it (tiv). And on and on and on.
The Gemara eventually finds its way back to explaining the mishnah, but we have learned a great lesson on this daf: Torah, even the most serious laws, should be a joy. If we can’t have a sense of humor, we might lack the flexibility to really understand the intricacies of the law. Luckily, Rabi Zeira, Rav Yehudah, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner are there to bring us a chuckle.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin is the spiritual leader of Kehillat Etz Chaim in Detroit, Michigan. He is also the founder and director of the Detroit Center for Civil Discourse, which works to nurture deep relationships between people with diverse views through dialogue. He was previously the president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Modern Orthodox rabbinical school in New York City.