A wonderful example of inversion is parody, a humorous imitation of serious or dignified writings, which follows the form of the original but changes its sense to ridiculous. A parody may consist of the mere change of a word, or even a letter.[1] Sometimes a passage may be parodied by merely putting a pause in the wrong place.[2] The humorous application of a well-known passage will also produce a parody,[3] and the same method, when applied to a proverb, produces a perverted proverb, or modified maxim....

The existence of a parody presupposes, of course, the preexistence of an original. [Parodies] owe to their models only the outward garb. They are imitative only in form, but original in matter, and often surpass the original. In its incipient stage, Hebrew parody was not far removed from pure imitation. This may be gathered from the fact that some parodies were admitted into the ritual. Had they been regarded as anything else than imitations, this would have been impossible. The Hymn for the First Night of Purim, for example, which is embodied in the Mahzor Vitri [prayer book written by Menahem ben Aaron in the 12th century], is only one step removed from imitation. It is classed with parodies because it dresses a wine-song in the garb of a religious hymn.

The range of Jewish parody is as wide as the range of general parody. The Jewish parodist has invaded every department of literature and every walk of life. He has drawn upon the various phrases of Jewish life for his subject matter and upon the various forms of Jewish literature for his models. It is no exaggeration to say that Jewish parody contains the entire Jewish literature in miniature; it would indeed be easy to make a collection of parodies representing the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, Liturgy, Zohar, Codes, Responsa and Homilies. Even dictionaries and newspapers, marriage and divorce formulae, amulets and anathemas have serve the parodist as models. And not content with Jewish models, he often went in search of foreign models, in consequence of which we have parodies of Hippocrates, of Shakespeare, of Goethe, of Schiller, of Heine, and of numerous folk-songs of the various nations among whom the Jews lived.

It is equally no exaggeration to say that almost all the great movements in modern Jewish history are reflected in Jewish parody. Hasidism, Reform Judaism. Socialism, Zionism and many minor phases of Jewish thought — all have brought forth their own parodists. Satiric parody is one of those branches of literature which spring directly from contemporary history, and in tracing the history of parody in Jewish literature, we may be sure to light upon many phases of Jewish life and Jewish thought which have hitherto remained unobserved by the diligent searcher after dry facts, and neglected by those who have an eye only for the serious.

On the other hand, the study of this branch of Jewish literature will also reveal the serious side of Jewish humor. It will show that beneath the playfulness of Jewish satire an undercurrent of sadness is always present. Like general parody, Jewish parody has also a moral aim: It is opposed to every kind of untruth, to pretence, to bombast, to hypocrisy.

We choose here a few 19th-20th century examples from Prof. Israel Davidson's book. The original source which is parodied may be found in the footnotes. For medieval, Purim-related parodies, see Davidson's article in the Calendar section.

  1. The modern socialistic movement with which Jews have identified themselves from its very inception, has, of course, produced a considerable amount of literature in Yiddish as well as in Hebrew (from the late 19th century). The typical socialistic parodies are marked by one or more of three characteristics. They either rail at religion, or attack the prevailing economic and political systems, or preach materialism, or do all three at once... In a parody of Maimonides' Thirteen Principles of Faith,[4] the young Russian revolutionist, Morris Winchevsky, takes modern civilization to task for many of its shortcomings and expresses in an indirect manner some of the aspirations which socialists fondly cherish for their Utopia. Here are some of his dogmas:

    "I believe with perfect faith, that whoever profits by the labor of his fellowman without doing anything for him in return, is a willful plunderer.
    "I believe with perfect faith that 'the poor shall never cease out of land' until each man shall work for the community as much as he can and the community shall provide each man with his needs.
    "I believe with perfect faith, that women will remain the slaves of men, or their playthings as long as they will depend upon the will of others instead of enjoying the fruit of their own labor.
    "I believe with perfect faith, that labor and handicraft will be despised as long as the working men will labor to satisfy the appetites of the idlers."

  2. By far the greater bulk of the parodies of the 19th century belongs to the class of satires on the manners, morals, customs and conditions of the Jews in Russia. The Treatise on Poverty (Masechet Aniyut) by Isaac Meir Dick may well serve as an historic document of Jewish life under Nicholas I. The extreme poverty and wretchedness in which the Jews lived at that time..., the lack of order in communal life and the want of a system in the education of the young, is described in the following parody of a well-known Talmudic aggadah:[5]

    "The Rabbis have taught, a Jewish boy after seven years of age turns into a gamin, a gamin after seven years becomes a bridegroom, a bridegroom after seven years becomes a pater familias, a pater familias after seven years becomes a Hebrew teacher, a Hebrew teacher after seven years turns into a matchmaker, a matchmaker after seven years becomes a wedding bard, a wedding bard after seven years becomes an idler, and as soon as he becomes an idler he falls a burden on the community until he dies and departs from the world."

    In all its severity, the Masechet Aniyut is one of the best Talmudic parodies in Hebrew literature.

  3. In the study of the parodies that deal with conditions in America, it is important to bear in mind, that they were all written by foreigners who were still strange to the new land of their adoption, when they put their impressions on paper. Owing to this they not only reflect the state of American Jewry, but they also reveal to us what America looked like to the bewildered immigrant.

    In a parody of the wisdom of the Talmudic sages,[6] one turn-of-the century parodist describes America as a land given over entirely to material pursuits, where everyone is money-mad, unscrupulous, corrupt in morals and deficient in manners... a land where everything is turned topsy-turvy, where the noble of heart are laid low while the vulgar rule the earth.

    "The New World stands on three things: money and money and again money. All the people of this country worship the Golden Calf..."

    "Love work and hate learning, for he who makes the Torah a spade to dig with and wants to make profit from her words, is as if he took his own life."

[1] An example of this is Ibn Shabbethai's cynical remark, that "a man's enemies are the women of his own house," which parodies the Prophet Michah (7:6) by merely substituting "women" for "men." [back]

[2] Thus, an inexperienced reader once ran two Biblical sentences together, making God say to Noah: "Come you and all your house into the ark; for you I have seen righteous before me in this generation of every clean beast." (Genesis 7:1-2) [back]

[3] A good illustration of this is Ibn Ezra's epigram of a woman with raven hair and light complexion. "For thy neck and the hair of thy head," says the poet, "we should bless Him who forms light and creates darkness." The liturgical text parodied in this epigram has undergone no change whatever; the humorous effect is produced entirely by its unexpected application. [Back]

[4] 1. The existence of God, creator of all things
2. God's absolute unity
3. God's incorporeality
4. God's eternity
5. Our obligation to serve and worship only God
6. The authenticity of prophecy
7. The superiority of Moses over all other prophets
8. The Torah is God's revelation to Moses
9. The immutability of the Torah
10. God's omniscience and foreknowledge
11. Divine retribution
12. Coming of the Messiah
13. Resurrection of the dead [back]

[5] "[Yehudah ben Teima] used to say: At five years [the age is reached] for [the study of] the Scriptures, at ten [the age is reached] for the Mishnah, at thirteen for the mitzvot, at fifteen for [the study of] the Gemara, at eighteen for marriage, at twenty for the pursuit of the aim [in life], at thirty for strength, at forty for insight, at fifty for counsel, at sixty man attains old age, at seventy the hoary head, at eighty extreme old age, at ninety decline, and at one hundred he is as if he were already dead and gone and departed from this world." (Ethics of the Fathers 5:25) [back]

[6] "Shimon the Righteous says: The world is sustained by virtue of three things: Torah, the service of God and acts of loving kindness." (Ethics of the Fathers 1:2) "Shemaya says: Love work, hate the holding of high office, do not seek to become intimate with the authorities." (Ethics of the Fathers 1:10) [back]



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