Pranks in Halakha
By Rav Yosef
Students often engage in various kinds of Purim-related pranks and forms
of humor during the month of Adar.
We shall try to see what Halakha has to say about some of these
practices, such as the "Purim Rabbi," damaging property as part of a prank,
jokes that are offensive to teachers and rabbis, and mimicking
DAMAGE IN THE COURSE
Mishna in Sukka relates what transpired in the Bet ha-Mikdash on
They would bring
date-palm branches and lay them down on the ground alongside the altar. That day was called "[the day of] laying
down the branches." Immediately (miyad; or alternatively – from the hands
of) the children would release their lulavim and eat their
It is not clear from the Mishna who took the children's etrogim –
was it the children themselves, or perhaps it was the adults who "snatched" them
from them. Both interpretations are
possible depending on how we understand the word "miyad." If it describes
the time – "immediately" – then the Mishna seems to be saying that immediately
following the laying down of the date-palm branches, the children would release
their lulavim and eat their etrogim. If, however, the term describes the
place – "from the hand of" – then it seems to mean that the adults would snatch
the etrogim from the hands of the children and eat them. The Tosafot (ad loc.) propose
both explanations, but had difficulty with the second explanation cited here
(the first in the Tosafot): How could the adults snatch the etrogim
from the children, and thus engage in what appears to be robbery? The
"From the hands of
the children they snatched their lulavim" – The adults would snatch the
children's lulavim from their hands and eat their etrogim, and
this did not involve robbery, nor [was it forbidden] because of "ways of peace."
For this was the customary way of merrymaking. Thus explained the Kuntrus
(Rashi). We may learn from this
regarding those young men who ride horses before a groom, fighting one another,
the one tearing the other's clothing or injuring his horse, that they are exempt
[from liability], for this is the customary way of making merry before a
groom. (Tosafot, s.v.
In other words, when a person damages another person's property in the
course of rejoicing in a mitzva or rejoicing with a bride and groom, this does
not involve robbery. This law was
codified by the Rema:
As for the custom of
wearing masks on Purim, or a man wearing a woman's clothing or vice versa, this
does not involve the violation of a prohibition, for their intention is merely
to rejoice. The same applies to the
wearing of shatnez that is forbidden by rabbinic law. There are, however, those who say that
this is forbidden, but common custom follows the first opinion. And similarly, people who snatch things
from one another in the course of merrymaking, do not violate the prohibition of
robbery, and this is the custom, provided that they do not act inappropriately,
as judged by the city's notables.
(Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim 696:8)
According to this, it would seem that in our circumstances as well, Purim
pranks that lead to property damage should be permitted. We must, however, examine why such
causing of damage is permitted. Two
possible understandings may be suggested.
Owing to the special
importance that they attached to the joy of mitzva, the Sages did not want to
restrain such joy, and therefore they ordained that a person is not liable for
damages caused in the course of his merrymaking.
When people get
together to celebrate a joyous event, they are well aware that something might
go wrong and damage might be incurred, and everybody relinquishes his right to
demand compensation should it be his property that suffers the
possible practical difference between these two understandings might be found in
a case where one person caused damage to another person who was not
participating in the celebration, and was at the scene only by chance. In such a case, it cannot be argued that
there was any kind of waiver on the part of the person who suffered the damage
(the second possibility). But if
the exemption is based on the allowance granted by the Sages to rejoice (the
first possibility), it stands to reason that the one who caused the damage
should be exempt in this case as well.
There might be
another practical difference as well: What is the law when we know that the
injured party is not prepared to waive the damage caused him? If the rationale
for the exemption is that Chazal permitted damages caused during the
course of merrymaking connected to a mitzva, then even in such a case it should
be permitted. But if the allowance
stems from a waiver, then when it is clearly evident that the other person does
not waive the damage that is caused him, it is certainly
caused in the framework of Purim rejoicing, the Rema
Some authorities say
that if one person caused another person damage as a result of Purim rejoicing,
he is exempt from having to make compensation. (695:2)
The Rema makes no
distinctions, implying that a person who causes such damage is exempt in all
But the Mishna Berura (following the Bach) distinguishes between
minor damage and major damage; since people are not ready to waive major damage,
those who cause such damage on Purim are not exempt from liability. Thus, we see that the Mishna Berura
adopted the second approach, and therefore when we know that the injured
party does not waive the damages, causing such damage is forbidden:
distinguishes between major damage and minor damage, whether to one's person
or to one's property; for in a case of major damage, people are particular, and
it is not the custom to exempt from liability in cases of major damage. (MB 695:13)
THREE LEVELS OF
The aforementioned sources seem to imply that in situations where we know
that there is a waiver and we are dealing with minor damage, there is no
prohibition. It stands to reason,
however, that the matter is not so simple.
Responsa Terumat Ha-deshen relates to a case where one person
pushed another person during hakafot on Sukkot and broke his shoulder,
and "by coincidence" the person who caused the injury was known to be the
injured party's long-time enemy.
R. Eliezer bar Shalom
and R. Gershom bar Shalom appeared before me in a law suit. R. Eliezer accused R. Gershom of pushing
him during the round of hoshanot on Sukkot with the intention of
causing him injury. R. Gershom
responded that he circled in the customary manner which regularly involves
pushing, and if he pushed [R. Eliezer], it was without intention to cause him
injury. They went on at length
presenting their arguments before me, and I also saw all the testimonies, and
read them carefully, and did not see any clear-cut testimony that R. Eliezer was
pushed by R. Gershom, only estimations and inferences from the testimonies… And
estimations and inferences are no basis for punishing and imposing liability
upon R. Gershom… And all the more so in the case under discussion where we need
to assess that he intended to cause him injury, for if he did not intend to
cause him injury, even though he definitely suffered injury on his account, he
would be exempt, for he caused him injury at a time of rejoicing in a mitzva, as
is stated in the Or Zaru'a and in the Rosh in the name of the
Tosafot, at the end of tractate Sukka.
(Terumat Ha-deshen, II, no. 210)
We see from the Terumat Ha-deshen that the exemption from
liability for damages caused in the course of rejoicing in a mitzva only
applies if there was no intention to cause damage. But if a person intends to cause damage,
he is liable. Chazal allowed
a person to rejoice without having to worry that he might cause damage to
another person (whether so as not to impair the joy or because there is a
waiver), but if he intends to cause damage, there is certainly no waiver, and no
allowance granted by Chazal!
This seems to contradict what we saw earlier in the Tosafot, for
the Tosafot refer to a case where young men ride horses with a
destructive intent in front of the groom, and so too the Mishna speaks of a case
where adults snatch lulavim from children. It seems, then, that there are three
caused in the course of rejoicing;
rejoicing, one of
whose components involves damage;
intentional damage –
getting even in the guise of rejoicing.
third level involves corruption, and is obviously forbidden; the first level is
permitted in a case of minor damage; as for the second level, there is room for
discussion: it might be forbidden, but it might also be the level that the
Tosafot permitted. Of
course, the discussion regarding the second level is also limited to the case of
minor damage and to the situation in which we know that there is a waiver. It should also be added that, setting
aside purely halakhic considerations, if indeed the objective is joy and there
is someone who suffers injury as a result, this is not true joy; true joy cannot
cause injury and sadness to others.
light of the above, if a person engages in merrymaking during the month of Adar
and unintentionally causes damage – whether property damage or personal injury –
he is exempt from liability. On the
other hand, if his intention is to cause harm, there is certainly no allowance!
Only in the case where his intention is to engage in an act of rejoicing and
there is also damage, then if the damage is minor and we know that people are
generally prepared to waive such damage, there is room for
Three points should
be noted in this context:
The Tosafot's principle that a person is exempt for damage caused
in the course of merrymaking is not accepted by all authorities. Responsa Yechave Da'at (vol. V,
no. 50) brings in the name of Responsa Bet David that the Rosh, the
Rambam and the Tur disagree.
As stated above, the Rema rules in accordance with the Tosafot,
but in Choshen Mishpat, end of sec. 358, he adds that if the court sees
fit to construct a fence regarding this matter, they are authorized to do so, as
we saw with the Terumat Ha-deshen.
The Elya Rabba, end of sec. 696, writes in the name of the Shelah:
"A person who guards his soul will distance himself from such behavior, for this
is wanton rejoicing, and not what God desires."
Uttering uncomplimentary remarks about a person constitutes a violation
of the prohibition of speaking lashon ha-ra. This prohibition applies even when the
remarks are true.
Moreover, the Rambam emphasizes that the prohibition applies also to the
listeners, and that their transgression is even more severe than that of the
speaker. In our case, however –
negative remarks about a person made in the context of a Purim shpiel or
the like - it would seem that, generally speaking, the prohibition of lashon
ha-ra does not apply, because the Rambam rules that lashon ha-ra that
was already uttered in the presence of three people is no longer included in the
prohibition (unless it is the person's intention to spread the
If a statement of
this character has been made in the presence of three persons, the subject
matter is regarded as public and generally known, and if one of the three
repeats it, he is not guilty of lashon ha-ra, provided he had no
intention to give the story wider currency. (Hilkhot De'ot
In light of this, since the things that are said at a Purim shpiel
are generally known to the students, this should not involve a violation of
the prohibition of lashon ha-ra.
The Rambam's allowance, however, is not accepted by all, and some
Rishonim disagree. The
Chafetz Chayyim (kellal 2, 3) brings the dispute, and it would
appear that he inclines toward stringency.
Nevertheless, the position of the Rambam cannot be altogether set
aside. Moreover, in a case where
everybody already knows, there is certainly no prohibition of lashon
though one must be careful not to add details to what is already known in order
to inflate the matter and make it more entertaining, as is the general
To summarize, the allowance of speaking lashon ha-ra only applies
to matters that everybody already knows.
When only isolated individuals are privy to the information, the matter
is subject to a dispute among the Rishonim, and one should try to avoid
such talk. Even when everybody
knows, the allowance is effective only with respect to the problem of lashon
ha-ra. Such talk may, however,
involve other prohibitions, some of which we shall discuss
The Torah states:
"You shall not wrong one another" (Vayikra 25:17). The Gemara in Bava Metzia 58b
interprets this as a prohibition of verbal wrongdoing, that is to say, one is
forbidden to wrong another person verbally, saying things that hurt his
Our Rabbis taught:
"You shall not wrong one another" – the verse is speaking of verbal wrongdoing…
Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai: Verbal
ona'a is a greater sin than monetary ona'a, for concerning this
one it was said: "And you shall fear your God," but concerning that one it was
not said: "And you shall fear your God."
And Rabbi Eliezer says: This applies to [the victim's] person, and that
to his money. Rabbi Shmuel bar
Nachmani said: This can be restored, but that cannot be restored.
The parameters of this prohibition are clear, and briefly summarized by
the Sefer Ha-chinukh: "The laws of the mitzva are … not to cause people
pain in any matter and not to shame them" (precept 338). The Chinukh writes that one is
not to cause pain "in any matter." The Chafetz Chayyim emphasizes: "You
should know that the prohibition of 'You shall not wrong' applies even if the
injured party is not put to shame, but only slightly pained" (Introduction,
14, Be'er Mayyim Chayyim).
People sometimes think that stinging comments uttered in jest are not
governed by the prohibition, but truth be told, great caution must be displayed
in the matter. The person who makes
the comment may view it as a joke, but the person about whom the comment is made
may see it differently, even if he does not object. Even if the injured party tries to
ignore the comment and be forgiving, he often suffers if only slightly, and this
too involves a violation of the Torah prohibition of verbal wrongdoing. Thus writes the
One must understand
that it is a great sin and terrible transgression to cause a Jew pain, even a
small amount of pain through mere speech.
This involves an explicit Torah prohibition. (Karyana de-Igreta, I, no.
What has been stated thus far refers to verbal wrongdoing committed
against an ordinary person, but such conduct with respect to a teacher involves
a special stringency. Setting aside
the pain that the teacher is made to suffer, we are dealing here with
ingratitude. For often, even if the
teacher makes an occasional mistake, he is totally devoted to his
profession. In such cases the
offensive remark assumes much greater proportions, for it comes from his
students in whom he is constantly trying to invest. Responsa Yechaveh Da'at brings a
terrible story in this connection regarding the author of the Mikhtav
Sofer, who died as a result of the insult he suffered at the hands of his
I have seen in
writing that the Gaon Rabbi
Shimon Sofer died from the anguish he suffered in the wake of
the insults hurled at him by the “Purim Rabbi.” May the good Lord atone for this. God forbid, then, that this custom
should continue, and especially not in the holy yeshivot, which must
serve as an example of love, honor and awe of Torah. It is a mitzva to forcefully object and
absolutely abolish this evil custom, the word minhag (custom) being a
transmutation of the word Gehinom.
(Responsa Yechave Da'at V, no. 50)
When we are dealing with a teacher who has taught a person Torah, the
matter is even more severe. In such
a case, mechila (waiver) does not help. Despite the fact that Chazal in
Kiddushin 32a said: "If a Torah scholar waives his honor, his honor is
waived," because the Torah is "his," the Rivash wrote in the name of the Ra'avad
that this applies only to conduct that does not display honor. But as for conduct that involves
humiliation, the Torah scholar may not waive his honor:
We have been asked:
Regarding a Torah scholar, who was scorned, cursed and reviled by Reuven, an
ignorant boor… I also saw in the name of the Ra'avad, z"l, that the Torah
scholar may not waive his honor.
And even though they said in the first chapter of Kiddushin (32a):
"If a Torah scholar waives his honor, his honor is waived, because the Torah is
his, as it is stated: 'And he meditates in his Torah day and night'" –
this refers to something that does not involve humiliation… e.g., to stand up
before him, and the like, regarding such things he can waive his honor. But regarding his humiliation, he cannot
waive – on the contrary, he is forbidden to waive, for the Torah is humiliated
Rivash, no. 220)
In many cases, the
butt of a joke is present among
the jokers, in which case, in addition to all that has been said above, there
might apply the prohibition of putting a person to public shame, about which the
Gemara (Berakhot 43b) states:
It is better for a
man that he should cast himself into a fiery furnace rather than that he should
put his fellow to shame in public.
From where do we know this? From Tamar, of whom it says: "When she was
brought forth, etc."
Is this dictum to be understood in its literal sense, so that the rule of
"yehareg ve-al ya'avor," "he should allow himself to be killed, rather
than transgress," should be applied even to the prohibition of public shaming?
On the one hand, the statement seems like words of ethical admonishment. Furthermore, the Gemara (Sanhedrin
74a) asserts that there are three transgressions for which a person must
surrender his life rather than transgress, and that list does not include the
prohibition of putting a person to public shame. On the other hand, the Gemara's source
is Tamar, who was indeed ready to sacrifice her life so as not to humiliate
Yehuda in public. And the
Tosafot imply that in fact the law of yehareg ve-al ya'avor
applies to the prohibition of putting a person to public shame. They ask why the Gemara in
Sanhedrin didn't include the prohibition of public shaming among the
cardinal sins for which a person must give up his life rather than violate. They answer as
It seems that the
reason that this was not included among the three prohibitions that are not set
aside by piku'ach nefesh – idolatry, incest, and murder – is that the
prohibition of shaming a person is not stated explicitly in the Torah, and the
Gemara lists only the explicit prohibitions. (Tosafot, Sota 10a, s.v.
implies that the law of yehareg ve-al ya'avor applies also to public
shaming, and that it is for side reasons that it is not mentioned by the Gemara
in Sanhedrin. This also
follows from the words of Rabbenu Yona, who writes:
Putting a person to
shame in public is regarded as a trace of murder, for the victim's face turns
white and his red appearance disappears, this being similar to murder… And
second, the pain of public humiliation is worse than death. Therefore, our Sages of blessed memory
said (Bava Metzia 59a): "A person should cast himself into a fiery
furnace rather than put his fellow to shame in public." They did not say this about other severe
prohibitions. Indeed, they likened
a trace of murder to murder. As
they said (Sanhedrin 74a) that one should allow himself to be killed,
rather than commit murder.
Similarly, they said that one should cast himself into a fiery furnace
rather than put his fellow to shame in public. (Sha'arei Teshuva, III,
We have here yet another answer to the Tosafot's question. The Tosafot asked why public
shaming was not included among the sins for which one must sacrifice his life
rather than commit. Rabbenu Yona
answers that the Gemara includes humiliation in the category of murder, for
public shaming involves a trace of murder.
On the other hand, the Meiri (Sota 10b) understood the words of
the Gemara in a different manner:
A person should
always be careful not to shame another person in public. In the manner of admonishment, they
said: "It is better for a man, etc."
In other words, these words of Chazal were said in the spirit of
moral rebuke, and not as practical Halakha. This also seems to be the view of the
Rambam, who does not bring the rabbinic dictum, "It is better for a man, etc.,"
together with the other three severe prohibitions in Hilkhot Yesodei
Ha-Torah, but rather in Hilkhot De'ot.
We see, then, that the Rishonim disagree whether or not the law of
yehareg ve-al ya'avor applies to the prohibition of putting a person to
shame in public. How a person
should conduct himself were he to find himself in such a situation requires
clarification. In any event, one
who intentionally shames another person in public, even as part of a Purim
shpiel or the merrymaking of a mitzva, is liable to very severe
punishment, even according to those who say that the actual law of yehareg
ve-al ya'avor does not apply.
Both the Rishonim and the Acharonim have expounded at
length on the severity of the prohibition and on the acts of penitence that one
who shamed another person in public must perform. One example of this is found in the
responsa of Maharam of Rothenburg:
One who puts another
person to shame in public must observe several fasts, and flog himself for the
rest of his life, and suffer mortification while he is still alive, and confess
[his sin] every day. One who calls
another person by a name must publicly seek his pardon, flog himself, suffer
mortification, and confess for at least forty days. (Responsa Maharam, vol. IV, ed.
MUST WE THEN PUT AN
END TO ALL PURIM HUMOR?
In light of what has been said above, it would seem that we have to
abolish all the Adar celebrations and shpiels. This, however, is not the case. Midrash Rabba records the famous
story about the person who sold "the elixir of life":
"This shall be the Torah of the one stricken with tzara'at"
(Vayikra 14:2). This is the
meaning of the verse: "Who is the man that desires life?" (Tehillim
34:13). It once happened that a
certain peddler went around among the cities in the vicinity of Tzippori,
proclaiming: Who wishes to buy the elixir of life?
Rabbi Yannai was
sitting in his reception room, when he heard him proclaiming: Who wants the
elixir of life? He said to him:
Come up here and sell it to me.
He said to him: You
do not need it, nor anybody like you.
He pressed him, until
he went up to him and took out a book of Tehillim. He showed him the verse: "Who is the man
that desires life?" What follows after that? "Keep your tongue from evil, and
your lips from speaking guile" (ibid. v. 14).
Rabbi Yannai said: So
too Shlomo proclaimed, saying: "He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps his
soul from troubles" (Mishlei 21:23). Rabbi Yannai said: All my days I would
read this verse and did not understand its plain sense, until this peddler came
and informed me: "Who is the man that desires life?"
admonishes Israel, saying to them: "This shall
be the Torah of the one stricken with tzara'at" – the Torah of one who
slanders (motzi shem ra).
(Vayikra Rabba 16,2)
This story is astonishing.
Was Rabbi Yannai incapable of understanding the plain meaning of that
verse on his own? Is it not clear from the verse that the man that desires life
must refrain from speaking evil? What was novel in the peddler's words? The
Tanchuma Yashan also brings this story, but with an
His disciples said to
him: Master, did you not understand this verse? He said to them: Yes I did, but
this one came and clarified it for me.
What did the peddler add and clarify for Rabbi Yannai? It is interesting
to note that it was precisely a peddler – a rokhel – who was selling the
elixir of life of guarding one's tongue.
"Rokhel" is one of the Torah's designations for one who speaks
lashon ha-ra: "You shall not go up and down as a talebearer
(rakhil) among your people" (Vayikra 19:16). And it is precisely a peddler who sells
here the elixir of life of guarding one's tongue. This appears to be the peddler's message
– that one can be a peddler, who speaks with people, but nevertheless refrains
from speaking lashon ha-ra.
Rabbi Yannai had thought that in order to guard one's tongue from
speaking evil, one had to engage at all times in Torah study, until the peddler
came and taught him that one can be a rokhel, a peddler, who is
constantly engaged in conversation with his customers, and hears everything, and
yet he does not speak lashon ha-ra.
is told about the Chafetz Chayyim that people came to see how he observes
the laws of lashon ha-ra.
They were sure that he must remain silent all day long. They discovered, however, that in fact
he spoke quite a lot, and they marveled at his ability to speak so much to
everybody, but nevertheless refrain from speaking lashon ha-ra. It seems that one who is unfamiliar
with the laws and does not know what one has to be careful about cannot conduct
Adar celebrations and shpiels, for such a person will surely violate the
serious prohibitions of verbal wrongdoing and public shaming, and the like. But one who knows the halakhot
and is accustomed to follow them, can indeed arrange for a joyous and even
entertaining party without violating these laws. This seems to be the challenge put to
Yeshiva students – to rejoice, to celebrate with Purim jokes, but with joy that
includes everyone, and not happiness that offends some of the people. Joy that comes at the cost of someone
else's sadness is not joy, and regarding such joy we should apply the verse, "I
said of mirth, What does it achieve?" (Kohelet 2:2). Rejoicing that brings joy to all is
fitting rejoicing, and appropriate for the month of Adar in which we are told to
should be noted that the openness that characterizes the month of Adar should be
used not only to fix that which seems to us needs fixing, but also to express
gratitude and appreciation for what is done for us all year round. One should express his gratitude to
everyone, but especially to one's teachers and educators, and even to the
leading Torah authorities of the generation. A group of students once approached
HaRav Lichtenstein on Purim and warmly expressed their feelings of gratitude,
and he responded that such words give him special strength for a long period of
The Matteh Moshe (sec. 1012) writes that while most people think
that on Purim one is permitted to cast off the yoke of Torah and mitzvot,
and that the more one engages in jokes and pranks the better, without a doubt
this is evil, bitter and sinful, for what is permitted on Purim is only the joy
of mitzva, but not jesting and lightheartedness. The Meiri (Megilla 7a) writes in
a similar vein that we are not commanded on Purim about wanton rejoicing, but
rather joy and delight that lead to the love of God. For this reason, the Mishna Berura
writes in his Be'ur Halakha (sec. 695) in the name of the Chayyei
Adam that one who knows that if he will get drunk he will come to scorn a
mitzva, or fail to recite one of the prayer services, or conduct himself
with lightheartedness and mockery – it is better that he not
On the other hand, with proper preparation, Purim can become a most
meaningful holiday. I remember that
when I first came to Yeshivat Har Etzion, I saw for the first time a Purim that
was exclusively elevation of spirit, closeness to God, closeness to one's
friends, and closeness to one's teachers.
I was sorry that I had previously been unaware of the unique power of
Purim. The greater the preparation
for the holiday, the greater its strength.
Rav Kook, in his Ein Aya (Berakhot, no. 61), explains the
essence of joy: Joy does not involve running away from evil and the difficulties
of life; such joy is not true joy.
Joy must come from a positive direction, out of love for the good and out
of rejoicing in all that is good in life.
In Mussar Avikha (pp. 21-22), Rav Kook adds: When a person buys
something, he takes pleasure in having increased his assets. All the more so should he rejoice when
he makes a spiritual acquisition.
Joy is man's encounter with a spiritual force greater than what he
presently has, and it might be added that the very desire to encounter a higher
spiritual force also constitutes true joy.
Rav Kook explains this idea in connection with the verse "with joy and
goodness of heart" – there must be a constant desire to encounter and join with
a greater spiritual force, and this arouses joy. The spiritual force must be one level
higher, for a person must not join a force that is inappropriate for him at the
present time. The force must be one
that can settle in the heart of that person – "and goodness of
On Purim, we reach a very elevated spiritual experience, an encounter
with spiritual forces that are ordinarily hidden within us. On Purim, we must search for these
forces, and out of these forces and the search for them fill ourselves with joy,
which with God's help will radiate on the entire year.