Laughter in the Face of Tragedy: The Enduring Resistance of Rabbi Akiva

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Miriam Zami


Ed. note: this essay was runner-up in Hadar’s annual Ateret Zvi Prize in Hiddushei Torah.

It is often assumed that humor has no place in the religious experience. Indeed, many instances in the Talmud recall the seriousness with which the sages studied their ancestral texts, and Halakhah forbids any Jew from engaging in prayer if he or she is in a state of seḥok, laughter, or kalut rosh, levity.[1] There is no humor in the Bible, many argue (although that has been challenged in recent years)[2]; it is unusual—perhaps even irreverent—to imagine God as one with whom we can joke. Even as society has increasingly come to appreciate the psychological value of laughter, it is still largely left out of the religious experience. This approach can be summed up in the words of the influential 20th century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr:

Laughter must be heard in the outer courts of religion…but there is no laughter in the holy of holies. There laughter is swallowed up in prayer and humor is fulfilled by faith… If we persist in laughter when dealing with the final problem of human existence, when we turn life into a comedy, we also reduce it to meaninglessness.[3]

And yet, as I will explore in this discussion, we often find laughter in the most unexpected of places: tragedy.

There has been an increasing amount of research in recent years on humor as a coping mechanism for marginalized or oppressed populations, as well as communities beset by tragedy. For instance, researchers have studied the role of humor in the lives of Holocaust survivors—not only in the years after the atrocities, but also while in the camps themselves. In his remarkable reflection of the will to survive during the Holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote:

Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.[4]

Many individuals may be able to recall times where laughter offered an opportunity to rise above a difficult situation or recapture a sense of humanity during a tragic experience. What is it about laughter that allows one to regain a sense of self amidst the darkest moments of life? How can laughter serve an existential—even religious—purpose? I want to explore this question through the study of some passages in the Midrash and Talmud which reflect on the nature of destruction.

In the wake of 70 CE, when the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were subject to complete Roman domination, the rabbis offered a variety of halakhic and psychological responses to the destruction. In Sifre Deuteronomy 43,[5] we read the story of R. Akiva and his colleagues as they express different approaches to living with this new reality:

And it once was that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Yehoshua,and Rabbi Akiva were entering Rome, and they heard the sound of the multitudes from Puteoli at a distance of one hundred and twenty mil. The Sages began weeping and Rabbi Akiva was laughing.

They said to him, “For what reason are we crying and are you laughing?”

Rabbi Akiva said to them, “And you, for what reason are you weeping?”

They said to him, “Should we not cry, that these gentiles, who sacrifice to idols and bow to false gods, dwell securely and in tranquility, and for us, the House of the footstool of our God, was consumed by fire, and has become the habitation of wild beasts?”

Rabbi Akiva said to them, “That is why I am laughing. If this is what he gave to those who anger him, how much more so to the doers of his will!”

In the first part of this midrash, the sages are walking through Rome and hear the distant sounds of the empire—though I imagine it felt very close to them. Three of the sages begin to cry, recalling the horrific experiences the Jews endured during the Great Revolt. This seems, to us, a natural response: cry at tragedy. R. Akiva, however, offers another reaction: he laughs. R. Akiva finds joy in the ultimate redemption that will certainly come. The midrash does not record his colleagues’ responses, but it continues:

Another time, they were going up to Jerusalem. When they reached Mount Scopus, they tore their clothes.

When they came to the Temple Mount, they saw a fox running out of the (ruined) building of the Holy of Holies. They began to weep, while R. Akiva laughed.

They said to him, “Akiva, you always astonish us – we are weeping, yet you laugh!” He replied, “Why are you weeping?”

They said to him, “Should we not weep when a fox emerges from the place of which it is written, And the commoner that encroaches shall be put to death (Numbers 1:51)? This is indeed how the verse, Because of this our hearts are sick, because of these our eyes are dimmed: Because of Mount Zion, which lies desolate; foxes prowl over it (Lamentations 5:17-18), has been fulfilled for us.”

This narrative parallels the first, though the imagery here is even starker: a fox crawls out of the Temple ruins. Based on the sages’ bewilderment once again at R. Akiva’s laughter, we can assume that they were not quite satisfied with his first explanation. This time, however, the sages engage in a different sort of conversation: an academic one. Each side employs Torah verses to support their emotional response. The sages cry because the prophecies of destruction have indeed been fulfilled: what a terrible fate the Jews have achieved! R. Akiva, on the other hand, utilizes the biblical verses in a characteristically midrashic way. The midrash continues:

He [R. Akiva] said to them, “This is precisely why I laughed, for it is said, And call reliable witnesses, Uriah the priest and Zechariah the son of Yeberechiah, to witness for me (Isaiah 8:2).

Now what is the connection between Uriah and Zechariah? Uriah said, Zion shall be plowed as a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins, and the Temple Mount a shrine in the woods (Jeremiah 26:18). What did Zechariah say? Thus said the Lord of Hosts: There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, etc. (Zechariah 8:4). Said God, ‘These are My two witnesses’ – if the words of Uriah are fulfilled, so will the words of Zechariah be fulfilled; if the words of Uriah are annulled, so will the words of Zechariah be annulled. I rejoice that the words of Uriah have been fulfilled, [because this means that] in the end the words of Zechariah will be fulfilled.”

They said to him, “Akiva you have comforted us.”

R. Akiva quotes a verse from Isaiah which recalls Uriah and Zechariah, and asks: what are these two doing next to each other? This is a classic question that we’ve all come across in our Torah learning, namely, what is x doing next to y? This is not just about the Torah’s structure; for R. Akiva, the answer to this question has spiritual—indeed almost prophetic—meaning. R. Akiva locates the metonyms “Uriah” and “Zechariah” in other verses from Nevi’im: the first forewarns of a desolate Jerusalem, the latter foretells a rebuilt Jerusalem. In order for the redemption prophecy of Zechariah to be fulfilled, R. Akiva explains, the prophecies of destruction—symbolized by the words of Uriah—must be fulfilled. This, finally, comforts the rabbis.

I want to suggest that the laughter in this narrative serves a dual function: one political, and one theological. Politically, the laughter acts as resistance against the Romans, a way of asserting their own humanity amidst oppression. This is not an uncommon phenomenon: one way in which subjugated peoples express their humanity and reclaim some semblance of power is through laughter. In Ancient Rome itself, humor was weaponized as a political tool: whoever controlled the laughter held the power. Cassius Dio, the second century CE Roman senator—living around the time of our narrative’s protagonists—describes an imperial party with theatrical performances that lasted weeks, and records that the audience was commanded to react in specific desired ways at the emperor’s performance. They had to laugh on cue, and, of course, withhold laughter when they’re not supposed to. In controlling their emotions, the emperor maintained his power over his subjects. Dio then records a scene which is as hilarious as it is terrifying:

He [Emperor Commodus] did something else along the same lines to us senators, which gave us good reason to think that we were about to die. That is to say, he killed an ostrich, cut off its head, and came over to where we were sitting, holding up the head in his left hand and in his right the bloody sword. He said absolutely nothing, but with a grin he shook his own head, making it clear that he would do the same to us. And in fact many would have been put to death on the spot by the sword for laughing at him (for it was laughter rather than distress that took hold of us) if I had not myself taken some laurel leaves from my garland and chewed on them, and persuaded the others sitting near me to chew on them too—so that, by continually moving our mouths, we might hide the fact that we were laughing.[6]

The emperor threatens to kill the senators with a gruesome symbolic slaughter of an ostrich, and how do they react? They laugh! Historian Mary Beard, writing on this incident, asserts that “power is met, and spontaneously challenged, by laughter.”[7] In the face of the utmost existential crisis—unjust death—the only response, to maintain a semblance of self, may be to laugh.

In this light, R. Akiva’s laughter—both at the sounds of the Roman marching and at the sight of a fox emerging from the Temple ruins—is resistance to Roman hegemony. It is a way of reclaiming the power for the powerless, just as Dio did (in fact, the senators were not killed; the emperor himself was assassinated a short while later). Emotions, many historians have recently shown, play a critical role in the negotiation of power.[8] And emotional resistance to power allows one to recapture that power and loss of agency. R. Akiva’s laughter is so much more than an unusual response—it is a way of exercising autonomy in the face of oppression.          

There is a second angle of resistance, as I mentioned: and that is theological. The destruction was not only caused by the Romans— in the rabbinic understanding, it was a divine punishment. It came from God. In a world in which we understand God to be at least somewhat involved in the workings of humanity, how do we explain evil and tragedy? This is the classical question of theodicy that God-adhering individuals struggle with to this day—and is the very question at the heart of our narrative.

In order to understand the theological and existential import of laughter, another ancient Roman model will be useful here: the two philosophers Heraclitus and Democritus. These two philosophers lived around the fourth and fifth centuries BCE, and probably didn’t overlap with each other—or if they did, probably didn’t know each other. Heraclitus’ writings support the view that the world is constantly in “flux,” and that everything is made of its opposites; to Democritus is attributed an atomistic view of the world. But by the time the Hellenistic period rolled around, some five centuries later, their actual philosophical outlooks were largely replaced by new literary personas. These two philosophers reappeared in writings always together, and with distinct identities: Heraclitus was always crying, and Democritus was always laughing. For instance, the first century CE Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger writes:

Whenever Heraclitus went forth from his house and saw all around him so many men who were living a wretched life—no, rather dying a wretched death—he would weep, and all the joyous and happy people he met stirred his pity; he was gentle-hearted, but too weak, and was himself one of those who had need of pity. Democritus, on the other hand, it is said, never appeared in public without laughing, so little did the serious pursuits of man seem serious to him.[9]

In Greek philosophy as adapted in the mid-imperial period (particularly through the Stoics and then Cynics), laughter was taken as a way to deal with the absurdity of life: there is no meaning, and everything can be reduced to atoms. This is the approach of Democritus, at least as he is presented in these texts. Weeping, on the other hand, was a response to a similar absurdist perspective, but instead of laughing at the incongruity of life and the helplessness of man, the Heraclitan persona wept at the predicament of humanity in the face of the capricious world. It is no comedy, but a deep tragedy.

Rabbi Akiva’s colleagues, it appears, represent Heraclitus in their professed explanation of their weeping at the sight of destruction: “Should we not cry, that these gentiles, who sacrifice to idols and bow to false gods, dwell securely and in tranquility, and for us, the House of the footstool of our God, was consumed by fire, and has become the habitation of wild beasts?”

It is the reversal of fortune that prompts the sages to cry; the very incomprehensibility of God’s world that elicits such an emotion. This is a common reaction in the face of tragedy: it feels unfair. The world, once rational and just, suddenly seems unknowable. In this view, the world is a topsy-turvy nightmare of instability that does not guarantee the security of ultimate justice and morality.[10] This is, in essence, Greek absurdism, which found a new form in 19th and 20th century existentialist philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Albert Camus.

On the other end of this, however, is Rabbi Akiva. He laughs, but not the Democritean laughter (gelos) that mocks the unknowability of the world; he laughs precisely because the world is knowable. It is a joyous, harmonious laugh, known in ancient Greek as euthemia, that perhaps better describes the real Democritus’ temperament and philosophic outlook.[11] It is a laughter of peace with the world, of contentment with a just outcome. It is not a laughter that makes a mockery of life and reduces it to meaninglessness—it is precisely a laughter that gives meaning to life.

R. Akiva’s laughter is supported by a midrash about the prophecies of destruction and restoration. The very act of midrash—the act of biblical interpretation—is itself the act of rabbinic self-construction; it is what enabled the rabbis to persist in a post-destruction world and find meaning in their tradition. R. Akiva claims knowability of the world through his interpretation of Torah, which is, in the rabbinic mindset, the only way to truly know anything meaningful about the world.[12] R. Akiva’s laughter, followed by his turn to text, is a radical reframing of the catastrophic moment of helplessness and vulnerability. It says that we can, in fact, have confidence in the justice of the world and the ultimate redemption, and the way to do that is through the study of Torah.

Through his laughter, R. Akiva resists the notion that the only future is a bleak one, that God will only continue to bring evil and injustice—or perhaps worse, that God is absent from the world. This is theological resistance. His notion of God, from his interpretation of the verses from Nevi’im, is one of ultimate justice and restoration. Coupled with political resistance against the Roman oppression, R. Akiva’s laughter is a symbol to his colleagues of the enduring faith in God and humanity.

Perhaps even more well-known than this midrash is the story of R. Akiva’s martyrdom in Bavli Berakhot 61b.[13] There, R. Akiva is taken out to be killed by Romans in the wake of the failed Bar Kokhba Revolt in 135 CE, and at the very last moment he readies himself to recite the Shema, explaining to his students that forever he has yearned to fulfill his own teaching of the phrase “love the Lord your God …with all your soul” – even at death. This is a tale of deep devotion to God even in the face of all adversity, a similar depiction to the R. Akiva of our Sifre narrative. Love of God is surely present in this narrative, but missing from the Bavli text is the notion of resistance that was so defining in the Sifre midrash. For that, we may turn to the parallel text in the Yerushalmi, which is chronologically earlier than the Bavli’s narrative and likely served as the source for it.

The Yerushalmi reads:

Rabbi Akiva was judged before the evil Tinius Rufus. There came the time for reciting the Shema. He started to read and laughed.

He said to him: Old man, you are either a sorcerer or one contemptuous of

He said to him: The spirit of this man should be blown away; I am neither a sorcerer nor contemptuous of sufferings. But all my life I read this verse and said, when will I have occasion for these three (Deut. 6:5): “You must love the Eternal, your God, with all your heart, all your soul, and all your force.” I loved Him with all my heart. I loved Him with all my money. But whether with all my soul I could not test. But now, when “with all your soul” came, the time of reciting the Shema has arrived and my mind has not wavered, therefore I am reciting and laughing.

He had not finished speaking when his soul flew away.[14]

R. Akiva is tried by Tinius Rufus; unlike in the Bavli, there is no certainty that he is going to die. At that moment, the time for recitation of the Shema fortuitously arrived. In this version of the story, R. Akiva’s laughter functions precisely the same way as it had in the Sifre, as a tool of political resistance against the ruling power. The Roman representative himself is the only witness—unlike in the Bavli, where it is his students who question his actions—highlighting once again the nature of laughter as a subversion of power. Tinius Rufus is understandably perplexed by the laughter, perhaps even angry: his bewilderment is the turning point at which the power imbalance shifts from the Roman to the rabbi. Finally, at the very last moment and in his recitation of the verses, R. Akiva has the upper-hand. Before he even finishes speaking, his soul departs—before he can be killed by the Roman.

The laughter is notably missing in the Bavli narrative, and with it, the act of power subversion and the clear confidence in divine justice. Indeed, after R. Akiva’s death in the Bavli, the narrative continues with the ministering angels questioning God, “is this Torah and is this its reward?”—a poignant and accusatory appeal. The Bavli tolerates a strain of existential absurdism, acknowledging that sometimes, even the angels don’t know the answer to theodicy. This is not an uncommon perspective in the Bavli; scholars show that questions of theodicy travel from the Yerushalmi to Bavli with somewhat differing approaches, with the Yerushalmi offering greater consolation in the end, while the Bavli is more likely to express uncertainty and doubt at the inner workings of the world.[15]

Pulling these pieces together, we have a strong image of emotional responses in the face of injustice and tragedy. We have seen the rabbis grapple with existentialism and absurdism, fearing that no redemption may arrive. On the other side of this, R. Akiva’s stalwart belief in God and Torah expresses itself in each of these texts. Emotion is inextricably linked with power; those who have control of their emotional responses can regain a sense of humanity and agency amidst subjugation, shifting the power imbalance. In these narratives, this phenomenon is most acutely expressed in R. Akiva’s laughter. In the Sifre, laughter allows the rabbis to be comforted by the ultimate rabbinic exercise in autonomy—the act of midrash, or interpretation of Torah. Midrash—engaging with the text, finding meaning in the prophetic words, and ascribing metaphysical significance to history—is what sustained the Jewish people after the destruction in 70 CE, and again after the further oppression following Bar Kokhba in 135.

Rabbi Akiva’s laughter is not a sinister laughter that mocks the absurdity and unknowability of the world. It is an act of healing, protesting Roman power and protesting the notion of a fundamentally meaningless existence. It is a religious experience, that by resisting the notion of God’s world as a divine tragedy restores the sages’ faith in the future and in God. Returning to Niebuhr, with whom we started this essay, it cannot be true that “there is no laughter in the holy of holies”—for that is exactly where R. Akiva laughs! Laughter, as I hope I have shown, does not “reduce life to meaninglessness,” but has the power to do just the opposite: ascribe meaning and agency to the darkest moments of history. It is true that there will always be the unknowable questions of theodicy—as the Bavli narrative reminds us—but the point to be underscored is this: the world is not ultimately tragic. Morality will triumph. And that is a cause for joy.

[1] On negative approaches to seḥok (laughter) in rabbinic literature, see: Avot 3:13; Avot 6:6; b. Berakhot 31a. On seḥok as an impediment for prayer, see: t. Berakhot 3:21; b. Berakhot 31a; and in later Halakhah, Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 93:2.

[2] See, for instance, the discussion in Yehuda T. Radday, “On Missing the Humour in the Bible: An Introduction,” in On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible, eds. Yehuda T. Radday and Athalya Brenner (BLS 23; Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990), 21-38.

[3] Reinhold Niebuhr, “Humor and Faith,” in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, ed. Robert McAfee Brown (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 49-60.

[4] Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959; 2006), 43.

[5] The story also appears in b. Makkot 24a-b, with some minor changes. The Sifre version is significantly older than the Bavli version, dating to the third century, and much closer in time to the actual figures in the narrative.

[6] Roman History 73.21.

[7] Mary Beard, Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2014), 4.

[8] See especially Ari Mermelstein’s recent book, Power and Emotion in Ancient Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

[9] De Ira 2.10.5.

[10] On existential absurdism in rabbinic thought, see Christine Hayes’ recent article, “Roman Power through Rabbinic Eyes: Tragedy or Comedy?” in Reconsidering Roman Power: Roman, Greek, Jewish and Christian Perceptions and Reactions, ed. Katell Berthelot (Rome: Publications de l’École française de Rome, 2020), 443-471. Through a close reading of a number of eschatological narratives about Gentiles in the World to Come, Christine Hayes shows that a significant strain of rabbinic thought did not anticipate an upward moral arc of the world, what Hayes calls a “divine comedy.” Instead, she argues, some rabbis perceived the world to be a “divine tragedy.”

[11] Stephen Halliwell, Greek Laughter: A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 353.

[12] For rabbinic conceptions of midrash, see Daniel Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), especially p. 17: “[O]ur conception of midrash is one in which the text makes its meaning in history,” which is a fitting descriptor for the role that midrash plays here.

[13] Following ms. Oxford 366; there are some notable changes in the printed edition of the Talmud which add martyrological elements that are not present in the manuscripts. See Paul Mandel, “Was Rabbi Aqiva a Martyr? Palestinian and Babylonian Influences in the Development of a Legend,” in Rabbinic Traditions Between Palestine and Babylonia, eds. Ronit Nikolsky and Tal Ilan (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 306-353.

[14] Y. Berakhot 9:5, 14b; also y. Sotah 5:7, 20c. Translation from Heinrich W. Guggenheimer (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1999-2015).

[15] Yaakov Elman, “The Suffering of the Righteous in Palestinian and Babylonian Sources,” JQR 80 (1990): 315-339; and idem., “Righteousness as Its Own Reward: An Inquiry into the Theologies of the Stam,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 57 (1991): 35-67. See also Jeffrey Rubenstein, Stories of the Babylonian Talmud (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 182-202.

Miriam Zami is a PhD student in Talmud and Ancient Jewish History at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. Formerly, she served as the Springboard Fellow for the Hillel at Baruch, City, and John Jay Colleges, where she developed curricula and led Jewish programming for hundreds of students across New York City. She is an alumna of Stern College for Women, Midreshet Lindenbaum, and various bet midrash programs including Drisha and the Center for Modern Torah Leadership. Miriam lives in Manhattan with her husband.