Author: Joe Bobker
Gefen Publishing House, 2008
Reviewed by Mike Porter
I wonder if I should be writing about “Pirkei Avos”, a subject about which I know very little. I picked up the book for reviewing after a quick glance at the cheerful cover led me to believe it was a Jewish joke book. And so it is. But it is also a serious book in which Joe Bobker explains in a deceptively easy and straightforward manner what the Fathers are telling us. The chapters cover a wide field and sketch out a way of life which a person who wanted to improve himself might think of following. And if he isn’t completely successful he shouldn’t be discouraged – I soon realised the virtual impossibility of the task and consoled myself with the thought, “being neither saints nor sinners, we struggle on as best we can.”
In his explanation Bobker says: “Pirkei Avos” is a philosophical manuscript, a teaching tool… of the Mishna, and the only one of the rabbinic teachings which is exclusively devoted to ethics…a Judaic “Bartlett’s” of the collective wit and wisdom of the Jewish people…an accumulation of bite-size phrases and age-old values…”
Fifteen major chapter headings (Age and Youth, Afterlife, Law and Order, Life and Death, Time and Wisdom, etc.) are further subdivided into subjects with one or two-page explanations.
“None of the sayings has any social, political, financial, historic or economic context, despite the fact that they arose from a Jewish world in upheaval, ruin and destruction” notes Bobker. And, in one of the book’s copious end notes, it is explained that this catastrophe spanned three generations, from the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE to the failed Bar Kochba uprising.
One of the amazing things, at least to me, was the answer to the question – does G-d laugh? It seems He does. And, we learn: “If you want to get closer to G-d ... only through joy … a person in a happy mood can learn more Torah in an hour than a depressed person…in several hours.” Bobker adds: “Jewish tradition actually legislates that the Jew smile”
So okay, let’s read the jokes. These appear on almost every page, and usually have some connection with the subject of the short chapter heading under which they appear.
Although some of the jokes made me a little uncomfortable, they are undoubtedly “kosher”. We should laugh more – and perhaps tell stories which make others laugh. Science has in fact proved that laughing is good for your health.
So let me end with one of the jokes, and leave you to judge for yourself.
The rabbi goes to visit Shmuli, who is dying, in the hospital. As he walks up to Shmuli’s bed, the latter begins to flail about, waving his arms as if trying to speak. The rabbi leans over and quietly asks, “Do you have some last words of prayer to say?”
Shmuli nods yes, and so the rabbi takes out a pen and paper and hands it to him, saying, “Here, write it down and I’ll make sure to give it to your family and pass it on to G-d.”
Shmuli scrawls a message and stuffs it in the rabbi’s hand. A few seconds later he passes away. The rabbi takes the note outside and hands it to the tearful widow, who opens it and reads, “Get off my oxygen hose!”