1/27/2006

Rava's Hilarious Rat Joke



We Rabbis have notoriously terrible senses of humor. It’s anyone’s guess why, but I think that it stems from the fact that we simply make connections that nobody else does, or references that nobody gets. Sometimes we’re really funny, but can’t always say what we want.

Today’s daf (Pesachim 9) provides an excellent example of this phenomenon. The great Talmudic sage Rava makes a joke. During my shiur I asked if anyone caught it, and nobody did; personally, I thought it was pretty funny.

The joke is as follows: two Mishnas seem to contradict each other about whether we must concern ourselves that a rat (chuldah) may have taken some bread and left it somewhere else. Abaye resolves this tension by differentiating between a time when bread is abundant, when the rat would bypass a meager amount of bread, and a time when bread is scarce, when a rat would take anything it can get its filthy paws on.

Rava retorts: ‘Is the rat prophetic? Ve-khi chuldah nevi’ah hi?’ Does it know when bread will be scarce?

The joke, of course, is that Chuldah was the name of one of the small handful of prophetesses mentioned in Tana”ch (two others, Miriam and Deborah, are mentioned explicitly, and Chaza”l add another 4, Sarah, Chana, Avigail, and Esther, for a total of 7). Rava is playing on the name Chuldah which is also the word for a rat.

It’s funnier when it doesn’t have to be explained.
Ok, maybe not. But it’s still cool that Rava cracks a joke in the middle of a sugya.
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