Biblical Examples.

Ironical and veiled attack, mostly in verse. Among the Hebrews satire made its appearance with the advent of the usurper. The tradition runs that when Abimelech, the son of a maid-servant, treacherously slew all his brothers except Jotham, and usurped the leadership of the men of Shechem, Jotham, his youngest brother, hurled at him from the top of Mount Gerizim the famous satiric fable of the trees that went forth to anoint a king over themselves and chose the bramble (Judges ix. 7-15; see Fable). Again, when David wronged his faithful servant Uriah the prophet Nathan brought him to repentance with the parable of the rich man who feasted his guest on the poor man's lamb (II Sam. xii. 1-13). Isaiah's oration at the death of the King of Babylon (Isa. xiv. 4-23) is one of the strongest satires in all literature. Many more examples could be cited from the Bible, but those mentioned are sufficient to warrant the statement that the beginning of the development of satire among the Hebrews dates from the earliest period in their history.

The satire of Ben Sira is sententious in form and refers to all phases of the social life of his day. The frailty of women, the fickleness of friends, the arrogance of the rich—these and many other topics are discussed in the style of the Proverbs, with here and there a suggestion of fable and parable. In the Talmud and Midrash examples of satire abound in the form of puns, parables, and epigrams. The ancient Rabbis had a keen sense for the satirical, and often employed it in their disputes with the Sadducees and the neophytes. The tyranny of the Cæsars and the profligacy of Rome were other topics for the satirists though in these instances they found it prudent to veil their expressions and speak inmetaphors. As an example of their powers of satire the following may be cited:

(Yalḳuṭ Shim'oni, Ḳoraḥ)

"There was a widow who lived with her two daughters and possessed only one field. When she began to plow the field, Moses said to her, 'Thou shalt not plow with ox and ass together.' When she began to sow, he admonished her not to sow the field with two kinds of seed. She began to reap and pile up the stacks; then he told her to leave 'gleanings' [], 'the poor man's sheaf' [], and the 'corner' []. When the harvesting season came, he said to her, 'Yield up the priest's share and the first and second tithes.' She submitted, and gave what he demanded. Then she sold the field and bought two young sheep to use their wool and profit from their offspring. But as soon as the sheep gave-birth to their young, Aaron came and said, 'Give me the first-born, for so the Lord hath ordained.' Again she submitted, and gave him the young. When the time of shearing came, he said to her, 'Give me the first shearing.' Then she said, 'I no more have strength to endure this man; I shall slaughter these animals and use their meat.' But when she had slaughtered them, he said to her, 'Give me the shoulder, the two cheeks, and the maw.' Then she said, 'Even after slaughtering these animals I have not escaped this man; let them, then, be consecrated.' 'In that case,' replied he, 'they belong altogether to me; for the Lord hath-said, "Everything consecrated in Israel shall be thine"' [Num. xviii. 14]. So he took the sheep, and went his way, and left the widow and her two daughters weeping".

This satire was undoubtedly directed against the corrupt officials who robbed and oppressed the poor people on religious pretexts, though the satirist puts his criticism in the mouth of Korah in order to save himself from the animosity of those he attacked.

Medieval Satire.

The rise of Karaism in the middle of the eighth century brought a great deal of satire and polemics into Jewish literature. One of the best known of Saadia's polemical remarks is in regard to the two Karaites Anan and Saul: "As Anan has consumed and vanished away, so shall Saul go down and shall come up no more"—a parody of Job vii. 9. On the other hand, some of the poems of Moses Dar'i (Pinsker, "Liḳḳuṭe Ḳadmoniyyot," pp. 73-74) are fair specimens of Karaitic satire against Rabbinism.


The influence of Arabic culture on Jewish life and literature, which grew stronger and stronger during the succeeding centuries, was propitious to the growth of satire. A mere difference of opinion in linguistics was sufficient to call forth a scathing poem by Dunash ben Labraṭ against Menahem ben Saruḳ (10th cent.). In the eleventh century Ibn Gabirol indulged in occasional satires against those who ill-treated him, as is seen in his wine-song; and Samuel ibn Nagrela wrote satirical maxims in imitation of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Early in the twelfth century Abraham ibn Ezra penned his epigrams on poverty and the arrogance of the rich, and wrote his satire on card-players. Later in the same century Joseph Zabara wrote a satire on the medical fraternity of his day, entitled "The Physicians" Aphorisms" (), and two satires on women—"A Widow's Vow" () and "Contentions of a Wife" (). The thirteenth century can boast of two great satirists, Judah ben Isaac ibn Shabbethai and Judah Al-Ḥarizi. The former is known for his "Gift of Judah" (), which is both a satire on the woman-hater and a reproach to those who marry in haste. Ibn Shabbethai wrote also "The Conflict Between Wisdom and Wealth" ( ), and a polemic against his personal enemies entitled "The Writ of Excommunication" ( ), which is still in manuscript. Of the two, however, Al-Ḥarizi is by far the greater satirist. His extensive travels brought the whole panorama of Jewish life under his observation and enabled him, in his itineraries, to criticize the follies and foibles of his contemporaries. His great skill lies in drawing a vivid picture in few words. His art suggests that of caricature. His satires, known by the collective title "Taḥkemoni," are varied and numerous. Some are on women ("Taḥkemoni," ch. vi.), some on avarice (ch. xii.), some on religious superstitions (ch. x.), and some on the ignorance of religious officials (ch. xxiv.), while the quack doctor likewise receives a flagellation (ch. xxx., xlviii.).

Immanuel of Rome.

In the fourteenth century the art of satire, like Jewish culture in general, is found fully developed in Provence and in Italy. Immanuel of Rome and Kalonymus ben Kalonymus of Provence, contemporaries and friends, enriched Hebrew literature with their satires and at the same time gave a vivid picture of the manners of their time. Immanuel shows the influence of Italian culture, while Kalonymus is more under the spell of Arabic learning. Immanuel, much in the style of the troubadours, takes love for his topic and indulges in pleasantries about women. The twenty-eighth chapter of his "Maḥberot" is the only one in which his satire embraces all phases of the social life of his day. Kalonymus, on the other hand, is of a more serious turn of mind. In his "Treatise of Purim" (), it is true, he criticizes only the scum of society—the beggar, the miser, the drunkard, and the glutton; but in his "Touchstone" () he satirizes the whole social framework. The desecration of the holy days, the hypocrisy of the professed religious man, the arrogance of those who pride themselves on their pedigree, the young and immature who hasten to write books without the necessary preparation, the dry-as-dust grammarians who wrangle over a dot, the rimesters who claim poetic genius—these and similar subjects engage his attention. Of course, the quack physician and women receive a good share of his lashing satire. Femininity affords occasion for a rare bit of irony, in which he pretends to show how enviable is a woman's lot in life and how burdensome a man's. He concludes this passage with the following prayer, which is rimed in the original:

(, pp. 17-18, Lemberg, 1865)

"Heavenly Father, Thou who rescued our forefathers from fire and water, . . . changed the staff into a serpent in the presence of thousands, and turned the clean hand white with leprosy; who made the Red Sea as dry land and the bottom of the Jordan as firm ground, . . . O that Thou wouldst change me into a woman. . . . But wherefore do I cry and complain, since Thou hast decreed so and hast inflicted on me a blemish which can not be removed. To yearn for the impossible is harmful, and empty consolation is of no avail. Let me, then, bear my misfortune till my dying day. And since I have learned that one must offer thanksgiving for evil as for good, I will pronounce my benediction in a low voice and with faltering lips: Blessed art Thou, O Lord, that Thou hast not made me a woman".

During the latter part of the same century two satires were written against Christianity; one is known only to students, the other is the mostwidely known polemic of its kind. The "Haggadah" of Jonah Rapa (c. 1380), still in manuscript, is a vehement denunciation of the licentiousness indulged in by Gentiles during the carnival. The letter of Profiat Duran to his former friend David Bonet Bongoron, entitled "Be Not Like Thy Fathers" (), was already widely circulated in his own day. In an ironical style rarely excelled, the author, who returned to Judaism after a forced conversion, refutes and derides the dogmas of Christianity. The ironical refrain, "Be not like thy fathers," led many of the clergy to consider the epistle as friendly to Christianity.

Satires on Woman.

In the fifteenth century the art of satire was not so assiduously cultivated, and those who indulged in it limited themselves almost to one subject—woman. These were David ben Judah Messer Leon, author of "Praise of Women" (); Abraham of Serteano, author of "Enemy of Women" (); Abigdor of Fano, author of "The Helper of Women" (); and Elijah Ḥayyim ben Benjamin of Genazzano, author of . The last-named wrote also a satire against Christianity in the style and metrical form of the hymn "Yigdal." The sixteenth century also had but few satirists, who contributed only to the literature on women; Judah ben Isaac Sommo, author of "The Shield of Women" (), and Jacob Fano, author of "Armor of the Strong" ().

Revival of Satire.

The seventeenth and the greater part of the eighteenth century were even less productive of satire than the sixteenth. Jacob Francis (17th cent.), however, wrote a scathing satire on the so-called cabalists who dabbled in mysticism and attempted to study the Zohar though unable to understand simple passages in the Bible (see Brody, "Meteḳ Sefatayim," pp. 72-73, Cracow, 1892). During the closing years of the eighteenth century the art of satire began to revive, and almost all social, religious, and political questions engage the attention of the modern satirist. One of the earliest satires of the modern period is the work of Zachariah Pugliese (c. 1795), on the money-lenders of his day; he called it "The Laws of Creditor and Debtor" (). This, however, is still in manuscript. Another early satire, only recently published, is the of Tobias Feder, which is an attack on Ḥasidism. Like these two, many of the satires of the nineteenth century are parodies, and as such have already been discussed in the article Parody.

Erter's Satires.

The satirist par excellence of the first half of the nineteenth century was unquestionably Isaac Erter, author of five satires, published, with other matter, under the collective title of "The Seer of the House of Israel" (; Vienna, 1858). In finish of style and beauty of language these satires have seldom been equaled, while the influence they exerted on the author's generation can not be overestimated. In the first satire, "Weighing Balances" (; 1823), the author shows that he had not yet discovered his own powers; his criticism of life is still superficial, and the problems he grapples with are of minor importance. In "Ḥasidism and Enlightenment" (), published eleven years later, he describes the mental struggle he underwent in freeing himself from the bondage of Ḥasidism. But it is in three later compositions that he stands out preeminently as a satirist of the manners, morals, and customs of his time. "The Complaint of Sani, Sansani, and Smengaloph" (), the supposed guardian angels of young babes, is a withering satire on the popular superstition of demons and angels. Still stronger is the satire , in which all the weaknesses of the age are ruthlessly laid bare. Among certain classes of Jews it is still customary to go on the first day of Rosh ha-Shanah to a river and shake their garments while reciting the verse, "Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea" (Micah vii. 19). On one such occasion, the satirist says, he met Satan and his host busily engaged in throwing nets into the river to gather the sins of Israel, freshly fallen from their garments; and at the satirist's request Satan disclosed to him all the corruption and wickedness of the age. In the last and strongest satire, called "Metamorphosis" (), published in 1845, Erter sketches, among other characters, those of the Ḥasid, the tax-collector, and the Ḥasidic rabbi, in a manner inimitable and with a power unexcelled. His humor has not unjustly been compared to Heine's by one historian (Grätz, "Gesch." 2d ed., xi. 447) and to that of Lucian by another writer (Rubin, "Tehillat ha-Kesilim, "p. 85).

The next satirist of the Galician school is Joseph Perl of Tarnopol, whose satire on Ḥasidism in the form of a parody has been treated in the article Parody. In his second satire, "The Searcher of the Righteous" (; Prague, 1838), he gives a picture of the manners and morals of the Polish Jews a century ago. His satire is not as rich as that of Erter, but it is more direct in its expression and larger in scope, and is colored here and there with intense pathos. After the middle of the nineteenth century the great satirists are found in Russia, and, naturally, it is the life of the Russian Jews that is reflected in their writings. Judah Löb Gordon, poet, feuilletonist, journalist, and fabulist, was at his best as a satirist, and as such he holds a prominent position in Jewish literature. In mastery of style and resourcefulness of language he has not his equal among modern poets, while his irony and sarcasm are of the keenest. Three of his poems, "In the Moon at Night" (), "The Tip on the Letter Yod" (), and "The Two Josephs ben Simeon," may be mentioned here as the most powerful of his satires. In them he attacks many of the time-honored institutions of the Russian Jewry and depicts, with remarkable mastery of color and effect, the unhappy lot of the Jewish woman of his time and country, the corruption of public officials, and the struggle of the young generation for modern culture and enlightenment.

Recent Satires.

Another contemporary satirist of no mean ability was Moses Löb Lilienblum. In his "Assembly of the Dead" (; Odessa, 1870) he depicted sixteen different types of the Russian Jewry, someof which have not yet disappeared. The strongest of these satires are those on the pilpulist and the preacher. The former gives a parody of the casuistic reasoning known as "pilpul," and the latter an enumeration of many of the superstitious customs that are regarded by some as religious duties. There are other satirists and satires that can only be mentioned here. Dolitzky's "Eclipse of the Two Luminaries" (; Vienna, 1879), though the product of his youth, is a very powerful satire on Ḥasidic rabbis, and Kaminer's works are noted not only for their strong irony, but for the cleverness with which they imitate the style of the liturgy. Mordecai David Brandstädter also held up to derision the shortcomings of the fanatic Ḥasidim.

  • H. Adler, Jewish Wit and Humor, in The Nineteenth Century, March, 1893;
  • J. Chotzner, Humor and Irony of the Bible, Hanover, 1883;
  • A. Geiger, Jüdische Dichtungen, Leipsic, 1856;
  • M. Grünwald, Ueber den Humor in der Jüdischen Literatur, in Populär-Wissenschaftliche Monatblätter, 1893, pp. 106-110, 149-156;
  • A. Kohut, Wit, Humor, and Anecdote in Talmud and Midrash, in American Hebrew, xxvi., No. 13; xxvii., Nos. 1-5;
  • L. Löw, Die Lebensalter in der Jüdischen Literatur, pp. 295-300, 346-351;
  • G. Rosenzweig, Der Idisher Witz, in Die Zukunft, Jan., 1902;
  • L. Schulmann, Pardes, ii. 235-241;
  • M. D. Shutter, Wit and Humor of the Bible, Boston, 1893.
J. I. D.