Jewish humor is rooted in several traditions. Recent scholarship places the origins of Jewish humor in one of history's earliest recorded documents, the Hebrew Bible, as well as the Talmud. In particular, the intellectual and legal methods of the Talmud, which uses elaborate legal arguments and situations often seen as so absurd as to be humorous, in order to tease out the meaning of religious law.
Hillel Halkin in his essay about Jewish humor traces some roots of the Jewish self-deprecating humor to the medieval influence of Arabic traditions on the Hebrew literature by quoting a witticism from Yehuda Alharizi's Tahkemoni. A later Sephardic tradition centered on a Nasreddin-derived folk character known as
A more recent one is an egalitarian tradition among the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe in which the powerful were often mocked subtly, rather than attacked overtly—as Saul Bellow once put it, "Oppressed people tend to be witty." Jesters known as badchens used to poke fun at prominent members of the community during weddings, creating a good-natured tradition of humor as a levelling device. Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, a scholar of Jewish humor, argued:
You have a lot of shtoch, or jab humor, which is usually meant to deflate pomposity or ego, and to deflate people who consider themselves high and mighty. But Jewish humor was also a device for self-criticism within the community, and I think that's where it really was the most powerful. The humorist, like the prophet, would basically take people to task for their failings. The humor of Eastern Europe especially was centered on defending the poor against the exploitation of the upper classes or other authority figures, so rabbis were made fun of, authority figures were made fun of and rich people were made fun of. It really served as a social catharsis.
After Jews began to immigrate to America in large numbers, they, like other minority groups, found it difficult to gain mainstream acceptance and obtain upward mobility (As Lenny Bruce lampooned, "He was charming. ... They said, 'C'mon! Let's go watch the Jew be charming!'"). The newly-developing entertainment industry, combined with the Jewish humor tradition, provided a potential route for Jews to succeed. One of the first successful radio "sitcoms", The Goldbergs, featured a Jewish family. As radio and television matured, many of its most famous comedians, including Jack Benny, Sid Caesar, George Burns, Eddie Cantor, Jack Carter, Henny Youngman, Milton Berle, and Jerry Lewis were Jewish. The Jewish comedy tradition continues today, with Jewish humor much entwined with that of mainstream humor, as comedies like Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Woody Allen films indicate.
Sigmund Freud in his Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, among other things, analyzes the nature of Jewish jokes.