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Ancient Emojis Discovered in the Talmud

I always thought that emojis were a recent thing.

So, imagine my shock when this morning I was studying tractate Ketubot in the Talmud, written in 200 CE, and the discussion was about smiley face emojis!

(The Talmud is a very important Jewish book that instructs us in the nitty-gritty of how to live our lives.)

Now I thought, as you might have, that emojis were created after the invention of email and text, to add emotional cues. We all know that emails and texts can easily be misunderstood because emotion is hard to convey in that medium. Unless we are very careful in our wording, messages sound negative even when that was not the intention.

Thus, a quick smiley face to say, “Yeah!” and a thumbs up to say, “Go team, nice job.” We all have experienced how these zany illustrations can lighten a mood.

So back to the Talmud. The Talmud quotes an ancient Jewish proverb saying, “The person who shows their teeth to a friend in a smile is better than one who gives them milk to drink.” (Ketubot 111b) The smiley face emoji! Maybe not quite but still…

Smiles, this text teaches, nourish us. A smile can be more powerful at sustaining us than milk itself. My study today dovetailed beautifully with something that’s been on my mind.

This is a tough time of year for a lot of people. Students are transitioning from summers filled with camps, travel, sleeping-in and most importantly no homework except summer reading. So being ushered back into the classroom and being slammed with homework and jam-packed schedules is rough.

There are a lot of challenges that come in fast and furious right now. Kids face the re-sorting of friendship groups, trying-out for sports, and navigating new schedules. Teachers are struggling to get to know the new students and students are trying to figure out how to succeed within the culture of their new classrooms.

I was trying to think of what advice Judaism could offer to our youth during this time and I realized it’s this “The person who shows their teeth in a smile is better than one who gives milk to drink.” (Ketubot 111b)

Meaning what? It’s important right now to remember that each interaction, large or small, in person or on the phone, in an email, dm or text, creates an impression.

What impression are you creating when you speak to your teacher? What impression are you creating with the wording of an email with a question or request?

We all know that impressions are much harder to build than they are to shatter.

My advice to students and teachers and all of us is this: When you walk into your classroom, smile. When you send an email, add words that will make the recipient smile. Go through life being a smile spreader.

Does this mean that when you are in a bad mood or tired or grouchy that you have to hide it? Does it mean when you come home from a long day of school or work you have to pretend you feel differently than you do? Yes! It Does!!! ……. And no, not always.

Lets looks at, “Yes! It does” part of the answer first. Professionals know that before you walk into the room – be it a classroom, a conference room, or an operating room – you leave your own stuff at the door. You walk in with a smile, no matter what you feel inside.

Elsewhere in the Talmud. Shammi, one of our great Jewish teachers, said, “Receive all people with a cheerful expression.” (Pirkei Avot 1:15) He goes on to explain that we have no right to inflict our bad mood on others. You may feel bitter or cranky, but that does not excuse you from acting pleasant and cheerful.

Dennis Prager, a contemporary thinker, writes, “We have a moral obligation to be as happy as we can be.” But what if we are not? We are not always happy. We can’t deny it. We need to vent we need unload and sometimes we truly are depressed.

Returning to my question “If we are unhappy are we supposed to pretend we are not?” Here is my “no you are not” part of the answer. The Torah instructs us that, “you shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.” (Lev 19:17) From this we learn that when we feel negativity, we shouldn’t suppress it or it gets locked inside. No, we need to process it and deal with it. But when and where and with whom, is important. (That topic would be another sermon.)

For now, when we combine out three verses we learn a few things:

  • We are responsible for dealing with our unhappiness and for fixing it rather than suppressing it.
  • But unhappiness is not an excuse for being unpleasant.
  • Don’t inflict your bad mood on other people.
  • Fix what you need to fix and move on with a smile.
  • People will read clues about you in what you say, what you write and how you act. Therefore be careful about what clues you present.

My mother used to tell me, “If you’re not enjoying yourself, pretend you are. Put a smile on your face. Crack a joke and be nice to the people you are with. You might suddenly surprise yourself and discover that you are having fun.” It’s actually great advice and works stunningly.

So, here is my advice to us all in this new year:

  • Add smiley face emojis to your life.
  • Meaning add gracious words to your emails, kind comments in your conversations, gracious actions in your interactions.
  • Be the person you would want in your class, or in your friendship circle, or on your sports team.

Cain yehe ratzon.

This sermon shares gleaning from the teachings of Rabbi Joseph Tellushkin in “The Book of Jewish Values.”

Rabbi Jamie Korngold is the founder and Senior Rabbi of Adventure Judaism, a congregation in South Boulder, founded in 2001. Learn more>>

About Rabbi Jamie Korngold

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