The People of Chelm Want to Know....

Continuing The Column Devoted To Questions About Jewish History

The long and rich history of Judaism is so much more accessible to everyone nowadays, even to the storied people of Chelm. Members of our Me'ah and Tze'adim classes have studied this abundant past and wanted to share what we have learned with others who might also enjoy it. So this column was devised and each month there are three questions, usually from different eras. Most are fairly difficult questions, and you should be congratulated for trying to wrestle with any of them. If you don't know an answer, you will find it elsewhere in this issue of the STAR. Please share your new knowledge with your neighbors, fellow congregants, and especially the people of Chelm.

Below are the questions from the year 2001. Click here to return to the main People of Chelm page.


December 2001

1. The Chanukah period is a major cause for rejoicing, and not just for children. Quite beyond the gift giving custom, this festival celebrates the recapture and rededication of the Jerusalem Temple by the Maccabees over two thousand years ago. There is also the inspiring tradition of the candles miraculously burning for eight days. Why then is it a "minor" holiday? Is it because 1) the Maccabee kings were not descendants of King David, 2) this triumph over the tyrant King Antiochus is not mentioned in the Bible, 3) the Jewish rebel victory was short-lived, or 4) the Talmud never discusses this celebration. Answer

2. President Bush's off-the-cuff reference to the new war on terrorism as a "crusade" caused diplomats all over the globe to wince because of the religious strife this term recalls. In many Christian eyes, the Crusades were a noble attempt to regain access to the Holy Land of Israel from an ascendant Muslim empire that was encircling the Mediterranean. But to many other Christians and Jews especially this term has a much different, and very negative, connotation. Why is this so? The historical buffs may also guess how many Crusades there were and when they occurred. Answer

3. There are heroines and heroes all around us, but most of the time the everyday events of our daily lives do not require these people to realize this potential. They quietly go about their business as parents, police, postal workers, flight attendants, and firemen. The events of September 11 showed us again that many "ordinary" people are capable of extraordinary bravery. The Bible also recalls one difficult period when many heroic acts were needed, when Deborah, Samson, Gideon, and Othniel rose up to protect and sustain the Israelite people. Which book of the Bible recounts these deeds? Was it a) Joshua, b) Kings, c) Chronicles, d) Judges, or e) Jeremiah? Also, when approximately was this time when these courageous people lived? Answer


November 2001

1. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have much in common. For example, all three seek ways to understand and carry out God's will. Judaism also has a tradition that once in a while a religious leader will actually challenge the Lord, as if to change the Almighty's mind. Which of these people had the temerity to do this - Abraham, Moses, Levi Isaac of Berdichev, or Jacob? Answer

2. Congratulations to Barry Bonds, baseball's new home run king. It took Barry just 3 years to eclipse Mark McGuire's mark of 70. By contrast, Babe Ruth single season mark of 60, set in 1927, stood for over three decades. During those years, however, a Jewish slugger came very close to the legendary Babe's record. Who was this Hall of Famer? No, he absolutely was not Sandy Koufax! Answer

3. Senator Joe Lieberman's near miss notwithstanding, there have been very few Jewish heads of state. Britain's 19th century Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, was born a Jew. And of course Israel and Judah had scores of Jewish kings and queens in Biblical times, including the renowned David and Solomon. Strange as it may seem, there was yet another kingdom headed by Jewish monarchs. Do you have any idea of where this land was? It could be a) Ashkenaz, b) Ethiopia, c) Kush, d) Khazaria, or e) Yemen. Answer


October 2001

1. The tragedies of this past September are overwhelming to people of goodwill the world over. One result from such calamities is that decent people are spurred to action, to address the sources of these catastrophes, to try and fix the world. Ninety years ago, there was another disaster in lower Manhattan. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire claimed the lives of lives of 146 workers, mostly poor Jewish women. What good could possibly have come from this situation? Answer

2. This month we celebrate Sukkot, the Feast of Booths. As the last of three harvest festivals, this holiday of course has an ancient lineage, going far back into Israel's agricultural past. In fact, the mitzvah to build sukkot can be found in the Bible. Can you guess which book(s) contain this direction? There is also an explanation. For (lots of) extra credit, can you recall why we are commanded to construct sukkot - and live in them for seven days? Answer

3. Allright already! So no one has anything good to say about us. Well, you better hope they don't know Yiddish or they can really do us in. What is the meaning of these Yiddish appellations, and which is the only one that is remotely complimentary - shikker, schnorrer, shnoook, shayner Yid, schlimazel, shmo, shtunk, and shlemiel? Stop your kvetching, it could be worse; these were just some of the Yiddish "S" words! Answer


September 2001

1. Rosh Hashanah is a time for renewal for us. Like Judaism itself, this Holiday has undergone its own renewal as its meaning and traditions have changed and evolved over the centuries. Listed here are several traditions associated with Rosh Hashanah. Try to sequence them in the order in which each was introduced into common Jewish practice. 1) Study and preparation during the month of Elul, 2) being inscribing in the Book of Life, 3) blowing of the shofar, and 4) the custom of Tashlich, emptying one's pockets on the second day. Answer

2. The haftarah is a selected reading from one of the prophetic books of the Bible. The haftarah of the Yom Kippur morning service, from Isaiah 57:14 to 58:16, speaks of fasting as an attempt to be "heard on high". By mid-morning, some of us are starting to get that empty feeling down in our normally full stomachs and hope this counts for something. But Isaiah goes on say that it is not this inner feeling, but another outer-directed "fast" that is needed. According to Isaiah, what kind of deeds does the Lord really expect of us? Also, some scholars often refer to the author of this passage as "second Isaiah". What does this mean? Answer

3. There are many ancient languages in use for sacred writings in today's religious practices - Hebrew, Latin, Sanskrit, Greek. Some, like Latin, have become "dead" and are no longer spoken in any community. Hebrew was once a dead tongue like Latin, but is now a vital, modern language, actively used by millions of people. When did Hebrew spring back to life as a spoken language? Answer


August 2001

1. The twentieth century has been a golden age for archeology, especially in the Middle East. For the most part, the discoveries have tended to confirm the events described in the Bible. Many have radically changed today's perceptions and appreciations of past cultures. Which of these magnificent discoveries is generally conceded to be the greatest archeological discovery of the last 100 years - A) the opening of Tutankamen's (King Tut's) tomb, B) the uncovering of 20,000 tablets in the library at Nineveh, the ancient Assyrian capital, C) the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls, or D) the discovery of Hezekiah's tunnel underground in Jerusalem? Answer

2. Lighting of the Sabbath candles is one of a small number of mitzvot that are traditionally reserved for women. Is this an exclusively female obligation? What if the woman of the house is away on business or visiting a sick relative? What is a husband supposed to do? Then there is the case where there is no woman at all in the house. What then? Finally, what is expected for a single male living alone (i.e. a bachelor)? Answer

3. Judaism has many important ritual practices and symbols that have come down to us through the centuries. Some evolved from ancient community customs, but many others can be traced to Biblical references and thus assume greater importance. Can you guess which of these items has firm Biblical origins - 1) the Star of David, 2) the mezuzah on the doorpost, 3) the tzitziot, the fringes on the talit or payer shawl, 4) the elimination of leavening during Passover, and 5) the wearing of yarmulkes? Answer


July 2001

1. How long have people been worshipping? We may never know, but animal sacrifice, star observations, myth making, and sacred art all seem to have a long history in the development of religion. Was prayer also an early innovation or did it emerge much later? Definitive answers are elusive, but scholars have nonetheless put forth persuasive positions on the development of prayer. In today's most common view, was prayer A) a replacement for animal sacrifice after the First Temple was destroyed, B) instituted by the Patriarchs, C) a rabbinic innovation now encoded in the liturgy, or D) a mitzvah commanded in the Torah? Which one of alternatives is the "best" answer? Answer

2. One difficult day in the late summer is Tisha B'Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, when by tradition both the First and Second Temples were destroyed in Jerusalem. These destructions occurred more than six hundreds years apart, the first in 586 BCE and second in 70CE. With which Temple period, the First or Second, do we associate the following figures - Cyrus the Great, Solomon, Nehemiah, Jeremiah, Zedekiah and Titus? Answer

3. We have just celebrated the happy Feast of Shavuot, one of the major harvest festivals in the Jewish calendar. Which of the following are associated with Shavuot - 1) the bringing of the first fruits, 2) the giving of the Ten Commandments, 3) all night study, 4) reading the megilla of Ruth, and 5) confirmation? Answer



June 2001

1. For much of its early development, Israel's religious practice revolved around the Temple at Jerusalem. Many mitzvot in the Torah are specifically tied to this location. At some point, however, Judaism was forced to become a "portable" religion. What event was the turning point when contemporary Jews accepted that they could no longer maintain a religion centered on the Temple? Was it A) the Babylonian exile, B) the Crusades of Medieval times, C) the collapse of the Bar Kochba revolt, D) the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E., or E) the long guerilla warfare of the Maccabean uprising? Answer

2. Even though it is no longer the focus of Judaic practice, the Temple remains an important presence. Most people know what we call the physical remnant of this structure. A more difficult question is when did Jews obtain unhindered access to this remnant. Hint: the newest holiday, Yom Yerushalayim, celebrates this achievement. Answer

3. Normative Judaism today recognize the tradition of the Oral Law, codified in the Mishnah and Talmud, as well the written law of the Torah. However, there once was a significant sect that only accepted the literal interpretation of the Torah and rejected the Oral Law entirely. Who were these people and when did they live? Answer



May 2001

1. Karen Siegal asks if you can provide a reason why Rachel is the only one of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs who is not buried at Hebron in the Cave at Machpela. This cave was the one purchased by Abraham, and today there is a shrine there, sacred to Jews and Muslims alike. Rachel, Jacob's most beloved wife, died after giving birth to a son on the road to Bethlehem and was buried there. Also, what was the name of the son? Answer

2. There are many dietary laws in the Torah. Some regulate how food must be prepared, especially meat. Others indicate which foods are acceptable to eat. All of these laws collectively form the foundation of kashrut, the regulations concerning proper preparation of food. There is no explicit command in the five Books of Moses that prohibits the mixing meat and dairy products together, although this is one of the most important aspects of a kosher kitchen. Can you guess what then is the basis for this widespread practice of separating meat and dairy foods? Answer

3. We are not as enthusiastic as past generations in the celebration of the Feast of Shavuot, which this year occurs in the last week of May. It is one of three festivals whose observance is commanded in the Bible. There is a fixed relationship of Shavout to Passover. What is it? According to Talmudic tradition, a very great event in the history of the Jewish faith occurred on this day. Was this 1) the arrival of Joshua in Canaan, 2) the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, or 3) Elijah's ascension to heaven? For different reasons Christians also celebrate this day, but call it Pentecost. It marks the beginning of the Apostles' ministry to the world, seven weeks after Jesus's death, when they "spoke in tongues" (i.e. spoke in languages they did not know). Answer



April 2001

1. Chapter 12 of Exodus tells the story of the first Passover, when the Israelites are told to "celebrate it as a festival to the Lord throughout your generations". Despite this command and the detailed instructions given to the people via Moses, it was not always observed in the correct way. Later in the Bible, there is mention of a great king who restored the Passover sacrifice to the prescribed manner. Who was this king - David, Josiah, Solomon, Hezekiah, or Manasseh? The reference also gives the exact year of the reign of the king when this restoration occurred. When might this have been? Answer

2. These are difficult times for Palestinian-Jewish relations. Unfortunately, tension in this region is not new, forming as it does a crossroads of the three continents. For millennia, there have been invaders - from Egypt, from Syria, and from beyond in the "Fertile Crescent". In fact, one such group is responsible for the word "Palestine". Who were these people and where did they come from? Answer

3. Max Israelite, the Beacon columnist, has asked several questions about the Yiddish language, the lingua franca of Ashkenazi Jewry. What is its parent language in grammar and syntax? When and where did this language evolve? Yiddish is not spoken among this generation as it was the past, but it still survives. Max heartily recommends a trip to the National Yiddish Book Center at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Answer



March 2001

1. The best known of all the sixty three tractates of the Mishna is the "Pirke Aboth", the Sayings of the Fathers. The very first chapter of this beloved work traces the handing down of the Oral Tradition from its inception in an unbroken chain to the time the Mishna was committed to writing in the first few centuries of the Common Era. The following are mentioned as being a part of that transmission - Joshua, the elders, Moses, the Men of the Great Assembly, and the prophets. Can you put them in the proper order, oldest first? Answer

2. The Oral Law served to provide practical interpretations of the many mitzvoth of the Torah. For example, the Mishna [basing itself on the work required to build the Tabernacle in the Biblical book of Numbers] lists thirty nine labors which are prohibited on Shabbat. The last of these proscribes carrying objects from a private domain to a public domain. (Carrying items within a domain is acceptable). This is a very serious restriction since one cannot even pick up and tote a young child to shul or to a neighbor's house on Shabbat. In order to permit greater mobility, the rabbis have permitted the building of eruvim in cities. In fact, one is currently in the works to encompass parts of Cambridge and Somerville. What are eruvim and how do they help Jews who try to strictly observe the Mishna? Answer

3. Christianity today encompasses a wide array of different groups and denominations, the largest being the Roman Catholic Church with almost a billion members. It is not surprising that Christianity collectively numbers more adherents than any other religious movement on the globe. But two millennia ago it began as a sect of Judaism and might have remained so were it not for the powerful influence of the early Christian leader Paul, to whom most of the Epistles of the Christian New Testament are attributed. Though Paul was himself born a Jew, he made several innovations that forced to an eventual split with the normative Judaism of those times. What was Paul's major innovation? Answer


  February 2001

1. The powerful Joseph story, the longest narrative in the Bible, could really be called a novella since it includes all of the last 14 chapters of the Book of Genesis. During a recent Saturday morning Torah study session, Rabbi Mintz observed that this story marked the first time in the Bible that people talked of their own feelings. He then asked what were the "ups and downs," either literal of figurative, of Joseph's life. The assembled group identified three "ups" and three" downs." How many can you name? Answer

2. About this time of year, the festival of Tu B'shvat occurs. Though its observance is fixed in the Jewish calendar on the fifteenth of the month of Sh'vat, Tu B'shvat wanders about on the civil calendar and this year falls on the 8th of February. Unfortunately, this lovely day is not as widely celebrated as it deserves and so many of us are not aware of it significance. For example, can you guess which five of these words can be properly associated with the themes or origin of Tu B'shvat-blessing, Torah, family, fruit, the destruction of the Temple, full moon, Abraham, Bible, wine, Kabbalist? Answer

3. Napoleon was the greatest European conqueror of the early nineteenth century. He led French troops to many victories all over the continent, but like so many before and since he overextended his reach. During one of his later expeditions, it is said that he rode triumphantly through a city that he declared "was more Jewish than Jerusalem." What was this city? Answer
  January 2001

1.The prophetic tradition of Judaism is a very powerful one. The second of the three great sections of the Hebrew Bible is called the "Nevi'im", which means "prophets". A handful of these prophets are today known as "major" and the rest are referred to as "minor". How many of each are there? And to which grouping, major or minor, are the following assigned: Amos, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Jonah, and Obadiah? Answer

2.Judaism respects other religious traditions. In this country, the most common one is Christianity. Christian tradition records Jesus' birth in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. Thus we mark this new year 2001 C.E. (Common Era), or for Christians 2001 A.D. (Anno Domini, year of the Lord). Did you ever wonder when some of the other great religious figures started their ministries? What centuries saw the first teachings of Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, Lao Tze (Taoism), Zoroaster, and even Moses? Answer

3.With all the lawsuits surrounding the Florida recounts, there has been a spotlight on the judicial processes of our society. The dispensing of justice is of course a key theme, even an obsession, of the Bible. Deuteronomy 16:20 commands "Justice, justice, you shall pursue". It also contains periodic instructions to judges. What was the primary concern of these instructions -- protection of the poor, fairness, help for one's family, or compassion? Answer