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 2002. Click here to return to the current Chelm questions.

December 2002

1. This is the holiday season, a time for celebrations. One event we can celebrate almost year round, however, is marriage. In fact, just as we are required to care for the needy or mourn for those departed, we are commanded to share in the joy of the wedding day. This is not very difficult to do at most Jewish weddings, which typically overflow with community, dance, and good cheer. The centerpiece of the joyous wedding day is the marriage ceremony itself. And at the end of the ceremony on this otherwise joyous event, the groom performs a ritual that is touched with sadness. Why break a glass, much less a wine glass, a symbol of celebration? There are several explanations for the significance of this act. What are the most common? Answer

2. "Jews read Torah as one reads a love letter, eager to squeeze the last drop of meaning from every word". So does Rabbi Itzhak Greenberg characterize the Jewish people's centuries-old search for meaning in the sacred texts. This deep Jewish involvement with the Books of Moses has been an undertaking of countless rabbis, scholars, and everyday people. One great repository of such commentary is the Talmud, with its intricate dialogues between many generations. (Our rabbi advises that web surfing is good mental preparation for engaging in the study of Talmud). This enterprise did not stop with the Talmud, but continues to give rise to an enormous body of commentary and interpretation, a wellspring which is flourishing and even increasing in our own time. There is a special word which describes this exploration and analysis of Judaism's most sacred texts. The same word is also applied to the vast literature which has resulted from this quest. What is the word? Answer

3. The Hebrew word for holy is "kadosh". Beyond usual connotations of consecrated and pure, it also carries a sense of separateness and special designation. All these meanings come into play in one of the familiar names of God - Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu, "The Holy One, Blessed be He". People, such as kohanim in their priestly roles, can also be holy. So can places be holy, like the sanctuary of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem or even the land of Israel itself. Likewise certain ritual objects are considered holy. And of course, designated times are holy; Yom Kippur is one good example. This idea of holiness is of course very important in the Bible and the first use of "kadosh" occurs very early, in Genesis 2:3. Who or what is first referred to as "holy" in Genesis 2:3? Of course you can look it up quite easily, but a little timely reflection might also provide the answer. Answer


November 2002

1. Recently a group of your fellow congregants were privileged to attend a lecture by Rabbi Itzhak Greenberg at Newton's Temple Emmanuel. The rabbi presented an uplifting perspective that human dignity is founded on three basic principles - every person has infinite value, all are equal, and each of us is unique. In support of this view, he called attention to an especially moving passage in Jewish literature that reads something like "anyone who destroys a single soul destroys a whole world… and anyone who preserves a single soul has saved a whole world". What is the source of this powerful quotation - the Talmud, the Zohar, the Torah, the Ketuvim (the various books of "writings" that complete the Jewish Bible), or Maimonides? Answer

2. The Bible describes in fine detail how, after the long and largely successful reigns of King David and King Solomon, the kingdom spilt into two - Judah in the south and Israel in the north. Over the next two centuries, Israel was ruled by a succession of dynasties until it was crushed 722 BCE and its "ten lost tribes" dispersed by the conquering Assyrians. Judah, on the other hand, lasted as an independent kingdom for almost another century and a half. Throughout this history and continuing into the Babylonian Exile, Judah continued to be ruled by the descendants of King David. How many kings do you suppose are included in this Davidic line? The kings of Judah are alternately reviled and revered in the Bible, which often ties the fate of the country to the virtue or depravity of its kings. Four of the more famous rulers are the kings Hezekiah, Manasseh, Josiah, and Jehoiakim? Which of these kings of Judah were esteemed, which despised? Answer

3. Chanukah, like all the holidays this year, falls very early in the civil calendar, starting on November 30th. At this early date, its popular but inaccurate folk status as a surrogate "Christmas" is very tenuous indeed. Nonetheless, enterprising kids will still enjoy the fact it is a whole eight days long and can dream of the possibility of some new toy or game on any day during this period. At some point, one of these youngsters may reflect long enough and come to ask why this festival lasts a full eight days. What do we say then? Hmmm, certainly it is not so that some lucky kids can have eight opportunities to receive gifts? Well there is always the legend that this was the time the oil lamps miraculously burned without refueling during the Maccabean Revolt. Is that the real reason? Here are three other possible origins for the custom of celebrating this festival for eight days. Which of these, if any, might account for the long duration of this holiday? 1) The eight-day period was specified by the Sanhedrin as the appropriate length of time for the purification of the Temple. 2) The length of this festival, like all the other major Jewish holidays, is dictated by the Torah. 3) The eight-day duration precedent had already been set by Sukkot, which the festival of Chanukah in a very real sense recalled. Answer



October 2002

1. Boston author James Carroll's Constantine's Sword is a masterful historical study that attempts to unravel the roots of anti-Semitism in the West. Carroll, a very learned former Catholic priest, finds a breeding ground in very earliest stages of a nascent Christianity when then intra-religious factional differences were exposed to non-Jewish audiences in the first century of the Common Era. The expedient response was to consider Jews as "the enemy" even though they were then - as now - a very diverse group. However, as Carroll points out, the Jews served this role because there was a more formidable enemy that could not be named. Who or what was this enemy? Answer

2. What if you had a Jewish holiday and nobody celebrated? Well that actually seems to be the case for one holiday that has been "lost" among the cluster of Jewish holidays around the New Year. So it is with Shemini Azeret, the eighth day from the beginning of Sukkot. It has been overwhelmed in importance by its more colorful neighbors on the calendar, especially Simchat Torah. In Israel and in most Jewish communities in America, Shemini Azeret coincides with the Simchat Torah celebration for the completion of annual Torah reading cycle, while outside Israel traditional Jews celebrate the two holidays on consecutive days - Shemini Azeret on the 8th and Simchat Torah on the 9th day. Normally these days occur in October, but in 2002 they are September 28 and 29 respectively. Even though Shemini Azeret is to be a full festival day and the mizvot regarding its observance are found in the Torah, there is but single special ritual associated with its celebration. What is it? Hint: it is something an agricultural community finds useful but not when people are sitting in the sukkah. Answer

3. The great age of prophecy came in First Temple and Exilic periods. These were very dynamic periods that saw many innovations in human thinking. Though stern visage of the "Old Testament" moralizer has somehow become a caricature for all, each of them brought a special religious message or vision that contributed to the evolution of the religion that has come down to us today. One prophet in particular stands out for his dazzling imagery, impenetrable riddles, and his then new principle that salvation comes through religious purity. Which of these great prophets, or nevi'im in Hebrew, best fits this description - Jeremiah, "second" Isaiah, Amos, Ezekiel, or Jonah? Answer

September 2002

1. This September is full of Jewish holidays and festivals, and we Americans take for granted our freedom to celebrate them as we wish. For reasons that are still unclear, one of these September holidays was especially embraced by Soviet Jews several decades ago. In full view of their Communist overlords, the Jews of Moscow and other major Soviet cities held huge public celebrations on this day. Elie Weisel movingly describes his Russian visit of 1973, when Jewish subjugation by the Soviets was rampant. In his book "Jews of Silence", he wrote "He who has not witnessed this holiday in Moscow has never in his life witnessed joy. Had I come to Russia for that alone, it would have been enough". What is this holiday that so engaged Soviet Jews? One hint: it is not one of the Biblically ordained festivals. Answer

2. Religion at its core may be spiritual and symbolic, but the experience for most of us is really assisted by doing concrete acts and having tangible emblems. On the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, there is one such material practice that helps get us into the spirit of renewal and atonement of the High Holy Days. Do you remember what this special custom is called and what people do at this time? Answer

3. We all have a sense of how central the Bible is to Judaism and Western civilization. Our ideas of morality, ethics, history and even divinity have been shaped by it. Still it might be surprising just how many of our everyday phrases and common sense sayings are taken directly from the Tanakh. Here are some examples that most of us would not assume came from this source, collected more than two millennia ago. Please match each phrase with its correct Biblical source.

A. - "There is nothing new under the sun." 1. - Isaiah 40:3
B. - "Man does not live by bread alone." 2. - Proverbs 16:18
C. - "A voice crying in the wilderness..." 3. - Deuteronomy 8:3
D. - "Pride goes before a fall." 4. - Ecclesiastes 1:9


August 2002

1. Our congregation is about to move into a beautiful expanded synagogue. Today, and for many centuries before, the synagogue is the center of Jewish life in community. It is a place of worship, the gathering place to mark life events, and an education and social center. For these and other purposes, our new building includes a sanctuary, many classrooms, a library, a social hall and a kitchen. In other times, we might have added a ritual bath, ovens for baking unleavened bread, or hospice for travelers. Clearly this institution of the synagogue has been evolving for a long time. It took over the central role of the Temple in Jerusalem, allowing Judaism to become a "portable" religion and survive despite the dispersions of the Jewish people. How far back can scholars trace the roots of the synagogue? Is it 1) during the separation of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms in the 10th century BCE, 2) around the time of the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century BCE, 3) after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70CE, 4) just after the depopulation of Judah as a result of the Roman suppression of the unsuccessful Bar Kochba rebellion in 135CE? Answer

2. Congregation Beth Elohim (ne Rodoph Sholom) may be the oldest synagogue in Acton, but there are many older in the Boston area. The congregation of Ohabei Shalom was founded in 1842 as the first Jewish congregation in this area. Ten years later they built the second New England synagogue, dedicating it on March 26, 1852; only Newport, Rhode Island's famous Touro Synagogue, dating from 1763, is older. In the mid-1800s the Jewish community of Boston was barely visible, numbering fewer than 100 families. A few decades later came the Eastern European migrations that nurtured the major Jewish centers throughout the Boston area. In which neighborhood do you suppose this first Boston synagogue was built - the North End, Roxbury, Brookline, Dorchester, the South End, the West End, or Chelsea? All of these have been home to large Jewish communities. And did Ohabei Shalom, like the older Touro, subscribe to Sephardic traditions? Answer

3. What's in a name? Many of our first names are drawn from the Bible. Names like Adam and Noah, common today, appeared very early in Genesis. Many names have an obvious Semitic meaning, like Gerson (or Gershom) for example. The original Gerson was Moses' son by Zipporah. Remember that Moses ran off from his people in Egypt to avoid capture by the authorities when he slew an overseer for beating one of his Hebrew kinsmen. He fled to the foreign land of Midian, became a shepherd, and married Zipporah. As a "foreign wife", the root "ger" in her offspring's name connoted "stranger" and over time came to denote "convert". Names employing one of the roots for "God" are also common later in the Bible. Elijah ("El") and Josiah ("Yahweh") are examples. However, the first appearance of a prominent name incorporating a root for God does not occur until the time of the Patriarchs. What is this name? Hint: this person is an ancestor of King David. Answer

May 2002

1. Here is a lovely and timely question, drawn not from the teachings of the scholars who teach Me'ah but from the material of our Hebrew School's Gimel (third grade) class. What do the following have in common: lighting one candle on the Hannukiah; having a thirteenth birthday; eating the first peach of the year; going to seder; hearing really good news; or seeing a friend for the first time in thirty days? All of these events provide an occasion to do something special. What is that something? If we cannot figure it out at first, perhaps we should ask (or at least think like) a third grader. Answer

2. Our congregation is in the process of selecting a new Siddur, to replace the familiar "Gates of Prayer". This is not an easy process, since so much of how we experience services is tied to the Siddur. In fact, it is hard to imagine a religious service without a prayer book. Yet at times in the development of Judaism, there was an absolute prohibition against written prayer books. Why would this be so? On what basis could it be considered a heretical to write down prayers? Sometime later, prayer books were accepted and have continued to develop and flourish down to this day, presenting our Siddur committee with a variety of choices. Can you guess the centuries when these first Siddurs appeared? Answer

3. From your Passover Hagaddah, recall the countdown of the familiar chant Ehad Mi Yode'cha "…Ten are the ten commandments…six are the Orders of the Mishnah…." and so on. One verse honors the Matriarch mothers of Israel. With Mother's Day approaching, it is very fitting that we ask how many matriarchs there were. Because of their central role in Jewish history, we should also be able to name each one of them. And for those who really want to test their memories, can you name at least one child of each matriarch? Answer

April 2002

1.Chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus describes in precise detail how the very first Passover was to be performed and how this day was to be celebrated "as a festival to the Lord throughout the ages". Clearly, this is a central event in the development of Judaism. Still many of us are unclear about some of the lore and traditions surrounding Passover. Here is an example, gleaned from our Rabbi's recent discussion of "all you didn't know about Pesach". Please indicate which of the following statements are true about the FIRST Passover. 1) It is the first actual mitzvah of the Torah, 2) it marks the birth of the nation of Israel, 3) it was the first worship performed in the "promised land" of Canaan, 4) it occurred on the new moon. Answer

2. Three millennia after the first Passover, there was another momentous day in the Jewish history - May 14, 1948, the day the state of modern Israel was announced. Just like Passover and all other days fixed in the lunar Hebrew calendar, the yearly celebration date of Israel Independence Day, or Yom ha-Atzma'ut, wanders about the solar calendar. In 2002, we celebrate it very early, on April 17 - in the same week as Patriot's Day here in Massachusetts. This confluence seems especially appropriate now; American and Israeli patriots established new countries under trying conditions and today are called on for the defense of those countries. Which of the following events do you think occurred on that historic day of May 14 almost 52 years ago - 1) formal end of colonial mandate over the region called Palestine, 2) the UN vote for a partition plan for Palestine, 3) invasion by six Arab armies, 4) reading of the Scroll of Independence in Tel Aviv, and 5) US recognition of Israel? Answer

3. The rabbis of old could really analyze a situation. The Talmud is a trove of intricate, detailed arguments among wise people of many generations on questions of practical concern to sincere practicing Jews. For example, the mitzvah to abstain from work on the Sabbath is a very important one, and can do much for one's emotional and spiritual health. But what is work? The rabbis of yore came up with no less than 39 prohibitions in 7 major categories! The first category, for example, encompassed prohibitions on agricultural work and cooking, while the last included injunctions regarding travel. Though there are coherent principles and logical consistency in the development of these restrictions, a very strict application to today's living can often be puzzling. For example, turning on the TV is verboten because of the principle of not kindling a "fire". Try your Talmudic legal skills on the following situations and indicate which are prohibited on Shabbat, at least in the Orthodox observance. Is it OK to open an umbrella while walking to Temple when a rain begins? How about letting that nice pot of chicken soup simmer in the kitchen? What about carrying your Tallit bag? What about reading a letter from your mother? What about taking medicine - or giving it? Answer

March 2002

1. Amos was the earliest of the Biblical prophets to leave a written record. In the Book of Amos, we are introduced to the archetype of the "Old Testament" prophet, foretelling doom and calling on the people to repent - all in the name of the Lord. He railed at the immorality of Israel and its neighbors. He lived in a time of relative prosperity during the First Temple period, after the time of Solomon but before the Babylonian exile. Though he denounced the Syrians, the Philistines, Moabites and other nearby peoples, most of his warnings were aimed directly at Israel, which he held to a higher moral standard. Which of these sins do you suppose that Amos, speaking on behalf of the Lord, found most offensive - 1) worship of false gods, 2) lack of respect for the priesthood, 3) exploitation of the poor, or 4) lapses in the ancient rituals?Answer

2. This month we celebrate Pesach and the Passover Seder. This holiday is a celebration of so many things - of liberty, of freedom from oppression, of the natural God-given rights of all people, of the making of the Jewish people into a nation. The twenty-third chapter of Exodus, Pesach was decreed to be one of the three pilgrimage festivals when many Jews made the journey to Jerusalem to give offerings and celebrate. But its origins go back further than that. Do you recall when and where the first Passover occurred?Answer

3. Another momentous event occurred during Passover time almost three millennia later. The first night of Pesach in 1943 marked the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt. The Nazis picked that date to begin the final deportation of Jews in Poland's capital city of Warsaw. Though largely defenseless and starving, those remaining in the Warsaw ghetto began a heroic if futile rebellion against fully armed German troops. It took the Germans longer to suppress this rebellion than to annex all of Poland in the 1939 Blitzkrieg that began World War II. At its peak, the Warsaw ghetto had a huge Jewish population of close to half a million. It is difficult to think about such things. Can you guess what percent of Warsaw's original Jews were left when the uprising began in 1943 and how many days do you think they resisted? Answer

February 2002

1. This time of year marks the end of the winter rainy season in Israel and the festival of Tu B'shevat, the fifteeth day of the month of Shevat. It is a day for planting trees, especially by schoolchildren. The Jewish religion is suffused with practices that celebrate its connection to the land and gratitude for nature's bounty. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people " the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land… " and then proceeds to name the "seven species" which grow in Israel. Which of these do you think are listed among the seven species: honey, corn, figs, lemon trees, barley, dates, pomegranates, apples, olive trees, or tomatoes? Answer

2. Last month we celebrated Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. Our congregation is especially blessed with a gifted choir that brings us magnificent choral music during this service every year. Love of music, song, and dance has been a vital part of Jewish experience throughout history. In fact in ancient times, Israel was renowned among its neighbors for the musical talent of its people. Shabbat Shirah itself has a direct Biblical connection and commemorates something very specific. What event do you suppose is linked with Shabbat Shirah? Is it 1) the composition of David's first Psalm, 2) the dedication of the First Temple by Solomon, 3) the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, or 4) Deborah and Barak's victory over the Canaanite general Sisera and his 900 chariots? Answer

3. Despite the divisiveness of very recent history, we should also remember that at a more fundamental level there is much in common in between Judaism and Islam. Like all the world's great religions, these faiths profess respect and wonder for all God's creations, a concern for social justice, and commitment to help the needy and oppressed. With common Middle Eastern origins, they also share a Semitic heritage. Both Arabic, in which the Qur'an was first recorded, and Hebrew, the language of the Torah, are Semitic languages. In these tongues, the basic meaning of most words is derived from a particular arrangement of a few consonants. For example, the group ShLM in Hebrew (Shin, Lamed, Mem) carries the meaning of peace as in the Hebrew "shalom". Can you think of some common Arabic-derived words where this same group, ShLM, appear? Going in the other direction, can you think of any Hebrew words which share a common origin with the Arabic name for God, Allah? Answer


January 2002

1. This past year the congregations suffered the untimely deaths of several beloved members. At such times, it is the custom to assemble a minyan and recite the Mourner's Kaddish - "Yitgadal, veyitkadash, Shmei rabbah…". The rhythmic cadence of this ancient Hebrew prayer is very familiar, but the meaning of the words is less so. Which of these themes are represented in the Kaddish - A) the Lord will provide, B) praise for God, C) hope for the hereafter, and D) blessings for the departed? Answer

2. Even though most of us don't understand it well, Hebrew is of course is the predominant language in Jewish services. In fact, for several centuries preceding the twentieth, Hebrew was employed almost exclusively for religious rites and study. It ceased to be the living, spoken language that it was in Biblical times or is today in modern Israel. How did this revival take place? Was it the work primarily of one driven person, a religious sect, a highly motivated Zionist band, or an Ethiopian immigrant group? Answer

3.In January we celebrate the birthday of Reverend Martin Luther King, one of the most influential Americans of the past century. Dr. King's leadership and oratory inspired the country and fueled the still unfinished civil rights movement. His words struck a deep chord with African-Americans, and also among Jews, many of whom eagerly joined his cause. Some even died for it, like Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, murdered by the Klu Klux Klan during the hot Mississippi summer of 1964. Black-Jewish relations were never stronger than when Dr. King was the undisputed leader of the civil rights movement, before his 1968 assassination in Memphis. Besides inspired leaders and workers, however, community organizations also need money to make an impact. Were Jewish people as generous with dollars as they were with sympathy for the civil rights cause? Answer