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 2003. Click here to return to the current People of Chelm page. .

December 2003

1. Here’s a question that your child may know even if you do not. It was asked during our school’s Maccabiah Games, a spirited competition held at the conclusion of the academic year. In what order do you light the eight Chanukah candles – right to left or left to right? And what do you call the ninth candle, used for the lighting the others? Answer

2. During Chanukah, we celebrate the deeds of the Maccabees, who overthrew a tyrannical Syrian-Greek dynasty in the second century B.C.E. Their exploits are described in the two books of the Maccabees. Although these books are included in the Catholic Bible, the Rabbis did not include them in the Jewish Bible. Why do you suppose they are not part of our canon, the accepted Biblical writings? Answer

3. Self rule was a long time coming to Israel. After the Romans absorbed the Judean state that the Maccabees had established, self rule did not return the land of Israel for almost two millennia, when the state was Israel was declared on May 14, 1948. From the time of the Maccabees until 1948, the land of Israel was a part of one empire or another. In two recent Adult Education seminars, Rabbi Mintz outlined the history leading up to the establishment of the modern state of Israel. It is a dramatic, gripping, almost miraculous story. One milestone event along the way was the Balfour Declaration, the first recognition by a major world power that Jews should have their own state. Which world power issued this declaration and - within a decade - when was it promulgated? Answer


November 2003

1. When the Congregation Beth Elohim reconstruction was completed last year just in time for High Holydays, the building was almost triple the size of the old building. The sanctuary and social hall can now hold all of us on Yom Kippur. There are many enormous new classrooms, and an entire preschool has been added. The library and kitchen areas were greatly expanded. So how many square feet of floor space do you suppose there are in this new building? For a bonus, do you know the number of parking spots in all the CBE lots? Answer

2. Congregant Marty Krasnick did an extraordinary job supervising the construction phase of the new building. He succeeded in bringing the project in on time and on budget despite a number of crises (late steel deliveries, HVAC design miscalculations, etc.). Rather than the old creaky (but much beloved) wooden structure, we now have a “commercial grade” facility that will serve the congregation well for many years. The construction quality is excellent and all the systems are first rate. But Marty had one favorite subsystem upon which he has lavished extra special attention. Do you know which one? Answer

3. This is a challenge from the “how quickly we forget” department. During the construction period from mid 2001 to the fall of 2002, we as a congregation were indeed wandering Jews. But the local people and town institutions were very kind to us and outstanding temporary quarters were found. There was no single building that could accommodate all our activities, so operations were disbursed around the Acton area. Do you remember where most services were held during the construction hiatus? And where was Hebrew school held? And how about High Holydays? Finally, where were the administrative offices located during the exile? My apologies to the congregation’s newest members, who may not be familiar with this period. Answer

October 2003

1.The High Holidays are a special time for reassessment and reflection. It is a time for questioning and judging our behavior and the direction of our lives. The scholars who assembled the Babylonian Talmud gave these issues much thought. In one tractate, they even provided the four questions that each of us is to be asked when we go before the heavenly court for judgment. Please arrange these questions below in their original order in the Talmud, an order which provides some idea of the relative importance the sages assigned to each. The four questions are:
1) Did you set aside regular time for Torah study?
2) Did you look forward to the world’s redemption?
3) Did you conduct your affairs honestly?
4) Did you work at having children?

2. Yiddish is marvelously expressive language. Like the Jewish communities of a millennium earlier that gave birth to the Talmud, the Yiddish-speaking people of Eastern European developed a veritable storehouse of wisdom, a good deal of it codified in its many proverbs. Many of these proverbs have been translated and passed into common currency today. Some almost don’t need any translation, as their warmth and pithy humor are evident in the original. Here is a sampling from “1001 Yiddish Proverbs”, complied by Fred Kogos. See if you can match each of the Yiddish proverbs from the first column with its English equivalent in the second.

Fil meloches, vainik broches. Every person has a madness of his own.

Oib der shuch past, kenst im trogen. Honor is much dearer than money.

Ehrez iz fil tei’erer far gelt. Jack of all trades, master of none.
Itlecher mentshhot zich zein shigoyen. When people say someone is crazy, believe it.

Az me zogt meshugeh, zol men gloiben. If the shoe fits, wear it.


3. Why is it that Jewish holidays wander all over the calendar? One year the New Year starts in early September, in another it does not happen until October arrives. The reason is that the holidays are determined by the lunar months of the Jewish (actually Mesopotamian) calendar, not the solar year of the civil calendar. So to find the proper date one needs to look at the phase of the moon in a particular season, not at the position of the earth in its annual orbit around the sun. For example, Leviticus 23:23-25 ordains that a celebration and day of rest (Rosh Hashanah) is to begin on the first day of the lunar month of Tishri. The first of the month always is the “new” moon, when the moon is smallest in the heavens. From this item of data, we can deduce the phase of the moon (swelling or waxing, full, .or waning) on several other important holidays. What is the phase of the moon on Simchat Torah, which falls on the 23rd of Tishri? And how does the moon appear on Yom Kippur on the tenth of Tishri. Finally, what might you see on clear night from your booth on Sukkot on the fifteenth of Tishri? Answer

September 2003

1. The Maccabiah Games mark a joyful end to the Hebrew School academic year. These colorful, high energy contests recall the old College Bowl quiz show, although the participants are all in their pre-teens. The teams grappled with a variety of challenges of difficult questions. Here is but one sample. What does the name Israel mean? Though the students had no such benefit of a multiple choice, our readers can be sure that Israel means either 1) the Chosen People, 2) Sons of Abraham, 3) God wrestlers, or 4) (keepers of) the Covenant with the Lord. Answer

2. The War in Iraq has again focused world attention again on this historically significant land, the birthplace of Abraham and locale of Babylonian Exile. Long after Biblical times, in the first millennium of the Common Era, Jews developed a thriving culture here, first under Persian then under Muslim rule. Not long after its founding in 762 CE, the great city of Baghdad had become the splendid center of the Muslim World when the Abbasids moved the caliphate there from Damascus. Jewish scholarship flourished for centuries in Baghdad and other nearby cities, part of an even larger renaissance in the arts and sciences, driven in part by the rediscovery and translation of many classical Greek texts. Today we have one truly great text that has been passed on to us since that time. What is the great Jewish composition from this period in Iraqi history? Answer

3. Rosh Hashanah is an important holiday with many, many facets. For most Jews, it has become a time to remember, to reflect and reassess, to renew one’s life, to look forward and of course to celebrate the New Year. Yet the Torah does not explicitly require much. There is but one negative (“do not”) and one positive (“do”) mitzvah regarding Rosh Hashanah. In Leviticus 23:24-25, we are told “you shall observe complete rest… shall not work at your occupation”. Similar injunctions of course hold for other holidays. What is the positive mitzvah required on Rosh Hashanah? What is it that the Bible commands to be done? Answer


June 2003

1. All this month's questions are inspired by the Maccabiah Games, held to mark the close of Hebrew School in May. These spirited contests test the knowledge and mettle of youngsters from the K-6 (Gan to Vav) classes of the School. So if you don't know an answer, ask a youngster! For openers, can you name the three periods when Jews ruled themselves in their homeland in Israel? In other words, what are the historic periods when Israel was not under the control of a foreign power, such as the Roman or Ottoman Empire? Answer

2. And what is a mitzvah really? What is the literal meaning of this word? If you know the origin of this term, you will know where they come from. And how many mitzvot are there in all? There are quite a few, although many of them may no longer apply in our age. And for extra, extra credit, do you know how many mitzvot are prohibitions against a particular action? Answer

3. Finally, the Maccabiah teams are asked if they know the Jewish value Abraham demonstrated when he saw three strangers traveling by his tent in the hot mid-day sun. This value has been shared by desert dwellers through the centuries, and is also very appropriate in our modern society. Abraham's encounter with the strangers is described in Chapter 18 of Genesis. Answer


May 2003

1. The very first question of the very first Chelm column three years ago asked the following question. It is a meaningful one and so it is repeated again here. The Hebrew Bible is referred to as the Tanakh. What is the meaning of this term? Answer

2. Despite the fact that the life and teachings of Moses are so central to our religion, relatively little is known about Moses the person. Most scholars place Moses in the thirteenth century BCE. At this early date all the personal data we know comes from the Torah, since there are no corroborating archeological records as in later periods. The Bible provides a few clues about him that we may recall. For example, three very important women in his life were named Miriam, Zipporah, and Jochabed. One was his wife, one a sister, and one his mother. Can you provide the correct relationship for each? And, speaking of family connections, who was his grandfather by adoption? Answer

3. Our Rabbi leads a wonderful Seder at the synagogue on the second night of Passover. In addition to the traditional foods, customs and recitations, there is a good deal of singing. One delightful song, called "echad mee yoday'ah", has a structure that parallels the "Twelve Days of Christmas", where each number is associated with something important to Judaism. The refrain goes "One is God and God alone…two are Sinai's tablets…three are the patriarch fathers…" and so on all the way up to the number thirteen. You might guess that the Books of the Torah would be verse five, for the five books of the Torah, and you would be right. What numbers, do you suppose, are associated with each of the following verses in this song - divine attributes, mothers of Israel, Brit Milah, Orders of the Mishna, and tribes of Israel? Answer


April 2003 (repeat of 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 the ages”. 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. As always it seems, 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, a favorite 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 2003

1. This month we celebrate the joyous festival of Purim, which commemorates the victory of Mordecai and Esther over the wicked Haman and his plot to eliminate the Jews. This story takes place during the Babylonian Exile and is set in the court of the Persian king Ahaseurus. Some scholars believe this king could well be the same Xerxes who ruled when the Greeks triumphed at the Battle of Marathon. The Bible's Book of Esther records the destruction of Haman. This book is one of the "Five Scrolls". Each of the five is written on its own scroll, which is read in its entirety during the appropriate holiday service. Can you match the other four scrolls - Song of Songs, the Book of Ruth, the Book of Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations - with the holiday on which it is recited? The holiday choices are the Ninth of Av (Tisha b'Av), Passover, Sukkot, and Shavu'ot. Answer

2. In these days of devastating cuts to human service budgets, we need to remember those who are especially dependent on these social programs. Some day it could be one of us who needs some help. In fact, it was in poor Jewish communities of the late Medieval times that an embryonic model for today's social welfare agencies was developed. Something like credit unions evolved to meet the needs of individual families for assistance with various life cycle events. Various items like wedding rings, bride's dresses, and even a mohel's instruments were commonly made available, yet items like burial prayer shawls and Passover dishes were not. What was the reason, in a practical sense, for the selection of items that a community member could obtain from the group? Answer

3. One of the joys of spring is that it signals the return of yet another baseball season to the Olde Town and, with it, the remote possibility of the end of the Curse of the Bambino. While the Red Sox are still tuning up in the Grapefruit League down in Florida, the fans up here can still hope. Most of us know that the Bambino, Babe Ruth, arguably the greatest player of all time, was traded by the Red Sox after the 1919 season and went on to a magnificent career with the Yankees. Not so many are aware that he also finished his playing days here, with the Boston Braves in 1935. How many know that the smartest baseball player also played in Boston? Moe Berg was the son of Jewish immigrants and his career, like Ruth's, was larger than life. What position did Berg play? What Ivy League schools did he attend? What were his other professions? If you don't know the answer to these questions, please find very dedicated, old-time fans and ask them. The amazing story they will tell you is true. Answer


February 2003

1. All of this month's questions relate to books, in honor the early February celebration of Am HaSefer. This very aptly named festival is a time for promoting Jewish books, literature, and culture. What is the literal translation of Am HaSefer? Most of you already know it and have heard it many times. Answer

2. Here's another question about books. Even in the age of the Internet, Libraries remain important resources and repositories of books. The new Beth Elohim building has allowed our own library to expand and include many more books about Judaism. How many volumes do you think it now holds? Yet it is still a modest library but one that is improving all the time, thanks to the effort and gifts of so many of you. Now please think on a much larger scale. What is the world's largest library devoted to Judaism? Answer

3. Of all Judaism's texts, the Five Books of Moses are of course the most revered. Each has a very familiar English name, like Genesis. The corresponding Hebrew name is also widely recognized by Jews of many different native tongues. The Hebrew name is typically taken from the first (or first significant) word in that Book. For example, Genesis is known as B'reishit, the very first Hebrew word in the Bible, meaning "in the beginning". From the choices below, can you identify the correct Hebrew name and meaning for each of the other four books of the Torah - Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy? Here are the choices for Hebrew names: Va-yikra "He called", D'varim "These are the words", B'midbar "In the wilderness", and Sh'mot "These are the names". Answer


January 2003

1. Whatever we think of its operations, the United Nations is a certainly a key player in today’s global village. Though its members periodically co-opt it for their own ends, the UN was founded on the lofty goal of advancing the fortunes of all nations and of promoting peace on our earth. These principles are captured in the engraving on the cornerstone of UN Building in New York.

“And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”. These lofty words are those of a Biblical prophet. Can you name the source? Was it a) Isaiah, b) Ecclesiastes, c) Samuel, or d) Ezekiel? Answer

2. Boston author (and Globe columnist) James Carroll has written a detailed and captivating study of the history of anti-Semitism in the West. Titled “Constantine’s Sword”, Carroll’s work traces this story from the emergence of a nascent Christian sect from Judaism through the Holocaust to today. It is a difficult and painful story, of course, but one that many Christian leaders are trying to understand. Carroll is encouraged by the efforts the current Pope, John Paul II, has made to heal the historic breach. Of the Pope’s many acts and speeches on the subject of Christian-Jewish relations, Carroll finds one particularly compelling. Of the following list, which do you think struck him as the most meaningful – 1) his embrace of an Israeli Polish émigré woman, a 1945 camp survivor whose life he was credited with saving, 2) his visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Center in Jerusalem, 3) his inserting a prayer in a crevice at the Kotel, 4) his role in the release of the 1998 Vatican document “We remember: a reflection on the Shoah”, or 5) his bending to kiss a bowl of Israeli soil, held to his lips by children, during his visit in the year 2000? Answer

3. Recently Beth Elohim hosted the well known scholar Everett Fox. Among his other achievements, Fox produced a widely hailed translation of the Five Books of Moses. As he explained to the congregants who assembled for his talk, he tried to use his knowledge of Hebrew to produce a work closer in both style and, hopefully, meaning to original. He called attention to the special double meaning of many Hebrew names, of the significance of allusions between Biblical passages where similar or identical phrasing is used, and to the “leading word” technique of key sections. With his copious examples, we began to see there are many more levels of connection and meaning in the Hebrew text than we might be able to grasp in English versions. Dr. Fox’s translation also focuses on style. He mentioned that he tried to follow Torah trope marks. What are trope marks and how are they used? Answer