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 2004. Click here to return to the current People of Chelm page.

December 2004

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, one which an observant Jew need not observe? 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. This is a story about a shnorrer, an uncomplimentary term for the sort of Jewish beggar who takes advantage of the generosity of others. Our shnorrer knows how to position himself. He always goes to the same place on the street at a given time every week, where he has become accustomed to receiving a set donation from a certain well-dressed gentleman. One day, when he comes for the money, the gentleman tells him that he can't give him anything. "I've had terrible expenses recently. My wife became very sick, and I had to send her to a health resort in Carlsbad. It's very cold there, so I had to buy her new clothes and a fur coat". "What!", the shnorrer exclaims, "With my money?" Granted this is just a joke, but is there a basis in Jewish tradition for the shnorrer's outrage? What would the rabbis say? Answer

3. A few years ago Beth Elohim hosted the brilliant scholar Everett Fox. He has been a featured guest on National Public Radio and currently is teaching a Me'ah class at Temple Beth El in Sudbury. Among his many 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


November 2004

1. Professor William Schniedewind, a Biblical scholar at UCLA, has written an intriguing new work on the process of creation of the Bible as we know it today. In “How the Bible Became a Book”, he examines the transformation of ancient Israel from a purely oral to a literary tradition. There are some interesting clues along this path as Jews became “the people of the book”. For example, the professor calls attention to the fact that the narrative of the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 19-20 never even mentions the writing down of the commandments, while the account in Chapter 5 of Deuteronomy explicitly refers to God writing the revelation on two tablets of stone. Why might these two stories of the same event be so different? Answer

2. It’s all in the name, and this is especially true for Jewish books. For example, we are quite familiar with the fact that “Torah” means teaching, or instruction in Hebrew. The common names of many other great Jewish works are also quite appropriate in the original Hebrew. Can you match the name of the work in the first column with a translation of its literal Hebrew meaning in the second column?
Zohar, the major work on Jewish mysticism Order
Mishnah, the Law Code compiled about 200 CE Study
Ketuvim, the third division of the Bible Radiance
Siddur, a prayerbook for services Repetition
Talmud, the great dialogue of Jewish sages Writings

3. Amos was the earliest and indeed the archetype of the “Old Testament” literary prophets. (There were prophets before Amos, but none left their words to us, except as they appear in historical accounts like the Books of Samuel and Kings). This shepherd from a small rural village south of Jerusalem railed unceasingly at the conditions he observed in the cities of northern kingdom of Israel and in Judea, the southern kingdom. He denounced the neighboring countries and predicted doom for many. Yet in his messages, we find some of the first key ideas that distinguished Judaism from other religions of that time, almost three thousand years ago. Can you guess which three of these themes were most central to Amos’s preaching - 1) the universality of God, 2) the excesses of the Solomon, 3) the worship of false gods, 4) sensitivity to social justice, 5) the need for ritual purity, and 6) the importance of the covenant with Yahweh? Answer


October 2004

1. This is the season of Sukkot, the Feast of Booths. As one of the 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 or books of the Torah contain this direction? Answer

2. “The Guide of the Perplexed” was a landmark book of Judaism’s middle ages. It was written over eight hundred years ago by the intellectual giant Moses Maimonides, the greatest philosopher and teacher of his era. The title and much of the content seem completely modern. For example, Maimonides did not prescribe a single orthodox view for all but wrote that we ”must form a conception of the existence of the Creator according to our capacities” and urged all to study science and nature to better understand the Divine. These sentiments might be welcome today but in his day they caused Jewish and Christian leaders alike to urge the burning of the book. What did the religious establishment of the time find so offensive in these teachings? Answer

3.We have just observed Yom Kippur, a time for renewal, especially moral renewal. A first step in achieving this renewal is by admitting our past errors. It is thus natural that a central, recurring ritual on this Day of Atonement is the recital of the Al Khet (For Sins) prayer. A great number of sins are mentioned that we may or may not have committed in the prior year. Yet even if we have been uncharacteristically virtuous, the prayer still calls on us to confess for each and every sin just the same. It’s hard enough to admit and atone for all the transgressions we ourselves commit, but in reciting this prayer we seem to be in some way responsible for those sins we did not even do. Does this make sense? Why are we called to confess for each sin enumerated in the Al Khet? Answer


September 2004

1. This September marks the 350th anniversary of the founding of the first Jewish community in the territory of what ultimately became the United States. Fittingly, this first Jewish group came to New York City, then a Dutch settlement called New Amsterdam. There were only 23 people, and – like the millions who followed them centuries later from the ghettoes and shteltls of Eastern Europe and elsewhere around the globe – they were refugees seeking a better life and freedom from persecution. If only they could have imagined what their haven would become - the great metropolis that is home to the world’s largest Jewish population. From what land did these pioneers Jews emigrate? Was it England, Spain, Brazil, France, or Barbados? Answer

2. Oftentimes the Talmud holds real surprises. This great repository of Jewish wisdom holds that Yom Kippur is a truly happy day. Over a thousand years ago, it was written in the tractate on fasting that “there were no days as happy for the Jewish people as the fifteenth of Av (a day on which marriages were arranged) and Yom Kippur”. This holiday involves our reflection on both collective and individual sins, more than a full day of fasting, and solemnity and seriousness unmatched at any other gathering throughout the year. How could be it that Yom Kippur brings a happiness that the rabbis would compare that of the joy of marriage? Answer

3. In the summer of 2004, the Museum of Science in Boston featured an inspiring exhibition of Albert Einstein’s life and legacy. This great scientist identified very strongly with the Jewish people, though he was not a religious Jew. He was very supportive of Zionism’s aspirations, especially the establishment of the Hebrew University. Because of his worldwide stature and involvement in Jewish affairs, he was offered both the Presidency of Israel in 1952 and, much earlier, the leadership of Hebrew University. He graciously declined both. However, his love for Jewish tradition was unequivocal. There is a famous quote attributed to him, in which he enumerates the traits he so treasured in this Jewish tradition. In that quote, which of these do you suppose he mentioned - 1) the desire for personal independence, 2) a veneration for the past, 3) an almost fanatical love of justice 4) the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and 5) the broad and deep literacy of Jewish people? Answer


August 2004

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 Tutankhamen’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 prayer shawl, 4) the elimination of leavening during Passover, and 5) the wearing of a kippah? Answer



June 2004

1. Not too long ago, our congregation moved into a beautiful new expanded synagogue. Today, and for many centuries before, the synagogue is the center of Jewish life in the 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 when the first Boston synagogue was being established, the Jewish community of Boston was barely visible, numbering fewer than 100 families. (A few decades later came the substantial Eastern European migrations that spawned 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 and the leader of one of the twelve tribes. Answer


May 2004

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. Last month we celebrated 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. In 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? And for those who are really on the ball, do you know when the SECOND Passover happened? Answer

3. A momentous event occurred during Passover time almost three millennia after the first celebration. 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


April 2004

1. Ellen Krueger recently shared a delightful article by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the age-old connection between Judaism and the Law. She notes that the esteem that Jews have for the students of Halakah, or religious law, seems to have carried over to the realm of civil law. Especially valued are those who use the law not for personal gain but to secure justice for others, like civil rights lawyers. Another pinnacle of the legal of the legal profession is achieved by judges. In her article, Justice Ginsburg reflected on the legacies of the five Jewish Justices who preceded her on the Supreme Court. They served from 1916 through 1969, when the tradition of the “Jewish seat” on the Court ended. Can you arrange them in order of their service on the bench, starting with the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice? The five were Abe Fortas, Benjamin Cardozo, Louis Brandeis, Arthur Goldberg, and Felix Frankfurter. In these days of intense debates on the right of same sex couples, it is instructive to remember the words of the last of these –“Basic rights do not become petrified in any one time…It is of the very nature of a free society to advance in its standards of what is deemed reasonable and right”. Answer

2. Did you ever wonder how the tradition originated regarding the keeping of a light continually shining above the ark? We call this light the Neir Tamid. Though we often translate this as “eternal light”, a more accurate rendition might be “continual light”. The light may go out from time to time, but then it must be rekindled or relit. When did this custom arise? Here are some possibilities; please select the best answer from among them. The Neir Tamid was:
* a feature of the First Temple in Jerusalem, built by Solomon. It has been a key element in every temple and synagogue since.
* first described in the Talmud. The rabbis wanted to emphasize the continual light shone by the Torah.
* specified by Moses in the building of the Tabernacle (mishkan) in the desert.
* developed as a permanent feature of temple architecture after the Chanukah miracle of the Maccabees. It permanently commemorates that miracle and their victory. Answer

3. Of all the Jewish holidays, Pesach is the one most widely observed. More people may actually come to the synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but in terms of overall participation, the home-based seders of Pesach involve the greatest numbers of Jews. The seder is of course the core of the Pesach observance and has bound Jews together for millennia. But just what does the word “seder” mean? Answer


March 2004

1. Purim is one of the special days when a complete scroll, or megilla, is read, thus the phrase the “whole megilla”. On Purim, we read the Book of Esther, with its compelling narrative of the foiling of an insidious plot against the Jews of Persia. Besides Esther, there are four more such books of the Bible, each written on its own scroll, that are read on certain days of the year. Can you match the other four with the special day or season when it is customarily read? The other megillot are 1) Song of Solomon, 2) Lamentations, 3) Ruth, and 4) Ecclesiastes. The times the scrolls are read are A) Shavuot, B) the Sabbath during Sukkot, C) the Sabbath during Passover, and D) Tisha B’Av. Answer

2. The Book of Ruth is special not only because, like the Book of Esther, it is written on separate scroll, but also because, again along with Esther, it is one of the two Biblical books named for women. Ruth is celebrated as the first convert to Judaism. Refusing to leave her widowed mother-in-law Naomi, Ruth affirmed that “your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16). She left her native Moab, just across the Jordan River on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, and went to Bethlehem with Naomi. There she married a kinsman of Naomi’s named Boaz and became great-grandparents of a well known Biblical figure. Who was this person? This question comes from Karen Siegel, who also provides the hint that Ruth and Boaz were the ancestors of Samuel, Samson, David, or Ezra. Answer

3. Like the blacks, the Jews have had a very special role in the emergence of new American musical forms. This new music is often associated with specific places and communities, like jazz in New Orleans, or the blues from the Mississippi delta and Chicago’s South Side. So it is with the great American musicals and Manhattan. A cluster of talented Jews, arriving in New York around the turn of the twentieth century, employed their musical and songwriting skills to develop a new form of entertainment, the great American musical play. Broadway and Main Street have never been the same. The musical giants in that era were people like Oscar Hammerstein, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and Irving Berlin. Of this group of four, can you name the ones who wrote (or co-wrote) each of the following quintessentially American works? Oklahoma, Rhapsody in Blue, Ol’ Man River, There's No Business Like Show Business, Swanee, White Christmas, The Sound of Music, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Answer


February 2004

1. 1. Last month our synagogue was host to the second annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Breakfast. This event was sponsored by Acton’s “No Place For Hate Committee”, an interfaith group which works to combat discrimination and promote respect for differences. The breakfast is an occasion both to honor this man, who gave his life seeking these goals, and also to learn from him and others who seek to uplift all of us. Dr. King is indeed a modern day prophet, in the great tradition of Amos and Isaiah. His powerful speeches condemn social injustice, call for adherence to the higher standards of nonviolent change, and offer a vision of a better day to come. It is no wonder his words have found such wide acceptance in Judaism, including passages in many Passover Haggadah. The breakfast concluded with a powerful documentary film about the last few months of Dr. King’s life, just before he was shot in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. Do you know why he was in Memphis at that time? In a very direct way, it involved the City of Memphis. Answer

2. This month will see another second anniversary at Beth Elohim, as Rabbi Shai Held visits as our second Scholar in Residence. His topic is also very much in the spirit of Dr. King; he will be speaking on “Social Justice and Jewish Spirituality”. During the last weekend of February, Rabbi Held will explore various aspects of this theme. On Sunday he will focus in particular on the work of Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most Jewish outspoken voices for social justice. Just who was Heschel? You are to be commended if you know anything about him. When and where did he live? Where was he born? What did he write or speak? Answer

3. While it is always a joy to have a scholar like Rabbi Held visit, it is also gratifying when one of your own congregation can lead an engaging learning experience. Our own Ellen Waks (better known as just Waky) has assembled a survey course on Jewish history. Many people have expressed their need for a chronological framework, a superstructure for understanding the sweep of Jewish (and maybe even world) history. She has distilled some fascinating materials and commentary in her course, which is sponsored by Beth Elohim’s Adult Education Committee. Waky stresses that history, like contemporary life, is really a flow – and not a collection of events fixed at one particular time or another. Still, the dates of several key milestones of Jewish history should become familiar for all of us. Please try to associate one of these dates (920 BCE, 722 BCE, 586 BCE, 430 BCE, 70CE, or 200 CE) with each of the following occurrences in the formation of Judaism.
A. The codification of the Mishnah - the Oral Law
B. The destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians
C. The building of the First Temple at Jerusalem in Solomon’s reign
D. The origin of the practice of public Torah reading by Ezra
E. The dispersal of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians
F. The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans



January 2004

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 prophets assigned: Amos, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Jonah, and Obadiah? Answer

2. Russian repression of Jews has a long and dismal history. Long before the Soviets, the Tsarist bureaucracy institutionalized discrimination against this minority. The Imperial Russian statutes governing the treatment of Jews ran to over 1000 pages. It is no wonder Jews fled Russia in such numbers after the worst pogroms began in 1881. Over two million immigrated just to the United States in the next few decades. But why did they live in such a repressive, hostile country in the first place? Which of these answers is most correct – 1) the earlier Tsars were more beneficent to the native Jewish population, 2) the Jews were a concern to Russia only after their numbers increased there after fleeing persecution in Germany, or 3) the Jews became Russian charges only after the annexation of Polish territory? Answer

3. The powerful inscription on the Statue of Liberty reads in part "…Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” These memorable words by poet Emma Lazarus were placed at the base of the statue, during the period of massive immigration of Eastern European Jews to this country. And nowhere were the “huddled masses” so crowded together as in the teeming tenements of New York City’s Lower East Side. This region of lower Manhattan, from the East River to Third Avenue, from the Bowery to 14th Street, is about one and half square miles in area. Can you estimate the number of Jews who lived in the Lower East Side in, say, 1910? Answer