The People of Chelm Want to Know....
|Continuing The Column Devoted To Questions About Jewish
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.
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?
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
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?
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
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?
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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.
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.