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 2005. Click here to return to the main People of Chelm page.

December 2005

1. A very important mitzvot can be found in Leviticus 19:16, which instructs “Do not go about as a talebearer among your people”. As much as any other commandment, this is one that all of us are guilty of violating – and quite regularly. Who has not gossiped about a neighbor or family member? In his illuminating book Jewish Wisdom, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin understandably has much to say about this passage, including several Talmudic and rabbinic commentaries on its meaning. All agree that slander and gossip on the faults of others - behind their back - is odious, whether the content is true or not. But is there ever a time when it is appropriate to speak negatively of another who is not present?

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, just as it is for Rabbi Telushkin in the previous question. One great repository of such understanding is the Talmud, with its intricate dialogues across many generations. (Our rabbi advises that internet web surfing is good mental preparation for engaging in the study of Talmud). This analytical 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 Chanukah period is a major cause for rejoicing, and not just for children. Quite beyond the gift giving custom, we all know that 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. This all seems quite spectacular. Why then is Chanukah a “minor” holiday, one which an observant Jew need not even 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

November 2005

1. 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

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 mid-October, but can sometimes occur in very late September. 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

October 2005

1. Jewish tradition has enormous respect for human life, beautifully stated in this well known maxim:

“Whoever saves one life, it is as if he saved the entire word”.

According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his wonderful work Jewish Wisdom, this passage means that every person should be considered to have infinite value. This is tall order. It clearly ennobles the work of those who rescue others during Hurricane Katrina as well those who quietly help out at the Pine Street Inn or maybe just care for old or infirm relative. And it really presents a challenge for the rest of us to figure out the full economic, social, and political implications. What do you suppose is the source of this profound statement? Is it a) from the Torah, b) in the writings of the great sage Maimonides, c) a saying from Rabbi Hillel, d) found in the Talmud, or e) attributed to one of the “minor” prophets of the Bible? Answer


2. Yom Kippur brings more Jews to the synagogue than any other day of year. But unlike a Bat Mitzvah ceremony or a Friday evening Shabbat celebration, there are several services that are performed on this most special of days. The services in the left hand column are all performed in Yom Kippur. Can you match each service with its definition in the right hand column? Also, which of these services are associated ONLY with Yom Kippur?

A. Yizkor 1. Morning prayer service
B. Ma’ariv 2. Opening prayer service
C. Mincha 3. Memorial service
D. Ne’ilah 4. Closing prayer service
E. Shacharit 5. Evening prayer service
F. Kol Nidre 6. Afternoon prayer service

3. Speaking of Yom Kippur, it is very “late” in this year of 2005. And Chanukah won’t even begin until the twenty-sixth of December! So what is going on? Why is it that the holidays wander all over our modern calendar? Answer

September 2005

1. True to his Irish roots, the author Thomas Cahill clearly is a wonderful story teller. His talents are on display in "The Gifts of the Jews", his best selling book on how Jewish ideas have set the directions for so much of western thought. The Torah of course contains many of these seminal concepts - like a sense of a linear unfolding history rather than the cyclical vision of existence that permeated the rest of the ancient world. The other sections of the Jewish Bible, the Prophets and the Writings, also contribute to new worldviews - like the importance of each individual. In particular he notes the contribution of the prophets to the ideas of a just God and a moral order to the universe, citing this one especially beautiful passage:

He (the Lord) has already shown you what is right:
and what does the Lord require of you,
but to do justice,
love mercy,
and walk humbly with your God?

Can you guess which prophet spoke these eloquent words - Elijah, Micah, Jeremiah, Samuel, or Nathan? Answer

2. At a recent service, our Rabbi made an interesting selection for the reading, choosing passages from the Book of Lamentations. Though the imagery and poetry are quite very powerful, this book is not a particularly common Biblical reading. Lamentations, as its title suggests, is concerned with loss, although its closing chapters are filled with hope. The Jewish people have certainly experienced many causes to lament over the millennia of our history. But what specifically do you suppose the Book of Lamentations is lamenting? Answer

3. As advertised in this month's Star, the Brotherhood and Adult Education Committees are sponsoring a breakfast on September 11th devoted to Jewish baseball players. 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 hated New York Yankees. This travesty of a trade gave birth to the famed "Curse of the Bambino", which haunted our Olde Towne Team until last October. (Not so many fans 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

August 2005

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?
* the opening of Tutankamen’s (King Tut’s) tomb
* the uncovering of 20,000 tablets in the library at Nineveh, the ancient Assyrian capital
* the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls
* the discovery of Hezekiah’s tunnel underground in Jerusalem.

2. 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

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 quite puzzling. For example, turning on the TV is not allowed 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?

June 2005

1. The eighteenth-century Hasidic Rabbi Yaakov Krantz of Dubno tells a interesting story that illustrates a moral quandary. It seems an elderly couple of the town had a lovely marriage that thrived despite the physical handicaps of each of them. In fact, many felt that these handicaps actually contributed to the peace and tranquility of their union. But one day they learned of a great physician, who was said to be able to cure conditions such as theirs. So they went to see him and agreed to pay whatever he might charge. True to his reputation, the physician did indeed cure both of them. However, the marriage quickly dissolved and the couple refused to pay, claiming instead that he owed them money for destroying a happy union. At this point, the physician offered instead to return them to their former condition. Both adamantly refused. This leads to two questions. First, does the couple owe the physician for his services? Secondly (and this much more difficult) what were the original handicaps of the couple which contributed to the former felicity of this marriage? Answer

2. “The Holy One, Blessed be He, endowed women with more insight than men”. This quote from the Talmud is very surprising given the male-centered traditions of old. To our contemporary eyes, though, it does show that the sages did indeed have insight into human nature. Their culture did not, however, widely acknowledge women’s accomplishments or contributions to society, a condition which has continued up until very recent times. For example here are some women who made huge contributions to Jewish culture, mostly within the past century. Please match each with her most notable role in the second group and even name an signal achievement if possible. The women are Henrietta Szold, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Golda Mier, and Fannia Cohn. Their roles, not in order, are jurist, labor leader, politician, organizer of an important women’s group. Answer

3. The Jewish religion is not traditionally an “other worldly” one, but is focused more on how we should conduct ourselves on earth in everyday human society. So it is quite natural that from this thoughtful Jewish tradition, questions of charity are of major importance. The rabbis and sages pondered and argued extensively on the obligations of both the rich and the poor. Some of their conclusions may come as a surprise to many of us. .For example, can you guess which of the following principles are those which most of the rabbinic community would support? A yes or no for each will suffice.

A. Rich people should not give too much, even though they might be able to afford more.
B Poor people must also give to charity.
C. It is greater to give when the recipient does not know who you are.
D. If you are needy, you must accept welfare.

May 2005

1. The commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” is so simply stated. And it is central not only to Judaism but to all the great faiths. But where was this idea first expressed so succinctly? Which of these sources contained the earliest expression of this thought in its modern form - A) The Palestinian Talmud – Nedarim 9:4, B) The Book of Leviticus 19:18, C) The New Testament’s Matthew 22:39, quoting Jesus, or D) Rabbi Hillel, as quoted in the Babylonian Talmud? Answer

2. This past month my wife’s father died. He was a wonderful person. We are very thankful for all the support from our Rabbi and the congregation. As part of this process of grieving, we also found many occasions to really pay attention while reciting 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

3. Roman Catholics and their friends around the world also were shaken this past month by the death of Pope John Paul II. His role in twentieth century history is probably unmatched by any other world leader. And he has done far more than any of his immediate predecessors to heal Christian-Jewish wounds. In his great book tracing the roots of Christian anti-Semitism, “Constantine’s Sword”, Boston author James Carroll lauds the efforts of Pope John Paul II to repair relations between these two great faiths. Carroll finds one papal act particularly compelling. Of the following list, which do you think struck him as the most meaningful – A) John Paul II’s embrace of an Israeli Polish émigré woman, a 1945 camp survivor whose life he was credited with saving, B) his visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Center in Jerusalem, C) his insertion of a prayer in a crevice at the Kotel, D) his role in the release of the 1998 Vatican document “We remember: a reflection on the Shoah”, or E) his bending to kiss a bowl of Israeli soil, held to his lips by children, during his visit in the year 2000? Answer

April 2005

1. It is spring and a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of … Even without last year’s miracles, we New Englanders would be eagerly anticipating Opening Day and the coming season. One small disappointment should be noted, however. Even though Brookline’s Theo Epstein is the general manager, the Olde Towne team will have one less Jewish teammate this season. The solid utility outfielder Gabe Kapler is gone, though third baseman Kevin Youkalis remains. Jewish ballplayers today are indeed something of a rarity, but there is still a wonderful tradition of Jewish major league stars. We all know of the incomparable pitcher Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers, but can you match up the teams and positions of these other baseball celebrities? Please pick the primary team and position for each of these four players:

* Moe Berg, Shawn Green, Hank Greenberg, and Al Rosen;
* Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Boston Red Sox; and
* Third baseman, catcher, outfielder, and first baseman.

2. Rabbis sometimes have a very whimsical way of expressing maxims by which we should strive to live. Here is one elegantly turned phrase from a prominent Hasidic rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotsk. He said:

“If I am because I am, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you”.

This was written in the mid-1800s but is just as relevant today. What was the rebbe trying to tell us? Answer

3. For many centuries, there has been agreement that there are precisely 613 mitzvot specified in the Torah. These enjoin us to observe everything from the Ten Commandments to the proper conduct of animal sacrifices. Do you have any idea how many of these are positive (“you shall”) and how many are negative (“you shall not”) mitzvot? And which authority is the most definitive for this list of 613 mitzvot; is it a) the Babylonian Talmud, b) the Shulchan Aruch, the comprehensive treatise on Jewish religious law from the sixteenth century, c) Maimonides, the twelfth century scholar, or d) the Mishnah, the codification of Jewish law by Judah the Prince around 200 C.E? Answer


March 2005

1. For a thousand years, the Yiddish language glued together the Jews of central and eastern Europe. Though Yiddish is written using the Hebrew alphabet and uses some Hebrew words, its basic structure and grammar has other roots entirely. On what language is this once popular language based? As it became the lingua franca of Ashkenazi Jews, the number and geographic spread of its speakers were aided by a population boom that lasted almost up to the Holocaust. In fact, at its peak Yiddish was the most common language in all the Jewish worldwide communities. Can you guess what fraction of the world’s Jews were Yiddish speakers in the early twentieth century? Was it a quarter, and a third, a half, or three quarters? Answer

2. The National Yiddish Book Center is an inspiring testament to the dedication and perseverance of a 23 year old graduate student and an army of volunteers and friends. In the early 1980s, Aaron Lansky began a campaign to save the world’s dwindling store of Yiddish books. At the time, some scholars estimated that there were perhaps 70,000 volumes left in the entire world. Today, the Center, located in an idyllic setting in Amherst, Massachusetts, is home to over 1.1 million volumes and at least a 1,000 more are coming in every month. The collection is astonishing in its diversity and breadth. In its first centuries, Yiddish was considered a vulgar tongue not fit for literature, but with time Yiddish grew into wonderfully expressive language and enjoyed a true “Golden Age” that witnessed an outpouring of world class writing. What period is generally considered the Yiddish “Golden Age”? Answer

3. Our rabbi is an entertaining and erudite teacher, perhaps at his very best when leading a Saturday morning Torah Study. Rather than a normal worship service, Torah study involves a guided detailed examination and discussion of the week’s Torah portion, or “parsha”, generally just a few chapters of one of the first five books of the Bible. These study sessions are literally overflowing with books, as the different translations and interpretations of various scholars are read, then compared and contrasted. Questions are more abundant than answers and there are always many surprises and fascinating sidebars. For example, in a recent Torah Study, the rabbi outlined the evolution of the concept of covenant, or “b’rit” in Hebrew. Who do you suppose was the first person who entered into a “b’rit” with God – Abraham, Moses, Noah, Adam, or David? Answer

February 2005

1. February is still the depths of winter. The nights are long, and the days are still short. But there is a glimmer of hope as we notice the daylight lasting a little longer each day. Our Rabbi likes to point out that towards the end of the Jewish winter festival of Hanukkah, the nights begin to get brighter. In today’s neon, electric world, we no longer experience night as directly as our ancestors did. We know we are getting more minutes of daylight from the sun each day since the Winter Solstice, which usually is December 21 and the first official day of winter. Rabbi Mintz notes that Hanukkah always begins on the 25th of Kislev and lasts eight days. Like all Jewish months, Kislev marks a lunar cycle. With all this information, can you explain the Rabbi’s assertion that the nights do indeed get brighter during Hanukkah? Answer

2. Speaking of the wonderful events that occur during Hanukkah, a truly remarkable story unfolded right here in Acton on this holiday last year. A local resident, who has lived here for over two decades, recently discovered that her paternal grandmother was Jewish. The grandmother escaped Germany in the 1930s, married a Catholic in the US, but had kept her background a secret all these years. The granddaughter wanted to better understand this heritage, but had never set foot in a Jewish house of worship her entire life. So she summoned her courage and came to visit Beth Elohim during this past Hanukkah, where we learned of her recent discovery. Though her grandmother never discussed her Jewish roots, there were several habits which pointed to her past. Which of these do you suppose our Acton neighbor remembers from her childhood: her grandmother 1) said the kaddish, 2) made blintzes, 3) read only from the “Old Testament”, 4) gave her a special crystal dish, or 5) always told her to be kind to the Jewish people. Answer

3. This is another true story, but one dating from the middle of last century. A very pious rabbi goes up to the pulpit of Great Synagogue of Vilnius, Lithuania, a city described by Napoleon as “more Jewish than Jerusalem” owing to the great vitality and size of its Jewish community. At the conclusion of the Yom Kippur morning service, he commits a seemingly sacrilegious act on the holiest day of the year. He takes out some wine and bread, says the appropriate blessings and then proceeds to eat and drink in front of the entire congregation. What is going on here? The rabbi was not excommunicated or even condemned by his community for this act. The rabbi was responding to higher principle of Jewish law. Can you envision a set of circumstances could possibly have caused the rabbi to behave this way and break his Yom Kippur fast like this? Answer

January 2005

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 kind are there? And to which grouping, major or minor, are the following assigned: Amos, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Jonah, and Obadiah? Answer

2. Judaism respects other religious traditions. In this country, the most common one is Christianity. Christian tradition records Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. Thus we mark this new year 2005 C.E. (Common Era), or for Christians 2005 A.D. (Anno Domini, year of the Lord). Did you ever wonder when some of the other great religious figures started their ministries? What centuries saw the first teachings of Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, Lao Tze (Taoism), Zoroaster, and even Moses? Answer

3. It is no surprise that Jewish people are famed for producing great judges, like Supreme Court Justices Felix Frankfurter and Louis Brandeis. Our tradition contains a wealth of material on developing, interpreting and applying the vast body of Jewish law or halakha. The roots go back a long way; the dispensing of justice is a key theme, even an obsession, of the Bible. Deuteronomy 16:20 commands “Justice, justice, you shall pursue”. It also contains periodic instructions to judges. What was the primary concern of these instructions -- protection of the poor, fairness, help for one’s family, or compassion? Answer