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 Adult Education 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 2006.Click here to return to the main People of Chelm page.


December 2006

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

3. This past November witnessed the circuitous re-election of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, an orthodox Jew. After losing in the Democratic Primary, he emerged victorious in the final 2006 election running as an Independent. But for Palm Beach County's “Jews for Buchanan”, Lieberman could well have been this country's Vice President, only a heartbeat away from becoming one of a very select group, Jewish heads of state. One was Britain 's 19 th century Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who was born a Jew and became an Anglican. And of course Israel and Judah had scores of Jewish kings and queens in Biblical times, including the renowned David and Solomon. Strange as it may seem, there was yet another kingdom headed by Jewish monarchs. Do you have any idea of where this land was? It could be a) Ashkenaz, b) Ethiopia, c) Kush, d) Khazaria, or e) Yemen. Answer

  November 2006

1. With the insurgency raging in Iraq, Bagdad is constantly in the news. This great city has indeed seen much better days. Shortly after its founding in 762CE, it became the seat of the powerful Abbasid caliphate and the capital of a vast, growing Islamic empire. By the tenth century, Bagdad was widely acknowledged as the intellectual center of the world. And Jewish learning flourished there as well. The great Talmudic yeshivas of Sura and Pumbedita and the court of the Jewish Exilarch relocated to Bagdad from Babylon, where the Talmud was composed. Bagdad was so highly regarded as a center of learning and culture that rival leaders in Europe sought to emulate it. One city in particular came to be known as “the Bagdad of the West”. Was it – a) Troyes, home of great Rashi, b) Venice, home of the Jewish ghetto, c) Vilnius, seat of the learned Gaon, d) Cordoba, capital of Muslim Spain, or e) Aachen, the capital of Charlemagne? Answer

2. The best known of all the sixty three tractates of the Mishna is the “Pirke Avot”, the Sayings of the Fathers. The very first chapter of this beloved work traces the handing down of the Oral Tradition from its inception to the time the Mishna was committed to writing by Judah haNasi (Judah the Prince) around the year 200 C.E. Tradition holds that the Oral Tradition was revealed at Sinai along with the Written Torah and transmitted in an unbroken chain. The following are mentioned as being a part of that transmission – Joshua, the elders, Moses, the Men of the Great Assembly, and the prophets. Can you put them in the proper order, oldest first? Answer

3. This is a question about the “whole megilla”. As we know, this phrase originated with the custom of reading or chanting an entire scroll, one complete book of the Jewish Hebrew Bible, on a particular holiday. There are five such scrolls or “megillot” that are traditionally read or chanted in a special trope over the course of the year in at least some Jewish communities. For example, the scroll of the Book of Ruth is read in many Ashkenazic synagogues before the reading of the Torah on the morning of Shavuot. Can you match each of the other four scrolls in the first column with its associated holiday in the second column?

The Song of Songs Tisha b'Av
Lamentations Purim
Ecclesiastes Sukkot
Esther Passover



October 2006

1. The Haftarah is a selected reading from one of the prophetic books of the Bible. The Haftarah of the Yom Kippur morning service, from Isaiah 57:14 to 58:16, speaks of fasting as an attempt to be “heard on high”. By mid-morning, some of us are starting to get that empty feeling down in our normally full stomachs and hope this counts for something. But Isaiah goes on say that it is not this inner feeling, but another outer-directed “fast” that is needed. According to Isaiah, what kind of deeds does the Lord really expect of us? Also, some scholars often refer to the author of this passage as “Second Isaiah”. What does this mean? Answer

2. Joan Gluck dug up an incredible story about a famous Jewish pirate. Jewish pirates! What's next, Jewish hog farmers? Well it turns out there were some substantial historical reasons that a handful of Jews turned to piracy on the “Spanish Main”, the coasts of the Caribbean that witnessed the departure of so many treasure fleets laden with gold, gems, hardwoods and other gifts of the New World . Which one of these famous pirates was Jewish a) Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, b) Jean Lafitte, c) Francis Drake, or d) Henry Morgan? Answer

3. We are witnessing today an improbable and unexpected resurgence in interest in Yiddish, which some argue is the most expressive tongue ever devised. As one Jewish comedian put it, “My mother speaks seven languages….all of them Yiddish”! Much of this renewal is due to the inspiring quest of Aaron Lansky and his bands of dedicated volunteer “zamlers”, who saved enormous quantities of Yiddish books from certain destruction in the last few decades. Over a million volumes are now secure and available to the public at the majestic National Yiddish Book Center on the campus of Hampshire College in Amherst , Massachusetts . Although the roots of Yiddish go back a thousand years, the tremendous outpouring of Yiddish publications really did not begin until later in the nineteenth century, with Jewish emancipation in central Europe . The first works circulated in Yiddish go back a few hundred years earlier. Can you guess which were the first popular items to appear in Yiddish – a) the books of the Torah, b) translations of the classics, c) the colorful stories of Mendele Mosher Seforim, or d) women's prayers and folk tales? Answer


September 2006

1. Of course Jews love to decorate sacred items, Torah scrolls especially. And each Torah scroll has a pair of decorative coverings, one on each top end of the wooden rollers around which the scroll is wound. And we are all familiar with the jingling of the bells inside these coverings. Why do you suppose the Torah scroll is adorned with such a noisy ornament? And for extra credit, what is the proper Hebrew name of these coverings? It is quite descriptive indeed. Answer

2. 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?

3. Here are four quotes, each from a different Biblical prophet. Can you match the quote with one of these prophets – Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Micah? Amos is the original “Old Testament” prophet, the archetype of the fire-and-brimstone preacher. Isaiah is the most quoted and most lyrical. Jeremiah lived about a century after Isaiah, during the time when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. Unlike his contemporary the city-bred Isaiah, Micah lived in the country and was especially concerned with the sufferings of the common people and peasants, who were often exploited by the rich.

And what does the Lord require of you,
But to do justice, love mercy,
And walk humbly with your God.

Let justice well up as waters,
And righteousness as a mighty stream.

Watch, I shall bring them back
From the land of the north;
And gather them in from the ends of the earth.

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts.
The whole earth is full of His glory.


  July 2006

1. Jewish mothers were revered long before the familiar Eastern European stereotype appeared. Me'ah student Mark Sagor asks you match these four women with their famous offspring. The mothers are 1. Bathsheba, 2. Mary, 3. Leah, and 4. Jochabed. The offspring are A. Moses, B. Solomon, C. Jesus of Nazareth , and D. Judah. Answer

2. As Rabbinic Judaism was taking shape in the first century of the Common Era, there was a constant debate between the school of Rabbi Hillel and that of Rabbi Shammai. Our traditions are derived more from the thinking of Hillel, who is famed for his response to the challenge of reciting the code of Jewish laws while standing on one foot. How did he manage this challenge? Answer

3. The real modern period in Judaism begins with a movement known as the Haskalah (Enlightenment) in the eighteenth century. Jews began to critically analyze their own history and their relationship to the larger society around them. One country in particular was in the vanguard of this movement. Which one? Answer


June 2006

1. The Patriarchs wandered widely in the ancient Middle East , moving among the cultures of the “fertile crescent”. Their first roots were in Mesopotamia, the land athwart the two great rivers of the Euphrates and Tigris, and their adventures took them to the great land of Egypt and her pharaohs, and to Aram , today's Syria and Lebanon . But one of the patriarchs actually never left the land of Israel , or Canaan as it was then known. Which one? Answer

2. Most religions prescribe regular observances for key rituals. For example, Orthodox Jews are obliged to recite the Shema twice daily. Islam has five such requirements for Muslim adults – the “five pillars of Islam”. Some must be done daily or more often, others monthly or yearly, and one even once in a lifetime. The five are listed below, but not in their proper priority order. Can you guess the priority order and the frequency that is required for each pillar?

A. Pilgrimage (Hajj), assembling in Mecca , where Mohammad lived
B. Charity (Zakah), giving support to the poor and the clergy
C. Witnessing (Shahadah), stating one's belief in God, and Mohammed as His messenger
D. Fasting (Sawm), abstaining from food, drink, and sex from dawn until sunset
E. Prayer (Salat), expressing gratitude to God and asking for mercy

3. Today's kosher wines include many more kinds than familiar sweet Manischewitz or Mogen David. Which of the following do you suppose are necessary criteria for making a kosher wine?
1. The equipment used must be used exclusively for the making of kosher wine.
2. Only Sabbath-observant Jews can be involved in the wine production.
3. The grapes must be grown in Israel.
4. The product cannot be a mixed varietal wine.

  May 2006

1 Three millennia after the first Passover, there was another momentous day in the Jewish history - May 14, 1948, the day the state of modern Israel was announced. Just like Passover and all other days fixed in the lunar Hebrew calendar, the yearly celebration date of Israel Independence Day, or Yom ha-Atzma'ut, wanders about the solar calendar. In 2006, we celebrate it on May 3 rd , just a few short weeks after Patriot's Day here in Massachusetts . This confluence seems especially appropriate now; American and Israeli patriots established new countries under trying conditions and today are called on for the defense of those countries. Which of the following events do you think occurred on that historic day of May 14 almost 58 years ago – 1) formal end of colonial mandate over the region called Palestine, 2) the UN vote for a partition plan for Palestine, 3) invasion by six Arab armies, 4) reading of the Scroll of Independence in Tel Aviv, and 5) US recognition of Israel? Answer

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

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

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


  April 2006

1. One recent Friday night, a few of us attended services at the Vilna Shul, a historic Beacon Hill synagogue now being restored by an army of young people. This particular Friday, a lovely young immigrant woman was asked to talk about her life at the conclusion of services. She was an Ethiopian Jew, speaking only halting English, but she captivated the group with her story. Born to Amharic speaking farmers in Ethiopia , she and her parents migrated in the 1990s to Israel , the country that is now home to almost 100,000 of her people. Coming recently to Boston to study medicine, she has just joined the Vilna Shul congregation, and - at the request of one of the leaders - agreed to tell her amazing story. As you may know, the Ethiopian Jews, call themselves Beta Israel (or "House of Israel") but others refer to them as Falasha ("exiles" or "strangers"), a term that they dislike. Their Jewish and Ethiopian roots go back literally thousands of years, when the Biblical land of Sheba traded regularly with Canaan . Unfortunately, the Ethiopians were cut off from other Jews for many of the intervening centuries, and have evolved a different set of customs as you might expect. Can you guess which of the following holidays are not celebrated by Jews in Ethiopia - Purim, Passover, Chanukah, Sukkoth, Tu B'Shevat ? And why? Answer

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

3. A while ago Ellen Krueger 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. (Last month a record number of us attended a Beth Elohim Brotherhood breakfast to hear from one, President Clinton's former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Deval Patrick, now a candidate for governor of Massachusetts ). Another pinnacle 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

March 2006

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. 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. 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

February 2006

1. Early in the calendar year, there are fewer Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremonies on Shabbat mornings. This allows our Rabbi to hold several “Torah Studies” on Saturday mornings as he did this past January. During these wide ranging discussions, the Rabbi, with help from those in attendance, examines in loving detail the Torah reading for that week. One never could guess there is so much information and meaning in a few chapters. January can be an especially interesting time because several parashas are devoted to the powerful Joseph story, the longest narrative in the Bible. This story could really be called a novella since it includes all of the last 14 chapters of the Book of Genesis. During a one Torah study session, Rabbi Mintz observed that this story marked the first time in the Bible that people talked of their own feelings. He then asked what were the “ups and downs”, either literal of figurative, of Joseph's life. The assembled group was able to identify three “ups” and three” downs”. How many can you name? Answer

2. About this time of year, the festival of Tu B'shvat occurs. Though its observance is fixed in the Jewish calendar on the fifteenth of the month of Sh'vat, Tu B'shvat wanders about on the civil calendar and this year falls quite late - on the 13 th of February. Unfortunately, this lovely day is not as widely celebrated as it deserves and so many of us are not aware of it significance. For example, can you guess which five of these words can be properly associated with the themes or origin of Tu B'shvat – blessing, Torah, family, fruit, the destruction of the Temple , full moon, Abraham, Bible, wine, Kabbalist? Answer

3. Napoleon was the greatest European conqueror of the early nineteenth century. He led French troops to many victories all over the continent, but like so many before and since he overextended his reach. During one of his later expeditions, it is said that he rode triumphantly through a city that he declared “was more Jewish than Jerusalem ”. What was this city? Hint: the name of this city remains attached to one of Boston 's most historic Jewish landmarks. Answer

January 2006

1. On Monday, January 16, 2006 Congregation Beth Elohim will be the venue for a very special event organized by Acton’s No Place for Hate Committee. It is indeed a privilege to welcome all of Acton to the Martin Luther King Day Breakfast. Our synagogue has been host to this inspiring event for three years now. It consistently has provided an opportunity to learn more about Dr. King and his message, often from people who worked directly with him. Dr. King was one of the most influential Americans of the past century. His leadership and oratory inspired the country and fueled the still unfinished civil rights movement. His words struck a deep chord with African-Americans, and also among Jews, many of whom eagerly joined his cause. Some even died for it, like Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, murdered by the Klu Klux Klan during the hot Mississippi summer of 1964. Black-Jewish relations were never stronger than when Dr. King was the undisputed leader of the civil rights movement, before his 1968 assassination in Memphis. Besides inspired leaders and workers, however, community organizations also need money to make an impact. Were Jewish people as generous with dollars as they were with sympathy for the civil rights cause? Answer

2. 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

3. Judaism respects other religious beliefs. 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 2006 C.E. (Common Era), or for Christians 2006 A.D. (Anno Domini, year of the Lord). Did you ever wonder when some of the other great religious figures started their ministries? Can you guess which centuries saw the first teachings of Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, Lao Tze (Taoism), Zoroaster, and even Moses? Answer