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 2007. Click here to return to the main People of Chelm page.
  December 2007

1. Last month the Beth Elohim Brotherhood successfully ran another edition of their annual “ Bagel Drive ”. Their superb planning and logistics resulted in hundreds of bagels being delivered very early on a Sunday morning to scores of households in our region. Clearly, this event depends heavily on the broad popularity of bagels. Has this always been the case? When did bagels become such an accepted breakfast item, which you can find on so many street corners and Dunkin Donuts franchises throughout America ? For extra credit, you can hazard a guess on when bagels were invented. Answer

2. The Adult Education series this year has hosted a number of fascinating speakers, like social activist Len Lyons, who writes about the remarkable Israeli immigrants from Ethiopia . These people are heirs to an authentic Jewish tradition going back more than two millennia. From their ancestral homeland in the northern highlands of Ethiopia , they brought the Torah, which they have observed with amazing fidelity over the centuries. But their version has been preserved in a somewhat different way. Is the Ethiopian Torah written in a) Aramaic, b) Arabic, c) Ge'ez, d) Swahili, or e) Hebrew? Answer

3. Self rule has been a long time coming to Israel . After the Romans absorbed the Judean state that the Maccabees had founded, self rule did not return to the land of Israel for almost two millennia, when the state was Israel was declared on May 14, 1948. From the time of the Maccabees until 1948, the land of Israel was a part of one empire or another. On Chanukah, we celebrate the remarkable victory in 167 BCE of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem . Their revolt prevailed against the might of the powerful Seleucid Greek kingdom. The modern establishment of Israel may be every bit as dramatic and improbable. One key milestone event along the way was the Balfour Declaration, the first recognition by a major world power that Jews should have their own state. Which world power issued this declaration and - within a decade - when was it promulgated? Answer

  November 2007

1. Recently our beloved Rabbi presided over an unveiling of my father-in-law's gravestone. As most know, in Jewish tradition the unveiling or dedication of a gravestone takes place a year or more after the burial, so grief is often replaced by reflection and memories. After the ceremony concluded, we all placed a stone or two on the gravestone. The Rabbi asked how this Jewish custom of putting stones on the grave might have originated. Do you know? None of us knew (except for our 13 year old niece) … but we were all very satisfied with his answer. 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. Speaking of Hebrew words, the word for holy is “kadosh”. Beyond usual connotations of consecrated and pure, it also carries a sense of separateness and special designation. All these meanings come into play in one of the familiar names of God - Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu, “The Holy One, Blessed be He”. People, such as the Kohanim in their priestly roles, can also be holy. So can places be holy, like the sanctuary of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem or even the land of Israel itself. Likewise certain ritual objects are considered holy. And of course, designated times are holy; Yom Kippur is one good example. This idea of holiness is of course very important in the Bible and the first use of “kadosh” occurs very early, in Genesis 2:3. Who or what is first referred to as “holy” in Genesis 2:3? Of course you can look it up quite easily, but a little timely reflection might also provide the answer. Answer

  October 2007

1. All right already! So no one has anything good to say about us. Well, you better hope they don't know Yiddish or they can really lay us out in lavender. What is the meaning of these Yiddish appellations, and which is the only one that is remotely complimentary - shikker, schnorrer, schnook, shayner Yid, schlimazel, schmo, shtunk, and schlemiel? Stop your kvetching, it could be worse; these were just some of the Yiddish “S” words. Answer

2. The Bible describes in fine detail how, after the long and largely successful reigns of King David and King Solomon, the kingdom spilt into two – Judah in the south and Israel in the north. Over the next two centuries, Israel was ruled by a succession of dynasties until it was crushed 722 BCE and its “ten lost tribes” dispersed by the conquering Assyrians. Judah , on the other hand, lasted as an independent kingdom for almost another century and a half. Throughout this history and continuing into the Babylonian Exile, Judah continued to be ruled by the descendants of King David. How many kings do you suppose are included in this Davidic line? The kings of Judah are alternately reviled and revered in the Bible, which often ties the fate of the country to the virtue or depravity of its kings. Four of the more famous rulers are the kings Hezekiah, Manasseh, Josiah, and Jehoiakim? Which of these kings of Judah were esteemed, which despised? Answer

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

  September 2007

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

2. Iraq, torn by roadside bombs and civil strife, is in some ways our home, too. For millennia this historically significant land has seen its share of war and troubles, but even more of greatness. It is the home of one of the earliest civilizations on our planet, birthplace of Abraham, and locale of Babylonian Exile. Long after Biblical times, in the first millennium of the Common Era, Jews developed a thriving culture here, first under Persian then under Muslim rule. Not long after its founding in 762 CE, the great city of Baghdad had become the splendid center of the Muslim World when the Abbasids moved the caliphate there from Damascus . Jewish scholarship flourished for centuries in Baghdad and other nearby cities, part of an even larger renaissance in the arts and sciences, driven in part by the rediscovery and translation of many classical Greek texts. Today we have one truly great text that has been passed on to us since that time. What is the great Jewish composition from this period in Iraqi history? Answer

3. 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 sacrifice counts for something “on high”. 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 “third Isaiah”. What does this mean? Answer


August 2007

1. What distinguishes an act of lovingkindness (chesed in Jewish) from, say, simple decency or assistance to a friend? Answer

2. Judaism has adapted well to modern life, and indeed is today a life-centering counterweight to today's excesses. In the mid-1700s, however, most of the Jewish world was deeply observant, segregated, and completely tradition-bound. This began to change under the influence of people like Moses Mendelsohn, who sought to reconcile Jewishness and the modern world emerging in Germany in the late 1700s. On the one hand, he aimed to demonstrate to his Gentile colleagues in Germany that Jews had a faith based on reason. At the same time he challenged his fellow Jews to emerge from their medieval ghetto life and engage the new world around them. This was a time when the ideas espoused by the French and American revolutions were forcing a fundamental rethinking of societal and political norms in Western Europe . Can you guess which of these then radical ideas Mendelsohn and his new Jewish modernism advocated?
•  the importance of the individual & inherent rights of each person
•  A scientific reason could be found for everything
•  The earth did not revolve around the sun
•  Monarchy was no longer considered divinely inspired
•  Civil law was predominant over religious law

3. The Touro Synagogue in Newport , Rhode Island is the oldest Jewish house of worship in the United States . It is lovely wooden colonial structure, still in active use for services. Since it was opened in 1763, it has seen its share of history. In fact, three American Presidents have been guests. Of these, two were relatively recent visitors. Can you guess who these were? Answer


June 2007

1. Just a few years 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, Beth Elohim's 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 10 th 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. And what is a mitzvah really? What is the literal meaning of this word? If you know the origin of this term, you will know where they come from. And how many mitzvot are there in all? There are quite a few, although many of them may no longer apply in our age. And for extra, extra credit, do you know how many mitzvot are prohibitions against a particular action? Answer

3. Here is a lovely question, drawn not from the teachings of the scholars who teach Me'ah but from the material of our Hebrew School 's Gimel (third grade) class. What do the following have in common: lighting the first candle on the Hannukiah; having a thirteenth birthday; eating the first peach of the year; going to seder; hearing really good news; or seeing a friend for the first time in thirty days? All of these events provide an occasion to do something special. What is that something? If we cannot figure it out at first, perhaps we should ask (or at least think like) a third grader. Answer



May 2007

1. Every country has its heroes, and modern state of Israel certainly has its share. Who do you think most historians would recognize as the “George Washington” of Israel ? Would it be Moshe Dayan, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, or Yitzhak Rabin? Answer

2. This year, the evening of the 22th of May marks the beginning of Shavuot, one of the three “harvest” festivals, which occurs exactly fifty days after Pesach. After stating the requirement to count off seven weeks plus one (50 days), in Leviticus 23:21 the Lord commands that “on that same day you shall hold a celebration; it shall be a sacred occasion for you; you shall not work at your occupations. This is a law for all time in all your settlements, throughout the ages”. Yet virtually all do not celebrate this day with the same seriousness as Yom Kippur or Pesach. But many rabbis teach that the most important single event in Jewish history occurred on this day. What is this event? One hint: Orthodox Jews have developed a particularly appropriate all-night custom to mark this occasion. Answer

3 A few new holidays have been added to the Jewish calendar in modern times and last month we observed one of them, Yom Ha-Shoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. At Beth Elohim, Sal Lopes invited a professor to discuss a little known aspect of this dreadful time. In the months following Germany 's collapse at the close of World War II, the Holocaust survivors who struggled out of the death camps were wandering aimlessly. A reversal of the policy of neglect by the US and the Allies occurred abruptly in October, 1945. Who initiated this change? Was it General Eisenhower upon finally meeting a camp survivor, President Harry Truman “stopping the buck”, Secretary of State George Marshall of “Marshall Plan” fame, Jewish financiers in New York who helped finance the Allied effort, or regular American GIs who saw what was happening on the ground? Answer


April 2007

1. There is a wonderful Jewish legend of the lamed-vavniks. These are people who “make the world go around”. Have you heard of this legend? If so, who are these people? Answer

2. Earlier this year our community lost two very special people, both of whom were popular columnists in the local paper, the Beacon. Hedy Lopes and Max Israelite might well have been lamed-vavniks. Both brought a special zest to life and a deep appreciation of everyday life. Hedy's husband Sal wrote a wonderful tribute to her in the March 15, 2007 issue of the paper. And I just found an old Chelm question inspired by Max Israelite. In one of his Beacon columns, Max posed – and answered – several questions about the Yiddish language, the lingua franca of Ashkenazi Jewry. What is the parent language of Yiddish, the source of its grammar and syntax? When and where did Yiddish evolve? Answer

3. Some of the hidden treasures of Congregation Beth Elohim are the Saturday morning Torah Study services. Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are appropriately the main features of most of our Saturday services, but every so often when the calendar permits, Rabbi Mintz will find time for a Torah Study. This activity focuses on a detailed analysis of the week's Torah portion, typically just three or four chapters in one of the five Books of Moses. The Rabbi frequently challenges the group to explain certain passages or events. Here is one such challenge, from chapter 46 of Genesis. The aged patriarch Jacob, while on his way to visit his son Joseph in Egypt , stops at Beersheba and offers a huge sacrifice. Beersheba is really at the far extreme southern end of the land of Canaan , practically the last settlement before the wilderness of Sinai and the wastes of the Negev . So why did Jacob pick this desert town for his sacrifice? Why this forlorn place? Answer

March 2007

1. At a country crossroads in Galicia , a festive wedding procession and a funeral train meet. It is an awkward moment since one group must go first and delay the other. According to Jewish tradition, which one should give way? And why? Answer

2. The Brotherhood's periodic Sunday morning breakfasts are open to all, and feature good food and thought-provoking speakers. Last month's talk by Jeff Melnick, a Professor of American Studies at Babson, was no exception. He explained how Jews came to positions of influence in the music business during the early years of the 20 th century and successfully promoted certain musical genres and performers. Not too many of us are intimately familiar with the popular music of decades ago, but can you guess which performer was, according to Professor Melnick, the “biggest thing to hit American music before Elvis Presley”? Here are some possibilities – Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman. Answer

3. Next month we celebrate 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. 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? Answer

February 2007

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

2. 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 puzzling. For example, turning on the TV is verboten 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? Answer

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

January 2007

1. The powerful Joseph story, the longest narrative in the Bible, could really be called a novella since it includes all of the last 14 chapters of the Book of Genesis. It is one of the favorites of Rabbi Mintz and those who join him for the informative and exhilarating Saturday morning Torah study sessions. The Rabbi 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 identified three “ups” and three” downs”. How many can you name? Answer

2. 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

3 The moving 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 14 th 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