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 2008. Click here to return to the main People of Chelm page.


  December 2008

1. The Chanukah period is a major cause for rejoicing, and not just for children. Quite beyond the gift giving custom, this festival celebrates the recapture and rededication of the Jerusalem Temple by the Maccabees over two thousand years ago. There is also the inspiring tradition of the candles miraculously burning for eight days. Why then is it a “minor” holiday, one which an observant Jew need not observe? Is it because 1) the Maccabee kings were not descendants of King David, 2) this triumph over the tyrant King Antiochus is not mentioned in the Bible, 3) the Jewish rebel victory was short-lived, or 4) the Talmud never discusses this celebration. Answer

2. Most of the Jews in this country are more familiar with Ashkenazi Jewish customs, usually owing to familial origins in Germany or Eastern Europe . We tend to be less familiar with the Sephardic traditions of the Mediterranean countries. Both groups have contributed mightily to the spread of Judaism to new corners of the world. Please guess the group, Ashkenazi or Sephardic that was the first to settle in the land of each of these countries – Brazil , the United States , South Africa , Sri Lanka (Ceylon). Answer

3. The Hebrew 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 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

  November 2008

1. During the High Holidays last month, Rabbi Mintz reminded us that the atonement we seek is not complete without tzedakah, acts of charity and lovingkindness. For example, on Yom Kippur our synagogue provides opportunities to donate to Oxfam or bring items for the food pantry for hunger relief. The Rabbi then asked if the poor, those receiving such donations, are also obliged to give as well. What do think? Should someone who is on welfare or jobless give also? Answer

2. On Sunday afternoon, November 23, our Congregation's Adult Education Committee is hosting a talk by James Carroll, the brilliant Boston author and Globe columnist. The talk will be about his book, Constantine's Sword , a masterful historical study that attempts to unravel the roots of anti-Semitism in the West. Carroll, a very learned former Catholic priest, finds a breeding ground in very earliest stages of a nascent Christianity when then intra-religious factional differences were exposed to non-Jewish audiences in the first century of the Common Era. The expedient response was to consider Jews as “the enemy” even though they were then - as now - a very diverse group. However, as Carroll points out, the Jews served this role because there was a more formidable enemy that could not be named. Who or what was this enemy? Answer

3. My apologies to the congregation's newest members, who may not be familiar with this period, but a few years ago the entire Beth Elohim congregation became a group of “wandering Jews”. Our synagogue was being expanded and for more than a year we had to find temporary quarters elsewhere, before moving into the current building just before High Holidays. Do you remember the year? And where were important congregation activities held in the interim? Finally, for a bonus question, which well-known congregant supervised the entire construction phase of the synagogue expansion? Answer

  October 2008

1. Rosh Hashanah is a time for renewal for us. Like Judaism itself, this Holiday has undergone its own renewal as its meaning and traditions have changed and evolved over the centuries. Listed here are several traditions associated with Rosh Hashanah. Try to sequence them in the order in which each was introduced into common Jewish practice. 1) Study and preparation during the month of Elul, 2) being inscribing in the Book of Life, 3) blowing of the shofar, and 4) the custom of Tashlich, emptying one's pockets and throwing bread crumbs into a body of water. Answer

2. 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

3. As is the case in all Semitic languages, most Hebrew words are based on a three letter root system. Terms coming from the same root have related meanings. A good example is the root sh-k-n, (the Hebrew letters shin, kaf, and nun) whose core meaning is “to dwell”. From this root comes “mishkan”, the tabernacle that held the Sinai tablets during the wanderings of Exodus. Also, it gives “shakhen” or neighbor. Another related derivative is “shekhinah”, the Divine Presence in an otherwise everyday event, like when people gather to pray or study. See if you can match the root word and its basic meaning, given in the column at left, with its related religious or cultural concept on the right hand column. An example is given in the first row.

A. To dwell 1. Mishkan, the tent of meeting or Tabernacle
B. To count 2. Mishnah, compilation of rabbinic teaching
C. To repeat 3. Halakhah, body of Jewish law and custom
D. Womb 4. Kadosh, holy
E. To stand 5. Rachamim, mercy
F. To walk 6. Minyan, a quorum for prayer or worship
G. Separate 7. Shiv'ah, week-long period of mourning
H. Seven 8. Amidah, central prayer of Jewish liturgy



September 2008

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 Tutankamen'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. Allright already! If a Yiddish speaker decides to get on your case, beware! You can really get painted in all kinds of unflattering colors before you know what hit you. What is the meaning of these Yiddish appellations, and which is the only one that is remotely complimentary - shikker, schnorrer, shnoook, shayner Yid, schlimazel, shmo, shtunk, and shlemiel? Stop your kvetching, it could be worse; these were just some of the Yiddish “S” words. Answer

3. On the next to last evening of September, we begin the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, an important day with many, many facets. For so many, it is 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 positive mitzvah required on Rosh Hashanah? What is it that the Bible commands to be done? It certainly makes for a noisier holiday. Answer

  May 2008

1. Here is a lovely question, drawn not from the teachings of the scholars who teach Me'ah or at Hebrew College , but from the material of our own Hebrew School 's Gimel (third grade) class. What do the following have in common: lighting one 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 you cannot figure it out at first, perhaps you could ask (or at least think like) a third grader. Answer

2. Despite the fact that the life and teachings of Moses are so central to our religion, relatively little is known about Moses the person. Most scholars place Moses in the thirteenth century BCE. At this early date all the personal data we know comes from the Torah, since there are no corroborating archeological records as in later periods. The Bible provides a few clues about him that we may recall. For example, three very important women in his life were named Miriam, Zipporah, and Jochabed. One was his wife, one a sister, and one his mother. Can you provide the correct relationship for each? And speaking of family connections, who was his grandfather by adoption? Answer

3. We are not as enthusiastic as past generations in the celebration of the Feast of Shavuot, which this year occurs on June 9 th . It is one of three festivals whose observance is commanded in the Bible. There is a fixed relationship of Shavout to Passover. What is it? According to Talmudic tradition, a very great event in the history of the Jewish faith occurred on this day. Was this 1) the arrival of Joshua in Canaan, 2) the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai , or 3) Elijah's ascension to heaven? For different reasons Christians also celebrate this day, but call it Pentecost. It marks the beginning of the Apostles' ministry to the world, seven weeks after Jesus's death, when they “spoke in tongues” (i.e. spoke in languages they did not know). Answer

  April 2008

1. In February of 2008, thirty three Beth Elohim congregants and friends accompanied our Rabbi on a magical trip to Israel . Their journey was filled with memorable adventures and wonderful experiences, such an evening spent in a tent in the Negev desert with Bedouins. In last month's STAR, Acton teenager Jessie Cranin wrote of this very special experience. What do you suppose was the sensation that struck Jessie about this excursion in the Judean wilderness? Answer

2. 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. 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

March 2008

1. On March 14 of this year our synagogue celebrates Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. Our choir rehearses for months, hoping to be their absolute best on this joyous Friday evening. This year's program promises to be exceptional. Like many traditions in Judiasm, Shabbat Shirah's roots are in the Torah. Do you know what event inspired the Sabbath of Song and who were the first singers? 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 in an unbroken chain to the time the Mishna was committed to writing in the first few centuries of the Common Era. 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. Like the American blacks, the Jews also had a very special role in the emergence of new musical forms in our country. 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, and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Answer

February 2008

1. This time of year marks the end of the winter rainy season in Israel and the festival of Tu B'shevat, the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat. It is a day for planting trees, especially by schoolchildren. The Jewish religion is suffused with practices that celebrate its connection to the land and gratitude for nature's bounty. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people “the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land” and then proceeds to name the “seven species” which grow in Israel . Which of these do you think are listed among the seven species: honey, corn, figs, lemon trees, barley, dates, pomegranates, apples, olive trees, or tomatoes? Answer

2. This past summer we lost one of our most colorful congregants. Bill Cady was a native Actonian who converted to Judaism and who also enthusiastically embraced Buddhism. To him, we dedicate this haiku:

  Zen is not easy.
  It takes effort to attain nothingness.
  And then what do you have?

As his many friends know, Bill was hardly “bupkes”. He was a fellow of many talents and wide interests, not easy to explain except if you actually knew him. This January, there was a wonderful event commemorating his memory. Can you guess which of these following items Bill actually did for his fellow congregants in his time on earth?
* started an endowment fund
* cooked for countless Brotherhood breakfasts and special events
* found the land that Beth Elohim now sits upon
* became a Bar Mitzvah after age 50, along with his wife Wally
* planted a peace garden

3. A gentleman named Bob Hilliard has been a guest speaker twice at our congregation. He is a World War II veteran, a college professor, and an otherwise normal looking fellow. But what he helped accomplish is simply staggering and truly inspirational. He and his Army buddy Ed Herman were a pair of low-ranking enlisted GIs in Germany , as the Third Reich was collapsing in early 1945. The horrors of the concentration camps were just coming to light, but shockingly little was being done to assist the “liberated”. And then Bob and Ed went to work to bring the plight of the survivors to the attention of the US Government and the world attention. What do you think was their chosen technique to accomplish this? Was it a) relaying information to superior officers, b) writing Congressmen, c) writing friends and family back home, or d) demonstrating in major German and American cities? Answer


January 2008

1. . Recently, congregant Bracha Dvir offered a fascinating Adult Education course titled “Archaeology of Jerusalem”. Jerusalem is known for many things, but we were surprised to learn that one of them is the absolutely masterful engineering of one part, one element of this ancient city. Can you guess what was so magnificently engineered? Answer

2. The prophetic tradition of Judaism is a very powerful one. The second of the three great sections of the Hebrew Bible is called “Nevi'im”, which means “prophets”. A handful of these prophets are today known as “major” and the rest are referred to as “minor”. How many of each are there? And to which grouping, major or minor, are the following prophets assigned: Amos, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Jonah, and Obadiah?

3. Recent years have been very unkind to human service budgets, especially at the state and federal levels. We need to remember those who are especially dependent on public or private social programs. Some day it could be someone in our family who needs some help. In fact, it was in poor Jewish communities of the late Medieval times that developed an embryonic model for today's social welfare agencies. 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