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 2009. Click here to return to the main People of Chelm page.

  December 2009

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? 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.  “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 is the Talmud, with its intricate dialogues between many generations. (Our 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 sacred texts.  The same word is also applied to the vast literature which has resulted from this quest. What is the word? Answer

3. Every month or two, the Congregation Beth Elohim Brotherhood sponsors a Sunday morning breakfast. The featured speakers at these events are guaranteed to make you think and gain some new perspective. Last October, Boaz Tabib, an Israeli Army war veteran, told his incredible story of survival. His armored personnel carrier was hit by a Syrian missile in the 1982 Lebanese war. His struggle after the war involved fifty surgeries and led to his coming to the U.S. for further care and establishing a new life for himself and his family. When asked if he was interested in going on the lecture circuit for groups like the Disabled American Veterans or the VFW, he said "not really", and then lucidly explained why. Why do you think Boaz just does not want to talk that much about his clearly painful experience? Answer


November 2009

1. Allan Krueger organizes a lay lead services, on both Sunday mornings and summer Friday evenings. Now these services are not always as finely tuned as those of our experienced leaders, Rabbi Lewis or Cantor Sara Spierer, but they are uplifting just the same. Nor are they as well attended. In fact, at a recent service, there were but nine people in attendance. Dan Klein was the very capable leader that day, and did not seem the least bit perturbed about the apparent lack of a minyan, the quorum required for required for certain communal prayers in a service. Why was Dan  so comfortable?  Answer

2. Yiddish is marvelously expressive language. Like the Jewish communities of a millennium earlier that gave birth to the Talmud, the Yiddish-speaking people of Eastern European developed a veritable storehouse of wisdom, a good deal of it codified in its many proverbs. Many of these proverbs have been translated and passed into common currency today. Some almost don’t need any translation, as their warmth and pithy humor are evident in the original. Here is a sampling from “1001 Yiddish Proverbs”, complied by Fred Kogos. See if you can match each of the Yiddish proverbs from the first column with its English equivalent in the second. 

Fil meloches, vainik broches.   Every person has a madness of his own
Oib der shuch past, kenst im trogen.         Honor is much dearer than money.
Ehrez iz fil tei’erer far gelt.         Jack of all trades, master of none. 
Itlecher mentshhot zich zein shigoyen.     When people say someone is crazy, believe it. 
Az me zogt meshugeh, zol men gloiben.   If the shoe fits, wear it.


3. In 2004, Professor William Schniedewind, a Biblical scholar at UCLA, wrote an intriguing work on the process of creation of the Bible as we know it today. In “How the Bible Became a Book”, he examines the transformation of ancient Israel from a purely oral to a literary tradition.  There are some interesting clues along this path as Jews became “the people of the book”.  For example, the professor calls attention to the fact that the narrative of the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 19-20 never even mentions the writing down of the commandments, while the account in Chapter 5 of Deuteronomy explicitly refers to God writing the revelation on two tablets of stone.  Why might these two stories of the same event be so different? Answer


October 2009

1. 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?

 2. “The Guide of the Perplexed” was a landmark book of Judaism’s middle ages. It was written over eight hundred years ago by the intellectual giant Moses Maimonides, the greatest philosopher and teacher of his era. The title and much of the content seem completely modern. For example, Maimonides did not prescribe a single orthodox view but wrote that we ”must form a conception of the existence of the Creator according to our capacities” and urged all to study science and nature to better understand the Divine. These sentiments might be welcome today but in his day they caused Jewish and Christian leaders alike to urge the burning of the book. What did the religious establishment of the time find so offensive in these teachings? Answer

3.  There is no word for “religion” in early Judaism and the Bible. Why do you suppose this is the case? This observation was made by Professor Edward Greenstein in Barry Holtz’s wonderful work, “Back to the Sources; Reading the Classic Jewish Texts”. Answer


September 2009

1.  Leo Rosten’s “The Joys of Yiddish” was a bestseller in the late 1960’s and helped propel the Yiddish revival. One great story takes place on a bus to Tel Aviv, with a mother addressing her son vehemently in Yiddish. The son keeps answering her in proper Hebrew, prompting her each time to say “No, no, talk Yiddish”. An impatient bus passenger, overhearing this exchange, finally exclaims, “Lady, why do you insist the boy talk Yiddish instead of Hebrew, the official tongue of our land?” The mother replies, “I don’t want him to forget he’s a Jew”.   What did she mean?  Answer

2. A great Jewish philosopher once wrote, “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me”. Who said these magical words? Was it a) Moses Maimonides, b)Hillel, c)Rashi, d) Abraham Heschel, e) Moses Mendelssohn. Answer

3. 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 positive mitzvah required on Rosh Hashanah? What is it that the Bible commands to be done? Answer

July/August 2009

1.  Singing has always been an important part of Jewish ritual and celebration. A great source is of course the Book of Psalms in the Bible, with its 150 inspirational poems and songs. Who, according to Jewish tradition, is the principal author of these works? Answer

2. The past half 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 Tutankhamun’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

3. What’s in a name? Many of our first names are drawn from the Bible. Names like Adam and Noah, common today, appeared very early in Genesis. Many names have an obvious Semitic meaning, like Gerson (or Gershom) for example. The original Gerson was Moses’ son by Zipporah. Remember that Moses ran off from his people in Egypt to avoid capture by the authorities when he slew an overseer for beating one of his Hebrew kinsmen. He fled to the foreign land of Midian, became a shepherd, and married Zipporah. As a “foreign wife”, the root “ger” in her offspring’s name connoted “stranger” and over time came to denote  “convert”.   Names employing one of the roots for “God” are also common later in the Bible. Elijah (“El”) and Josiah (“Yahweh”) are examples. However, the first appearance of a prominent name incorporating a root for God does not occur until the time of the Patriarchs. What is this name? Hint: this person is an ancestor of King David.  Answer


June 2009

1.  Many rabbis of old had a clear opinion of what was the most important of all the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. What is it? This is a commandment we can all keep – or at least try to keep – in modern times also. Answer

2. June is a month for weddings, which are of course a cause of great celebration.  In fact, we are even commanded to celebrate with the bride and groom. Are there occasions when this joy should be tempered? If a wedding party and funeral train come to a crossroads, which group should give way, according to Jewish tradition? Answer

3.. In keeping with the June wedding and marriage theme, here is a difficult question that was asked in this column several years ago. 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 what were the original handicaps of the couple which contributed to the former felicity of this marriage? Answer

May 2009

1. At the end of May this year we celebrate Shavuot. Along with Passover and Sukkot, this is one of the three agricultural pilgrimage festivals mentioned in the Torah. Shavuot commemorates the anniversary of the day the Torah was given to Moses on Mount Sinai , and the marking of God's special covenant with the Jewish people. In Deuteronomy 29, Moses tells the assembled people of Israel : “Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath, but with him that stands here with us the day, and also with him that is not here with us this day ”. There is a lovely rabbinic interpretation of the latter, underlined portion of this verse. Who are these people not on Sinai that day that are included in the Mosaic covenant? Answer

2. Many commentators have noted the cultural affinities between Buddhism and Judaism. This connection has even given rise to Zen Judaism, whose spirit is caught in simple, metaphysical aphorisms such as these:

* The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single “oy”.

* If there is no self, whose arthritis is this?

In a slightly more serious vein, the spiritual leader of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, has actually sought the company of several Jewish leaders. He expressly wanted to discuss a very important and immediate issue for him and his followers. What do you suppose that issue is? Judaism grappled with a similar issue almost two millennia ago and the Dalai Lama wanted to know how it was “solved”. Answer

3. Congregation Beth Elohim (ne Rodolph Shalom) may be the oldest synagogue in Acton , but there are many older in the Boston area. The congregation of Ohabei Shalom was founded in 1842 as the first Jewish congregation in this area. Ten years later they built the second New England synagogue, dedicating it on March 26, 1852; only Newport , Rhode Island 's famous Touro Synagogue, dating from 1763, is older. In the mid-1800s when the first Boston synagogue was being established, the Jewish community of Boston was barely visible, numbering fewer than 100 families. (A few decades later came the substantial Eastern European migrations that spawned major Jewish centers throughout the Boston area). In which neighborhood do you suppose this first Boston synagogue was built – the North End, Roxbury, Brookline , Dorchester, the South End, the West End, or Chelsea ? All of these have been home to large Jewish communities. And for extra credit, did Ohabei Shalom, like the older Touro, subscribe to Sephardic traditions? Answer

April 2009

1. This month we celebrate Passover. At this time, we especially try to make sure there is only kosher wine on the table. Today's kosher wines include many more kinds than the familiar sweet Manischewitz or Mogen David. A kosher product must meet some stringent tests in order to earn this label. 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.

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 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.

3.. More than three thousand years after when scholars estimate that first Passover occurred, there was another momentous day in Jewish history - May 14, 1948. This is the day the state of modern Israel was born. 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 2009, we celebrate it on April 28th, shortly 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, 1948 – 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

March 2009

1. 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

2. For one glorious weekend last month, Beth Elohim hosted Hankus Netsky as our “Artist in Residence”. Hankus, a great scholar and musician, played and lectured to packed, enthusiastic audiences of all ages. As Director of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, he has toured the world and been a major figure in the revival of Yiddish music, especially Klezmer. One group of instrumentalists in particular appreciates this new found popularity of Klezmer. Which group? (Hint: it is not the drummers or pianists.) Answer

3.. Hankus is Vice President of Education at the renowned National Yiddish Book Center in western Massachusetts . The Center's staff has performed miracles in preserving works written in Yiddish, the language that glued together the Jews of central and Eastern Europe for close to thousand years. 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


February 2009

1. Taken literally, the word “Torah” denotes the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses. People also use Torah more expansively. It can sometimes mean the whole Bible or even all that Jews have learned about the world. What do you suppose is the literal meaning of the word “Torah” is the original Hebrew? Is it truth, study, inspiration, teachings, law, or knowledge? Answer

2. Last month our synagogue again hosted - for the seventh time – the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Breakfast. This event is sponsored by Acton 's “No Place For Hate Committee”, an interfaith group which works to combat discrimination and promote respect for differences. The breakfast is an occasion both to honor this man, who gave his life seeking these goals, and also to learn from him and others who seek to uplift all of us. Dr. King is indeed a modern day prophet, in the great tradition of Amos and Isaiah. His powerful speeches condemn social injustice, call for adherence to the higher standards of nonviolent change, and offer a vision of a better day to come. It is no wonder his words have found such wide acceptance in Judaism, including passages in many Passover Haggadot. Dr. King's life, ended in a shooting in Memphis , Tennessee on April 4, 1968. Do you know why this great man was in Memphis at that time? In a very direct way, it involved the City of Memphis. Answer

3. These days are seeing devastating cuts to human service budgets at the state and national levels. Now especially we need to remember those who must look to these social programs to stay alive. 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


January 2009

1.Whatever we think of its operations, the United Nations is still an important forum in today's global village. Though its members periodically co-opt it for their own ends, the UN was founded on the lofty goal of advancing the fortunes of all nations and of promoting peace on our earth. These principles are captured in the engraving on the cornerstone of UN Building in New York .

“And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”.

These lofty words are those of a Biblical prophet. Can you name the source? Was it a) Isaiah, b) Jeremiah, c) Samuel, or d) Ezekiel?

2. This past November our Congregation was host to a hugely successful talk by Globe columnist James Carrol, author of a detailed and captivating study of the history of anti-Semitism in the West. Titled “ Constantine 's Sword”, Carroll's work traces this story from the emergence of a nascent Christian sect from Judaism through the Holocaust to today. It is a difficult and painful story, of course, but one that many Christian leaders are trying to understand. Carroll was encouraged by the efforts the previous Pope, John Paul II, had made to heal the historic breach. Of the Pope's many acts and speeches on the subject of Christian-Jewish relations, Carroll finds one particularly compelling. Of the following list, which do you think struck him as the most meaningful – 1) his embrace of an Israeli Polish émigré woman, a 1945 camp survivor whose life he was credited with saving, 2) his visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Center in Jerusalem, 3) his inserting a prayer in a crevice at the Kotel, 4) his role in the release of the 1998 Vatican document “We remember: a reflection on the Shoah”, or 5) his bending to kiss a bowl of Israeli soil, held to his lips by children, during his visit in the year 2000? Answer

3. Every January we celebrate the birthday of Reverend Martin Luther King, one of the most influential Americans and world citizens of the past century. Dr. King's 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