The People of Chelm Want to Know....

Reviving the Column Devoted To Questions About Jewish History

Almost a decade ago, this column appeared in The Star. And this year we are looking to revive it, but this time with just two questions each month. Most are fairly difficult questions, and you should be congratulated for trying to wrestle with any of them. Please share your new knowledge with your neighbors, fellow congregants, and especially the people of Chelm.

Below are the questions from 2019. Click here to return to the main People of Chelm page.


December 2019

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


November 2019

1.This fall marked the 365th anniversary of the founding of the first Jewish community in the territory of what ultimately became the United States. Fittingly, this first Jewish group came to New York City, then a Dutch settlement called New Amsterdam. There were only 23 people, and – like the millions who followed them centuries later from the ghettoes and shteltls of Eastern Europe and elsewhere around the globe – they were refugees seeking a better life and freedom from persecution. If only they could have imagined what their haven would become - the great metropolis that is home to the world’s largest Jewish population. From what land did these pioneers Jews emigrate? Was it from England, Poland, Spain, Brazil, France, or Barbados?  Answer

2. Early this month the Beth Elohim Brotherhood runs another edition of their annual “Bagel Drive”. Their superb planning and logistics have resulted in hundreds of bagels being delivered very early on Sunday mornings 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 grocery stores, delicatessens, and Dunkin Donuts franchises throughout America? For extra credit, you can hazard a guess on when bagels were invented. Answer

October 2019

1. 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) begins just before October arrives, but in another year -  like 2021 - it can occur very early in the month of September. 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 Tishrei. The first of the month always is the “new” moon, when the moon looks 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. And how does the moon appear on Yom Kippur on the tenth of Tishrei. And what might you see on a clear night from your booth on Sukkot on the fifteenth of Tishrei? Finally, what is the phase of the moon on Simchat Torah, which falls on the 20th of Tishrei? Answer

2. “The Guide of the Perplexed” was a landmark book of Judaism’s middle ages written by the intellectual giant Moses Maimonides, the greatest philosopher and teacher of his era. It was written over eight hundred years ago, yet the title and much of the content seem completely modern. For example, Maimonides did not prescribe a single orthodox view for all 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

September 2019

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 on the second day. Answer

2. 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