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 now we are reviving 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 2020. Click here to return to the main People of Chelm page.


December 2020

1. Here’s a question that your child may know even if you do not. 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?  This question was asked during one of our Hebrew school’s Maccabiah Games contests, a spirited competition held at the conclusion of the academic year. Answer
2. This question is based on a conversation with a shnorrer, an uncomplimentary Yiddish term for the sort of Jewish beggar who takes advantage of the generosity of others. Our shnorrer knows how to position himself. He always goes to the same place on the same street at a given time every week, where he has become accustomed to receiving a set donation from a certain well-dressed gentleman. One day, when he comes for the money, the gentleman tells him that he cannot give him anything. The gentleman explains that "I've had terrible expenses recently. My wife became very sick, and I had to send her to a health resort in Carlsbad. It's very cold there, so I had to buy her new clothes and a fur coat".  "What!", the shnorrer exclaims, "With my money?"    Granted this is just a joke, but is there a basis in Jewish tradition for the shnorrer's outrage? What would the rabbis say? Answer

November 2020

1. 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


2. All three Abrahamic faiths - Christianity, Islam, and Judaism – seek ways to understand and carry out God’s will. But Judaism also has a tradition that - once in a great while - a religious leader will actually challenge God, as if to change the Almighty’s mind. Which of these people had the temerity to do this – Abraham, Moses, Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, and/or Jacob? Answer

October 2020

1. We just finished celebrating Yom Kippur, and for most of us that meant a day of fasting. The Haftarah for the Yom Kippur morning service is drawn from Isaiah, one of the prophetic books of the Bible. 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. 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?


September 2020

1. Rosh Hashanah is a time for renewal. 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. Answer

2. Oftentimes the Talmud holds real surprises. This great repository of Jewish wisdom holds that Yom Kippur is a truly happy day. Over a thousand years ago, it was written in the tractate on fasting that “there were no days as happy for the Jewish people as the fifteenth of Av (a day on which marriages were arranged) and Yom Kippur”. This holiday involves our reflection on both collective and individual sins, more than a full day of fasting, and solemnity and seriousness unmatched at any other gathering throughout the year.  How could it be that Yom Kippur brings a happiness that the rabbis would compare that of the joy of marriage? Answer

August 2020

1. Judaism has many important ritual practices and symbols that have come down to us through the centuries. Some evolved from ancient community customs, but many others can be traced to Biblical references and thus assume greater importance. Can you guess which of these items has firm Biblical origins – 1) the Star of David, 2) the mezuzah on the doorpost, 3) the tzitzit, the fringes on the talit or prayer shawl, 4) the elimination of leavening during Passover, and 5) the wearing of a kippah, or in Yiddish, a yarmulke? Answer

2. Congregation Beth Elohim (ne’ Rodoph Shalom in Maynard) 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 the Jewish community of Boston was barely visible, numbering fewer than 100 families. A few decades later came the Eastern European migrations that populated the 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 very large Jewish communities. Lastly, did Temple Ohabei Shalom, like the older Touro, subscribe to Sephardic traditions? Answer

June 2020

1. The Jewish religion is not traditionally an “other worldly” one but is focused more on how we should conduct ourselves on earth both in everyday human society as well as stressful times like the current COVID-19 pandemic. So it is quite natural that from this thoughtful Jewish tradition, questions of tzedakah are of major importance. The rabbis and sages have debated extensively throughout the centuries on the obligations of both the rich and the poor. Some of their conclusions may come as a surprise to many of us. For example, can you guess which of the following principles are those which most of the rabbinic community would support? A yes or no for each will suffice.

    a.   Rich people should not give too much, even though they might be able to afford more.
    b.   Poor people must also give to charity.
    c.   It is greater to give when the recipient does not know who you are.
    d.   If you are needy, you must accept assistance.


2.  For the past few months, the Beth Elohim community – like so many other religious communities around the world – has had to rapidly adapt our practices in response to COVID-19. We have learned how to make do without our synagogue building, to conduct virtual services and ceremonies, and to develop networks to regularly check up on our fellow congregants. This adaptability is not new, as Jews have faced even more daunting challenges and threats to their community in times past. Thus it is ironic that – for so much of its early development - Jewish religious practice revolved almost exclusively around the Temple at Jerusalem. Many mitzvot in the Torah are specifically tied to this location. At some point, however, Judaism was forced to become a “portable” religion. What event was the turning point when contemporary Jews accepted that they could no longer maintain a religion centered on the Temple? Was it:
      A) the Babylonian exile, or
      B) the Crusades of Medieval times, or
      C) the collapse of the Bar Kochba revolt, or
      D) the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E., or
      E) the long guerilla warfare of the Maccabean uprising?


May 2020

1.  This coming May 28 evening marks the beginning of Shavuot, one of three festivals whose observance is commanded in the Bible. Beth Elohim will be observing Shavuot with a virtual Tikkun this year and details will be forthcoming in upcoming Star-Lite newsletters. (Adult Ed Chair Matt Liebman notes this will be a BYOC event - Bring Your Own Cheesecake). Some of you may know that there is a fixed relationship of Shavuot 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

2.  On the evening of May 27, Beth Elohim was to be the host venue once again for the Acton Discovery Museum’s Speaker Series. These talks are sponsored by area businesses and have typically attracted upwards of two hundred people from the greater local community. This one should be especially interesting since former MIT President Susan Hockfield is the featured speaker. Like our services, though, this event will not be held in person and will now be hosted on the Zoom platform. Dr. Hockfield will be discussing a concept called “Convergence 2.0”.  What is up with this?  One hint is that it relates very closely to the core meaning of the traditional Hebrew toast “l’chaim”. Another hint is that in that in 20th century Convergence 1.0 resulted from the marriage of engineering and a deep knowledge of physics, producing products like electronics, nuclear reactors, and jet engines. So what do you think Convergence 2.0 means and what will be driving it in the 21st century? Answer

April 2020

1.  This April 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. In 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

2. These times of quarantine and isolation due to the COVID-19 virus are unprecedented for almost all of us. But there have been even more trying times in the three millennia since that first Passover. Here is one. The first night of Pesach in 1943 marked the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt. The Nazis picked that date to begin the final deportation of Jews in Poland’s capital city of Warsaw. Though largely defenseless and starving, those remaining in the Warsaw ghetto began a heroic if futile rebellion against fully armed German troops. It took the Germans longer to suppress this rebellion than to annex all of Poland in the 1939 Blitzkrieg that began World War II. At its peak, the Warsaw ghetto had a huge Jewish population of close to half a million. It is difficult to think about such things. Can you guess what percent of Warsaw’s original Jews were left when the uprising began in 1943 and how many days do you think they resisted? Answer

March 2020

1.  Early this month we celebrate an atypically boisterous and crazy Jewish Holiday. Our fellow congregants mark the occasion with delightful comedic performances of Purim Spiel ; this year on the weekend of March 7 and 8. As we know, Purim  commemorates the victory of Mordecai and Esther over the wicked Haman and his plot to eliminate the Jews. This story takes place several decades after 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

2. On Friday night March 27 our synagogue celebrates Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. Under the direction of longtime leader Judy Kramer and with help from Cantor Sarra Spierer, our choir rehearses rigorously for months hoping to be their absolute best on this joyous evening. This year’s program promises to be every bit as entertaining as it has been in years past. Like many traditions in Judaism, 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

February 2020

1.  Even in this age of the Internet, libraries still remain important resources and repositories of books.  We have our own library, too. The Beth Elohim library is located off the Community Court. It is an underappreciated resource, where all are free to browse and even check out something that catches their interest. How many volumes do you think it now holds? Now please think on a much larger scale. Where is the world's largest library devoted to Judaism? 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

January 2020

1. We revere our own religious teachings, just as we are taught to respect the religious traditions of other faiths. In this country, the Christianity is most common faith and in fact has the most adherents worldwide as well. Christian tradition records Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. Thus we mark this new year 2020 C.E. (Common Era), or for Christians 2020 A.D. (Anno Domini, year of the Lord). Did you ever wonder when some of the central religious figures of other faiths started their ministries? Can you guess which centuries saw the first teachings of Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, Lao Tze (Taoism), Zoroaster, and even Moses? Answer

2. In January we celebrate the birthday of Reverend Martin Luther King. For many years, Beth Elohim has been the host location for a wonderful breakfast on Martin Luther King Day. 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 Congress of Racial Equality activists Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner who, along with their African-American colleague James Chaney, were murdered by the Klu Klux Klan during the hot Mississippi summer of 1964. Black-Jewish relations were deepened when Dr. King, widely recognized leader of the civil rights movement, reached out to other Jewish leaders. Many are familiar with the scene of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching alongside Dr. King in Selma, Alabama. (This month, Rabbi Heschel’s daughter, Dr. Susannah Heschel, will join us as our scholar-in-residence.  In addition, CBE's new Racial Justice Working Group will be having its first meeting this month.  Please join us.)  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