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 2021. Click here to return to the main People of Chelm page.

December 2021

1. Last month the Beth Elohim Brotherhood successfully ran another edition of their annual “Bagel Drive”. Gary Kushner and Andrew Gruskay corralled almost two dozen people – including a few Sisterhood members and even our local State Senator – to participate in this complex effort to package and deliver hundreds of bagels 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. “Jews read Torah as one reads a love letter, eager to squeeze the last drop of meaning from every word”. This is how a scholar characterized 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, teachers, and everyday people. One great repository of such commentary is the Talmud, with its intricate dialogues across and between many generations. Our Rabbi Emeritus Lewis Mintz used to say that that web surfing is good mental preparation for engaging in the study of Talmud. This enterprise did not stop with the Talmud and continues to give rise to an enormous body of commentary and interpretation, a wellspring which is flourishing and even increasing in our own time. The Adult Education Committee continues this tradition with Rabbi Mike’s popular lunchtime sessions on the Talmud.  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 2021

1.Our congregation has focused a lot of attention recently on Jewish values. When Rabbi Mike and the Beth Elohim Board asked our community to participate in identifying the core Jewish values that help guide our decision-making, a congregant committee was formed and met with the Rabbi over many months to consider which Jewish values accurately reflect the identity and priorities of our community. The committee produced a wonderful summary, now posted on the Beth Elohim web pages under the “About Us” tab. The first core value appropriately leads with the statement “All human beings are created in God’s image” and includes the value of pikuach nefesh – saving a life. This recalls an especially moving passage in Jewish literature that reads “anyone who destroys a single soul destroys a whole world… and anyone who preserves a single soul has saved a whole world”. What is the source of this powerful quotation – the Talmud, the Zohar, the Torah, the Ketuvim (the various books of “writings” that complete the Jewish Bible), or Maimonides? Answer

2.  Chanukah, like all the Holidays this year, falls very early in the civil calendar, starting on November 28th. At this early date, its popular but inaccurate folk status as a surrogate “Christmas” is very tenuous indeed. Nonetheless, enterprising kids will still enjoy the fact it is a whole eight days long and can dream of the possibility of some new toy or game on any day during this period. At some point, one of these youngsters may reflect long enough and come to ask why this festival lasts a full eight days. What do we say then? Hmmm, certainly it is not so that some lucky kids can have eight opportunities to receive gifts? Well there is always the legend that this was the time the oil lamps miraculously burned without refueling during the Maccabean Revolt. Is that the only reason? Here are three other possible origins for the custom of celebrating this festival for eight days. Which of these, if any, might account for the long duration of this holiday? 1) The eight-day period was specified by the Sanhedrin as the appropriate length of time for the purification of the Temple. 2) The length of this festival, like all the other major Jewish holidays, is dictated by the Torah. 3) The eight-day duration precedent had already been set by Sukkot, which the festival of Chanukah in a very real sense recalled. Answer

October 2021

1. Yiddish is marvelously expressive language. Like the Jewish communities that gave birth to the Talmud in a previous millennium, 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.


2. We have just experienced that special time of year that overflows with important Jewish holidays. But each year this period comes at a different time in our calendar. This year the Jewish 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 2021

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. Here are four quotes, each from a different Biblical prophet. Can you match the quote with one of these prophets – Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Micah? Amos is the original prophet, the archetype of the fire-and-brimstone preacher. He lived in northern kingdom of Israel in the middle of eighth century BCE. Isaiah came to prominence a little later in the southern kingdom of Judah. He is the most quoted and most lyrical of all the prophets. Unlike Isaiah, his city-bred contemporary, Micah lived in the country and was especially concerned with the sufferings of the common people and peasants, who were often exploited by the rich. Jeremiah lived about a century after Isaiah, during the time when Jerusalem was besieged and destroyed by the Babylonians in 589-586 BCE.  

And what does Adonai require of you,
But to do justice, love mercy,
And walk humbly with your God.

Let justice well up as waters,
And righteousness as a mighty stream.

Watch, I shall bring them back
From the land of the north;
And gather them in from the ends of the earth

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts.
The whole earth is full of God’s glory.


August 2021

1. The past 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? 
* the opening of Tutankhamun’s (King Tut’s) tomb
* the uncovering of 20,000 tablets in the library at Nineveh, the ancient Assyrian capital
* the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls
* the discovery of Hezekiah’s tunnel underground in Jerusalem.

2. At the recent Acton Town Meeting, voters approved funds to assist in the purchase of the historic 51 acre Stonefield Farm in South Acton by the Boston Area Gleaners, a nonprofit food rescue and relief organization. The Gleaners have a very appropriate name. Their mission has deep Biblical roots; in Leviticus 23:22, the Lord says “ shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather up the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger…”.  

Clearly, this is a required act, but to which category of positive deeds does this leaving of gleanings belong? Is this act an example of 1) tikkun olam (repair of the world), 2) gemilut hassadim (acts of loving kindness), or 3) tzedakah (righteousness, justice)? Answer

June 2021

1.  The term “synagogue” comes to us not from Hebrew as you might expect, but from the Greek word “synagein” which means “to bring together”. And for many centuries the synagogue has been at the center of Jewish community life. During the pandemic, we have had to forgo being all together in one physical space and adapt to virtual gatherings. In the months to come, we hope to resume our traditional in-person events and will treasure these occasions that much more. Beth Elohim will again be a space for communal worship, a gathering place to mark life events, and an education and social center. For these and other purposes, Beth Elohim was designed to include a sanctuary, many classrooms, a library, a social hall and a kitchen. In earlier times, we might have added a ritual bath, ovens for baking unleavened bread, or even a lodging house 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 10th 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. “The Holy One, Blessed be He, endowed women with more insight than men”. This quote from the Talmud is very surprising given the male-centered traditions of old. To our contemporary eyes, though, it does show that the sages did indeed have insight into human nature. Their culture did not, however, widely acknowledge women’s accomplishments or central role in society, a condition which has continued up until very recent times. Here are some women with extraordinary insight  and who have made huge contributions to Jewish culture. Please match each with her most notable role in the second group and even name and signal achievement if possible. The women are Henrietta Szold, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Judy Kramer, Golda Meir, and Fannia Cohn. Their roles, not in order, are jurist, labor leader, synagogue president, politician, organizer of an important women’s group.  Answer

May 2021

1.  In mid-May we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot. 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? 

Also, 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.  We all have a sense of how central the Bible is to Judaism and Western civilization. Our ideas of morality, ethics, history and even divinity have been shaped by it. Still it might be surprising just how many of our everyday phrases and common sense sayings are taken directly from the Tanakh. Here are some examples that most of us would not assume came from this source, collected more than two millennia ago. Please match each phrase with its correct Biblical source.
A. - "There is nothing new under the sun."   1. - Isaiah 40:3
B. - "Man does not live by bread alone."     2. - Proverbs 16:18
C. - "A voice crying in the wilderness..."      3. - Deuteronomy 8:3
D. - "Pride goes before a fall."                     4. - Ecclesiastes 1:9


April 2021

1. On a Friday night several years ago, a few of us attended services at the Vilna Shul, a historic Beacon Hill synagogue that has since been restored by an army of young people. On this particular Friday, a lovely young immigrant woman was asked to talk about her life at the conclusion of services. She was an Ethiopian Jew, speaking only halting English, but she captivated the group with her story. Born to Amharic speaking farmers in Ethiopia, she and her parents migrated in the 1990s to Israel.  Coming recently to Boston to study medicine, she had just joined the Vilna Shul congregation, and - at the request of one of the leaders - agreed to tell her amazing story. As you may know, the Ethiopian Jews, call themselves Beta Israel (or "House of Israel") but others refer to them as Falasha ("exiles" or "strangers"), a term that they dislike. Their Jewish and Ethiopian roots go back literally thousands of years, when the Biblical land of Sheba traded regularly with Canaan. Unfortunately, the Ethiopians were cut off from other Jews for many of the intervening centuries, and have evolved a different set of customs as you might expect. Can you guess which of the following holidays are not celebrated by Jews in Ethiopia - Purim, Passover, Chanukah, Sukkoth, Tu B’Shevat? And why? Answer

2.  To many people the first Passover marks the beginning of Jewish history. Three millennia later, there was another very momentous day in Jewish history - May 14, 1948, the day the state of modern Israel was announced. 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 2021, we celebrate it very early, on April 14 – just a few days before Patriot’s Day here in Massachusetts.  This confluence seems especially appropriate; 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) the first attacks by five Arab armies began, 4) the reading of the Scroll of Independence in Tel Aviv, and 5) US recognition of Israel? Answer 

March 2021

1. Just a few short weeks ago the Red Sox team bus began its annual pilgrimage to Fort Myers, Florida, loaded with all the equipment for spring training and the Grapefruit League. Spring brings hope yet again to the legions of dedicated Sox fans. We desperately need it after the Sox finish at the very bottom of the American League East division in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. Last year’s preseason trade of AL MVP Mookie Betts and standout pitcher David Price seemed to revive the dreaded “Curse of the Bambino” that hung over the Red Sox for almost a century. Most Boston fans know that the Bambino, Babe Ruth, arguably the greatest player of all time, was traded by the Red Sox after the 1919 season and went on to a magnificent career with the hated Yankees. Fewer fans are aware that Ruth also finished his playing days here, with the Boston Braves in 1935. His home run records stood for decades afterward and his memorable quotes on the game will last even longer. But how many know that arguably the smartest baseball player also played in Boston? Moe Berg was the son of Jewish immigrants and his career, like Ruth's, was larger than life. What position did Berg play? What Ivy League schools did he attend? What were his other professions? If you don't know the answer to these questions, please find very dedicated, old-time fans and ask them. The amazing story they will tell you is true.   Answer

2. The pandemic is now entering its second year; its damage to human service budgets and stress on the social safety net program is far from over. This is a time to remember those who are especially dependent and vulnerable, not only in our own community but around the world. 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, brides’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

February 2021

1. Last month’s Martin Luther King Day tribute was an inspiring event, with over 300 virtual (Zoom) attendees. We heard from many wonderful local people involved in the pursuit of racial and social justice. This event is an occasion also to honor a truly remarkable man, who spoke so eloquently for justice and offered 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 is indeed a modern day prophet, in the great tradition of Amos and Isaiah. And he also spoke and worked actively for economic justice and it was in this cause that he lost his life, at the hands of sniper in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. Do you know why he was in Memphis at that time? In a very direct way, it involved the City of Memphis. Answer

2.  History, like contemporary life, is really a flow – and not a collection of events fixed at one particular time or another. But on some special occasions, we do feel like we are witnessing history. Recent examples include the Capitol Insurgency on January 6 and Presidential Inauguration two weeks later.  There have many historic days and dates in the long sweep of Jewish history. In the first column below the generally accepted dates of several key dates in Jewish history. Can you associate each of these dates with a key event in the formation of Judaism listed in the second column?

As many of know, years in Jewish history are typically expressed with the designation BCE “Before Common Era” or CE “Common Era” after the year. BCE is equivalent to the more familiar BC (“Before Christ”), and CE is equivalent to AD (“Anno Domini” in Latin meaning Year of the Lord). Thus, the year we are now in can be expressed as 2021 AD or 2021 CE.



1. 920 BCE

A. Codification of the Mishnah  - the Oral Law

2. 722 BCE

B. The destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians

3. 586 BCE

C. The building of the First Temple at Jerusalem in Solomon’s reign

4. 430 BCE

D. The origin of the practice of public Torah reading by Ezra

5. 70 CE

E. The dispersal of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians

6. 200 CE

F. The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans


January 2021

1. This year on the 18th of January Beth Elohim will be the host for a Martin Luther King Day tribute for the 19th consecutive year. In years past, this has been a very lively breakfast gathering, attended by many interested people from Acton and neighboring towns. In these pandemic times, this year’s event must be a Zoom gathering, as we honor one of the most influential Americans and world citizens of the past century. For over five decades, Dr. King’s visions and oratory have inspired the country and fueled the still unfinished civil rights movement. His words struck a very 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 Ku Klux Klan during the hot Mississippi summer of 1964. Black-Jewish relations were never stronger than when Dr. King was the central voice 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
2. This January will also see the Inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris and hopefully this will also mark an end to a chaotic period in American foreign policy – a time characterized by strained relationships with key allies, deference to dictators, and abuse and even cruelty towards refugees and immigrants.  Some of the new administration’s effort will be focused on repairing core multilateral relationships, like the Paris Climate Agreement and the United Nations. Whatever we think of its operations, the United Nations is still an important player 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.  The inscription reads “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 anymore”. These lofty words are found in which book of the Bible a) Isaiah, b) Ecclesiastes, c) Samuel, or d) Ezekiel? Answer