The Two Rabbis of Chelm

As everyone knows, our little town of Chelm has the very wisest sages on Earth. We have more wise men than Warsaw, more sages than Vilna, more men of understanding than the Upper West Side, in short a greater concentration of wisdom than any place at any time since King Solomon reigned in Jerusalem. But unfortunately, our town is so overflowing with wisdom that it sometimes causes us problems. Don't tell anyone I told you, for who am I, Dovid the tailor, to question the doings of the great? But to my way of thinking, the trouble began when Chelm acquired two rabbis instead of one.
We have always had a perfectly good rabbi. No, a wonderful rabbi, Rabbi Itzik himself, the wisest of the wise men of Chelm, as you can tell by his massive white beard which would put a thunderhead to shame. Take the brilliant solution he came up with to the great crisis that broke out last year at Shavuos, the two-day festival of Pentecost. Now, it is well known that the Almighty has commanded that on this holiday every good Jew must eat blintzes, that is, cheese or jam-filled crepes, to celebrate His gift of the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai. Why God should have ordained this is not certain, though blintzes do vaguely resemble miniature Torah scrolls. In any case, these delicacies must be topped with sour cream, as it says in the Torah or the Talmud or somewhere.
The problem last year was that the cows went on strike in the weeks before the holiday, so no sour cream was to be found anywhere in Chelm. Finished. Kaput. The cows' udders remained stubbornly dry, with the holiday starting in two days' time. To meet this challenge a solemn conclave was assembled, consisting of all the wisest of the wise men of Chelm, who, as I think I already made clear, are the wisest of all wise men to be found anywhere in Tsar Putin's domains, if not in the entire universe. They disputed deep into the night as we townspeople waited anxiously. I myself sat sleepless in the window of my little tailor shop, stitching and tearing out and restitching hems on ladies' dresses like some Polish Penelope. Finally, just as the first yellow streaks of light stained the eastern sky, the door to the House of Study creaked open crazily on its single rusted hinge (it had just been installed by Chaimke, our master carpenter) and Rabbi Itzik staggered out and squinted into the light of a dozen torches held aloft by the waiting villagers.
"We have," he croaked, "we have a solution!"
Had King Solomon himself descended on a golden chariot from Heaven to render his judgment, the suspense could not have been greater.
Unfortunately, the rabbi proved unable to offer the benefit of his wisdom without first reciting a torrent of Biblical and Talmudic references in a rapid-fire mumble. The crowd fidgeted and looked at its feet, an action which posed a serious fire hazard, considering all the torches being waved around. At last he came to the point.
"....and so, on the authority of all our revered sages, from Moses to the Baal Shem Tov, we hereby decree that for the length of the Festival of Shavuos, and on all future Shavuoses until the Messiah shall come and redeem the people of Israel: Sour cream shall be known as water, and water, sour cream!!"
There was a gasp as the rabbi's words sank in. Then a mighty cheer went up for our wise Rabbi Itzik, who had once again saved the day! Hats, walking sticks, even torches were flung into the dawn air. The roof of the House of Study had to be hastily extinguished with buckets of "sour cream" from the nearby River Zzyssk, which was found to be miraculously flowing with the stuff. And so, thanks to the renowned wisdom of our elders, we Jews of Chelm were able to celebrate God's gift of the Torah as is fitting and proper, although I'm sorry to say that a few spoiled little brats did complain that their blintzes were soggy, and there was a terrible shortage of "water" until long after the holiday was over.
Unfortunately, of troubles there is no end, as the proverb has it. For just after Passover this year we welcomed the return of a prodigal son: Rabbi Shmuel, formerly Shmuelik son of Meshulam the Shoemaker, who had just been ordained by the great yeshiva of Vilna. Actually, I must admit that he had not, technically, been ordained, if the exact truth be told. His brilliance having proven too great for any of the scholars of that renowned seminary, it had been agreed by all concerned that this prodigy should take up his duties in his hometown at once, after a mere six months of study. Besides, Shmuelik, like all of us in Chelm, is a Galitzianer, and Vilna is the very capital of Litvakdom, and it is well known that your Litvaks and your Galitzianers mix about as well as milk and meat, as oil and water, for the former are cold and cerebral while the latter are warm and passionate but not too strong in the brains department, except of course in Chelm. So our Shmuelik returned home a more or less fully qualified rabbi, and what naches, what pride and joy that gave us all I don't have to tell you, but it did potentially pose a most delicate problem for a little town like ours that boasts just one tumbledown old synagogue, which sits atop a low hill.
And indeed, conflict erupted the very night he returned, at the banquet held in his honor. It was a lovely spring evening, bright and fragrant with lilacs, so naturally the celebratory meal was held in the courtyard of the home of Gimpel the Big Shot, Chelm's richest merchant and leading citizen. We guests were seated around a long wooden table with an excellent view of the wide green Zzyssk flowing lazily along through its tunnel of weeping willows. While we enjoyed this feast for the eyes, our sense of smell was piqued by the steaming plates of brisket which were being carried from the kitchen on the powerful arms of Yitz, Gimpel's oldest boy. He carried his burden with pride, for obviously only the choicest cuts of beef were good enough for Chelm's newest wise man. Behind him strode his twin sister Surele, and as I sipped my wine I thought how this plump and sturdy young redhead would soon make some lucky young man--though not me, alas--a fine bride. She was carrying an enormous platter of tzimmes, a piping hot stew of carrots and sweet potatoes seasoned with honey. Like the rest of us, Shmuelik could feel his mouth watering and wished that Rabbi Itzik, who was seated to his right, would stop babbling in his ear so that we could say the blessing over the bread and start eating. But first there was the hand-washing ritual: a little ceramic pitcher of water painted creamy white and decorated with delicate blue cornflowers was making its way around the table, along with a matching bowl; you poured a little water over each hand, let it drain into the bowl, and said a blessing in the holy tongue. Only once everyone had washed could grace be said.
My turn arrived and I solemnly washed my own hands, handing the pitcher and bowl to Pinya the Philosopher, who was sitting to my right. At first everything seemed fine, but then Pinya froze in contemplation as the water dribbled down his shirtsleeves, soaking the threadbare cuffs of his best holiday shirt. Shmuelik, whose turn it was next, had to seize the pitcher from him by main force. He was just about to wash his hands when he suddenly focused on what Itzik had been saying. What was all this about water, sour cream, sour cream, water?… Suddenly Shmuelik felt his hands go numb, and he dropped the pitcher, which shattered on the floor with a loud crash. Shards flew everywhere, and the new rabbi's good suit pants were instantly soaked from the knees down. He hardly noticed. Leaping to his feet with a violent gesture that sent the matching bowl hurtling down to join its mate, he shouted at the top of his lungs, "Sin! Blasphemy! Oy gevalt!"
There was a shocked silence around the table. Yitz and Surele stood in stunned amazement, the enormous platters of food precariously balanced in their hands. With a mighty leap Shmuelik seized the platter of brisket from Yitz's hands and dashed it to the floor. Several men groaned and Yehuda the caterer put his hands over his face and wept.
"Don't you see?" Shmuelik roared, shaking his fist at the dumbfounded diners. "This meal is treif, unkosher! All the meat dishes in town are treif and have been for a year!"
"But why?" wailed Rabbi Itzik. He loves his brisket.
"Because they were washed in sour cream, you idiot!"
And that is how the mightiest dispute Chelm has ever known broke out. On one side was Rabbi Shmuelik's faction, uncompromising in their zeal, armed with volumes of Jewish religious law that they argued proved their case that all the meat dishes in town had been polluted by constant contact with sour cream and would have to be destroyed. They were like followers of the devout but perhaps overzealous Rabbi Shammai of ancient Israel. On the other side was Rabbi Itzik's faction, our very own version of Rabbi Hillel the Great, who was just as pious as Rabbi Shammai yet more lenient. Rabbi Itzik was backed by the unseen might of all the town's housewives, who were determined not to lose half their kitchenware, and who argued with just as much perspicacity as Shmuelik's followers that all the meat dishes in Chelm had been carefully placed in storage last Shavuos, and once the holiday was over the "sour cream" had of course reverted to being plain water, so how had the dietary laws been violated? And me, you ask, what was my opinion? I am a humble tradesman, not a scholar. I can afford to hold no opinions that might upset a customer.
But it seemed that everyone else in town had a passionately held point of view, and this was truly a problem, even for the great sages of Chelm. Pinya the Philosopher was particularly absorbed. In fact he had not stirred from his chair in Gimpel's courtyard since the disastrous banquet in honor of Rabbi Shmuelik's ordination. He had not spoken a word, so sunk in thought was he, and we all feared to disturb him lest we disrupt the Solomonic solution that was no doubt taking shape in his great mind. Unbeknownst to the rest of us, however, Pinya was not philosophizing about this complicated question of Jewish religious law. His great mind was taken up with the riddle that had arisen in his mind when he saw the way the water drops from the pitcher fell over his hands: If you dropped a pound of feathers and a pound of stones at the same time, which would fall faster?
The Wise Men of Chelm gathered in emergency session at the first light of dawn Friday, and I have to tell you, we simple folk were pretty worried when we saw the wise men in such a state. A town meeting was the obvious solution; the obvious place, the synagogue with its worn-out prayerbooks and smell of dry rot. I helped the other guys shove aside the screen that separates us menfolk from the women during prayers to prevent us from thinking impure thoughts when we are addressing the Holy One, Blessed Be He. We arranged the chairs in a semicircle around the dais where the rabbi and cantor stand during prayers and where the holy Torah is stored in its sacred if crookedly built ark.
Rabbi Itzik pounded on the podium for quiet. Rabbi Shmuelik naturally deferred to his age, but you could see him fidgeting as Rabbi Itzik laid out the case for the kosherness of the meat dishes in his cracked, high-pitched voice. When it was finally his turn to speak, Shmuelik started out calmly enough, but when his mother Baile stood up in the women's section and shook her fist at him, high enough to be seen over the screen, he lost his composure. "People! Jews of Chelm! We face a crisis!" he cried. "We are in a terrible state of sin! Surely if we do not repent by throwing away all our meat dishes, the Adversary will inform the Holy One, Blessed Be He, and then I shudder to think of the consequences!"
Pandemonium ensued. There was shouting and screaming, fingers and even fists were waved, and, I am sorry to say, a chair or two was thrown. Me, I don't like such a commotion, so having nothing better to do I made my way out through the bedlam and moseyed on down to Pinya the Philosopher's house. There I found Pinya himself crouched in the dust, seeming as usual to be totally oblivious to everyone and everything. A true philosopher, indeed. I squatted beside him to get a better look at what he was doing.
"Whatchya doing, Pinya?" No answer. I repeated the question twice. Then I peered more closely and saw that he had set up a crude set of scales using two sticks, some string and a pair of tin buckets that I recognized instantly, for they belonged to Shloime the schlepper, who also served as the town's kosher slaughterer on the rare occasions when anyone had a cow he could afford to sacrifice for the beef. Looking over his shoulder, I saw there was something in each bucket--a huge stone on the left, the weight of which dragged it down into the dust, and a feather pillow on the right, which swung up around Pinya's shoulder level. "They don't balance," he whispered.
"Well, of course not, Pinya." I scratched my head. Pinya's thoughts were just too subtly brilliant for me. "I'm afraid I don't see…" The philosopher looked up at me with a face caked in dust and streaked with tears. "Two more buckets," he whispered. "That's all I need."
"Need for what, Pinya?" He gestured, setting the scales to swinging wildly. "I can't very well use these, now can I? I'd get right in the middle of the dispute between Rabbi Itzik and Rabbi Shmuelik!"
"Dispute?..."
"The very dispute I'm trying to resolve! These scales are reserved for meat, right?" I nodded dumbly. "All I need is another pair of buckets, and another stick, and I can put the sour cream in one, and--and--the other sour cream in the other, balance them here, and solve both problems at once! And, oh yes, I'm going to need all the feather pillows in town to put on the side with that pillow there. Then I'll know for sure whether feathers are lighter than stones, no matter how many of them you have, and whether it is permitted to wash our meat dishes in our special Chelm sour cream!" It sounded brilliant, although I must admit that the logic was a little difficult for me to follow. But then, that's why I'm only an ordinary Chelmsman, and not a true wise man of Chelm.
As I trudged back up the hill toward the synagogue, I could hear raised voices from inside. The door let out a lusty groan as I pushed it slowly open, but while everyone else had left the two men at the center of the dispute didn't hear a thing in the heat of their argument.
"Not kosher! Not kosher!" Shmuelik brayed, thrusting a stiff forefinger in his elder's face. Rabbi Itzik clutched both hands to the white hair that stuck chaotically out from his head, then lifted them in supplication toward the ceiling.
"Sons have I raised and reared, and they have disowned me!" he screeched. "My own, my darling Shmuelik!" and the hands came down and clutched at the red-bearded firebrand's head. "Why don't you just kill me right now, my son! Yes, kill me right now! I--I who married your father Meshulam and your mother Baile, under the wedding canopy in the courtyard of this very synagogue! Yes, kill me"--he reached up with his left hand and scrabbled wildly around on the lectern where the Torah scroll lay when it was read, until he came up with the little metal pointer the reader uses to find his place in the text--"stab me in the heart with the very pointer we use to read from our holy Torah! For surely that would be no greater desecration, no greater disrespect than you have already heaped on my hoary old head…"
At this Shmuelik completely lost his head. "You should be like a chandelier," he roared. "Hang all day and burn all night!"
"And you, may God Himself decide in your favor, and then when you get to heaven, may that day be far off, may He present you with all the juiciest briskets, the tenderest cuts of tongue, melt-in-your-mouth corned beef--and only our Chelm meat plates to eat them on…."
I cleared my throat and the two disputants turned as one to look at me. It's a good thing I knew their argument was a holy dispute, a debate for the sake of Heaven, because otherwise I wouldn't have known what to think about the fact that Rabbi Itzik held in his right hand a great hank of Shmuelik's splendid red hair, which had been torn out by the roots. Quickly I explained to our two rabbis about Pinya's proposed experiment. "All he needs is a pair of milking buckets, really," I concluded.
"Well, we do keep a cow," Shmuelik mumbled.
At this I suddenly felt a rush of boldness, or maybe it was just plain chutzpah. "Would you both agree to abide by the results of Pinya's experiment? Please? For the sake of peace in our town." This was a purely disinterested plea on my part, I must say, for the dispute was actually good for my business. Why, just the day before I had had to mend one of Gimpel's jackets and a pair of Shloime's pants after they got into a knock-down drag-out over the Great Sour Cream debate.
Well, Rabbi Itzik harrumphed and mumbled something about how the great rabbis of the Talmud never settled disputes in this way, and Rabbi Shmuelik grumbled and rubbed his head over the spot where the hair was missing, but the long and the short of it was that they agreed to my proposal! Me, Dovid the tailor! Shmuelik went off and got the milking pails--he still lived with his parents in their tumbledown hut on the outskirts of town, as befits a young man who has yet to marry. Their cow, Esther, was not altogether happy about the loan of her milking pail, as we could tell by the way Shmuelik hobbled upon his return. Meanwhile I charged Shloime the schlepper and Gimpel the Big Shot with gathering up all the feather pillows in town to test Pinya's theory, and in case that wasn't enough weight, all the down quilts, too… Oh, it was an impressive sight, let me tell you, that towering mound of quilts and pillows. Feathers floated through the air, and it looked like Shloime was having a violent sneezing fit--how were we to know he was allergic? But I was proud of our little town and what we could accomplish when we worked together.
Pinya quickly started setting up the second set of scales, with regular sour cream on the one side and Chelm sour cream on the other. A crowd was beginning to gather. Soon the whole village was there watching as Pinya scurried back and forth in the dust, carefully arranging his sticks and his strings and his pails. But no sooner did he have one set of scales all set up and start work on the other than the first set would collapse in a puff of dust and he'd have to scurry back over and start working on it all over again. It was exhausting watching him. But eventually, as the sun neared the western horizon, he was finished. Since he seemed too tired to speak, I asked him if it would be all right if I explained what he was doing to everyone. He nodded wearily and I raised my hand for quiet.
"Ladies and gentlemen," I began, "you all know me, your neighbor Dovid the tailor… I may not be much, but I'm the best tailor this side of Lodz…"
"You're the only tailor this side of Lodz!" someone murmured. I think I know who it was, too, Chaimke the nogoodnik who still owes me two whole rubles for his wedding suit. Someone snickered but I ignored them and laid out the facts as succinctly as I could. Like sewing up a hem and snipping the thread off cleanly, I thought.
"…and so, to resolve this terrible dispute that has torn our town in two, one of the very greatest natural philosophers the world has ever known, namely our very own Pinya, son of Pinchas the goldsmith, of blessed memory…"
Everyone bowed their heads in respect for Pinya's father, who had lost his life in the quest to bottle the gold of the setting sun from the waves of the River Zzzysk. In his zeal to make our synagogue the greatest shining temple to the Lord our God since the destruction of our Temple in Jerusalem, the poor man had forgotten that he couldn't swim.
"Anyway, in short, he has designed an experiment that will resolve the question once and for all, with no more need for harsh words or, uh, physical demonstrations." The two rabbis glanced at each other and looked away, their faces reddening.
Pinya had been at work all through my little talk, pouring a little sour cream into one of the milking buckets and a roughly equal amount of "sour cream" into the other, then scuttling through the dust like a spider to the slaughterhouse buckets to check on the rock in the one (it hadn't moved or changed a bit, as far as his careful inspection could reveal), then scurrying over to the one with the feather pillow in, which he favored with an equally close inspection. Then, very carefully, he reached over to the pile of bedding, pulled out an old patchwork quilt that began to disintegrate at his touch (I recognized the work of my sister Naomi, the town's master seamstress), and placed it carefully atop the feather pillow. When the scales failed to budge, he snatched up someone's navy blue down jacket--one of Gimpel's or Yitz's, it must have been, since no one else in town could afford one--and added that to the feather side of the scale. Still no change. This went on for quite a while, until the original pillow and the entire side of the scale on which it sat was completely buried under what looked like every single comforter and cushion in town. Feathers floated and swirled everywhere, and poor Shloime had to be shlepped away himself, his eyes watering and his nose running.
But Pinya had done it, sort of; the side of the scale where the rock sat now floated free of the ground, if just barely. You could call it balanced with the feather side, if you squinted hard enough that your eyes were almost closed, as Pinya himself was doing, regarding his experiment with such focused concentration I half expected the pillows to burst into flame. The normal noises of our town, the geese clucking and the cows lowing and the children crying, seemed to die down and there was utter silence except for Rabbi Shmuelik murmuring blood-curdling threats about what would happen to Rabbi Itzik's soul in Gehenna and Rabbi Itzik detailing in a whisper the bastardy in Rabbi Shmuelik's family tree.
At that moment, as all creation seemed ready to turn on a pivot, a tiny mew was heard. You could see people craning their necks to see where the sound was coming from. We didn't have to wonder long--a tiny dark gray kitten with white paws came strolling out into the dusty space where Pinya was crouching. She walked right up to him, nosed him and rubbed against him, purring. When he failed to respond, she turned her nose up and started to stalk away. Then something seemed to catch her attention. She froze, her nose still in the air, crouched low, sprang up and leapt into the milking pail where Pinya had placed the (non-Chelm style) sour cream. There was a splattering noise, and white goo flew everywhere. Pinya yelped and made a dive for the kitten, but she was too fast for him, and anyway the scales with the milking pails were upset and collapsed in dusty confusion. One large glob flew free and landed on the quilt that topped the feather pile on the other scale, causing it to tilt ever so slightly downward. Pinya stopped in his tracks and looked on, wide eyed. Then he raised his hands a little shakily and declared:
"Friends and neighbors! Wise men of Chelm! The experiment is concluded!"
"And what are the results, dear Pinya?" I had to ask, when nothing further was forthcoming.
"Ah, well. Everybody here knows how sometimes the Holy One Blessed Be He, in His infinite wisdom, chooses to speak through animals, as He spoke through Balaam's ass in the Bible. So it has been today! He sent a tiny furry creature--but so cute, a real sheine punim, such a beautiful face she had--"
"Get to the point, Pinya!"
"Yes, of course. Sorry. He sent that beautiful little kitten to lap up the regular, non-Chelm sour cream, did He not?"
Murmurs of agreement arose from the crowd.
"And some of the stuff was splattered atop a quilt that rested on many other quilts and pillows that, ultimately, rested on a bucket used to carry cuts of meat, isn't that so?"
More murmurs of agreement. I may have been the only one who saw Rabbi Shmuelik's eyes suddenly narrow.
"Well then. If the Holy One Blessed Be He sees fit to splatter sour cream--regular sour cream--so close to meat utensils, surely He will not mind if we wash such utensils all year round in our special Chelm sour cream, will He? And moreover, He has proven that a pound of feathers is actually heavier than a pound of stones! And, uh--" he stopped a moment to rub his finger over the creamy comforter, then licked the finger and smiled--"tastier too, eh?"
There was a moment's stunned silence while we absorbed the implications of this brilliant piece of Talmudic casuistry. Then all the housewives of the town erupted in cheers, lifted Pinya onto their shoulders and carried him all the through town, singing and chanting. We menfolk stood around, talking in subdued tones. Rabbi Itzik looked at Rabbi Shmuelik and Rabbi Shmuelik looked at Rabbi Itzik. Then the younger man smiled, shrugged and stuck out his hand, which Rabbi Itzik shook with such strength it looked for a moment as though Rabbi Shmuelik was going to lose his balance.
Well, nothing's been normal in our little town ever since then, I don't mind telling you. People keep stopping by my tailor shop to shake my hand and congratulate me on being a real peacemaker, in the fine tradition of Aaron the High Priest. And as for Pinya, Surele has been seen making eyes at him, while some of the menfolk are talking about sending him away to Vilna to be ordained as a rabbi. I hesitate to say anything, but I really hope Pinya doesn't take them seriously. Two rabbis are enough for any town.
Copyright © 2010, Martin Berman-Gorvine.
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Copyright © 2002, Martin Berman-Gorvine