How tragic that the pious, vibrant world of Chelm is interred beneath a mythical mountain of jokes.
MYTHICAL CHELM’S LESSON
The story goes that Chelm was a regular town until the malach that dishes out souls once winged overhead hauling a sack of foolish souls. The sack ripped on a sharp mountain, the souls plunged down and the town was never the same since.
When the time came to build a shul, the locals chopped down trees on the mountain and hauled them down by cart.
“Why didn’t you roll them down?” scoffed a stranger.
Always heedful of advice, the Chelmers promptly dragged the logs back up and rolled them down again. When the mountain blocked their sun, the whole populace pushed at it for a few hours and rejoiced at their success when they saw that the pile of coats heaped behind them had disappeared in the distance. Actually, a thief had purloined them.
In the new shul, the pushka hung from the ceiling as a precaution against more theft, but a ladder led up to it so that people could drop in their coins. To wake people in the morning, the old gabbai rapped at their shutters that were piled in his house to save him the trouble of shlepping through the streets. In his younger years, four people used to carry him on a door during his rounds to keep his feet clean from the muddy alleys.
The fools of Chelm are different from regular fools in that their foolishness often stems not from lack of intelligence but, on the contrary, from being uber chachamim. Their attempts to cover all the bases end up in futility. Thus, perhaps the lesson of Chelm is the warning of Kohelles, Al techkam harbei – “Don’t be too clever!”
Why did East European Jews choose Chelm as a butt of for their humor? According to one source, like much other East European humor, the Chelm jokes were rooted in tragedy.
The story begins with an Easter Church procession in 5340/1580. Fired with religious fervor, the citizen Timosh and other ruffians attacked the Jewish kehilla while they were in the middle of Pesach davening, breaking the shul door, damaging the roof, wounding four people, and causing 2.000 zloty (golden ducats) of damage. Some of the terrified Jews barricaded themselves on the shul roof with shutters to save themselves.
Afterwards, people joked that Chelmers install shutters on their roofs instead of in their windows, and the Chelm reputation was sealed forever.
According to another theory, people picked on Chelm for joking because in Slavic a fool is a cholem.
However, the most likely explanation is that people picked on Chelm for the same reason the ancient Greeks picked on Abdera, a village outside Athens to poke fun at, and the Syrians picked on Sidon, and the English picked on the village of Gotham, and the Dutch picked on Compen, and the Arabs picked on Chevron.
England had a number of other such towns including Belmont, Kogeshall, and three villages, all called Ustwick. Germany’s fool towns including Teterov, Shefenshtedt in Brunshveig, Pirna, Iglav and Shilburg. 5357/1597 saw the publishing of a Yiddish book titled, “Shilberg, a Short History.” In later years, this translation of a German book published 39 years earlier provided raw material for the Chelm tales.
When did the Chelm stories begin? No one knows. The first time any appeared in print was when a 32 page book was printed in Vilna in 5647/1867 containing a chapter titled “the Wisdom and Witticism of a Certain Town Ch.” Since then, the collection has been growing larger by the decade.
THE REAL CHELM
The first thing to make clear is that the mystical Chelm is based not on the Lithuanian Kelm that housed the mussar movement’s Talmud Torah of Kelm, but on the Chelm of Poland that lies near the Russian border, 40 miles south-east of Lublin.
The first Jews arrived in Chelm in about 5060/1300 to do business with traders passing through along international trading routes between the Black and Baltic seas. The town’s first recorded leader was Rav Yehuda Aharon who was the official tax farmer of the whole district, and was appointed head of the United Jewish Council of the Lublin, Chelm and Belz districts in 5280/1520. Thirty years later, the town had 371 Jews, at a time when even the capital city of Cracow only had 1,800 Jews.
By this time, Chelm had its own yeshiva and was headed by prominent rabbonim and talmidei chachamim. In general, the rabbonim and roshei yeshiva of Chelm came from and left to serve in important and large Polish kehillos.
One of these leaders was Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem, a talmid of the Maharshal, and the grandfather of the Chacham Tzvi. Rav Tzvi’s son, Rav Yaakov Emden, mentions, “The Baal Shem made a golem to serve the Baal Shem, but the golem did not speak.”
Before his death in 5343/1583, the Baal Shem ordered that instead of placing a headstone on his grave, the people should throw a heap of stones over it. Until World War II, Jews entering the local cemetery would point to a small hill inside and say, “This is the kever of Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem.”
Rav Shmuel Eidels, the Maharsha, moved to Chelm for ten years at the beginning of the 17th century before moving on to Lublin and Ostrog. About a century later, the Rav of Chelm was Rav Yitzchok HaLevy, brother of Rav Dovid HaLevy – the Taz. A famous long-time rav of Chelm in the last half of the 18th century was Rav Shlomo Chelmer, author of the “Markeves HaMishna,”who was born in Zamosc. He passed away in Salonika.
The Chelm Jews were massacred twice around Ta”ch and Ta”t, once in 5408/1648 when about 400 Jews died, and again seven years later in about 5415/1655. When Jews returned and tried to get back their land, local Dominican priests who had seized it for themselves refused to hand it back and the local legislature backed them up. This was common at the time.
The Church had various ways of raising money in those times. First, when a Jew bought a field from a gentile who had been faithfully giving tithes from his produce to the Church, the Jew had to continue paying these tithes to save the Church from suffering a loss.
Also, instead of openly extorting money from Jews, the Church often disguised the extortion in the form of non-existent loans. For example, during the 17th century we find Itska and Zusman Levkovitsh, two leaders of the Chelm community, borrowing 1,000 zlotys from the priest of Dubno under the terms of paying him 10% a year during his lifetime and 8% after his death “forever.” As no repayment of principle is mentioned in the document, this may be a non-existent extortion “loan” of this kind.
WHEN POLAND WAS CARVED UP
Few people know that following the United States of America in 5547/1787, Poland was the second country in the world to enact a constitution granting civil rights. This happened on May 3rd 5541/1791, a day which has been revived as a public holiday in modern Poland. Influenced by the Enlightenment, the last king of Poland, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, spent years developing this constitution.
Included in the king’s reforms was the setting up of a Commission of National Education, the first ministry of education in the world. Most importantly for the Jews, while the constitution made Roman Catholicism the dominant religion, it granted tolerance and freedom to all religions.
Actually, these humane enactments were a grave danger for the Jews because the Jews most eager for change were modern minded adherents of the “Enlightenment,” who began contacting the government to discuss how to create a new Jew in the new Poland.
Few rabbonim got actively involved. One exception was Rav Hirsh (ben Yosef) Yazefovyth of Chelm who went out and fought the enlightened Jews on their own turf, writing a pamphlet entitled, “Passing Thoughts about the Way to Make Polish Jews Productive Citizens for the Nation” and holding dialogue with Polish officials. In his pamphlet’s pages, he opposed the Jewish reformers’ plans to abolish Jewish dress, set up secular schools, and limit Jewish autonomy, pointing out that this would wreak havoc on Jewish life.
What happened in the end?
The Polish reforms were opposed not only by many Polish nobles, but also by Catherine the Great of Russia and King Frederick of Prussia for many reasons, including the threat to the privilege of royal power. As a Prussian leader put it: “The Poles have given the coupe de grace to the Prussian monarchy by voting a constitution.”
Traitorous Polish nobles invited Russia to invade Poland and crush the king’s plans by force, hypocritically announcing to the people that, “The intentions of Her Highness the Empress of Russia Catherine the Great, ally of the Polish Commonwealth, in introducing her army, are and have been none other than to restore to the Commonwealth and to Poles freedom, and in particular to all the country’s citizens, security and happiness.”
All this caused the Second and Third partitions of Poland between Russia, Prussia and Austria, and by 5555/1795, Poland and her new constitution ceased to exist.
By the outbreak of World War II, Chelm had about 15,000 Jews including refugees. As a refugee wrote, “The town is beleaguered by wanderers… they wait outside the bakeries and food stores. thousands of wanderers with starving faces and dry, cracked lips.”
Tragically, the Rav of Chelm, a leading talmid chochom, was killed by the Nazis during World War II. Few Jews survived after the final actions of December 5702/1942 among them skilled workers, and even they were doomed. In mid-1942, Nazis in Chelm had complained that, “The deportation of Jewish workers seriously affected the number of qualified metal workers for military production and for the railroad workshops in Khelm, which currently employ 158 Jewish specialists. Stop their deportation, unless they can be replaced.”
However, they were informed that Germany’s “political goals” (destroying Jews) were more important. The qualified workers had to go!
Although the Chelm district, which lies right on the Eastern border next to Russia, was the first Polish district liberated from the Nazis (in 5704/1944), it was too late. Most Chelm Jews had been murdered in the nearby Sobibor Extermination Camp and the Jews who struggled back were greeted with hatred.
How tragic that the true Chelm legacy is almost forgotten under a mound of jokes.
(Main source: Yisker-bukh Chelm. Editors: M. Bakalczuk-Felin, Johannesburg, Former Residents of Chelm. Published in Johannesburg, 1954)