The village of Chelm, as everybody knows, is a Jewish shetl somewhere around Poland or maybe it’s around Latvia someplace. The people of Chelm wanted to be good Jews, but sometimes it was hard work. Sometimes the people get confused.
Now, there are people today who think that the villagers of Chelm are stupid but that’s not the case at all. They just think differently than you and me. Take something as simple as the 10 commandments. Can you count to 10? Sure. So you know there are 10 commandments. Well, many people in Chelm think there are 11 commandments. Why? Because they count the commandment to honor your father and mother as two commandments: honor your father and honor your mother. But that’s another story.
If they couldn’t keep the number of commandments straight, just think how hard it is for them to keep kosher. Keeping kosher isn’t all that easy. It was meant that Jews think about the Torah and commandments every day, all day long. And what better way to remind Jews of the Torah than whenever they eat a meal or a snack. You’re supposed to think about keeping kosher, which gets you thinking about the Torah, which reminds you that you’re Jewish every time you eat.
Well, we know that the people of Chelm think differently than most of us so you can imagine how hard keeping kosher is for them. Now it shouldn’t be so hard. The Torah lists all the foods that a Jew can eat and the foods that a Jew can’t eat. And, if you encounter a new animal, it gives you ways to tell if it is all right to eat. If it is a fish in the water, you can look to see if it has fins and scales. If it is an animal, you can see if it has split hooves and chews its cud. Even if it is a bug–now I personally wouldn’t want to eat bugs, even if they were covered in chocolate, but you never know when you might get very hungry and bugs are the only things around. For bugs the Torah tells us to check that they have legs jointed above the knees and they have no more than four legs and they jump. This sounds straightforward enough to you and me, but it wasn’t for the people of Chelm.
So every time they wanted to eat something different they ran to the rabbi and asked if it was kosher. The rabbi and his wife had come from another town, where the people didn’t find the rules of keeping kosher terribly difficult. But that wasn’t the case in Chelm.
Mendel, for instance, was in the woods one day and caught a raven. “Rabbi, rabbi,” yelled Mendel as he ran through town to the rabbi’s house carrying the raven. “Is this kosher?” The rabbi checked the Torah and shook his head, “Sorry Mendel, this isn’t kosher.” Everybody in town would bring whatever they thought they could eat to the rabbi and check with him first. That’s how the people of Chelm kept kosher.
One day Schmuel bought a new cow. Well, everybody knows that cows are kosher. Schmuel didn’t even want to eat the cow. He wanted it for milk. But Schmuel still wanted to know if it was kosher, just in case. He brought the cow to the rabbi’s house and asked. The rabbi didn’t even have to check the Torah. “Of course it’s kosher. It’s a cow,” said the rabbi, who was getting a little annoyed. The cow dropped some cow manure on the path to the rabbi’s door as Schmuel led it away.
When the rabbi’s wife returned from town, she stepped in it and slipped. Needless to say, she was very unhappy. “In other villages, people know what is kosher. They don’t drag every animal in the village to the rabbi’s house,” she complained.
A few days later, Sarah was fetching water from the lake when a big, fat frog jumped into her bucket. She rushed to the rabbi’s house. “Is this kosher?” she asked, taking it out the bucket. Of course, wet frogs are very slippery and it slipped out of her hand and started hopping all around the rabbi’s house.
The rabbi, Sarah, and the rabbi’s wife madly tried to catch it. The frog leaped here and then there. They ran around after it, but it kept jumping just out of their reach. The rabbi’s wife grabbed a broom and tried to hit it. Sarah threw the bucket at it, trying to catch it. Things were getting knocked over. Some nice china got a little chipped. OK, some even was broken.
Finally, the rabbi trapped it in the sink. He saw it was a frog, checked in the Torah, and said, “Sorry, this is not kosher.”
“This is the last time!” screamed the rabbi’s wife. The villagers were sorry about the mess they had made and decided to come up with a new plan for how to keep kosher. “Let’s check the Torah for ourselves,” said one villager. So, whenever they had a question, they brought the animal to the synagogue where they could take the Torah from the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark, and check for themselves, but the animals started making a mess of the synagogue. People tried to daven or study Torah, but they were always being interrupted by animals. The noise, the smell, the dirt, the disruption; the animals had to go.
Then Hymie had an idea: “Let’s just ask the animals themselves.” Well, one small girl had the gift of being able to talk with animals. But when she asked an animal if it was kosher, what do you think it said? Every animal said, “No, I’m not kosher. Sorry.” Even the ones that were kosher said that. They didn’t want to be eaten any more than you would.
“The Torah must have an answer to this problem,” suggested Gittel. The villagers poured over the Torah and, sure enough, they found the answer. It was right in Beresheit, in the story of Noah. “We’ll build an ark,” they declared. In the ark, they would keep two of every kind of kosher animal, bird, and fish–which they would keep in bathtubs–and even bugs. Then, when they needed to know if an animal was kosher, they would just come to the ark and check.
Well, we won’t go into how they managed to build the ark. That too is another story. But finally they got it done. And they used it every day.
You may think it is a complicated solution to a simple problem, but it worked out even better than expected. The kosher animal ark became a curiosity for miles around, and people would flock to the village to see it. The villagers charged an admission fee and soon Chelm became quite wealthy. They gave a lot of tzdukkah and did many good things with their money while continuing to live in their simple way.