The village of Chelm is well known for the unusual ways its people think and the sometimes silly things that result. We’ve all probably heard stories of Chelm and its people, called Chelmites.
Chelm is a Jewish village, a shtetl, located in the countryside of Poland, or maybe it’s Lithuania or Latvia or even Russia. Whatever, Chelm is a small village, and the things that happen there usually aren’t terribly important in the affairs of the world, but they are always interesting. This story is about a rebellion of a group of Chelmites. You won’t find it in history books. It’s not like the American Revolution, but it is important to us.
The trouble started when the Prince of that part of the country invited everyone in the area to come to a festival to celebrate his wife’s fiftieth birthday. The Prince had never thrown any kind of party for his people before. In fact, he had never really done anything for his people. He collected taxes and pretty much ignored them.
The Prince scheduled the party for a Saturday morning and afternoon. Of course, Saturday is the Jewish Shabbat, but the Prince and his advisors never thought of that. They didn’t think much of Jews at all, except how much taxes they could pay, and the Jews in the Prince’s area were poor. The Prince and his advisors didn’t expect any Jews to come. In fact, they really didn’t want any Jews there, and if they thought the Jews would actually come, they would have told them not to bother showing up.
But some Jews in Chelm really wanted to attend the party. They had worked hard and paid taxes all these years. Now they wanted to enjoy something for all the money they had paid the Prince. They talked about it among themselves at shul the next Shabbat.
“But the party is on Shabbat. We can’t go,” declared the rabbi.
“What’s the big deal about one Shabbat? We’re just talking about one Shabbat. This only happens once in a lifetime,” insisted Fieval, the loudmouthed baker who thought he was so smart, especially when it came to business.
“No. The Torah is very clear. Adonai gave Shabbat to the Jews as a special trust. It is more special than any party that the Prince gives. What has the Prince ever done for us? But think of everything Adonai has done for us and does for us every day. No. Jews from Chelm can’t go to a party on Shabbat,” the rabbi said adamantly. He thought that was the end of it.
Fieval and a few others wandered away grumbling among themselves. “Why does he always have to make the rules? Who made him the boss, anyway?” griped Fieval.
“Yeah,” added Shmul, a poor farmer. “Remember when we wanted to hold off my son’s bris for a week until my uncle could get here? He was rich and would have brought wonderful gifts. But no, the rabbi insisted that the rules said the bris must be held in eight days. No waiting.”
“And what about the time I discovered the kosher pig?” chimed in Morris, the butcher. “We could have all gotten rich raising kosher pigs. As usual, the rabbi stopped us because it didn’t meet all the complicated rules in the Torah.”
Before long, a lot of Chelmites were thinking about all the things the rabbi had stopped them from doing. Fieval was happy to stir up their anger because he still wanted to go to the Prince’s party. “If I were in charge, things would be different around here,” he declared. They decided to call a meeting and confront the rabbi.
The rabbi came to a special meeting at the shul, called by Fieval, Shmul, Morris, and some others. He was surprised to see, maybe, a third of the town there. “Who are you to make all these rules and tell us what we can and can’t do?” shouted Fieval.
The others chimed in: “Who made you the boss?” “Why should we listen to you?” “What makes you think you’re so smart?”
“Listen, I don’t make any rules. Adonai made the rules and wrote them down in the Torah. We all read the Torah every week. You know as well as I do what God’s rules are. The Torah teaches us how to behave as Jews. I have never told you to do anything that wasn’t in the Torah,” protested the rabbi.
The rebellious Chelmites wouldn’t listen to reason. They shouted down the rabbi. Fieval jumped up on a table. “That’s right. I can read the Torah as well as you. From now on I’m going to make the rules. And the first one is that we can take one day off from Shabbat and go to the Prince’s party,” he shouted. The people stormed out of the shul.
“You’re making a terrible mistake,” the rabbi cried out after them, but they didn’t hear or wouldn’t listen or didn’t care. He trudged home, afraid of what God might do.
“What should I do?” the rabbi asked his wife when he got home and told her what had happened.
“Ask Adonai, just like Moses did when Korach and Dathan and other Israelites rose up against Moses in the desert,” she suggested.
“Adonai talks to Moses. Adonai doesn’t talk to me except through the Torah,” said the rabbi, worried and afraid.
“Pray to God. You’ll get an answer,” insisted the rabbi’s wife. So, that night the rabbi prayed harder than ever before.
In the morning, he confessed to his wife: “I prayed to Adonai for advice, but I didn’t get any. Not a word. Not even a dream like Joseph. Adonai didn’t tell me what to do.”
“Sure Adonai did. You prayed to Adonai and heard nothing. That means God wants you to do nothing. So, do nothing. Things will work out, baruch Hashem. You’ll see,” she said, triumphantly.
“You really think so? Maybe you’re right. What other choice do I have?” the rabbi replied. He decided to let things take their course. It didn’t take long.
First, Fieval appointed Morris the butcher to be his assistant. Morris declared that instead of going to Shabbat services, all the Jews had to do was bring animals to the shul for sacrifices every now and then just like Jews did in the Temple in the old days. “This is what it says in the Torah,” Morris insisted. The other Chelmites weren’t so sure, but if it meant that they could skip services some days, they might give it a try.
The butcher brought his knives into the little shul, but thing went wrong from the start. Someone brought an old bull who didn’t like being disturbed. The bull kicked and charged and it took 10 Chelmites to drag the animal out before it destroyed the place. They tried a sheep next, but thing quickly got out of hand. They lit a fire as part of the preparations for the sacrifice, however, the little shul quickly filled up with smoke. Everyone ran out coughing and choking. Luckily, they didn’t burn the place down.
Then some of the people decided that they didn’t have to bother with Shabbat at all. Fieval, the baker who thought he was so smart at business, planned to open his shop and work on Shabbat, thinking he’d make more money. Of course, the people of Chelm—who were his only customers¾ didn’t buy any more bread just because the baker was open an extra day. “Fieval, this is dumb,” said his wife. “Now you work seven days a week and you don’t have any more money to show for it. In fact, we have less money because it costs us money to open for an extra day and we don’t sell anymore bread.”
Shmul wanted to try some non-kosher foods. “None of these rules about kashrut are in the Torah,” he pointed out. “It is all something the rabbis made up later on.” So Shmul and some other families decided to try some non-kosher foods. Of course, they didn’t know how to prepare some of those foods. Pretty soon, they all got stomach aches. Shmul could only lie on his bed with a bucket next to it. “I’m going to throw up,” he moaned.
Things weren’t going well at all and people were grumbling about their new leaders; Fieval, Morris, and Shmul. But there was still the Prince’s party, and a group of the most rebellious Chelmites decided to go. They got into their very best clothes—the clothes they saved only for weddings—and headed out.
When they arrived where the party was being held, everyone was shocked into silence by the appearance of a wagon full of Jews. The Prince was particularly dismayed to have these unwelcome guests at his wife’s party, but he was very clever, which is how he managed to last so long as prince. An idea popped into this head. “Welcome, Jews,” he greeted them. “We never realized that you were doing so well that you could afford to take a day off from work and come to our party.”
Morris suddenly realized that they had made a big mistake by coming. “I wish I was home at Shabbat services,” he whispered to Fieval and Shmul.
“Since you are here, and dressed so beautifully too,” the Prince continued, “then it must mean that you can pay more in taxes.” He called to his tax collector. “Take down the names of these people and increase their taxes 20 percent.” Fieval, Morris, Shmul, and the others felt sick. How could they ever afford the extra taxes?
The rebellious Chelmites returned to Chelm much sooner than anyone had expected. When the other Chelmites heard the news, they abandoned their new leaders completely and marched over to the rabbi. “We’re sorry,” they said. “You were right. You know what is best.”
“Everything I know comes from Adonai and is in the Torah and Talmud. Come, it is still Shabbat. Let’s go back to the shul and study Torah some more and finish up with Mincha and Maariv, the afternoon and evening services,” suggested the rabbi. And that is exactly what the people of Chelm did. The Chelmite rebellion was over and no one talked about it again.