The Sages of Chelm

How clever they are!

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Sages? Chelm, a real Polish town, was in Jewish folklore inhabited by fools whose antics kept Jews amused for generations. When presented with some difficulty these "sages" of Chelm think, they think some more, and they cook up the dumbest solution imaginable. How unlike Jews these Chelmites seem: an entire town of bumblers, not so much the People of the Book but the People of the Ridiculous Proposition. Read on and see how they make life ridiculous for themselves. The following selections are reprinted with permission from the Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor, compiled and edited by Henry D. Spalding (Jonathan David Publishers).

It's the Pits

A group of citizens in the town of Chelm were busily engaged in digging a foundation for the new synagogue, when a disturbing thought occurred to one of the laborers.

"What are we going to do with all this earth we're digging up?" he asked. "We certainly can't just leave it here where our temple will be built."

There was a hubbub of excitement as the men rested on their spades and pondered the question. Suggestions were made and just as quickly rejected.

Suddenly one of the Chelmites smiled and held his hand up for silence. "I have the solution," he proclaimed. "We will make a deep pit, and into it we'll shovel all this earth we're digging up for the synagogue!"

A round of applause greeted this proposal, until another Chelmite raised his voice in protest. "That won't work at all! What will we do with the earth from the pit?"

There was a stunned silence as the men tried to cope with this new problem, but the first Chelmite soon provided the answer.

"It is all very simple," he said. "We'll dig another pit, and into that one we'll shovel all the earth we're digging now, and all the earth we take out of the first pit. The only thing we must be careful about is to make the second pit twice as large as the first one."

There was no arguing with this example of Chelmic wisdom, and the workers returned to their digging.

Just out of Reach

Everyone in Chelm was scandalized: A thief had broken into the synagogue and made off with the poorbox. The Council of Seven immediately convened, and after some deliberation they arrived at a unanimous decision: A new poorbox would be installed, but suspended close to the ceiling so that no thief would ever be able to reach it.

But the moment the shammes [synagogue caretaker] heard about the decision he raised a new problem. "It is true that the box will be safe from thieves," he declared, "but it will also be out of reach of the charitable."

The Council of Seven held another hurried meeting, and once again the wisdom of Chelm prevailed. It was decreed that a stairway be built to the poorbox so that the charitable might easily reach it.

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