An illustration by Viktoria Efremova for an edition of Isaac Bashevis Singer's "The Wise Men of Chelm and the Foolish Carp." (Green Bean Books)

The Wise Men of Chelm

A roundup of the best Chelm stories.

Chelm is an actual town in southeastern Poland, but in Jewish folklore it is an imaginary city inhabited by fools who imagine they are actually wise men. In a typical Chelm story, the people are presented with some difficulty and wind up settling on the dumbest solution imaginable.

Tales of the wise men of Chelm have entertained Jewish readers for generations and are among the best-known folk tales of Eastern European Jewry. Below are a sampling of some well-known Chelm stories.

Looking for more Chelm stories? We recommend the following collections:

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.

The Ox Ate My Sermon

The maggid [preacher] of Chelm was returning home from a neighboring village where he had just preached a sermon. On the way he was overtaken by a farmer whose wagon was piled high with hay.

“May I offer you a ride?” asked the peasant courteously.

“Thank you,” replied the maggid, climbing aboard the wagon. It was a warm, sunny day and soon the preacher fell fast asleep. But when he arrived in Chelm he could not find his notebook, in which he kept his themes and parables.

“I must have lost it in the hay!” cried the maggid, greatly distressed. “Now some cow or goat or ass will eat it and become familiar with all my best sermons!”

The next evening, at the synagogue, he strode to the bimah [pulpit] and glared at the congregation.

“Fellow citizens of Chelm,” he proclaimed, “I have lost my notebook in a load of fodder. I want you to know that if some dumb ox or ass ever comes to this town to preach, the sermon will be mine, not his!”

Legally Friendly

The rabbi was deeply worried. For weeks no one had come to him to judge a case and, being a poor man, he was desperately in need of the fees usually paid for his services.

One day, as he was standing at his window, wondering when he would get his next case, he saw Itzig the butcher and Shloime the baker in what appeared to be a sharp dispute. As they passed by they were waving their arms in emphatic gestures, and talking loudly and excitedly.

“Aha! A couple of litigants!” He threw open the window and called to them, “Let me adjudicate your dispute.”

“Dispute? Who’s having a dispute?” answered Itzig.

“We were just having a friendly discussion,” agreed Shloime.

“Fine!” replied the quick-thinking rabbi. “Just step right into the house and, for a very small charge, I’ll make out a certificate that you have nothing against each other!”

Credit Where Credit Is Due

The melamed [schoolteacher] and the rabbi of Chelm were in a coffee house where they were discussing the economy of the town and how to improve it.

“There is one thing that depresses me,” sighed the melamed, “and that is the injustice accorded to the poor. The rich, who have more money than they need, can buy on credit. But the poor, who haven’t two coins to knock together, have to pay cash for everything. Do you call that fair?”

“I don’t see how it could be any other way,” answered the rabbi.

“But it’s only common sense that it should be the other way around,” insisted the melamed. “The rich, who have money, should pay cash and the poor should be able to buy on credit.”

“I admire your idealistic nature,” said the rabbi, “but a merchant who extends credit to the poor instead of the rich will soon become a poor man himself.”

“So what?” retorted the melamed. “Then he’d be able to buy on credit, too!”

The Fire

A fire broke out one night in the city of Chelm and all the inhabitants rushed to the fiercely burning building to extinguish the blaze. When the conflagration had been put out, the rabbi mounted a table and addressed the citizens:

“My friends, this fire was a miracle sent from heaven above.”

There were murmurs of surprise in the crowd, and the rabbi hastened to explain.

“Look at it this way,” he said. “If it were not for the bright flames, how would we have been able to see how to put the fire out on such a dark night?”

Reprinted with permission from The Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor, compiled and edited by Henry D. Spalding (Jonathan David Publishers).

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