The Wisest Men of Chelm


The Wisest Men of Chelm


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Reb Ehud and the Wise Men of Chelm

By Steven Plaut

who discovered this long missing yiddish tale of the wisest men in the world

In the back country and steppes south of Warsaw, there stood a small stedtel, a little Jewish village, named Chelm. Renown across the Pale, the villagers of Chelm were famous for their sharp wits, their inventive brains, and their capacities for resolving difficult problems. Of the many wise men of Chelm, the wisest of all was the young Rebbe Ehud, who had moved to the town after he had retired from his earlier career as constable for the regional council of Rabbanim. The villagers were all very happy, if impoverished, and spent their lives in quiet contemplation and meditation.

The town was structured around a central square, next to which stood the shul, a small library, a mikveh, the blacksmith, and the home of Reb Ehud himself with his many wise and learned sons. Behind these stood alleys in which the simple menschen of Chelm lived: the tailors, tinkers, peddlers and cobblers, together with their chickens, horses, and milkcows. And at the very edge of the village stood the barn in which visitors could have their carriage horses housed and tended to.

One day, a small cloud of smoke could be seen from the village square, rising above this very same barn. The Rebbetzin ran in to the cheder and grabbed the bell sometimes used by the Rebbe to call the tardy bocherim to study. She rang it as loud as she could and screamed "Fire in the barn, Fire in the barn."

All of the wise villagers of Chelm immediately congregated in the town square. "Quickly, to the barn," called the Rebbe, "Let us put out this fire before it threatens the whole town."

They raced to the edge of town, and there they saw that the entire barn was ablaze. The walls were already collapsing inwards on the handful of poor animals lodged therein. The entire barn floor was covered with dry straw, which caught fire rapidly.

A long sigh arose from the assembled. "No doubt the fire was started by a careless stable boy, smoking a pipe," opined Mendel the cobbler. "Yes," agreed Motke the butcher, "and it was careless to have left so much dry straw lying around. The entire tragedy might have been avoided had we earlier used better judgement." "Never mind that now," said Tevye the foolish milkman, "That is all spilt milk, a matter about which I know a great deal. We still need to do something lest the entire town be engulfed in these flames. They are getting hotter by the minute and will spread destruction."

"You are right," said Reb Ehud, who liked to tell all people they were right even when they disagreed with one another. "What we need to do is to cover these flames quickly with new straw. This will dampen the temperatures in the barn, hide the flames behind new cover, and protect the rest of the town from destruction."

"You are making a Purim spiel, right?" objected Tevye. "That is no solution at all. It will just make things hotter and more destructive."

"Oh you think so, mister chucham gaon?" said Reb Ehud. "SO you do not like my solution? All right then, YOU tell us all how to make the flames disappear and make the barn rematerialize."

"I am afraid there is nothing that can save the barn at this point," answered Tevye reluctantly. "We simply have to write it off as lost. Maybe we were foolish to allow conditions that lead to its catching fire in the first place."

"You are dodging the issue," objected the Rebbe Ehud. "I am waiting to hear how you plan to save the barn from destruction."

"I am afraid there IS no such solution," sighed Tevye. "The village is so poor that we have no fire fighting equipment. There are no hoses in the town that could reach the barn from the well. We could set up a bucket brigade but will not be able to do so in time to prevent the demolishment of the barn. The best we can do is to make sure the situation does not get WORSE. There are other structures in the town in danger of catching fire from these sparks. We need to exert all our efforts in making sure the damage is contained."

"You see," said Reb Ehud. "The big yente Tevye does NOT have a solution to the problem. So we must stop all this chinik hocking and pursue MY solution at once. The current situation is INTOLERABLE!!"

The villagers followed the lead of the Rebbe. They gathered up bundles of dry straw from neighboring shacks and shanties. They tossed them onto the flames of the fire in the barn. It seemed to work, for the flames could no longer be seen below the bundles of dry straw, merely smoldering smoke.

"Hurrah," proclaimed the bocherim from the Rebbe's cheder, "We have succeeded! We must run to the shul and say the birkat hagomel blessing."

"But before they took their leave, new flames suddenly sprung up from the piles of straw they had brought and tossed in to the barn.

"Gevalt," moaned the Rebbe, "you see we did not act quickly and decisively enough. More straw!!"

"Are you entirely meshugana? Are you shikkered ad bli die?" objected Tevye. "Did you not just see that your idea failed? It just made the inferno WORSE! The fire now is even MORE dangerous!"

"What do you know from fighting fires, mister smarty gotkes," replied Reb Ehud. "You already admitted you do not have a better solution, one that would work and save the barn."

Reb Ehud ordered the villagers to double their efforts. They quickly raced to nearby homes and stables and brought out more bundles of straw. They doubled their efforts and redoubled the size of the straw piled into the barn.

The flames disappeared beneath the new fresh straw and Reb Ehud ordered a special celebration, with kiddish wine from the shul's pantry.

But before the bottles could be opened, new flames shot up from the ruins of the barn and the neighboring inn and cottages burst into flames from the flying sparks.

"Faster, you lazy ones," screamed Reb Ehud. "You are not working hard enough to bring straw. We need to try something new now."

Reb Ehud ordered the villagers to take shibboleths of straw and light their ends from the flames and to toss them into alleys and buildings several streets away from the barn. "This will spread the heat around, lowering the temperatures and will result in the fire diminishing and cooling off."

"A complete madman," groaned Tevye incomprehensibly. "Can't you see that everything you did until now just made things WORSE? Now you will create even GREATER destruction!"

"Shah shtil," replied the Rebbe. "We are still waiting to hear YOUR solution for saving the barn and putting out the fires."

"But there IS no solution. I explained this to you. The only thing to be done is to prevent the catastrophe from growing larger."

"Idiot," said the shamash from the shul, agreeing with his Rebbe. "Can't you see the current situation is unbearable. The barn is demolished and more buildings are now in flames. We cannot simply sit back and tolerate the intolerable. If you cannot offer a real solution, then hold your tongue. If not, we will have you imprisoned by the cossacks for criminal incitement and sedition."

New piles of straw were brought in now from every part of the village and tossed upon the flames. The flames leapt from rooftop to rooftop, burning all of the unfortunate fiddlers and chickens up there. Fire crept towards the village square and now threatened to burn the shul and the sacred scrolls.

The villagers saw the damage and broke into collective lamentation, as if it were the nineth day of Av.

"There is still one last chance to save the town from destruction," said the Rebbe. "All is not yet lost if we just fight this catastrophe with all of our beings and all of our souls and all of our strength. SO all of you together now, with every fiber of your being. And you too this time, Tevye. I beseech every one of you:



from the May 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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