In Jewish collective memory, the name “Chelm” conjures up images of the so-called wise men of this imaginary city of fools. Scholars have noted that many of the tales of the wise men of Chelm also poke fun at the casuistry of talmudic study or the minutae of Jewish law. In this sense, the tales are a comedic self-critique of the hallowed Jewish practice of studying Torah.
For instance: A Chelmite bought a fresh fish on Friday in honour of Sabbath. He put the live fish in his coat pocket, and the fish slapped his face with his tail. The man took the offending fish to the Chelm rabbinical court, and the learned court sentenced the fish to death by drowning.
The genre is not unique to Jewish folklore; other traditions also relate tales of legendary towns of fools. In fact, scholars have pointed out that the tales recounted about the wise men of Chelm often have parallels in Germanic cultures. The first publication in Yiddish of Chelm-like stories dates back to 1597 … though the town’s name is Schildbürger, not Chelm.
When and why Chelm was chosen is truly a mystery … and from the perspective of Chelmites: rather unfair!
Indeed, Chelm has other claims to fame besides its “wise men.” From the perspective of the history of Hasidism, Chelm was the home to the hasidic master Rabbi Natan Neta Tenenbaum (d. 1812) – or Nussen Nuta, as he would have been known.
Rabbi Nussen Nuta was linked to the great hasidic masters of his day: Rabbi Elimelekh of Leżajsk (1717-1787), Rabbi Mordekhai of Niesuchojeże (1752-1800), Rabbi Barukh of Międzybóż (1753-1811), and the Hozeh of Lublin (1745-1815). He began his career in Włodawa, before moving some 45 km south to Chełm.
Manuscripts of Rabbi Nussen Nuta’s teachings were destroyed by a fire in Chelm, though a sole manuscript of his teachings survived in the hands of Rabbi Shlomo Leib of Łęczna (1778-1843). The manuscript covers teachings from one period that spans just over six months. It was only in 1891 – almost eighty years after the demise of the author – that this manuscript was finally published by a descendant of Rabbi Nussen Nuta.
The thin volume was entitled Neta Sha‘ashu‘im – a biblical phrase that may be translated as “a beloved sapling.” The phrase is used metaphorically to refer to precious people, who are lovingly tended (see Isaiah 5:7). The phrase appears once in the Bible, but by 1891 had already been used by poets and as titles for other books; particularly if the author’s name was “Neta.”
Since 1891, Neta Sha‘ashu‘im has been reprinted twice – in 1966 a photo-offset edition with an account of the author’s life, and in 2005 newly typeset edition with indices. Alas, the work remains virtually unknown. Indeed, on the flyleaf of Gershom Scholem’s copy held in the National Library of Israel, there is a handwritten note mentioning the rarity of the volume.
Given its slender nature and its rarity, Neta Sha‘ashu‘im is rarely cited and scholars have barely analysed the work. In his 1994 book, the historian and scholar of Hasidism Mendel Piekarz (1922-2011), offered an analysis of Neta Sha‘ashu‘im and recalled some of the biographic or hagiographic accounts of the author (Bein ideologiya lemetziut, pp. 128-130, 283-294).
Piekarz raised the possibility that Rabbi Nussen Nuta was a controversial character, and he explicated a few radical passages from Neta Sha‘ashu‘im. Piekarz, however, acknowledged that we have precious little reliable material to offer a full portrait of this hasidic master.
Piekarz’s exploration was part of a call to explore the beshadowed corners of Hasidism. In a witty play on the title of Rabbi Nussen Nuta’s work, Piekarz said it was not enough to hear the song of the trees of the forest, we should also listen to the murmur of the shrubbery undergrowth … including this precious sapling; that is, Neta Sha‘ashu‘im.
This is not the forum for a full analysis of Rabbi Nussen Nuta’s life, legacy, and teachings. Let me just recount one idea from his surviving teachings. When Abraham argued with the Almighty in a bid to spare the doomed cities of Sodom and Gomorrah he proposed that “perhaps there are fifty righteous people in the city,” and in their merit the cities should not be destroyed (Genesis 18:24). In a succint passage, Rabbi Nussen Nuta highlighted that Abraham had sought righteous people who were “in the city”: Even if these people are not constantly sitting in the beit midrash (study hall), rather they are busy with everyday dealings – they still can be considered righteous!
Thus Rabbi Nussen Nuta suggested that the yardstick for righteousness should not be whether or not a person is constantly in the beit midrash: People may be righteous, even if they are not dedicating their entire day to study. Presumably the converse is also true: Even if a person is always in the beit midrash, this does not guarantee that the person will be righteous!
It might be impossible to recast the connotation of “Chelm” in popular memory, but it would be a shame to forget the truly wise people of Chelm: the hasidic masters Rabbi Nussen Nuta who presided in the city, and the laypeople who piously went about their business – the real righteous people of Chelm.