Funny Hanukkah Story -- Chanukah in Chelm

It is the first night of Chanukah and the candles for the first night are to be lit in the Great Synagogue of Chelm, (sometimes referred to as the Great Old New Synagogue of Chelm - established "some time ago"). The spiritual leader of the shul was Rav Shmerel, a wise elder rabbi of Chelm with a long white beard and a high forehead hidden in a furry shtreimels with his mind engaged in much thinking about Talmudic subtlties.

Rav Shmerel busied himself preparing the traditional menorah for lighting. He took out the menorah and set it on a table by the window overlooking the market. It was a beautiful large silver filigree affair with eight branches plus the shamash. The Rav made some oil wicks from new linen and put one in the shamash and one in the right-most cup. He looked around for olive oil to fill the cups. There was none. He called to Mendel, the gabbai, to bring him some olive oil.

Mendel replied, “Sadly Rav Shmerel, there is no oil at all in the synagogue. I don’t know where we could find some.” The Rav, tut-tutted for a moment, and looked around to the congregants. Their faces were full of disbelief. The first night of Chanukah without candle lighting. It could not be possible. What should be done? Rav Shmerel addresses all the congregants and ask that they go out and try to find some olive oil to light the menorah.

Berel and Menachem decided to look for lamp oil in North Chelm. Berel was a nebbish sort of fellow who was in charge of the community goat. Menachem, on the other hand, was a bit of a schlemiel. While walking through the town they noticed that the Chelm cinema was having a special Christmas eve double bill “The Rocky Hora Picture Show” and “The Wizard Of Oys”. As they walked along Menachem told Berel the story of the miracle in the days of the Holy Temple, Beit HaMikdash, when the High Priest was checking his email on his smartphone and realized that his one day smartphone charge had lasted for eight days and nights and that’s why they lit the candles. And how Hanukkah itself goes right back before the Tower of Babel, when Hashem confused all the languages and that is why nobody knows how to spell it properly. Berel was so inspired by it all he suddenly broke into song "Oy to the World".

Mrs. Alte Minsky-Feldman is a feminist and quite frankly, a bit of a yenta to boot. She was always complaining that her daughter-in-law doesn’t feed her grandchildren properly “They look so thin in their pictures, poor babies.” She was also looking for a husband for their eldest daughter. "Maybe you know somebody Jewish?" She would say, "She's a nice girl." She went to East Chelm where she knew some people who might have some oil. On her way she passed the post office which was still open so she went into to buy some stamps. She told the postal clerk “I need some stamps for my Chanukah cards.” The clerk replied “What denomination?” Alte responded “Oy gevolt, has it come to this? Well, six orthodox, four conservative, three reform and two reconstructionists.”

Then there was Rabbi Kibbitz. Rabbi Kibbitz was a great talmid hakham and scholar. Instead of going off looking for olive oil with the rest, instead he was in the beit midrash, in honour of the festival, studying (with his ) the Book of the Redemption (c. 1263), by the celebrated medieval Jewish philosopher Nahmanides (the Ramban (1194 – 1270 - Girona, Catalonia, Spain -- Israel)) wherein he tells the history of Latkeland, a distant land where everything -- the houses, the roads, even the synagogue—is made from potato latkes. And running through this savory land are two broad rivers, one flowing with applesauce and the other with sour cream. And on Hanukkah the Jews of Latkeland gather at the confluence of the two rivers, so they can top their latkes with a dollop of each. Recent scholarship has shown that the Ramban was likely shickered, and possibly farshickered (there's a dispute), when he wrote this.
(for more see Hanukkah Stories by Yoni Brenner - New Yorker 2009/12/14/)

As a mythical village Chelm is usually located somewhere in Eastern Europe. Still, others think that Chelm could be anywhere -- very possibly where you work, or go to school. Chelm itself has a long distinguished history in Jewish lore. The Talmud (Babylonian 49b) tells us that "Ten measures of sorcery descended to the world; Egypt took nine and the rest of the world took one. Ten measures of foolishness were given to the world, and Chelm took seven, the rest of the world four, and Bathurst Street in Toronto took another one and half."

Getting back to our story, then there was Mrs. Bayla Pinsky-Friedman who was a vegetarian and tried to get all the Chelmites to give up eating meat and kreplah and stop drinking schnapps. She went to see her friend Rifka Gittelman who lived not far from the synagogue to see if she had any extra olive oil she could give.

"Chag urim sameach ("Happy festival of lights"), Rifka", "Bayla, what a pleasure.", "How is Faigela doing?" "She is teaching in Israel, boruch Hashem.", "She should stay safe. And Sheuri?" "He is studying for his smicha in Warsaw." "Mazel tov. And Gershom?" "Oy vey, he is dating shiksas." And so on for Avrum, Chaim, Yaakov, Reuven, Fruma, and Bluma.

All of Rifka's children were getting ready for the arrival of Hanukkah Hershel. Hanukkah Hershel is an eternal wandering Jew figure, who may have been the kosher caterer for the last supper. Hanukkah Hershel usually brings really boring gifts the first few nights, socks, underwear, trousers, as well as chocolate coins and a dreidel while by the fourth or fifth nights he brings nothing at all. While these gifts are usually in no way dependent on children's good behavior, occasionally really good kids might get the collected works of the Rambam in Hebrew. Meanwhile all their goyish friends were getting software engineer Barbie dolls, Apple tablets, Xboxes, and pellet guns. Hanukkah Hershel drives around in a wagon pulled by eight donkeys whom he would call out to. "Now Izzy, now Morris, now Yitzak, now Sammy, now Irving and Maxie, and Moishe and Mannie." There are many interesting haggadot and midrash associated with Hanukkah Hershel. For example did you know when donkey Sammy sadly died, Hanukkah Hershel replaced him with another donkey named Otee (Donkey Otee = Don Quixote)? Another tradition says that the names of the donkeys in the team are Schlepper, Kvetcher, Nebish & Tuches, Schvitzer & Schmutzy, Pischer & Blintzes while the Vizhnitz hasidim say that last group is actually Hanukkah Harry's legal team.

Anyway, getting back to Rifka, she didn’t have any oil on hand – she had used it all to fry the latkes and they were all eaten. Oil is very important for Chanukah as everybody eats nothing but fried foods to celebrate the holiday. Maybe some lox as well. However she did have some oily potato latke crumbs left over. Rifka wrapped them in aluminum foil and gave those to Bayla to take back to the synagogue to see if they would be useful.

Bayla returned to the synagogue and gave the oily crumbs to Rav Shmerel. Now Rav Shmerel himself generally would follow the stricter rulings of Shamai although he held to Hillel decisions regarding regarding lighting only one candle on the first night. He thought Gemara Shabbath and how R. Zera said in Rab's name—:" Regarding the wicks and oils which the Sages said, One must not light therewith on the Sabbath, one may light therewith on Hanukkah, either on weekdays or on the Sabbath." Perhaps now is a good time to be lenient. So Rav Shmerel took the left-over oily latke crumbs and formed them into small candles and lit them to celebrate the first night of Chanukah.

And that was the great Chanukah miracle in Chelm, how those oily latkes crumbs burnt with a clear bright flame for all eight days and eight nights of the festival.

And everybody sang Maoz Tzur and Sevivon, sov sov sov Chanukah hu chag tov and Al Hanissim and ate latkes and played dreidl and shared Chanukah gelt and said “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham” (a great miracle happened there) and that it was the best Chanukah ever.

May we all be zocheh (religiously motivated) to light the neiros Chanukah.

Therein lies the true spirit of the season -- to become bigger and better and more generous selves, tolerant and respectful of the traditions and practices of other faiths, ever thankful for the greatest gift of all, the gift of life. Happy Hanukkah. And may you be blessed, you and yours with spinning tops, chocolate golden coins, and hearts full to overflowing with love and good will for all.

May I wish to my readers, to your family and friends, to all of Ottawa, to all in Chelm, to all of Canada, to our Canadian forces in Syria, to people of all races and creeds throughout the world, to men and women, visible minorities, people with disabilities, to all sexual orientations and genders … To all a peaceful and joyous Chanukah and a happy, healthy, prosperous new year with all their wishes fulfilled with peace on Earth and good will between all people. To all I send my best wishes for a meaningful and beautiful holiday season with peace and joy in abundance (especially in Jerusalem) and many more simchas no matter how they celebrate it.

Michael Davidson
Ottawa, Ontaro, Canada

The real Chanukah story celebrates the success of the Maccabeian rebellion against the Helenistic Syrian rulers of Israel in the year 167 B.C.E. The Syrians and a native Jewish Helenized population passed several decrees outlawing Jewish practise, took control of the Temple in Jerusalem and desecrated it by putting idols in it and sacrificing swine. The Maccabees, starting with the father the priest Mattathias and later his son Judas, led a revolt and waged a successful guerilla war against the much larger and better organized Syrian army. Chanukah celebrates the retaking of the Temple and its rededication (Chanukah in Hebrew means dedication). Nes Gadol Hayah Sham (a great miracle happened there), and what was that miracle? Some say the temple’s lamp was lit and a day’s supply of kosher oil lasted miraculously for eight days at the rededication. Others say the great miracle was the victory over a vastly superior foe.


What is [the reason of] Hanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Hanukkah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day's lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving.
Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbath, Folio 21b


May I emphasize that nothing in my story is particularly original.

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