Chelm Stories & Motke Habad

Where the lovable fools of Jewish humor came from--and what they mean.

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"My son," he said, "I can see you haven't the slightest idea about such matters, nor can make the simplest calculation. Let me ask you: Have you lived with your wife three months?"


"She has lived with you three months?"


"Together--have you lived three months?"


"What's the total then--three months plus three plus three?"

"Nine months, Rabbi!"

"So... what is the problem?"

Usually, though, the "Wise Men of Chelm" stories focus on the collective foolishness of the townspeople. They are forever meeting to solve the great issues of the time--as the following story suggests.

The people of Chelm were worriers. So they called a meeting to do something about the problem of worry. A motion was duly made and seconded to the effect that Yossel, the cobbler, be retained by the community as a whole to do its worrying, and that his fee be one ruble per week.

The motion was about to carry, all speeches having been for the affirmative, when one sage propounded the fatal ques­tion: "If Yossel earned a ruble a week, what would he have to worry about?"

Motke Habad

However, if the "Wise Men of Chelem" stories por­tray an ironic sort of wisdom, the Motke Habad stories [a figure from Jewish folklore] shrink the faults of the many into the characteristics of a single figure. Like the superhuman exploits of a Paul Bunyan in an American frontier context, the machina­tions of Motke Habad became a barometer for the shtetl's [village's] sensibility. As one collector of Jewish folklore puts it:

"He [Motke Habad] is the Jew who is forever trying to make ends meet, but always in vain. Good-natured, well-inten­tioned, and desperately eager to get ahead in the world, fate seems to be constantly against him, and he fails no matter to what he turns. He is the archetypal schlemiel and the mock-pathetic hero of countless anecdotes."

Sometimes he has an unconscious hand in the making of his various "failures" as the following story makes clear.

Motke became a teamster, but he found the horse con­sumed all the profits. He determined to wean the beast from the habit of eating, and began by depriving it of oats one day a week, then two days, then three. After a month the horse seemed well on its way to learning how to get along with al­most no oats at all, when it suddenly collapsed and died. Motke was beside himself with grief. Standing over the beast, he groaned, "Woe is me! Just when my troubles were almost over, you have to give up and die!"

At other times, however, he simply overextends himself, getting so engrossed in the "forests" of life that he keeps bumping into the "trees."

Motke Habad was once summoned by the local Polish landowner and told to go to the fair in a neighboring town to purchase a French poodle for the baroness.

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Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish literature and culture, and in recent years has been a judge for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize, the Reform Judaism Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award.