Jewish folklore makes fun of the Jewish residents of the town of Chełm as well-meaning fools. Their stories often center around the "wise men” and their silly decisions.
For example: One Jewish Chełm resident bought a fish on Friday in order to cook it for Shabbos. He put the live fish underneath his coat and the fish slapped his face with his tail. He went to the Chełm court to submit a charge and the court sentenced the fish to death by drowning.
Here’s another classic: 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?”
And one more: In Chelm, the shammes (the sexton in the synagogue) used to go around waking everyone up for prayer services in the morning. Every time it snowed, the people would complain that, although the snow was beautiful, they could not see it in its pristine state because by the time they got up in the morning, the shammes had already trekked through the snow. The townspeople decided that they had to find a way to be woken up for prayers without having the shammes make tracks in the snow. The “wise men” of Chelm hit on a solution: They got four volunteers to carry the shammes around on a table when there was fresh snow in the morning. That way, the shammes could make his wake up calls, but he would not leave tracks in the snow.
Well it would seem that the Talmud has its own version of the “Wise Men of Chelm” stories.
But first a little background:
Around this time of year, with Passover only a few weeks away, Matzah bakeries all around the world are churning out matzah faster than you can say “Manischewitz”. One of the many requirements of ritual matzah baking, oddly enough, has to do with the kind of water that is used.
In keeping with the principle that any warm temperatures can accelerate the fermentation of the dough, causing it to become chametz (“leavened”) and unfit for Passover use, Halachah (Jewish law) dictates that only drawn water that was kept overnight (called mayim shelanu, lit. “water that ‘lodged’ overnight”) may be used for the mixing of the dough. After being drawn, the water used for the matzah dough must therefore be allowed to stand overnight in order to cool off.
Thus the Talmud in Pesachim 42a rules: Rav Yehudah said: A woman should knead the dough for matzah only with water that was kept overnight (mayim shelanu).
The Talmud then records the following anecdote:
Rav Masnah taught this ruling [in Hebrew] in a public lecture in Papunya [a town in Babylon]. The next day everyone brought their pitchers and came to him [Rav Masnah] saying: “Give us water!” [In Hebrew, the word shelanu can have two meanings: “our” or “that was kept overnight”. The simple townspeople understood mayim shelanu to mean “our water”, meaning Rav Masnah’s water, so they all came to his door with pitchers in hand.] He replied to them: “I intended: with water that was kept overnight”.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter ZT”L (1810-1883) explains that the reason why the Talmud saw fit to record this seemingly silly “Wise Men” of Papunya story is to illustrate the great Emunas Chachamim (“Faith in our Wise Rabbis”) that Jews of previous generations once had.
One can be sure that the people of Papunya were scratching their heads after the lecture and wondering why only Rav Masnah’s water could be used for kneading the dough for matzah baking. But if that’s what the Rabbi said (or so they thought), then that’s what they were going to do – whether or not they understood it.
Now I know that to some of you reading this, the whole notion of blindly following whatever the Rabbis say is not a virtue to be admired and praised.
The fact is, though, that the Torah considers Emunas Chachamim not only a great virtue (as illustrated by the Talmudic tale mentioned above), but it is actually one of the 613 commandments.
As the Torah instructs us in Deuteronomy 17:11: “… you shall not deviate from the word that they [the Sages] will tell you, right or left.” This is the primary directive in the Torah that teaches us to have unswerving obedience to the words of the Torah sages of each generation.
Rashi (ibid.) quotes a Midrash which explains the phrase “right or left” to mean that even if you are convinced that the Rabbis are wrong – even if they seem to be telling you that right is left and left is right – you are still commanded to heed their words.
What this means for all of us is that we must trust our great Torah sages and leaders, even if their advice sometimes flies in the face of what we consider the right approach.
All it really takes to have proper Emunas Chachamim is a healthy dose of humility and the realization that there are people on this planet whose vast Torah knowledge and great wisdom enables them to guide us in the proper direction far better than we could ever guide ourselves – and that we would be wise to heed their words.
[Of course, it goes without saying that the Sages of which we speak must be exceedingly humble, highly ethical, incredibly knowledgeable in Torah, and very righteous and holy. Not every rabbi that you or I