The Tisch: A beloved sapling

"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 the actual Chelm."

THE OPENING page of the book ‘Neta Sha’ashuim’ – People could be considered righteous even if they are busy with everyday dealings. (photo credit: LEVI COOPER)
THE OPENING page of the book ‘Neta Sha’ashuim’ – People could be considered righteous even if they are busy with everyday dealings.
(photo credit: LEVI COOPER)
In collective Jewish 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 minutiae of Jewish law. In this sense, the tales are a comedic self-critique of the hallowed Jewish practice of studying Torah.
For example: A Chelmite bought a fresh fish on Friday in honor of the 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 culture. 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 Hassidism, Chelm was the home to the hassidic master Rabbi Natan Neta Tenenbaum (d. 1812), or Nussen Nuta, as he would have been known.
Nussen Nuta was linked to the great hassidic masters of his day: Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk (1717-1787), Rabbi Mordechai of Neshkhiz (1752-1800), Rabbi Baruch of Mezhibozh (1753-1811), and the Seer of Lublin (1745-1815). He began his career in Wlodowa, before moving some 45 km south to Chelm.
Manuscripts of Nussen Nuta’s teachings were destroyed by a fire in Chelm, though a sole manuscript survived in the hands of Rabbi Shlomo Leib of Lenczna (1778-1843). The manuscript covers teachings from one period that spans just over six months. It was only in 1891 – almost 80 years after the death of the author – that this manuscript was finally published by a descendant.
The thin volume was entitled Neta Sha’ashuim – a biblical phrase that may be translated as “a beloved sapling.” The phrase is used metaphorically to refer to a precious people, that is 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’ashuim has been reprinted twice – a photo-offset edition in 1966 with an account of the author’s life and a newly typeset edition in 2005 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’ashuim is rarely cited and scholars have barely analyzed the work. In his 1994 book, Hassidism historian and scholar Mendel Piekarz (1922-2011) offered an analysis that recalled some of the biographic or hagiographic accounts of the author.
Piekarz raised the possibility that Nussen Nuta was a controversial character, and he explicated a few radical passages from Neta Sha’ashuim. Piekarz, however, acknowledged that we have precious little reliable material to offer a full portrait of this hassidic master.
Piekarz’s exploration was part of a call to explore the shadowy corners of Hassidism. In a witty play on the title of 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’ashuim.
This is not the forum for a full analysis of Nussen Nuta’s life, legacy and teachings. Let me just recount one idea from his surviving legacy. When Abraham argued with the Almighty in a bid to spare the doomed cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, he proposed that “perhaps there are 50 righteous people in the city,” and in their merit the cities should not be destroyed (Genesis 18:24).
In a succinct passage, Nussen Nuta highlighted that Abraham had sought righteous people who were “in the city.” Even if these people were not constantly studying Torah and were busy with everyday dealings – they still could be considered righteous!
Thus Nussen Nuta suggested that the yardstick for righteousness should not be whether or not a person is constantly in the study hall. 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 hassidic masters like Nussen Nuta who presided in the city, and the laypeople who piously went about their business – the real righteous people of Chelm.
The writer, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah, is on the Pardes faculty and is a post-doctoral fellow at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.