The Modern Men of Chelm: Demons From The Cookie Jar
Editor’s note: In Ashkenazi Jewish folklore, the (very real) city of Chelm functions as an imaginary town of fools. Many tales from this tradition are entitled “The Wise Men of Chelm.” The following piece continues in that tradition.
Tossing and turning, Reb Yankel spent the night struggling with intense nightmares. He could not sleep peacefully. His dreams were filled with strange disconcerting sounds like fingernails upon a school chalkboard and a feeling of being pursued. Horrifyingly intense images of shedim (demons) filled Reb Yankel’s night-time images. He would wake up every morning in a cold sweat and a feeling that someone or something had visited his home at night. Indeed, each morning, nothing was the way he had left it the night before, there were papers all over the place, furniture tossed about, and bite marks all over his hand.
He was convinced that his life and indeed the life of the entire town of Chelm was being dominated by shedim and that he singlehandedly was to blame and had brought this curse upon the community. Indeed, since his grave sin, there was a great flood in Chelm. The rains had come down and flooded the river. The water came through the town of Chelm, washing away the crops and flooding homes. The water came all the way up to Yankel’s belly button and it took weeks for the water to recede. In the meantime, the villagers went over to the nearby city of Berdichev, the home of the great Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. It wasn’t the closest Jewish community, but closer cities such as Levov had also suffered damage from the flood. The Jewish community of Berdichev helped the Chelmites and took them into their homes until they could go back to their homes in Chelm.
A week after returning to his dilapidated home together with his wife and six children, it was the great holiday of Shavuos, celebrating the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. During the davening (prayer services) the man carrying the Torah, poor nebech, slipped on a piece of candy that one of the children had left on the floor and, the clumpy man dropped the Torah (on his own feet, I must mention). As dictated by Jewish tradition the community fasted for forty days after that… poor guy.
On top of all that, the animals in Chelm had gone on strike. Have you ever seen something like this? It was as if all of the horses and mules and donkeys and even the cows had minds of their own.
Reb Yankel was convinced that all of the troubles in Chelm were entirely his fault because of his awful sin on the eve of Pesach (Passover): Yankel had eaten a forbidden dessert.
Reb Yankel knew better. He knew that the mashchis (the destroying angel) comes out every Pesach at bechatzi halailah (midnight). He knew that this was Leil Shimurim, the night when Jews were all supposed to be on guard, stay in the house, make sure the mezuzah is firmly affixed to the house, and never, ever eat anything after eating the afikoman, the last piece of matzo at the Passover Seder. But he, Reb Yankel, just hadn’t been able to resist his wife Rachel’s kosher for Pesach chocolate cookies.
Late at night, when everyone was asleep, he got out of bed and tiptoed through the house. The wooden floors squeaked a little bit. A few mice also squeaked as Yankel accidentally stepped on their tails. And then… he finally arrived at the cookie jar. He took of the top and sniffed. Then, he inhaled deeply, smelling the unforgettable chocolate smell of Rachel’s Pesach cookies. He knew that it was an aveira (sin), but he couldn’t help himself. He ate several.
That night, Yankel could not sleep. He tossed and turned. At one point he half woke up and saw a mysterious figure near him. It had horns and sharp teeth and gnawed at his hand which hung over his bed as he was sleeping. Rachel was fast asleep and, not sure if it was real or another dream, he decided not to wake her. He dozed off again and in the morning he saw that his hand was bleeding. It had not been a dream. Reb Yankel knew exactly what had happened. He was now paying the price for eating after midnight — and cookies that his wife had baked — and keeping it a secret — and after the afikomen — on the night of Pesach. He had been attacked by the shedim.
In the weeks that followed, his dreams intensified. Reb Yankel he became convinced that it was time to do something about all of this and to do teshuvah (repentance) for his great sin. Yankel traveled to Berdichev to see the great Rebbe Levi Yitzchak.
He arrived in Berdichev and went directly to the study of the Rebbe. There, he sat in front of the Rebbe. The Rebbe peered deeply into his eyes and asked him about his travels and his wife and children and his life and his work, and his observance of the mitzvos (divine commandments), and his study of Torah. Yankel divulged all. Then the Rebbe asked Yankel why he had come. Yankel told him. The Rebbe thought deeply and then he said, “Here are my instructions. Listen carefully. First, check all of your mezuzos to make sure that they are all kosher. Second, tell your wife the truth about the cookies and ask for her forgiveness. When you do so, make sure to emphasize that you just couldn’t keep your hands off the cookies because they were so delicious and she is such a fantastic baker. Make sure to do teshuvah (repentance) for this in your prayers next Yom Kippur. Third, leave salt on the floor near your bed and if, in the morning, you see strange footprints, come back to me. Then we will know for sure that you have shedim and we will consult my books of Kabbalistic incantations and figure out what to do about it.”
Yankel left happy and joyful and was optimistic about the future of his family and of Chelm for the first time in a long while. He arrived back in Chelm and did just as the Rebbe had instructed him. He gathered up all of the mezuzos in the house and brought them to the soifer (scribe) to make sure they were kosher. “Yes” said Yitzchak Meir the sofer, “they are kosher… except that they are missing the magical incantation that is supposed to be in the back of each scroll to ward off shedim. Kuzu bemuchsaz kuzu.”
“I knew it!” said Yankel “Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was right.”
“Here,” said Yitzchak Meir as he handed Yankel a bag with mezuzah scrolls inside it, “these are brand new scrolls with the formula against shedim. You should have no more problems.”
Reb Yankel went home happy and joyous. He placed the new mezuzah scrolls into their cases and affixed the mezuzos to the doors of the house. Step one was complete.
Now came the hard part. Rachel was preparing for Shabbos in the kitchen. She was preparing a chicken soup with an aroma that filled the entire neighborhood. She had greeted him when he entered and he had responded but he went to his mezuzos and she to her soup.
“Yes, Yankele,” she responded sweetly.
“I have something to confess to you that I have been feeling very guilty about,” Yankel said in a soft, guilt-ridden voice.
“Guilty?” Rachel asked, surprised. “What have you done. You are so sweet. It is probably nothing.”
“No, Rachel. It is a big aveira (sin).” Yankel admitted.
“What is it?”
Yankel took a deep breath and began his confession. “I snuck out of bed in the middle of the night when you were asleep…”
“Oh, no. Yankel!!!” Rachel looked shocked and scared and sad and angry. Tears started to come down from her eyes as she imagined the worst. “Please don’t tell me that …”
Yankel interrupted, “I stole Pesach cookies out of the cookie jar on Erev Pesach.”
Rachel started to laugh hysterically, the tears still coming down her cheeks. She couldn’t stop laughing and was holding her stomach. She laughed so hard, it hurt her stomach.
When she was finally able to stop laughing, Rachel looked at Yankel with loving eyes and asked, “That’s your big aveira?”
“Yes.” Yankel said, embarrassed and not knowing what to make of Rachel’s tears and then her uncontrollable laughter.
“I knew that the morning after,” Rachel said, still holding back the laughter, “when I found a cookie on the floor and the cookie jar left open.”
“I was happy you enjoyed them.” Rachel continued. “I made them for you.”
Yankel smiled. “They were sooooo good.” said Yankel, following his Rebbe’s sound advice. “I just couldn’t resist. You are such a great baker.”
Rachel responded, “You’re so sweet Yankele. Who do you think I made them for? You and the kinderlach (children). I’m so happy you like my baking.”
“Like it. I love it… and I love you. You are such an eshes chayil (woman of valor).” Yankel continued.
Then he remembered that he left something out, “But I did it on Leil Shimurim (when one is not supposed to eat after midnight or after the afikomen).”
“That’s between you and HaShem (God),” Rachel responded.
“But…” Yankel continued.
Rachel interrupted, “I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“But….” Yankel attempted yet again to continue.
“Here,” Rachel again interrupted, “try my chicken soup.” With that, a spoonful of soup was piled by Rachel into Yankel’s mouth and the conversation ended.
That night… Reb Yankel placed salt on the floor right next to his side of the bed. In the morning, just as he expected, he found strange footprints. He immediately saddled his horse and went to go see the Rebbe.
“Shalom Aleichem (Hello/Peace be upon you) Reb Yankel. Have all of the issues been resolved?” asked Rabbi Levi Yitzchak.
“I did as you instructed,” Yankel explained, “I put salt near my bed and there were footprints in the morning.”
“This is not good,” said Rabbi Levi Yitzchak while stroking his beard.
“They looked like goats feet,” Yankel continued.
“That is really not good. I’ve read about this type of demon in the Kabbalah (Jewish esoteric, mystical literature),” the Rebbe responded.
“and chicken feet…” Yankel added.
A smile appeared on the Rebbe’s face.
“That is not bad,” said Rabbi Levi Yitchak.
“and the shedim left little black markings all over the floor too.” Yankel concluded his description.
“Do you know what those black markings are?” asked the Rebbe.
“Of course. They are some sort of message from the sitra achra (the underworld),” stated Yankel with confidence.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak thought for a brief second about how to respond. “You are absolutely right,” Rabbi Levi Yitzchak said. “Here is what we are going to do. Did you leave your door open last night?”
“Of course,” Yankel answered, “I wanted to prove that there were shedim so I kept the door open for them.”
“Have you done this before?” the Rebbe asked.
“Sometimes I forget to close the door all the way when I come home from feeding the animals. Sometimes I forget to close the barnyard door too. I’m a little bit of a daydreamer.”
“From now on,” the Rebbe instructed, “you will remember to close and lock the door, yes?”
“Yes?” Yankel answered affirmatively.
The Rebbe continued “And you will also remember to close the barnyard door, yes?”
“Yes” answered Yankel, confused as to how any of this had anything to do with his shedim problem.
“You will bring all of your chickens and livestock and sell them to the shoichet (Jewish ritual slaughterer and butcher) here in Berdichev. I will make the arrangements with the shoichet. Yes?”
“Yes” Yankel responded, “but what price should I sell them for?”
“The going price,” responded the Rebbe. “You will not lose money and he will not make money — and I will pay your travel costs from Chelm to Berdichev and back. Yes?”
“Yes, Rebbe. Thank you.” said Yankel.
“Zeir gut (Very good),” the Rebbe was satisfied.
Reb Yankel did as the Rebbe instructed him and brought all of his chickens and livestock to the shoichet in Berdichev. He remembered to close the door of the house behind him, if not always the door of the barnyard.
After following Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s secret, esoteric instructions from the Kabbalah, Yankel’s nightmares ended. He no longer saw footprints when he placed salt on the floor next to his bed. Baruch HaShem (thank God) the shedim were finally gone…
…until the first night of Chanukah when Yankele had dreams of Rachel’s exquisite potato Latkes (pancakes), their taste still in his mouth from eating some of them during the family Chanukah celebration a few hours earlier. He secretly got out of bed and was pulled like a magnet toward the kitchen. There, beside the Chanukah menorah still burning its oil, was a covered plate, filled with Rachel’s sensational, mouth watering, potato latkes. Looking around to make sure that no one could see him, Yankele slowly and carefully lifted the cover off the plate and…