Chelm, the City of Fools
In Jewish folklore, the city of Chelm, Poland, is a city of fools. The ‘wise men of Chelm’ overlook laws of nature, fail to perform basic tasks, and just generally make silly and inappropriate decisions. There are many stories explaining why Chelmers are so foolish. One says that the angel responsible for seeding the world with foolish souls lost his footing on the hills around Chelm and spilled his jar of numbskulls. Another places the blame on an incompetent Torah reader in Chelm who misread the word ‘hashomayim’ as ‘hashoytim’ and read aloud that “In the beginning, God created fools”. Regardless of the reason, Chelmer tales are delightful and make for fun gaming. Let’s look at five short tales illustrating some of the characteristics of the wise men of Chelm.
Chelmers don’t recognize common objects. A stranger in Chelm lost his boot. The wise men of Chelm found it, but they didn’t recognize it, because they don’t wear boots. They took the boot to their rabbi, who declared it must be a shofar (a ram’s horn blown in some Jewish religious rituals), because it is wide at the bottom and narrow at the top. So the Chelmers put the boot in a place of honor in the synagogue. Later, the stranger returned to Chelm and was shocked to see his lost boot in the temple! He demanded its return, but the Chelmers refused, and still blow the shofar with a boot to this day.
Chelmers have terrible memories. There came a time when Chelm almost ran out of salt. People were very concerned – how would the town acquire more? The rabbi came up with a clever solution: he would sow salt in the fields and grow more salt for the town! Everyone agreed this was a good idea and pooled their last salt together for the purpose. After sowing the fields, the rabbi slept there overnight to guard his crop, but while he was sleeping, a wolf came and bit his head off. The wise men of Chelm were perplexed to find him headless the next day, and sent a message to the rabbi’s wife to ask if he’d had a head before. She said she couldn’t remember. Indeed, no one could remember, and they fell to bickering. The rabbi was clearly dead, but couldn’t be buried if part of his body were missing. Eventually, a traveling stranger settled their dispute for them: “If your rabbi thought he could grow salt by planting it in a field, he plainly had no head. You can bury him.”
Chelmers don’t understand physics. The wise men of Chelm decided to move an unfortunately-placed hill. They put their shovels in a wagon and went out to the hill. There, they took up their shovels, removed their jackets, and piled them on the wagon. They pushed and pushed on the hill with their shovels all day. Around this time, a rider came by. Seeing the wagon unattended, he hitched up his horse and rode off with it. The Chelmers, meanwhile, couldn’t tell if all their pushing had moved the hill, so they turned around to look at where they were in relation to the wagon. Much to their delight, the wagon was now far off! What excellent progress they’d made! Indeed, the wagon was getting farther and farther away, indicating they’d succeeded at getting the hill to move of its own accord. They returned to Chelm, and to this day the wise men of Chelm have no jackets.
Chelmers solve some problems with childish legal rulings. A teacher in Chelm saw a strudel for the very first time, and was so delighted by the pastry that he gave his wife some money to buy more. Instead, she bought their son a pair of shoes. When the teacher found out, he quarreled with his wife. They argued so fiercely that they fell down and landed in a wheeled trunk they had in their house. The trunk’s lid slammed shut, and the trunk rolled out of their house and down the hill, to the horror of those nearby who heard a loud, angry trunk shouting at itself as it went rolling by of its own accord. The wise men of Chelm decided the accident must not be repeated, and inscribed inside their synagogue three rules: a teacher may not live on a hill, may not own a suitcase with wheels, and may not eat strudel. This settled the matter for all involved.
Chelmers solve other problems with shortsighted solutions. Once upon a time, Chelm had no cats. The town was overrun with mice. The wise men of Chelm were intrigued when a stranger gave them a cat, and delighted when they watched it chase mice from their homes. However, the Chelmers didn’t understand that cats could escape. One day, the Chelmer with the cat left his window open and the cat got up on the roof. So the wise men of Chelm set the house on fire to force the cat to come down. The cat leapt to the roof of the neighboring house, so the Chelmers set that house on fire too, and so on and so on until they’d burned down half their town.
Adding some Chelm-like character to a city in your campaign could be a lot of fun. It’s a great way to make an otherwise generic town memorable.The PCs must grapple with how to get things done in a city where the locals make decisions so bizarre they strain credulity, and no one sees anything wrong with it. Your PCs are likely to fall into the role of the traveling strangers from Chelmer stories: sometimes taking advantage of the Chelmers, sometimes stymied by them, and sometimes acting as lonely voices of sanity.
All five of the characteristics above should be relatively easy to improvise at the table, allowing Chelmers to react organically to your PCs’ decisions. (I omitted harder-to-improvise traits, like Chelmers’ perennial misinterpretations of scripture.) It might be a great deal of fun to have the wise men of Chelm engaged in one of the above hijinks when the PCs arrive in town, and then improvise the Chelmers’ actions from there.