Jewish Folktale: The Fools of Chelm Try to Capture the Moon in a Barrel of Water


LG: “In the town of Chelm, the people there were fools and one night they saw the moon in a barrel of water. So, they thought they would capture it, so they covered the barrel. So then, in the morning when they went back, it was gone. So, they thought it had been stolen, so they called the police. And the police came, and they had nothing to show them, so they all moaned and cried.”


The informant is my mother. She is a 57-year-old woman of Ashkenazi Jewish descent who was born in California and currently lives in New York City. Her father was a German-born Jewish refugee who escaped Nazi persecution as a child and her mother is the daughter of poor Russian Jewish immigrants. She feels very attuned to her Jewish heritage and culture and views this tale as an example of “shtetl humor.” She doesn’t remember where she first heard this story, but recently discovered an iteration of it in the writings of Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer.


This folktale is one of many which discuss the Jewish town of Chelm, where “inhabitants acquired a reputation for being good and well meaning, though foolish” (Patai and Oettinger). I think this tale conveys some of the defining qualities of Jewish humor, which is often acerbic and endearingly critical, however, it’s not merely making fun of stupidity. As Raphael Patai and Ayelet Oettinger write, the foolishness in these stories “can be seen as a sort of backward logic that satirizes the process of Jewish theological reasoning” (Patai and Oettinger). In this instance, the people of Chelm’s effort to capture the moon is an allegory about faith, where God, like the moon, is astonishing and powerful, but elusive and cannot be physically captured. I think this story is also a critique of the hubristic desire to see God and understand divinity.


Patai, Raphael, and Ayelet Oettinger. “Chelm, the Wise of.” Encyclopedia of Jewish Folklore and Traditions, edited by Haya Bar-Itzhak, and Raphael Patai, Routledge, 1st edition, 2013. Credo Reference, Accessed 27 Apr. 2022.

Another iteration of this folktale is given in a block quote which follows the third paragraph of this essay:

Rogovin, Or. “Chelm as Shtetl: Y. Y. Trunk’s Khelemer Khakhomim.” Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History, vol. 29, no. 2, spring 2009, pp. 242+. Gale Literature Resource Center, Accessed 27 Apr. 2022.