The day before Yom Kippur, the synagogue sound system is on the blink, the floral arrangements are in disarray, and a member of Rabbi David Small’s congregation—in the Massachusetts town of Barnard’s Crossing—is terribly concerned with how much a Torah weighs. The rabbi is determined not to let these mundane concerns ruin his day of prayer and contemplation. But the holiest day of the Jewish year is interrupted when a member of the congregation is found dead in his car.
Details emerge that suggest the man may have killed himself, but the rabbi’s wife suspects murder. Which is it? Rabbi Small kicks into high detective gear to find out. His search for the culprit among the small town’s cast of eccentric characters leads to nail-biting suspense in this highly entertaining and engrossing mystery.
About the Author
Aside from being an award-winning novelist, Kemelman, originally from Boston, was also an English professor.
Harry Kemelman (1908–1996) was best known for his popular rabbinical mystery series featuring the amateur sleuth Rabbi David Small. Kemelman wrote twelve novels in the series, the first of which, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. This book was also adapted as an NBC made-for-TV movie, and the Rabbi Small Mysteries were the inspiration for the NBC television show Lanigan’s Rabbi. Kemelman’s novels garnered praise for their unique combination of mystery and Judaism, and with Rabbi Small, the author created a protagonist who played a part-time detective with wit and charm. Kemelman also wrote a series of short stories about Nicky Welt, a college professor who used logic to solve crimes, which were published in a collection entitled The Nine Mile Walk.
Aside from being an award-winning novelist, Kemelman, originally from Boston, was also an English professor.
Read an Excerpt
Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry
A Rabbi Small Mystery
By Harry Kemelman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Ann Kemelman
All rights reserved.
On the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement, a holy convocation shall it be unto you, and ye shall fast ... and no manner of work shall ye do on this day ... it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. A sabbath of rest it shall be unto you, and ye shall fast: on the ninth day of the month at evening shall ye begin, from evening unto evening shall ye celebrate your sabbath.
This year the Day of Atonement coincided with the weekly Sabbath, so that the ninth day of the month in the Hebrew calendar fell on a Friday and the tenth on Saturday. It did not make the day any holier — that was impossible — but it enabled most Jews to observe the holiday without interrupting their normal work week. Late Friday afternoon the Jewish community of Barnard's Crossing, like Jews everywhere, was making ready for this most holy day of the year. The women were preparing the evening meal, which traditionally was more elaborate than usual not only to set off more sharply the twenty-four-hour fast that followed but to give the sustenance needed to endure it. The men had left work early to give them time to bathe, change into holiday clothes, dine, and still get to the synagogue before sundown when the chanting of Kol Nidre ushered in the Holy Day.
David Small, the young rabbi of the community, had finished dressing and now stood for inspection in front of the critical eye of his wife, Miriam. He was of medium height, but although in excellent health he was thin and pale, and behind his glasses his eyes were dark, deep-set, and brooding. He carried his head slightly forward as though peering at a book; his shoulders had a scholarly stoop.
His wife was tiny and vivacious with a mass of blonde hair that seemed to overbalance her. She had wide blue eyes and an open, trusting countenance that would have seemed ingenuous were it not offset by a determined little chin. There was a certain childlike quality about her that not even the protuberant belly marking her final month of pregnancy could dispel.
"Your suit, David — the jacket doesn't hang right somehow. Stand up straight and throw your shoulders back."
He made the effort.
"It's that top button. It's a good half inch off and pulls the lapel askew."
"It fell off and I sewed it on myself. You were at a Hadassah meeting."
"Well, give it to me and I'll resew it." She examined the button critically. "Why did you use blue thread when the suit is gray?"
"Actually it's white thread. I colored it with my fountain pen. Besides, my kittel will cover it during services."
"And what about on the way to the temple? And talking to the members afterward? And your shoes are dusty."
He started to rub his shoe against the calf of his trouser leg.
"They'll only get dusty again when we walk to the temple," he said apologetically.
"Use the shoe brush."
He uttered a faint sigh of protest but went to the back hallway, and presently she heard sharp staccato whisks.
When he returned she helped him on with his jacket, adjusting the set on his shoulders like a tailor, and then buttoned it. She patted the front of the jacket. "There, that looks better."
"Am I all right now? Do I pass muster?"
"You're handsome, David."
"Then we'd better get on with it." From his wallet he extracted two one-dollar bills and gave her one and kept one for himself. Automatically he started to return the wallet to his back pocket, then thought better of it and went inside and put it away in his bureau drawer. He did not carry money on the Sabbath.
He came back with a prayer book in hand. Flipping the pages with index and second fingers, he found the place and handed her the open book. He pointed. "There's the prayer."
She read the Hebrew passage that explained that this money was for charity in partial atonement for her sins. Then she folded the bill and inserted it in the opening of the blue tin charity box that she kept on a shelf in the kitchen.
"Is a dollar enough, David?"
"It's just a token." He slipped in his own folded bill. "You know, my grandfather who lived with us a few years before he died, used for his offering a live rooster, which, I understood, was given to the poor. According to the custom, a man would use a rooster and a woman a hen. You now, in your condition, would be expected to use a hen and an egg."
"And what would happen to the egg?"
"Oh, I suppose we'd eat it."
"It sounds cannibalistic."
"Now that you mention it. My folks used money, of course, usually in some multiple of eighteen. My father would accumulate coins for the purpose, dimes, as I recall, and he and my mother each would use eighteen. As a youngster I was given eighteen pennies."
"Because in Hebrew the two letters in the alphabet that represent the numerals eight and ten spell chai, which means life — a bit of cabalistic nonsense, really. Come to think of it, today is the eighteenth of September, which gives it even added significance. I should have arranged to get some coins."
"I've got a bunch of pennies, David —"
"I think the poor would appreciate a dollar more than eighteen cents. We'll let it go this time and try to remember next year. But now if we don't want to be late we'd better eat."
They sat down and he pronounced the blessing. The telephone rang. The rabbi, who was nearer, picked up the instrument.
From the receiver came a loud voice. "Rabbi? Rabbi Small? This is Stanley. You know, Stanley Doble from the temple."
Stanley was the temple janitor and general maintenance man, and although he saw the rabbi almost every day he still found it necessary to identify himself as Stanley Doble from the temple — like some heraldic title — whenever he phoned. Although he had an instinctive knowledge of all things electrical and mechanical, apparently he considered the phone wire a hollow tube through which he had to shout to be heard.
"I'm sorry to bother you, Rabbi, but the public-address system is on the blink."
"What's the matter with it?"
"It don't work right. It don't work right at all. It howls."
"Maybe by tonight it will straighten itself out," suggested the rabbi, who regarded all mechanical devices as a mystery; they got out of order owing to some perversity and might right themselves if let alone. Then hopefully, "Maybe a minor adjustment?"
"I checked the wiring. I couldn't find anything. I think it's the microphone. I think maybe it's broken."
"Is there anyone you can call for service? How about the company that installed it?"
"It's a Boston outfit."
The rabbi glanced at his watch. "Then there's no sense in calling at this hour. What about someone in Lynn or Salem?"
"It's pretty late, Rabbi. Most places are closed by now."
"Well, I'll just have to talk a little louder then. Perhaps you had better call the cantor and tell him."
"Okay, Rabbi. Sorry to bother you, but I thought you'd like to know."
The rabbi returned to his soup which his wife had set before him. He just started on it when the phone rang again. It was Mrs. Robinson, president of the Sisterhood. "Oh, Rabbi, Sue Robinson." Her voice had a breathless quality as though she had sighted him at a distance and caught up with him only at the corner. "Forgive me for interrupting your pre-Holy Day meditations, but it's frightfully important. You were going to make an announcement on the floral decorations, weren't you?" She sounded accusing.
"Of course. Just a minute." He opened his prayer book to a sheet of paper he had inserted. "I have it right here — Floral decorations, courtesy of the Sisterhood."
"Well, there's a change. Do you have a pencil and paper handy? I'll hold on."
"Rose Bloom — no, you had better make that Mr. and Mrs. Ira Bloom, in memory of her father David Isaac Lavin —"
"That's right, she pronounces it Lavin, L-a-v-i-n, with a long A. She insists that's nearer the original Hebrew than if she spelled it the usual way with an E. Is that right, Rabbi?"
"Yes, I suppose it is."
"Well, of course if you say so, but it still sounds affected to me. Anyway, Floral decorations, courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Ira Bloom. You don't want to make a mistake on the names, Rabbi," she said sharply. "I would have called earlier, but she called me only half an hour ago."
"I won't forget." He read the announcement back to her from his scribbled notes.
"Splendid. Oh, and Rabbi, you might tell Miriam. She'll want to know."
"Of course. I'll tell her."
He carefully copied over the hastily penciled note, printing the names neatly so he would make no mistake when making his announcements from the pulpit. Back at the table, he took a few spoonfuls of soup and shook his head. "I don't think I care for any more," he said apologetically.
"It's probably cold by now." She removed the plate.
The phone rang again. It was a Mrs. Rosoff. "Tell me, Rabbi," she said, and tried to keep her voice calm, "I don't like to disturb you at this time, but how much does the Torah weigh? You know, the Scroll?"
"Why, I don't know, Mrs. Rosoff. The Scrolls are of different sizes, so I suppose they would vary quite a bit in weight. Is it important? I imagine most of ours would be about thirty pounds apiece, but that would be only a guess."
"Well, I think it's important, Rabbi. My husband got a notice last week that he was to have an honor for Yom Kippur. They said he would be hagboh. And I just found out what it means. It means, Rabbi, that he is supposed to lift the Scroll up by the handles way over his head. Is this the kind of honor you give to a man who had a heart attack not three years ago, and who to this day wouldn't think of going out into the street without his little bottle of nitroglycerine pills? Is this how you give out honors, Rabbi? You'd like to see my husband have a heart attack right there on the altar?"
He tried to explain that the honors were distributed by the Ritual Committee and that he was sure they had no knowledge of Mr. Rosoff's condition. "But it's really nothing serious, Mrs. Rosoff, because hagboh is one of a pair. There's hagboh and glilloh. Hagboh lifts the Scroll, and glilloh rolls it up and ties it. Your husband has only to say he would prefer the honor of rolling up the Scroll instead of lifting it, and the other man can do the lifting."
"You don't know my husband. You think he'll admit he can't lift the Scroll after you have announced he will? My big hero would rather take a chance on a heart attack."
He assured her he would take care of it, and rather than rely on his memory immediately dialed Mortimer Schwarz, president of the congregation, who announced the honors from the pulpit.
"I'm glad you called, Rabbi," he said after he had taken the message. "I wanted to phone but I hated to disturb you at this time. You heard about the public-address system?"
"Yes, Stanley told me."
"It isn't as bad as he probably said it was. When you talk right into it there's a low hum, but you can pretty much tune it out by turning down the volume. It's only when you don't talk into it directly that you get a kind of howl. So if you can remember to talk into it directly —"
"I doubt if I could, Mr. Schwarz, but on the other hand I don't think I really need it."
"I was thinking about tomorrow. The going will be a lot tougher. That's a full day's service and on an empty stomach."
"I'm sure we can manage. The hall has good natural acoustics."
"Suppose I could get hold of a mechanic to work on it right after our service tonight —"
"Oh, I'm afraid that's out of the question," said the rabbi quickly.
"Well, perhaps you're right. It would cost us an arm and a leg, and people might notice that there was a light on in the temple. You're sure you don't mind?"
He returned to the table. "Mortimer Schwarz being solicitous," he remarked. "The effect of the Yom Kippur spirit, no doubt."
He was halfway through his roast chicken when the phone rang again. Miriam started for it purposefully, but her husband waved her aside. "It's probably for me," he said. "It seems as though I've been on the phone all evening talking to people who don't want to disturb me."
He lifted the receiver: "Rabbi Small."
"Oh, Rabbi, how fortunate to find you in. This is Mrs. Drury Linscott. I am not of your faith, but both my husband and I have the highest opinion of your people. As a matter of fact, my husband's principal assistant, a man in whom he has the highest confidence, is a full-blooded Jew." She waited for him to be duly grateful.
"I see," he murmured.
"Now my husband reports that Morton — that's my husband's assistant, Morton Zoll — do you know him?"
"I — I don't think so."
"A very fine man, and really quite dependable. Well, my husband claims that Morton told him that starting at sundown tonight he is not supposed to eat or drink, not even water, until sunset tomorrow. Now I find that hard to believe, and I am sure that Mr. Linscott must have misunderstood."
"No, it's quite true, Mrs. Linscott. We fast from sunset to sunset."
"Indeed? And he must not do work of any kind during that time?"
The rabbi waited.
"Very well then." And she hung up.
The rabbi looked quizzically at the instrument and then gently replaced it on its cradle.
"What was that all about?" asked Miriam.
He reported the conversation.
"I'll answer the phone from now on," she said. Almost immediately it rang again.
She waved him away and picked up the receiver. She cupped her hand over the mouthpiece. "It's Cantor Zimbler," she whispered.
"I better take it."
The cantor sounded frantic. "Rabbi, have you heard about the public-address system? Stanley called me and I came right over to the temple. I'm calling from there now. I just tested it and it's terrible. I started singing my Hineni heoni memaas and it sounded like an old-fashioned phonograph with a dull needle. If I turned my head the least bit, it went awooh, awooh, like a fire alarm. What are we going to do, Rabbi?"
The rabbi smiled. He wondered if the cantor had put on his robes and tall white yarmulka to make the test. He was a short fat man with a little black moustache and goatee, who looked like the chef in a spaghetti advertisement. They shared the same enrobing room, and the cantor insisted on affixing a full-length mirror to the door. Only the year before last he had served in an Orthodox congregation, and in applying for his present job he sent along with his résumé one of the posters he used in advertising special concerts. There he had referred to himself as Yossele Zimbler. Since then, he had had new ones printed up in which he called himself the Reverend Joseph Zimbler.
"With a voice like yours, Cantor, I shouldn't think you'd need a public-address system."
"You think not, Rabbi?"
"No question of it. Besides, you are Orthodox in outlook, aren't you?"
"So I shouldn't think you would want to use a public-address system at all. As I understand it, it's an electric system where the circuit is made and broken by the inflections of your voice."
"So it's like turning the electric light on and off all through the service."
"We-el ..." the cantor obviously was not convinced.
"That's why many of the Orthodox congregations don't use it at all during the Sabbath, and of course Yom Kippur is the Sabbath of Sabbaths."
"That's true, Rabbi," said the cantor slowly. Then, "But we used it last Yom Kippur."
"That's because we are a Conservative congregation and the Conservative synagogue permits it. But this year the Holy Day comes on the Sabbath, so this year it is the Sabbath of Sabbaths of Sabbaths," and he rotated his free hand in slow circles, Talmudic fashion, to indicate the ever-increasing sanctity of Sabbath piled on Sabbath. "You could argue that if the rule applies for the Sabbath for the Orthodox synagogue, then it should apply for us Conservatives on Yom Kippur, and on a third-degree Sabbath such as we're having this year, it ought to apply even to Reform congregations."
Excerpted from Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry by Harry Kemelman. Copyright © 2002 Ann Kemelman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I like the idea of the series but there is too much squabbling among his congregation. The mystery is a bit slow in getting started.
A man who is an alcoholic dies of carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage at home. Rabbi Small enters the scene when the widow wants to have him buried in the Jewish cemetery. The rabbi must decide whether it was suicide, accidental death or perhaps something more sinister?I saw the solution to this mystery a mile away, but love reading about all the synagogue intrigue and how the rabbi cuts to the heart of things in a discussion. I will never in a million years be able to understand the way the Jewish tradition and culture thinks, but I am fascinated none-the-less.