Jewish Trivia Quiz

from RASHI, RAMBAM and RAMALAMADINGDONG: A Quizbook of Jewish Trivia Facts & Fun by New Orleans native Mark Zimmerman

Etrog Wars

A primary part of the celebration of the Sukkot holiday is the practice of holding and shaking the lulav and etrog. The lulav consists of three parts–branches from the palm tree, the willow, and the myrtle. The etrog is a citrus fruit similar in appearance to a lemon. The etrog, also known as the citron, was first cultivated in the Far East, possibly making its way to the Mediterranean region around 300 BCE via the armies of Alexander the Great. What controversy about etrogim (plural for etrog) became known as the Etrog Wars?


AThe “war” was between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in ancient Israel, during the time of the 2nd Temple. The only mention of the etrog in the Torah is in Leviticus 23:40, which references pri etz hadar or “the fruit of a beautiful tree.” The Pharisees used the citron during their ceremonies, while the Sadducees used the pomegranate. Members of the two communities almost came to blows during the celebration of Sukkot at the Temple, with each vying for the primacy of their fruit as the most beautiful. Ultimately, however, the approach of the Pharisees won out as the Sadducees community disappeared following the destruction of the Temple.

B. The “war” was between Ashkenazic Jews and Sephardic Jews in the 1800’s, with a dispute regarding the status of an etrog without a pitom, the tip of the etrog. Ashkenazic Jews did not require that the pitom be in place, perhaps because they generally had to bring in etrogim from Mediterranean regions, so the pitom was more likely to have broken off during shipping. Sephardic Jews, who lived where etrogim were grown, did not have this problem, and considered the etrog to be unkosher for ceremonial use if the pitom was not in place. Over time the Ashkenazic community adopted the Sephardic practice, with the great Ashkenazic Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook ultimately ruling in this way in 1919 when he became Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, saying “The future, my brother, is with the pitom. Only with the pitom can we bless the lulav and etrog and live in harmony with our brothers from the Levant.”

C. The “war” was between etrog growers in Corfu, Greece and growers in Palestine, during the 19th century. Jews in Eastern Europe, where conditions did not allow for growing etrogim, were purchasing from Corfu as those etrogim were considered the most beautiful in the world. But Jewish growers in Palestine claimed that the Corfu etrogim were not kosher, as they came from etrog trees grafted onto lemon trees (a process that produced hardier trees). The dispute continued into the 20th century, with the esteemed Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook weighing in against Corfu etrogim, saying “The future, my brother, is with the kosher etrog, with the power of kashrut, and only with the kosher etrog will we win the battle of those who are against us, the Corfu mamzer [etrogim].”

DThe “war” was between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. They were debating the proper holding of the lulav and etrog. Hillel stated that because the lulav consisted of three items, it reflected three mitzvot, rather than the single mitzvah of the etrog. Therefore, the lulav should be held in the right hand, which was considered to be the more important hand. Shammai, who was left handed, stated that the lulav should be held in whichever hand was the dominant hand of the person, arguing that the more important hand was not always the right hand, but rather the individual’s dominant hand. As with most disputes between Hillel and Shammai, the predominate practice today is to hold the lulav in the right hand, per Hillel’s argument.

EThe “war” was between the Chabad community in Paris and a French car manufacturer. Prior to Sukkot, Jews everywhere, and in particular, Chassidic Jews, devote hours to shopping for the most beautiful etrog. Every year since 1983, Chabad of Paris has opened an etrog store in the weeks prior to Sukkot, where thousands of Jews come to make their holiday purchase. The store goes by its French name, Le Magasin Citroën, the citron store. In 1987, the auto manufacturer Citroën filed a lawsuit claiming that the store name violated their trademark. For the trial, Chabad purchased a Citroën car, painted it to look like an etrog, and parked it outside the courthouse, inviting passers-by to shake a lulav and etrog. The judge ultimately ruled in favor of Chabad, and Le Magasin Citroën has since then opened every year at Sukkot with an etrog-painted Citroën parked in front.

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Sukkot in Shanghai

In 1998, Rabbi Shalom Greenberg and his wife Dina moved to Shanghai, China where they established the Shanghai Jewish Center under Chabad auspices. Since then the rabbi has overseen the growth of the local Jewish community and catered to the needs of visiting Jewish travelers, business people and students. His interactions with the local Chinese community have occasionally been complicated. What incident related to Sukkot caused a problem for Rabbi Greenberg in dealing with the local Chinese population?


A. In 1998 Rabbi Greenberg was cutting down bamboo that was growing wild along a stream near his house, intending to use it as schach, the roof covering for his sukkah. He did not know that it is illegal to cut down bamboo in China unless one has a license, and was arrested and brought before the Local People’s Court. He was released after paying a fine of 100 yuan (approximately $14.00), and every year since then he has obtained a license before the holiday.

B. Rabbi Greenberg had invited some of his Chinese neighbors to eat in his sukkah, and during the evening he was explaining the holiday and its traditions. At one point he mentioned that at the end of the holiday, Jews celebrated Hoshana Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot when their fate for the year is finally sealed. The guests began to giggle, leading the rabbi to wonder what he said that was so funny. He finished his talk, and after dinner he spoke to one of the guests. Said the man, “Rabbi, we are sorry if we embarrassed you by our laughter. When you said you celebrate Hoshanah Rabbah, we heard the Chinese word hoshào which means ‘belly button.’ It was funny to think that the Jews celebrate the belly button.”

C. Since arriving in Shanghai Rabbi Greenberg had been erecting a traditional sukkah every year. In 2010, he decided to alter the sukkah design slightly by adding upturned “flying eaves,” to the roof corners, as an homage to the local architecture found on Chinese temples. The rabbi was contacted by local Buddhist leaders who explained to him that his sukkah was actually an offense as it was inappropriate to utilize elements of their holy temple on a building used for religious purposes that were foreign to Buddhism. As a result, the rabbi rebuilt his sukkah, and the following year, he made a point of inviting local Buddhist leaders to dine in his sukkah and share information about the two religions.

D. When Rabbi Greenberg built a sukkah in 1998, the first time he was in Shanghai for Sukkot, he was brought before local authorities at the Public Security Bureau who investigated him for building an “underground church” for the purpose of illegal proselytizing activity. Rabbi Greenberg agreed to take down the sukkah (which he delayed doing until the end of the holiday). Subsequently he was able to educate local authorities and convince them that the tiny size of the Chinese Jewish community was proof that Jews were not a proselytizing religion and he has since been allowed to build a sukkah every year.

E. Rabbi Greenberg’s landlord noticed that the rabbi was sleeping in his sukkah and thought that he and his wife were having a marital dispute and possibly planning to divorce. When the rabbi moved back inside at the end of the holiday the neighbors rejoiced.

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Yom Kippur Neilah

Neilah is the closing service at the end of Yom Kippur. The service includes many of the same traditional liturgical prayers chanted throughout the High Holidays, including Ashrei, Selichot, and Avinu Malkeinu. Unique to Neilah is the chanting of the El Nora Alila, a Sephardic hymn attributed to Moses ibn Ezra. Within the Chabad Lubavitcher movement, there is a tradition wherein their congregations break into song at the end of Neilah with an unusual song choice. What song do they chant?


AWedding March in C major, by Felix Mendelssohn, grandson of Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.

BNapoleon’s March, which was played by Napoleon’s armies as they invaded Russia in 1812.

CHallelujah, by Leonard Cohen.

DLamentations of Jeremiah, by 16th century British composer Thomas Tallis.

EFeed Me from Little Shop of Horrors.

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Unetaneh Tokef

The recitation of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer is one of the central liturgical moments of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. The prayer speaks to one of the major themes of the holidays–“Who shall live and who shall die. Who shall perish by water and who by fire. Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,” followed by the hopeful and elevating response to those questions–“But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.” Who wrote this famous prayer?

Round challah

AThe prayer was written by Tanna Rav in 3rd century Babylonia. He was also the author of the Aleinu prayer, which, like the Unetaneh Tokef, was originally written for the High Holidays services, though it later became part of the daily prayer ritual.

BJust before he was killed, Rabbi Ephrayim of Bonn uttered these words, which he claimed were told to him in a dream by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz.

CNo one knows.

DRabbi Moses ben Maimon, more commonly known as the Rambam or Maimonides, wrote the Unetaneh Tokef as a liturgical expression of the themes of The 13 Principles of Faithhis famous commentary on the Mishneh. The Unetaneh Tokef specifically references the 10th principle–God’s awareness of all human actions and thoughts, and the 11th–Reward of good and punishment of evil.

E. RASHI, RAMBAM and RAMALAMADINGDONG is taking the rare step of allowing the author of the Unetaneh Tokef to remain anonymous. The author is a “senior official of the synagogue” who claims to be “one of the adults” in the shul. He says that he is “not of the deep-chevra, but of the steady-chevra,” and that his goal is to expose the amorality, the repetitive rants, the impulsiveness and the reckless decisions of the synagogue president, in hopes of getting all members of the congregation to reach across the mechitzah and follow a common lodestar of David.

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John McCain, RIP

Senator John McCain passed away last week. Among the things McCain will be remembered for was his willingness to work “across the aisle” when he believed it was in the best interest of the American people. For example, McCain and Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin were the primary co-sponsors of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which became known as the McCain–Feingold Act, a law intended to reduce the impact of large individual and corporate contributions to political campaigns. McCain also worked closely with, and developed a strong personal relationship with, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. McCain came close to selecting Lieberman as his running mate in 2008, but yielded to advisors who argued that selecting an Independent (and former Democrat) would be a huge mistake. In his memoir, The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations, McCain said “It was sound advice…But my gut told me to ignore it and I wish I had.” When Joe Lieberman was honored at an event at the Israeli Embassy in Washington in 2012, John McCain spoke of his connections to Judaism through his relationship with Lieberman. What comment did he offer at that dinner?

Joe Lieberman and John McCain

mccain_lieberman_hug4 by kevin is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

A. McCain told of the time he was flying with Joe Lieberman on a long flight to Germany. McCain had fallen asleep, and when he awoke “all of a sudden I hear this mumbling and this noise and I look and there’s a guy wearing a shawl and a hat on and I thought maybe I had died.”

B. McCain announced that he was going to convert to Judaism. He said that process would include Hebrew lessons, stating “of course, I think that’s an important part. I know a lot of them [Hebrew words]. ‘Mentsch.’ And ‘oy vey’...So I got a head start, thanks to Joe.”

CSpeaking of all the time he had spent with Joe Lieberman, which forced him to observe Jewish practices along with Lieberman, McCain said that he was going to convert to Judaism. “I do this not because of any particular liking for the religion. I guess I’ve had to for so many years put up with all the bulls***…that I might as well convert.” 

D. Referencing the times he used a Shabbat elevator when walking with Joe Lieberman, McCain said, “Anybody here ever been on a Shabbat elevator? Takes you a g** d*** half an hour to get anywhere.”

EMcCain, who often addressed audiences at Jewish organization events, complained, “If there’s anything that I never see again in my life I will die a happy man and that’s salmon. Why at every f***ing kosher meal do we have to have salmon?”

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Mayim Bialik

It was just announced that the hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory will be airing its 12th and final season beginning next month. The show stars Jim Parsons, Kaley Cuoco, Johnny Galecki, Kunal Nayyar, and Mayim Bialik, among others. Bialik, who plays neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fowler, has an unusual first name, the Hebrew word for water. She was not always pleased with this name, saying “When I was in grade school I was called ‘toilet water’ which was traumatic.” Why did her parents give her the name Mayim?

Mayim Bialik and Jim Parsons

Mayim Bialik and Jim Parsons by Dominick D  is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

AMayim was born via a water birth procedure, wherein the mother gives birth in a tub of warm water, which supposedly provides a more gentle transition from the warm wet womb to the cool dry air.

B. Mayim’s pregnant mother was at an Israel Day celebration at her synagogue, and was dancing to the Israeli folk song Mayim Mayim when her water burst and she was rushed to the hospital.

CShe was named after her grandmother Maryam (a form of Miriam), whose name was mispronounced as Mayim.

D. Mayim was named after her great-great grandfather, the poet Hayim Nahman Bialik. Mayim’s parents honored this lineage by compressing the Hebrew phrase, “Me-Hayim” (meaning “From Hayim”) into the name Mayim.

E. Mayim’s mother was a mute custodian working at a secret government laboratory, where she came upon a captive fish creature. She helped him escape and later engaged in a “fishing expedition” in her bathtub, which eventually resulted in the birth of her daughter, whom she named Mayim, the Hebrew word for water.

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Aretha Franklin, RIP

The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, passed away last week. In addition to her twenty #1 R&B hits, eighteen Grammy awards, multiple honorary doctorates, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (the first woman to receive this honor), Franklin and her song lyrics were also cited by what prominent Jewish person?

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin 1968 is in the public domain.

AIn his book Jewish Wisdom, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin includes a section on kavanah, which he defines as intention and focus on the meaning of the words and the movements of prayer. In addition to offering quotes on this subject from Simeon bar Yochai and Rambam, he also includes a quote from the song Spirit in the Dark, written by Aretha Franklin. “Put your hand on your hips/Cover your eyes/And move with the spirit/Go on and move/Move with the spirit.” Telushkin explains, “Here’s an example from the Queen of Soul, whose background is in the Gospel, but whose words express exactly what the rabbis mean by kavanah–that your entire body, mind, and soul work together in harmony when you are most in touch with God.”

BRabbi Michael J. Broyde, in his book The Best Love of the Child: Being Loved and Being Taught to Love as the First Human Right, argues that the most important aspect of parenting is not love, but rather how the parent treats the child. Citing the example wherein King Solomon suggests splitting a baby to determine who should be granted custody, Broyde writes that “King Solomon was not seeking to determine who is the true mother, but who is the true and proper caregiver.” Broyde goes on to state, “I will now end with the signature song/lyric of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, one that I think better encapsulates the Jewish tradition’s understanding of what the basis of the relationship is. Ultimately, it is not love that matters, but R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

CRodney Dangerfield, in his autobiography It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs, noted, “Growing up, I was always a shlemiel. Among a group of nerdy Jewish kids, I was the super nerd. I REALLY didn’t get any respect. So it wasn’t an act. But when Aretha Franklin so graciously agreed to come on my TV show and let me sing backup while she performed Respect–now that was a surreal moment for me. That might be the only time in my life that I truly couldn’t say ‘I don’t get no respect!’ ”

DTraditional morning blessings in Judaism (uttered by men) include the words “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, for not having made me a woman.” In her book How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, author Blu Greenberg wrote of this prayer and offered a perspective to Orthodox women who were troubled by these words. Said Greenberg, “This prayer speaks to how men relate to God, but it does not diminish our relationship to God. We do not utter those words every morning, but we should be uttering our own prayer to God every morning, thanking Him for our blessings. I get my inspiration from many sources, Jewish and secular. In this case, I am guided by the words of Hal David, sung so movingly by the great singer Aretha Franklin: ‘The moment I wake up/Before I put on my makeup/I say a little prayer for you/While combing my hair, now/And wondering what dress to wear, now/I say a little prayer for you.’ I don't have to concern myself with what men are saying every morning. I only have to focus on the path God has laid out for me.”

E. Former Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s emails, computer files, and other documents were obtained by special prosecutor Robert Mueller in a raid by the FBI. Among the evidence was a voicemail recording of a conversation between Cohen and Trump in which Cohen says, “You know, Donald. My wife asked me why I’m still working for you, and I gotta tell you, I didn’t have a good answer for her. But then I remembered the words of Aretha Franklin in her great song, I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You). She summed it up perfectly: ‘You’re a no good heart breaker/You’re a liar and you’re a cheat/And I don’t know why/I let you do these things to me/My friends keep telling me/That you ain’t no good/But oh, they don’t know/That I’d leave you if I could/I guess I’m uptight/And I’m stuck like glue.’ ”

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Alex Jones

In recent days commentator/conspiracy theorist Alex Jones of Infowars and The Alex Jones Show, has been banned from a variety of social media sites including Facebook and YouTube (though not Twitter) because of his racially-motivated incitement of hatred and violence, which violates their terms. Jones, whose ex-wife is Jewish, has defended Jews in the past, replying to one anti-Semitic caller that “To sit there and then say that all the ills in the world are then caused by Jews is wrong. Jews are a very diverse wide group of people who have a lot of different political ideas. I am Jewish. Now I’m not, but with talk like that–you want to kill the Jews you’re going to have to kill me.” On the other hand, Jones, who is known for saying innumerable crazy things, has said what crazy things about Jews?

Alex Jones

Alex Jones by Sean P. Anderson is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A. “Every key person in the Bush administration and now in this next administration just so happen to be the sons and daughters of the founders of Israel and Mossad chiefs and people.”

BI mean, quite frankly, I’ve been to these [white supremacist] events, a lot of the KKK guys with their hats off look like they’re from the cast of Seinfeld. Literally they’re just Jewish actors.”

CIt’s not that Jews are bad, it’s just they are the head of the Jewish mafia in the United States. They run Uber, they run the health care, they’re going to scam you, they’re going to hurt you.”

DThey [KKK members at an Austin protest rally who Jones says were really Jews] all look like Howard Stern. They almost got like little curly hair down, and they’re just up there heiling Hitler. You can tell they are totally uncomfortable, they are totally scared, and it’s all just meant to create the clash.”

EThe Jewish mafia mainly feeds on Jews so, like the ringworm–the Sephardic Jews, they killed over 100,000 of them in a radiation test.”

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A controversial viral dance craze is getting huge internet attention, inspired by the latest song from rapper Drake. Tens of thousands of people, including such celebrities as Odell Beckham, Jr., Will Smith, and DJ Khaled have taken up the In My Feelings challenge, posting videos of themselves jumping out of moving vehicles and making dance moves that mimic online personality Shiggy, who first posted a video of himself dancing to Drake’s smash hit song In My Feelings. Drake, whose real name is Aubrey Graham, and who is black and Jewish, described his upbringing in Toronto as being complicated. While he attended a Jewish Day School, he explained, “Jewish kids didn’t understand how I could be black and Jewish.” Drake’s performing debut came when he was cast as basketball star Jimmy Brooks in the teen television drama, Degrassi: The Next Generation. The day of his audition for that show was momentous, however, because coincidentally it was the day that he knew he had finally “made it” with the white Jewish students. What happened that day?


Drake en Toronto by Zulytheslg is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

A. He knew he was accepted because “this really cool Jewish kid at my school” invited him to his bar mitzvah.

B. He knew he was accepted because “these really cool Jewish kids at my school” invited him to study Torah with them.

C. He knew he was accepted because “these really cool Jewish kids at my school” invited him to smoke marijuana with them.

D. He knew he was accepted because “these really cool Jewish kids at my school” invited him to join their a cappella Jewish music group, the Torah'n-Tones.

E. He knew he was accepted because “these really cool Jewish kids at my school” invited him to one of their parties, and provided a kosher meal for him, as they knew he wouldn’t eat the treif that they usually served.

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Tu B’Av

The minor holiday of Tu B’Av was celebrated this past Friday. The name Tu B’Av means the 15th of the month of Av, which, as the middle of the lunar month, coincides with the full moon. This year’s Tu B’Av also coincided with a lunar eclipse known as a blood moon, because of the red-tinged appearance of the moon during the eclipse. Much has been written by rabbis and Jewish commentators about the possible meaning of lunar eclipses and blood moons, including Rabbi Lazer Brody, who said that last week’s Tu B’Av blood moon “may be a warning specifically for Israel and potential war from the east. In today’s context, that might be Iran.” Which of the following is not part of the basis for the celebration of the Tu B’Av holiday?

Blood moon

Blood Moon 2018 by SoulRiser is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

A. God ordained that the Jews who had fled Egypt into the desert would not actually be allowed to enter the Promised Land, as punishment for the sin of the spies (wherein the Jews believed the 10 spies who cast doubt on God’s promise, rather than Joshua and Caleb who offered a positive report). Tu B’Av marks the moment when the remaining 15,000 Israelites from the first generation in the desert realized that God in fact would allow them entry into the Land of Israel.

B. Tu B’Av marks the celebration of the lifting of the ban on intermarriage between members of the 12 tribes of Israel.

C. In the Mishnah, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said that on the 15th of Av, “the daughters of Jerusalem” would go out dressed in white garments and dance in the vineyards, upon which the young men would choose their brides. As a result Tu B’Av is now celebrated as the Israeli version of Valentine’s Day, with romantic dinner dates and flowers.

D. Tu B’Av was considered to be the final day on which wood could be cut to be brought to the Temple as a “wood offering.” Following this date, it was believed that the waning strength of the sun as summer’s end approached would not be strong enough to dry the wood, which was to be used as firewood on the holy altar.

E. Tu B’Av was established by the tuba players in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra as a day to highlight the beauty and versatility of their instruments, in protest of the lack of tuba solos in the repertoire of the orchestra.

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