Elchanan legend

Elchanan, the four year old son of Rabbi Shemon ben Yitzchak Hahgahdol [note: variant of "Rabbi Simeon ben Isaac"], crept into his father's study and climbed up on his lap. He had almost recovered from a recent serious illness, and his father held him tightly. The child's eyes scanned the paper upon which his father had been writing, and excitedly pointed to his name.

"Look, father, you have written my name on your paper!"

"Yes, Elchanan, this is a peyyut [religious poem] that we will recite in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah which is coming soon. It is my way of thanking God for your recovery. Do you know what it says? Let me read it to you: El-chanan nachlato b'noam l'hashpar. It means that God has given to the Jewish people a special gift, the gift of His Torah. You can try to learn the words. I would be pleased if you could remember them."

[The peyyut is still in use today and begins Mehlech amon maamorecha : "O King, validate Your promise (to Adam) who was made to stand for judgment." This is typically recited during the Shacharet morning service on the second day of Rosh Hashahnah.]

Elchanan repeated the words a few times, slid down from his father's lap and ran to play.

Rabbi Shemon and his wife Layah rose early on the first day of Rosh Hashahnah, dressed quietly, and, left for shul [synagogue]. They did not disturb the sleeping Elchanan who was in the care of Margareta, the Christian governess who had worked for them for many years.

Margareta loved Elchanan as much as if he were her own child. During his illness, she had alternated with Layah bathing his feverish body, wrapping him in warm blankets, dribbling bits of liquid into his clenched mouth, holding him tightly as he deliriously muttered garbled words. Frightened that he would die, she had surreptitiously sought the advice of Father Thomas, her priest.

"Elchanan is a brilliant boy," she confided. "If he dies without conversion, he will be damned. I want to save his soul. What shall I do?"

Father Thomas did not have to think too long.

"Wait for the appropriate opportunity. When his parents are away, you will bring the child to me. I will make arrangements to send him to another town. They will never find him. The church fathers will be responsible for baptizing him, educating him, and raising him as a Christian. You will be doing the child a great favor."

Margareta waited patiently. Having worked for Rabbi Shemon and Layah for many years, she knew that the Rosh Hashahnah prayers were very lengthy. She knew she would have time to execute the priest's plan. Taking the sleeping child in her arms that morning, she carried him to the church and returned to Rabbi Shemon and Layah's home.

Father Thomas forcibly transported him to the monastery in Bamberg. The Bishop rewarded the priest for having "saved" another Jewish child for Christendom, baptized Elchanan, and bestowed the name of Felix upon him.

When Rabbi Shemon and Layah returned home from shul they found Margareta sitting by herself. She refused to answer their questions as to the where-abouts of Elchanan. Since the government and the church were one, there was no person to turn to for help.

The priests in the monastery found Felix to be bright and curious. They treated him tenderly, rewarding him often. It did not take long to become accustomed to his new living conditions. Gradually, he forgot the little that he knew of his former Jewish life, only mysteriously remembering the one sentence from the peyyut . By the time he was seven, he knew Latin and Greek.

His teachers were so amazed at his ability to learn, that they arranged private tutors. Soon, he knew all that the tutors in the monastery in Bamberg were able to teach him. They decided to send him to Rome, to study with the Cardinals who advised the Pope .

The Pope himself heard about this wondrous child, and personally oversaw his education. When Felix reached the age of eighteen, the Pope appointed him as his assistant. At twenty-five, he was appointed Cardinal. He had all the glory, honor, wealth, and power of Rome at his beckoning.

One day, Felix rode in his carriage through the streets of Rome. Hearing screaming from a distance, he commanded the coachman to head in the direction of the commotion. Two men were harassing a teenage girl. He pulled her into his carriage. "Who are you?" he inquired.

"My name is Rachel. I am the daughter of Meshullam. I was returning from the market when those two attacked me." Felix reprimanded the two scoundrels. They glowered back at him. "She is just a Jewish girl. We can do to her whatever we want! " Felix signalled the coachman, and he returned Rachel to the safety of her father's house. Gratefully, Meshullam, one of the few wealthy Jews who was permitted to own land, invited the young Cardinal to visit him any time he needed respite from the pressures of his duties. He accepted the invitation and returned often.

Felix served the Pope loyally for the next ten years. Before the Pope passed away, he wrote into his will that the Cardinals should elect Felix as his successor. Felix ascended to the highest post in Christendom, yet he was plagued about his origin.

"Who were my parents? Was I born into this religion? Where did I live as a child?" He found no peace. He was also disillusioned because he realized that the infighting and competition between the Cardinals was based upon materialistic gain. "These people are not sincerely religious! They crave only power and wealth!"

One day, a servant announced an unexpected visitor seeking the council of the Pope. Felix did not remember Father Thomas. "I have been following your career with great interest," he began. "I was the parish priest who plotted with Margareta, the governess who was employed by your parents, Rabbi Shemon and Layah, to kidnap you from your home in Mainz. I arranged for you to study in the monastery at Bamberg. Now the Church has bestowed upon you its highest honors as well as its wealth and glory. I came all the way from Mainz so that you might reward me for the favor which I did for you."

Remaining composed, Felix ordered his treasurer to compensate Father Thomas handsomely. He thanked him and dismissed him. Then he went into his private chambers. His anguished heart convulsed with throbbing pain at the realization that he was Jewish.

"I have to find a way to let my parents know that I am alive. I will have no peace until I can stand face to face with them again." He explored many avenues toward reconciliation. As the Pope, he had unlimited power, yet, he knew, he could just not visit Mainz, a distant town, for no apparent reason. He needed a pretext. Night after night sleep alluded him, until he formulated, what he thought, was a workable plan.

"I will write a decree of expulsion against the Jews of Mainz. I will give them three months to relocate and sell their property. They will probably send a representative to Rome to plead for mercy. The person they will probably send might be my father, who I once remember hearing is the leader of the Jewish community. That way I will be able to see him again."

So saying, he wrote the decree, and sent it to the Archbishop of Mainz to implement. The Jews of Mainz sent a delegation, with Rabbi Shimon Hahgadol as its leader, to Rome to plead with the Pope.

"We simply are trying to live our lives peacefully, striving to earn a livelihood, to care for our families, and to study our Torah. We don't understand the animosity of the Church in expelling us from this town where we have lived for generations."

Pope Felix rescinded the decree. He sent two of the delegates back to Mainz, but detained their leader. He asked Rabbi Shemon to follow him into his private chamber. Pacing back and forth, the Pope asked: "Is your wife living?"

"Why, yes, and I'm certain that she is praying for my safe return to Mainz."

"Do you have children?"

"I had one son. When I first saw you, I was reminded of him."

"Is there any resemblance between him and me?"

"Many years ago, I dreamed that my son sat on a golden throne, robed in royal garments, with a golden cross adorning his chest. People bowed to him, kissed his hands. Your face is similar to the one in my dream."

"What happened to your son?"

"He disappeared when he was four years old. To this day, we have no idea if he is still alive. We suspect that the governess who cared for him was implicated, but we could never prove anything because she committed suicide shortly after his disappearance." "What was his name," gently prodded the Pope .


"Elchanan nachlato b'noam l'hashpar , father!"

He fell on his father's shoulders and wept. Rabbi Shemon Hahgahdol remained with his son for a few weeks, teaching him Torah and the history of the Jewish people. Finally, he said: "Elchanan, my son, the time has come for me to return home. Please, come back to Mainz with me. You were born a Jew, and you are a Jew in your heart."

"But father, while I sit on the throne of Rome, I have the power to protect the Jewish people from evil decrees, from expulsions, from all sorts of false accusations that lead to acts of violence."

"Elchanan, the God of our fathers, Who has protected us and sustained us through all of our history, will continue to do His part." Elchanan struggled with his choices for a while as Rabbi Shemon sat quietly.

"Should I return to Mainz and to Judaism or remain in Rome to use the power of the Church to help my people?" Finally, he whispered: "Please, return now to my mother and tell her that I will follow you in a few days." He needed time to plan his departure. Three days later, in the middle of the night, he dressed in peasant's clothing, walked silently out of the papal palace, and headed for the house of Meshullam where he spent the remainder of the night.

The next day, he married Rachel, and together they set out for Mainz. In order not to arouse the suspicion of the authorities, they pretended to be distant relatives of Rabbi Shemon and Layah. They lived peacefully for a few years, until Emperor Henry II decreed the expulsion of the Jews of Mainz unless they accepted baptism. The Jews that refused conversion were herded into the synagogue. The synagogue was set on fire. Elchanan was among the victims. It was the second day of Rosh Hashahnah.

To this day, in Ashkenazic synagogues, El-chanan nachlato b'noam l'hashpar reminds us of the story of the Jewish Pope.

The illustration by Ezekiel Schloss is from a 1953 version of the story called Elchanan: The Jewish Pope , adapted by Ben-Zion Taback and published originally in Hebrew. The excerpt above from A Sacred Trust has details which is similar to the 1953 version.