Hawaiian king’s Jewish soothsayer

For a number of decades, when Jews in Hawaii decided they needed a sefer Torah (this generally happened around the Yomim Nora’im season), they would borrow it from the Hawaiian royal family. How the royal family came into possession of a sefer Torah is a strange story.

The story began sometime in the 1880s when the elderly Elias Abraham Rosenberg left San Francisco as a little known personage and resurfaced in Honolulu as companion of the king. Although King Kalikaua, the “Merrie Monarch” of Honolulu, loved music, dancing, and the finest food and drinks, a more serious side to his nature seemed to draw him to the Jew.
While there is little reason to suspect that Rosenberg ever received rabbinical ordination, by adding the title of rabbi to his name; by appearing in Hawaii with a sefer Torah and a silver yad; by seeming to know more than a smattering of astrology; and by having a good acquaintance with Biblical Hebrew, Rosenberg made more than a nodding acquaintance with the island monarch who found him an unending fountain of wisdom and advice. They often spent hours in conversation for days on end.

Much of this time was spent teaching the king Hebrew. The king also loved Rosenberg’s astrological predictions. It certainly helped that they were generally in the king’s favor, especially when they averred that the king would “triumph over his enemies and see them under the sod.” All this led a San Francisco paper to report that “a curio by the name of Rosenberg, who is too well known in our neighborhood to need much introduction, is cavorting around Honolulu and has succeeded in ingratiating himself in the King’s favor.” A Honolulu paper noted that “Holy Moses” (the moniker by which less respectful classes of the populace referred to him) was casting impressive horoscopes for powerful people in the kingdom and forecasting the future of the nation while sitting in a private sanctum in the king’s palace. By 1887, Rosenberg had a comfortable job in customs where, the press complained, the hardest work he ever seemed to do was pick up his salary.

But all good things must come to an end. Either due to failing health, or because Rosenberg did not need his astrological powers to foretell that all was not well with the royal family, he decided to leave. Charged with corruption and extravagance, King Kalakaua lost most of his powers when rebels forced him at gunpoint to sign the Bayonet Constitution in July 1887. This left him more a figurehead than an actual ruler.

By that time Rosenberg had flown the coop, carrying with him a gold medal from the grateful king that bore the legend, “His Majesty Kalakaua to Abraham Rosenberg.” His sefer Torah was left behind for safekeeping. He arrived in San Francisco on June 14 and died a month later at the age of 78.

His memory is preserved since local Jews continued using the royal family’s Sefer Torah for decades. In 1959 the silver yad was handed over to the Jewish community while the sefer Torah (which had temporarily disappeared) resurfaced in 1972 minus its atzei chayim.

Tragically, this memorial to one of Hawaii’s most colorful characters is presently languishing in the main sanctuary of a Reform synagogue.

(Sources: Adler, Jacob. “Elias Abraham Rosenberg, King Kalakaua’s Soothsayer. The Hawaiian Journal of History. vol. 4, 1970.)

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