Poland – Jewish king for one day

Since the waning years of the Bais Hamikdosh, Jewish kings are generally as rare as chicken teeth if one discounts the royalty of Jewish Khazaria and legendary monarchs of the lost Ten Tribes. The best known Hebrew king of these past two millennia is Rav Shmuel Wahl, grandson of the Maharam of Padua, who was reputedly appointed king of Poland for one day. Unlike an earlier article that touched on this topic, this article draws on the personal account of the episode recorded by Rav Pinchas Katzenellenbogen (5451/1691- 5520/1760), the great-grandson of the Jewish king, who served as a rav in Ansbach, Leitnik, and several other communities.

The Distinguished Guest
The revered and large Katzenellenbogen family was founded by Rav Meir Katzenellenbogen, who, although born in the German village of Katzenelbogen in 5242/1482, moved to Italy to further his studies and became the famed Maharam of Padua. The royal tale began after his son, Rav Shmuel Yehuda of Padua, helped a young prince in distress, Prince Christopher Nicholas Radziwill of Lithuania. This hospitality set in motion a sequence of events that culminated in the appointment of a Jew as king of Poland for one day.

In his record, Rav Pinchas Katzenellenbogen describes the story as he received it from his father and from other sources.

“My grandfather, Rav Shmuel Yehuda of Padua, had a son who became the famous Shaul Wahl z”l,” he writes.

“According to historians, he was given the surname Wahl because he was chosen (Wahl means ‘choose’ or ‘vote’ in German) as King of Poland by the unanimous vote of the country’s nobles. My father told me that this unusual event happened as follows.

“In his youth, while his father was still alive, Shaul was seized by an irresistible urge to travel to foreign countries. Leaving his home in Padua, he traveled from country to country and from city to city until he arrived in Lithuanian Brisk where he married the daughter of Rav Dovid Drucker and subsequently lived in tight circumstances.

“About that time, Prince Radziwill, who was second in rank to the king and one of the richest nobles of the country, desired intensely to travel abroad. Princes had the custom to travel far and wide in order to observe the character and customs of foreign peoples and so Prince Radziwell traveled from country to country until his funds were exhausted.”

According to alternative sources of this story, Prince Radziwell’s journey was not the pleasure trip Rav Pinchas describes, but a journey of penance. He had traveled to the Pope to consult how to atone for many atrocities of his youth and was advised to live as a wandering pauper for a number of years. Now, at the end of this prescribed period, he found himself penniless in Padua and needed the wherewithal to return home.

Unwilling to reveal his quandary to the local nobles, the prince found himself in a bind and decided to visit the local rabbi, Rav Shmuel Yehuda, son of the Maharam of Padua, and request a loan. After the Rav happily supplied him with money and supplies, the prince asked him how he could recompense his generosity and hospitality. To this the Rav replied,

“First, I request that you act kindly and justly towards the Jews who live under your jurisdiction, and in addition I have another request. I have a son living in Brisk. Whatever good you wanted to confer on me, give it to my son instead.”

The prince took the name and address of the Rav’s son in order to comply with his request.

A Violent Meal
In his report, Rav Pinchas describes how Rav Shmuel Yehuda cunningly persuaded the prince to comply with yet another request to attend a feast. During the feast, Rav Shmuel Yehuda ordered a servant, “Go to the market and fetch me one of the captive slaves!” In those times it was customary for people to have the power of life and death over their slaves and even to kill them if they pleased.

Following his instructions, the servant brought a slave. Then the Rav ordered the servant, “Take this slave away and kill him.” The servant removed the slave and waited a while to create the impression he had followed his orders.

After he returned, Rav Shmuel Yehuda ordered him to buy another slave, and later ordered him to do the same with him as with the first “victim.” The servant took the second slave to the first slave’s room and gave them food and drink.

After Rav Shmuel Yehuda repeated this a third, fourth, and fifth time, the flabbergasted prince asked his host, “What is the meaning of this? Why in the world are you spending your money buying five slaves and then killing them for no reason?”

To this Rav Shmuel Yehuda sarcastically replied, “Are we Jews not required to spill blood? Is my lord not aware of this?” Surprised at this response, the prince scrutinized the rabbi’s face closely to figure out what he really meant, and after a dramatic pause the Rav explained his enigmatic behavior.

“I did all that you saw,” he said, “in order to demonstrate to you that the accusation against us regarding the use of blood is absolutely evil and false. Our religion forbids us to spill blood. Nonetheless, because of this false charge, many innocent people have suffered and many Jews have been martyred. Now you are a great prince and second only to the prince of Poland. Why have I done all this? To show you that even though I had the power to kill five people without damage or a murmur of complaint, I had no such intentions. Isn’t this proof that the blood accusation is false?

“Even if we assume that the charge is true, G-d forbid, why should the Jews of Poland endanger their lives killing someone when it is possible for us to send them containers filled with the blood of slaves? I truly hope that you will do everything in your power to serve the glory of G-d by correcting this injustice.”

Acknowledging the validity of the Rav’s argument, the prince assured him that he would guard the Jews and protect them from this evil slander.

The Rise of Shaul Wahl
In his memoir, Rav Pinchas continues to relate the sequence of events that led to his great-grandfather’s becoming appointed king of Poland for one day.

“After the prince returned safely and settled himself in his home, he immediately made inquiries about Shaul and summoned him, and discovering that Shaul was a man of unusual talents he granted him many favors, showered him with gifts and appointments, and praising him to the skies to other nobles. They too favored him very much and he prospered among them. He was loved by the princes of Poland and respected for his unusual abilities.”

Shaul Wahl is identified with a personage Polish/Lithuanian documents refer to as Saul Judycz, that is, son of Yehuda, an influential, wealthy Jew of that time who derived part of his income by leasing Lithuanian salt pans from King Stefan Bator in 5338/1578, and leasing salt mines near Krakow two years later, in addition to collecting royal taxes in the Brest region.

“While he was at the height of his influence the king of Poland [King Stefan Batory] died,” Rav Pinchas continues. “At that time, it was the custom of the great nobles to gather for the election of a new ruler on a specified day on which it was obligatory to reach a decision. When that day came [August 18, 1587], the nobles [who were split into two factions, the Zamoyskis and the Zborowskis] could not agree who should be king. They debated until evening and it became apparent that it would be impossible to elect a new king on the day prescribed by law.”

In order not to allow the day to pass without appointing a ruler and contravene the rule, the nobles agreed to appoint Shaul as king for the remainder of the day and the following night, thus conforming to the letter of their law. Immediately they crowned Shaul and shouted in their vernacular, “Long live our lord, the King.” They loaded him with royal honors and he ruled for the remainder of the day and the following night. Rav Pinchas goes on to describe how King Shaul utilized the opportunity for the betterment of his Jewish brethren.

“My father told me that they placed at his disposal all the documents of the royal archives,” he writes, “for it was the custom of every ruler to add laws in accordance with his wisdom. Shaul Wahl wrote on the rolls many laws and decrees for the Jews’ welfare. I have forgotten what my father told me excepting one – a decree ordering that anyone who murders a Jew should suffer the death penalty the same as the murderer of a prince. No ransom was to be allowed – a life for a life. Until that time, this law applied only to Christians of noble rank.”

The following day, the nobles agreed upon a new candidate, electing King Sigismund III as their next monarch. The rule of the last Jewish king drew to its end, although two years later in 5249/1589, King Sigismund II granted him the title of “servus Regis” (the royal courtier) and he continued serving as advisor to the blue blood of Poland. In addition, he played an important role in the famous Council of the Four Lands that was incepted in his time.

Shaul Wahl had nineteen children and it was said of him, “Whoever has not seen Shaul Wahl in the midst of his family, surrounded by children and grandchildren, cannot appreciate the greatness of Shaul.” Although many of his notable descendants such as the Noda b’Yehuda and Rav Chaim Halberstam of Sanz merited to be crowned with the crown of Torah, none of them received the crown of earthly malchus for even a single night.

(Source: Schwarz, Leo. Memoirs of My People. New York: Schocken Books, 1963.)

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