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Wahl, Sha’ul

(d. early 1600s), merchant; legendary king of Poland for a day. Sha’ul Wahl was the son of Shemu’el Yehudah Katzenellenbogen, rabbi of Padua. Sha’ul’s grandfather, Me’ir, commonly known as Maharam (“our teacher, the rabbi Me’ir”) Padua, was born in Hesse-Nassau in the city of Katzenellenbogen, spent his early years at yeshivas in Poland, and moved to Italy. Sha’ul Wahl lived in Brest-Litovsk (Brisk; Brześć nad Bugiem), where he was a large-scale merchant dealing in lumber, salt, and the collection of tariffs and customs duties. For a period of time, he also leased the revenues of the salt mines at Wieliczka, near Kraków, from the Crown. He is best remembered, however, for his association with the widely known legend according to which he was king of Poland for a day.

In 1588, Sigismund III leased royal revenues in the region of Brest-Litovsk to Wahl for a period of 10 years. One year later, the king bestowed the rank of servitor regis on him, a title that was a source of great prestige within the Jewish community. Wahl was an important and respected figure in Lithuania and head of the community of Brest-Litovsk. He had taken part in the Council of Four Lands from 1581. His son Me’ir was the rabbi of Brest-Litovsk and the first to bear the surname Wahl. According to tradition, Sha’ul Wahl died in 1617, while others date his death to 1622; his tombstone has not been located.

With variations, the legend about Wahl describes how the Polish nobility came to choose him as king: when the previous Polish monarch died, the noble electors were unable to decide on a successor within the time allotted by law. They therefore decided to crown Sha’ul until they could reach an agreement. After he was seated on the throne, the nobility and clergy proclaimed, “Long live the king!”; then the “book of decisions” was brought to him in which he recorded, in his own hand, various statutes and directives that benefited Jews.

The legend also explains Sha’ul’s rise to greatness as follows: Lithuanian Prince Radziwiłł made a pilgrimage to the Land of Israel, returning via Italy. Having run out of funds, he turned to the local rabbi, who loaned him a large sum of money. Before leaving Padua, he asked the rabbi whether he had any relatives living in Poland, and the rabbi told him about his son. When Radziwiłł reached Brest-Litovsk, he sent for Sha’ul and bestowed his favor upon him. This story too is apocryphal: while Karol Mikolaj Radziwiłł did indeed make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the late sixteenth century and returned via Italy, there is no evidence that he had contacts with Jews along the way.

Stories about Wahl circulated widely, with variations from different regions and periods. The element common to all versions is that Wahl served for a short time as king. Historians reject the possibility of any such scenario, arguing that popular imagination turned a Jewish communal leader who was as rich as a king into the king of Poland himself. The parallel with the legend of the medieval Jewish merchant Abraham Prochownik being called on to serve as king but urging that Piast, putative founder of the first Polish royal dynasty, be chosen, is obvious. Wahl’s story acts in a number of ways, providing, for one, an etiological explanation of his surname, connecting it to the Yiddish velen, meaning “to choose” (in this case as king). In reality, the name may be connected with Sha’ul’s Italian roots: in Polish, the word for Italian is Włoch; in German, Wohl. A related legend tells of Sha’ul’s daughter Ḥanah, whom he had to marry off hurriedly to an aged Torah scholar to prevent her from being kidnapped and forcibly married to the king. This story may be connected with the tale of Esterke, who was supposedly the lover of King Casimir the Great.

Among the pro-Jewish acts attributed to Wahl in the short period of his rule is the establishment of synagogues: Jewish folklore connects his name to various synagogues, including those in Lublin, Brest-Litovsk, and Raszyn. In Lublin’s Sha’ul Wahl Synagogue, it was customary to assign hakafot and ‘aliyot to the Torah on Simḥat Torah with the introduction, “with the permission of the ruler, Rabbi Sha’ul Wahl.” When the synagogue in Brest was dismantled in 1840, an inscription was discovered in the women’s section, stating in part, “the leader, Rabbi Sha’ul son of the Gaon Shemu’el formerly of Padua, built the women’s gallery in the synagogue for Torah and testimony, in memory of his righteous and pious wife Devorah.”

Pinḥas Katzenellenbogen’s memoir of the mid-eighteenth century, Yesh manḥilin (published in 1986) contains the first written record of these legends. He heard them from his father as early as 1733 and notes that the information was well known. The manuscript of Yesh manḥilin, housed in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, was the prime source of the legends recorded in Hirsch Edelman’s Gedulat Sha’ul (1854), commissioned by Wahl’s descendants and republished in 1925 with an introduction by Majer Bałaban. Versions of the tale still form part of Jewish folklore and are recorded in the Israeli Folktale Archives at the University of Haifa.

Suggested Reading

Majer Bałaban, Yidn in Poyln: Shtudyes un shilderungen (Vilna, 1930), pp. 17–38; Haya Bar-Itzhak, Jewish Poland: Legends of Origin (Detroit, 2001); Hirsch Edelmann, Gedulat Sha’ul (London, 1853/54); Pinchas Katzenellinbogen, Yesh manḥilin, ed. Yitzchok Dov Feld (Jerusalem, 1986); Naomi Vogelman-Goldfeld, “Sa’ul Wahl da Padova, re di Polonia,” in [Ve-zot le-Ang´elo] > We-zo’t le-Ang´elo: Raccolta di studi giudaici in memoria di Angelo Vivian, ed. Giulio Busi, pp. 593–598 (Bologna, 1993).



Translated from Hebrew by David Strauss