This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Return of the Priestly Breast-plate*

Several months ago an unscrupulous and underpaid columnist (myself) published in the pages of this newspaper an article purporting to describe the discovery of the breast-plate of the ancient Hebrew High Priest. Having discredited my veracity on the topic I must assure my readers that the information contained in this article is actually reliable and true.

As anyone knows who has ever seen an Indiana Jones film, the question of the fate of the lost Temple treasures is one that has long fascinated writers of fiction. Among the most distinguished of such speculators was none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle composed a story entitled "the Jew's Breastplate" which deals with a fictitious theft of the artifact from the British museum. The story was first printed in a magazine in 1899 and subsequently included in a collection entitled "Round the Fire," published in 1908. The story is admittedly not one of his better known works, and has rarely been reprinted.

In 1913, there appeared in Piotrkow, Poland, a book entitled "Sefer Hoshen ha-Mishpat shel ha-Kohen ha-Gadol"--"the Book of the High Priest's Breastplate." The Hebrew volume told a story that was virtually identical to Conan Doyle's with one significant difference: the hero was the 16th century Bohemian Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, better known by his acronym "the Maharal." In the story, the Maharal journeys to London in order to solve the mysterious theft of the breast-plate from the "Belmore Street" museum.

The author of this story was one of the most popular Hebrew writers of the early twentieth century, Rabbi Yudel Rosenberg. Combining traditional rabbinical education and a broad general literary erudition, Rosenberg authored over twenty works while serving as Rabbi in various Polish communities. He was best known for his collections of wondrous tales about famous Rabbis, especially Hasidic masters. Most of these stories were works of out-and-out fiction, though usually not presented as such.

The Maharal was one of Rosenberg's favourite protagonists and appears in several of his books. In fact, Rosenberg (who apparently believed himself to be a descendant of the Maharal) is responsible for inventing the one detail about the Maharal with which most people are familiar; the famous "Golem," the artificial monster allegedly created by the Rabbi to save the Jews of Prague from anti-Semitic plots. So popular did this "super-hero" become that we find it difficult to believe that the story had no basis in either fact or legend before Rosenberg introduced it in a book published in Warsaw in 1909!

It appears that several of Rosenberg's stories, whether about the Maharal or Rabbi Elijah Guttmacher the "Greiditzer Rebbe" or others, were really Judaized versions of popular whodunits and adventure stories.

The tale of the Priestly Breast-plate was in any case destined to be one of Rosenberg's last stories. In 1913 he left Poland for Canada, where he took up rabbinical positions--first in Toronto, and later settling in Montreal--turning his attentions to more respectable rabbinic activities. From this point onwards, his production of stories ceases.

Rosenberg had presumably learned the important lesson that in Canada one cannot get away with publishing fictitious accounts about the High Priest's Breast-plate.[2]


Note: Since the initial publication of this article, an important study appeared by Prof. S. Z. Leiman : "The Adventure of the Maharal of Prague in London: R. Yudl Rosenberg and the Golem of Prague." Tradition 36, no. 1 (2002): 26-58.
Through his thorough bibliographical research, Prof. Lyman supports the general picture that Yudel Rosenberg's invented stories about Hassidic masters and famous rabbis. However. he also brings evidence that the association of the Golem to the Maharal of Prague is much earlier than claimed in my article-- and can be traced back to the early 19th or late eighteenth centuries -- still a long way from the Maharal's lifetime.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]

First Publication:

  • Jewish Free Press, August 23 1991.

Bibliography:

  • J. Dan, The Hasidic Story--Its History and Development, Jerusalem 1975.
  • S. A. Halpern, The Prisoner and Other Tales of Faith, Jerusalem and New York 1981.
  • I. Robinson, "`A Letter from the Sabbath Queen': Rabbi Yudel Rosenberg Addresses Montreal Jewry," in: I. Robinson, P. Anctil and M. Butovsky, eds., An Everyday Miracle: Yiddish Culture in Montreal, Montreal 1990.

[2] Unlike the present author; see "New Discoveries Shed Light on Temple Rituals."