Elias Abraham Rosenberg

Elias Abraham Rosenberg (c. 1809 – July 1887) was a Jewish merchant from San Francisco who became an adviser to the king of Hawaii, Kalākaua and gave him a Sefer Torah and a yad which became prized possessions of the Hawaiian royal family. Details of Rosenberg's life before 1880 are unknown. He lived in San Francisco in the 1880s and developed a reputation as an eccentric in the local Jewish community. When working as a peddler, he encountered legal problems selling lottery tickets.

File:Kalakaua's silver pointer.jpg
Photograph of the yad that Rosenberg brought to Hawaii

In the mid-1880s, Rosenberg traveled to Hawaii and become popular with Hawaiians, leading to an introduction to King Kalākaua by 1886. He purported to be a fortune teller and began making predictions about the king's future. The king was impressed and grew to trust Rosenberg, spending hours at a time in conversation. The king appointed him as an appraiser of customs; Rosenberg also received a salary as a customs guard. He drew the attention of local satirists and he was a frequent target in gossip columns. He remained in Hawaii until June 1887, when he returned to San Francisco with expensive parting gifts from the king. Rosenberg died less than a month after reaching California. When he left Hawaii, the Torah and yad remained in the king's possession and were later exhibited with other royal treasures. After the monarchy was abolished, the items remained in the possession of the Hawaiian royal family. Members of the royal family regularly loaned the items to local Jews before donating them to Temple Emanu-El.

San FranciscoEdit

Few details about Rosenberg's life before he traveled to Hawaii are known.[1] Joseph Adler of the University of Hawaii states in The Hawaiian Journal of History that Rosenberg was born c. 1809.[2] He was from San Francisco[3] and Langley's San Francisco directory records that he worked as a peddler in the early 1880s.[2] He also sold lottery tickets for a time but encountered opposition from the San Francisco Police Department.[4] He was regarded as an eccentric[3] and was described by San Francisco newspapers as an "adventurer"[4] and a "curio".[2] Jewish Progress, a San Francisco newspaper, stated in 1887 that Rosenberg was a well-known figure in the city.[2]


By the fall of 1886, Rosenberg had left San Francisco for the Hawaii.[5] Rosenberg landed in Oahu, possibly arriving on a whaler.[1] He brought an ornate and well-crafted Torah and yad on the voyage. Historian John Field Mulholland states that Rosenberg is the first known Jew to have visited Hawaii, though there may have been other Jews who reached the island earlier.[6] At that time, Rosenberg had a long white beard and a charming and witty personality. He casted optimistic horoscopes for anyone who wanted one, using his Torah and yad. He soon became popular with Hawaiians, who nicknamed him "Rosey"[1] and "Holy Moses".[7] Some of them believed that his first name was "Israel". After he became well known among Hawaiians, King Kalākaua learned of his presence and met with him.[1] Rosenberg's fame led to satire; he regularly appeared in a Hawaiian Gazette gossip column[7] and was satirized by a troupe of amateur minstrels at the Hawaii Opera house.[8] In February 1887, Rosenberg paid for a notice to be placed in The Honolulu Advertiser in which he claimed to have lost a letter that was sent to him by Queen Victoria. Adler speculates that the existence of the letter was a hoax designed by Rosenberg to lend himself prestige.[9]

By November 1886, King Kalākaua trusted Rosenberg's skill as a fortune teller[10] and two months later, he granted Rosenberg a private audience at ʻIolani Palace.[9] Lorrin A. Thurston recalled that after Rosenberg became close with the King, Rosenberg routinely visited for several consecutive days at a time and the pair held long conversations.[11] Walter M. Gibson, the prime minister of Hawaii, noted that the king withheld from him most of the specific details of his conversations with Rosenberg.[5] At that time, the king had sought instruction from several people he regarded as prophets,[4] prompting William DeWitt Alexander to characterize the king's acceptance of Rosenberg as part of his "efforts to revive heathenism".[10] Rosenberg told the king Bible stories,[12] read to him from the Talmud,[1] and claimed to have found references to Hawaii in ancient Hebrew texts. This claim encouraged the king as he was seeking to restore aspects of Hawaiian religion and he established a society dedicated to the cause. A writer for the San Francisco Examiner argued that the king's efforts to revive Hawaiian religious tradition helped convince foreign residents of Hawaii that action should be taken against the king, leading to the 1887 Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii (known as the Bayonet Constitution).[4]

In late January, the king appointed Rosenberg as an appraiser of customs in Honolulu.[9] In mid-February, a Hawaiian newspaper reported that Rosenberg was no longer employed by the customs office. In March, however, he was reappointed by order of the king.[9] In March, April, and May, Rosenberg was paid $100, ostensibly for working as a guard at the customs office. On June 1, he received a payment of $260 for an unknown reason.[13] The gossip columnist of the Hawaiian Gazette alleged that though Rosenberg did no work at the customs office, he collected a regular salary nonetheless.[9] On June 1, Rosenberg received a gold medal and a silver cup from the king. "His Majesty Kalākaua I to Abraham Rosenberg" was inscribed on the cup and one side of the medal. The reverse side of the medal featured a profile of the king and there was a gold crown on the side that attached to a blue ribbon.[2] The next week, the king made a payment of $100 to a local jeweler but it is not known whether it was for the gifts given to Rosenberg.[13] The king's decision to give him lavish gifts also was criticized in The Hawaiian Gazette.[2]

Perhaps foreseeing the future, on June 7, Rosenberg left Hawaii just before the Bayonet Constitution stripped the king of his powers.[7] He booked passage in steerage class on the steamer Australia. He returned to San Francisco, but was hospitalized within a month of his return and died in July at the German hospital. Brief death notices were published in Hawaiian[2] and San Francisco-based newspapers.[8]

Torah and yadEdit

External image
  Rosenberg's Torah on display at Temple Emanu-El

When Rosenberg departed from Hawaii, he left his Torah and yad[8] with the king.[1] Though Rosenberg's Torah was a prized possession of the royal family, there were no recorded Jewish religious services in Hawaii until years later.[6] Temple Emanu-El records that Rosenberg styled himself as "Rabbi Rosenberg" but Alder notes that there is no evidence that Rosenberg was a rabbi.[12] The king, however, promised Rosenberg a plot of land for a synagogue.[1]

In 1888, the Torah and yad were included in an exhibition of royal possessions at a bazaar held by Queen Kapiolani.[14] After the death of King Kalākaua, David Kawānanakoa inherited the items.[1] His wife, Abigail Campbell Kawānanakoa, inherited them after his death, and lent them to the Hawaiian Jewish community on holidays. Her granddaughter, Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawānanakoa, later gained ownership of them. A friend of hers brought about the donation of the yad to Temple Emanu-El, where it was dedicated in 1960. The Torah was lost in the 1940s[8] but was recovered and remains in the possession of the temple.[15]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Rubenstein, Harry (April 15, 1938). "Tale of a Torah in Hawaii". The Canadian Jewish Chronicle. Retrieved December 31, 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Adler 1970, p. 55
  3. ^ a b Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'Module:Citation/CS1/Suggestions' not found.
  4. ^ a b c d "King Kalakaua led a Dual Life". The Chicago Tribune. San Francisco Examiner. February 15, 1891. Retrieved December 31, 2011.
  5. ^ a b Adler 1970, p. 53
  6. ^ a b Mulholland 1970, p. 243
  7. ^ a b c Keany, Michael (April 2008). "Rogues, Rascals and Villains". Honolulu. Retrieved December 31, 2011.
  8. ^ a b c d Adler 1970, p. 58
  9. ^ a b c d e Adler 1970, p. 54
  10. ^ a b Alexander 1896, p. 16
  11. ^ Thurston 1936, p. 32
  12. ^ a b Adler 1970, p. 56
  13. ^ a b Adler 1970, p. 57
  14. ^ Forbes 2003, pp. 267–268
  15. ^ Kaye, Ritz Mary (July 10, 2004). "Jewish community marks unveiling of Torah scroll". Honolulu Advertiser. Retrieved January 2, 2012.