Here is a most unusual but fascinating story about a strange chapter in the history of our Jewish people which took place almost two thousand years ago.
It is not often that a queen decides to become a Jewess, but such was the case with Queen Helena of Adiabene, the capital of a rich country which extended over a part of the former Assyrian empire.
This remarkable event took place about half a century before the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed by the Romans.
Queen Helena lived happily with her husband, Monobaz, in Adiabene. Occasionally, Jewish merchants used to visit Adiabene on business. Through them Helena became acquainted with, and interested in, the Jewish religion. As time went on, she became so deeply attracted by the high moral standard of Judaism that she engaged a teacher for herself to learn all she could about it.
Meanwhile her husband died, and Izates, their younger son, was placed on the throne, this being the king’s dying wish. Izates was as eager as his mother to learn all about the Jewish religion, and so they employed as their teacher a Jewish merchant by the name of Ananias (Chananyah). Both mother and son were so impressed by all they learnt about Judaism that they decided to give up the pagan faith of their land and adopt the Jewish religion as their own.
It happened that a Jewish scholar named Rabbi Eleazar of Galilee called at the court of Adiabene. Eagerly, King Izates invited him to become his teacher, to which the rabbi agreed. Monobaz II, the king’s elder brother, also showed an interest and wanted to take part in the lessons, and the king readily agreed. (Clearly, there was no ill feeling on the part of Monobaz II that his younger brother had been made king on the death of their father.)
One day, when Rabbi Eleazar was teaching them the portion concerning the importance of circumcision, the divine commandment which was the sign of G‑d’s covenant with the Jewish people, the two brothers decided there and then that they would take this step in order to become real Jews. Although there might have been a great risk that this step would have caused their pagan people to rise in rebellion against the royal family, the two brothers (with the encouragement of their mother, Queen Helena) arranged to become circumcised, and the event passed off quite peacefully. Queen Helena and King Izates were very much loved by their people, and the fact that the royal house had embraced the Jewish religion did not affect the people’s loyalty to their king and queen.
After a very peaceful reign of twenty-four years, Izates died. His older brother, Monobaz, took over the throne of Adiabene.
A very close and friendly relationship developed between the Jewish people and the foreign state ruled by Helena and Monobaz. Not only were they personally very pious and observant followers of the Torah and its commands, but they influenced many of their own people to follow their example and embrace Judaism.
The royal house of Adiabene helped the Jewish state in many ways. Many a time they sent large sums of money to Jerusalem, either to provide for the needs of the Beit Hamikdash or to help the poor. Once, a very serious famine ravished the Jewish land, and soon there was no money left to buy food from other countries. Queen Helena and her son used a large portion of their own state treasury to buy grain in Alexandria and dried fruits in Cyprus, and have all this lifesaving food shipped to Jerusalem.
When Monobaz was criticized by some of his advisers for squandering his money on the poor, both in his own country and in the Jewish state, he replied:
“My ancestors amassed treasures in this world, while I gather treasures for the world to come. My ancestors placed their treasures in chambers, and had to guard them against thieves; my treasures are far from the reach of any greedy hand, and will be safe forever. My ancestors’ treasures did not produce any fruits, but mine continue to bring more and more fruit.”
Such was the piety and charitableness of Queen Helena and her sons.
In the Mishnah we are told of many gifts which Queen Helena and her son gave to the Beit Hamikdash, for which they are remembered for all time. For instance, she had a golden candelabra placed above the entrance to the Beit Hamikdash, which not only had its own light, but early in the morning it reflected the sun’s first rays. Thus, when the priests wanted to know whether it was already time to say the Shema in the morning, they had only to look at Queen Helena’s candelabra.
Another gift of Queen Helena was a tablet of gold, on which she had a certain portion of the Torah inscribed, which was of special interest to women. In addition, King Monobaz and his mother donated golden handles to be attached to all vessels used in the Beit Hamikdash on Yom Kippur.
Once, on a visit to Jerusalem, Queen Helena built a beautiful mausoleum where she and her sons were to be buried after their death. Its door had an ingenious mechanism that opened it once a year at a certain hour and closed itself again, to stay closed for another twelve months. Even now, parts of this beautiful tomb, called the Tombs of the Kings, are still left.
Before her death, Queen Helena traveled to Jerusalem to spend there the last years of her life in prayer and good deeds. According to tradition, she lived as a nezirah (nazirite) for fourteen years, to keep a vow she had made for her son and for herself.
Even after the death of Queen Helena and King Monobaz II, the royal house and the people of Adiabene maintained their friendship with the Jewish people for many years.