Q. Has there ever been a Jewish pope?A. There are a number of legends about a Jewish pope. One is connected with a poem incorporated into the morning prayers on Rosh HaShanah, Melech Amon Ma’amar’cha.
The author, Shimon ben Yitzchak ben Abun, lived in Mayence on the Rhine in the early 11th century and is known as a scholar, poet and man of wealth. He was Rashi’s uncle.
Legend has it that one afternoon his youngest son, Elchanan, was kidnapped by a servant and taken to a seminary where he trained for the Church. Eventually, after a brilliant career, he was chosen to be pope. Aware of his origins and wishing to see his father again, he commanded the Bishop of Mayence to order the Jews of the city to cease their observances. He knew that such a decree would send his father to him at the head of a deputation of protest.
Shimon duly came to Rome and was received by the pope and after some conversation, pope and rabbi began a game of chess. The son disclosed his identity and promised to revoke the harsh decree and to return to Judaism. Escaping from Rome, he lived as a Jew in his father’s house.
Shimon, in gratitude, composed his poem which includes an acrostic, Elchanan b’ni – “Elchanan my son”.
The Jewish pope Elchanan may be a myth although the father is a well-known figure in Jewish literary history.
At least one pope is known to have been of Jewish ancestry. Anacletus II was elected in 1130 and while this may have given rise to the legend of Elchanan, his story is not important in itself.