Through the Jerusalem neighborhood of Morasha winds a street called Heleni Hamalka. The street is named, obviously, for Queen Helena – but who was Queen Helena?
Actually, there are two Queen Helenas. One was an empress and the mother of Constantine the Great, who in the fourth century visited the Holy Land and – according to legend – located the tunic of Jesus, pinpointed the site of his resurrection, and even found the nails used in his crucifixion. When my family rented an apartment on Heleni Hamalka last summer, I assumed that was the Helena for whom the street was named. I didn’t realize until later that there was another Queen Helena, and I am sorry not to have fully appreciated her legacy while I was in Jerusalem.
Well, at least you’ll know better next time you are in town! And the Heleni Hamalka memorialized in Morasha is definitely worth knowing. An early-first century queen of Adiabene (a district in ancient Assyria with its capital in present-day Iraq), Helena became acquainted with Judaism through Jewish merchants who visited her country and – according to legend – hired a tutor in order to learn everything she could. Around the year 30 C.E., she turned her back on the dominant Ashurite religion and – along with her younger son Izates – formally converted to Judaism.
(By the way, the royal family’s instructors included Rabbi Eleazar of Galilee, whose lesson on the mitzvah of brit milah apparently made such an impression on now-King Izates and his older brother Monobaz II that the two eagerly agreed to be circumcised. Now that’s a teacher!)
Heleni Hamalka was generous with her new people. In addition to giving money for the beautification of the Second Temple and to support the poor in the Holy Land, she dipped into the royal treasury to purchase grain from Egypt and dried fruits from Cyprus when famine threatened the lives of Jerusalem’s Jews. (When her subjects objected to her spending state funds on the Jewish poor, her son reportedly retorted: “My ancestors gathered treasures in this world, while I gather treasures for olam haba, the world to come.”) Heleni Hamalka also gifted several significant pieces of art to the Temple: a gold candlestick placed over the door, whose reflection of the sun’s rays would indicate the time to recite the morning Shema, a plate into which was carved a passage from the Torah, and the golden handles that were fastened to the Temple vessels on Yom Kippur.
Fulfilling a vow she had made in hopes of her son’s safe return from war, Heleni Hamalka lived as a nazirite for seven years, then made her way to Jerusalem. Upon her arrival, she was informed by followers of Rabbi Hillel that she had to continue living as a nazirite for an additional seven years – and she did! (According to the Talmud, she actually continued for seven more years after that – although, to be fair, the sage Judah bar Ilai holds she served for only fourteen years.) Heleni Hamalka also erected a magnificent palace that may have been unearthed during excavations of the City of David as well as an ornate mausoleum where her body and those of her descendants now lie. Her burial place is known as The Tomb of the Kings – not from any disrespect for her queenship but because the tomb was so glorious that early excavators assumed it housed the royal dynasty of Judah.
Two final notes, one ancient, one modern…
First, the ancient: Such was the piety and the wealth of Heleni Hamalka that, the Talmud reports, her sukkah stood 20 ells high – that is, about 30 feet tall. And second, the modern: Today, as did my family, you can rent an apartment on Heleni Hamalka that is unlike any other: It’s a nineteenth-century Arab cistern that has been converted into a three-level underground flat. Not quite a 30-foot tall sukkah, perhaps, but still pretty fantastic.