Vatican: where's the menorah?

ARCH OF TITUS

The Arch of Titus is an honorific arch in Rome, Italy, constructed in the year 81 CE, commemorating the Roman victory over the Jewish rebellion in Judea (the Land of Israel) a little over a decade prior. Within the arch, various panels depict the fall of Jerusalem and the Roman sacking of the sacred Jewish Temple, including the menorah. For the Jewish People, Arch of Titus has become symbolic of the pain of forced displacement and the Jewish Diaspora.

 

FIRST JEWISH REVOLT

The First Jewish Revolt, also known as the Great Jewish Revolt or the First Jewish-Roman War, was a Jewish rebellion against the Roman occupation of the Land of Israel (then known as the Roman province of Judea) between 66 CE to 73 CE.

The reasons for the revolt were multifold: heavy taxation, Jewish-Roman religious tensions, political turmoil, Jewish dissatisfaction with Roman rule, class divides among the Jewish population (class divides that had been instigated by the Romans themselves), and, of course, a Jewish desire for independence and sovereignty from the Roman Empire.

In 70 CE, in the midst of the revolt, the Romans besieged Jerusalem, the center of Jewish rebel resistance, breaching the first two walls of the city within three weeks. What followed was a brutal seven-month siege. Jews who attempted to escape the siege were crucified; at one point during the revolt, the Romans were crucifying up to 500 Jews a day. With resources such as food quickly depleting, the Jewish rebels were defeated in the summer of 70 CE. On the Jewish date of the 9th of Av (29-30th of July, 70 CE), the Romans destroyed and plundered the Second Temple. Among the treasures plundered was possibly the Temple menorah.

According to the Jewish historian Josephus, over a million Jews were massacred in the First Revolt, though the number is disputed by some historians today. About 100,000 Jews were enslaved and some 50,000 Jewish rebels were slaughtered.

 

REVOLT COINAGE

 

COLOSSEUM

After the Roman victory over the First Jewish Revolt, the Romans plundered the city of Jerusalem and the Second Temple, taken the stolen Jewish riches with them to Rome. They also enslaved some hundreds of thousands Jewish prisoners of war and took them with them to Rome.

You are probably familiar with the Colosseum in Rome, the largest amphitheater ever built in antiquity. The construction, which was financed with the stolen riches from the Second Temple, took place over a period of 10 years (70 CE to 80 CE) and was built by some 60,000 to 70,000 Jewish slaves.

To make matters worse, not only was the Colosseum built with stolen Jewish money by Jewish slaves, but Jewish slaves were also forced to fight to the death as gladiators for crowds of up to 55,000 spectators. Not all gladiators were Jewish, however.

Jewish leadership strongly opposed the gladiatorial games, but this was of little consequence to the Romans, who forced the Jewish slaves to fight anyway.

 

PEACE GARDENS

After the Romans besieged and sacked Jerusalem, they used the acquired booty to build what were known as the Peace Gardens. There, they displayed the treasures stolen from the Second Temple. This was attested by Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and other sages when they visited Rome in the second century in an attempt to persuade the Romans to rescind some of the harsh decrees targeting the Jewish community.

Surprisingly, the sages were given the opportunity to visit with the caesar’s daughter, who had become sick. After successfully healing her, the sages were permitted to tour the Peace Gardens, where they saw the Temple treasures on display.

The Talmud documents the account of the sages, who attested to seeing a number of Jewish treasures in the Peace Gardens, including the golden tzitz worn by the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), the Parochet (curtain), and the elusive menorah. It’s worth mentioning that later sages and historians doubted this account, and that the Temple menorah might’ve never been in the Peace Gardens in the first place.

In 191 CE, the Temple of Peace in the Peace Gardens burnt down. The gardens were eventually restored, though according to a Byzantine historian, the menorah was transferred to one of the palaces on the Palatine Hill in Rome. It also, of course, could’ve possibly been destroyed in the fire, if it was ever in the Peace Gardens to begin with.

 

SACK OF ROME

In 455, the Vandals invaded and sacked the city of Rome. Most historians believe that at this point, the menorah came into the hands of the Vandals, who then transferred it to Carthage (modern-day Tunisia).

According to the Greek historian Procopius of Caesarea (500 CE-565 CE), the Byzantine army took hold of the menorah, as well as other Jewish treasures sacked from the Second Temple, in 533 CE. From that point, they transferred the menorah to Constantinople as a gift for Emperor Justinian.

According to Procopius, a Jew had warned Emperor Justinian that the Jewish treasures were cursed, and that all cities that housed it would be destroyed. In response, Justinian built the Nea Church in Jerusalem and stored all of the Temple treasures there.

In other words: it’s not outside of the realm of possibility that the menorah made its way back to Jerusalem, after all.

 

CONSPIRACIES

Of course, that’s not the end of the story. Many believe that the Vatican holds the menorah to this day, and for good reason: in the past, the Vatican actually sort of said so itself.

In the twelfth century, Sephardic Jew Benjamin of Tudela wrote that the Jews of Rome were aware that the Temple treasures were kept in a cave in the Papal Palace. In 1291, the Church of Saint John, located in the Papal Palace, had an inscription claiming that both the menorah and the Ark of the Covenant were housed within their church. In the eighteenth century, Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn also claimed that the Vatican hid the menorah in a cave somewhere.

Then came the aftermath of the Holocaust, when the Catholic Church attempted to bridge relations with the Jewish community (after 2000 years of relentless persecution, no less). The Jews, of course, found this radical and sudden shift in attitude suspicious, and as such, many assumed that the Vatican must be “hiding something.” And what in the world would they be hiding? Why, the menorah, of course.

In 1996, the Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs, Shimon Setreet, asked the Vatican for help in finding the stolen Jewish treasures. According to a Haaretz report, upon his request, “tense silence hovered over the room.”

 

CONCLUSIONS

The conspiracy that the menorah is hiding somewhere in a Vatican basement rides on several big assumptions: (1) that the menorah was ever in Rome in the first place (very likely); (2) that the menorah survived the 191 CE fire in the Gardens of Peace (also likely); (3) that the menorah survived the sacking of Rome (unlikely) or that it was returned after the sacking of Rome (also unlikely).

Even if the menorah had survived all this, in all likelihood, throughout the past 1500 years, some pope along the way would’ve probably melted it down for parts or used it for the construction of a church. In other words, it’s extremely unlikely that the menorah still remains intact.

In fact, in the early 2000s, the Israeli Antiquities Authority actually sent a team to the Vatican to search for the elusive menorah in the Vatican’s storerooms. Sadly, they came home empty-handed.

So while we might not have a very strong case for the menorah, I do believe we have a pretty strong case for something else: reparations. After all, much of Rome (and, consequentially, the Vatican) was not only built by Jewish slave labor, but it was also financed with stolen Jewish treasures.

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