Through the eyes of a historic preservationist and licensed tour-guide in Rome and the Vatican Museums, who tirelessly advocates the scholarship and the history of the Jews of Rome, the opportunity now arises to discuss the legends of the menorah at the Vatican with Professor Steven Fine on behalf of the ten-year anniversary of The Arch of Titus Project (June 5-7, 2012).
There is only one American historian of Judaism who, at eleven o'clock on June 5th, 2012, came face-to-face with the world's famous ancient ruin. He is a scholar of Jewish antiquity who led an international team intent on understanding the Arch of Titus through state-of-the-art technology, demonstrating that the menorah was of golden color. He has written exhaustively on the history of the Arch of Titus, making him a leading authority. My excitement is likewise sprinkled with tears of joy, realizing that I have been given this opportunity to ask Professor Steven Fine questions about the myths of the menorah at the Vatican.
Our evidence for the disposition of the Temple vessels after the destruction of the Temple comes from two complementary sources, explains Professor Steven Fine of Yeshiva University in New York: Josephus’s Jewish War (completed ca. 75 CE) and the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum today, completed ca. 81 CE.
I am often asked by tourists if the menorah is hidden underneath the tomb of Saint Peter, which lies directly under Bernini’s bronze baldacchino, beneath the dome of Michelangelo? Or is the menorah hidden in the vaults of the secret archives? The legends of the menorah at the Vatican are amazingly potent, says Professor Fine.
Nothing is left of the golden menorah and showbread table which, in 191 CE, apparently destroyed when a fire ravaged Vespasian's Temple of Peace. Conflicting Christian legends tell another story. Supposedly, in 410 CE, when the Roman Empire was sacked by the Visigoth King Alaric I, he is said to have taken the Temple Treasures with him. The rest, including the menorah, were allegedly moved to North Africa's Carthage in 455 CE by yet another sacking of the city by King Gaiseric of the Vandals.
Another Christian legend is as follows. In 534 CE, Belisarius, general of the East Roman Emperor Justinian, who was on his way to reconquer Rome from the Ostrogoths, took Carthage from the Vandals and transported the menorah and other treasures to Constantinople. In this case, why would one be led to believe that the Vatican has the menorah? Isn’t it more plausible that something happened to it during the various sacks of Rome by the Barbarians? The Church did not have much power until the eighth century, or at least not until 590 CE under Pope Gregory the First.
The most popular legend during the nineteenth century was that the menorah was thrown into the Tiber River and rests there in the sludge. There was even an attempt to dredge the bottom in search of it! Some believed that it was dropped from the Milvian Bridge by Constantine in the great battle where he saw his vision of the cross—a symbol of the Christian triumph. Others, going back at least to the eighteenth century, believed that it was dropped there by the Visigoths during their sack of the city. Daniela Di Castro has speculated that a company formed in Rome in 1818, the Manifesto of Association for the Privileged Excavation in the Tiber, intended to search for the menorah.
Most fascinatingly, a large modern ashlar seems to have been buried in the soil of the Ghetto in Rome somewhere around 1900. It was discovered only in 1994. The ashlar is inscribed with a large menorah, and an inscription in Latin and in Hebrew: “Here lie the three brothers of the Jewish faith, Natanel, Amnon and Elia, who found the relics of Jerusalem, the candelabrum and the ark, in the Tiber, where they still are, three hundred seventy-five steps under the island, in correspondence with the promontory of the Palatine, they were beheaded by public ax under Emperor Honorius.” Whoever created this stone clearly hoped to provoke a search for the menorah, even providing directions on how to find it.
It is my understanding that Rabbinic sources, ranging from such works as the Talmud to Benjamin of Tudela to Moses Mendelssohn, have supposedly located the Second Temple vessels in Rome? So are these the rabbinic sources taken by many today to suggest that the menorah and the other Temple vessels are “hidden” at the Vatican? Since they were in Rome in antiquity, and Jewish sources provide no indication that they have been removed, then where else could they be?
Yes, early rabbinic sources describe the menorah, Temple curtain and other vessels in Rome, and these texts probably reflect reality. This is one example, describing travel by a mid-second century rabbi from Israel: Said Rabbi Shimon: “When I went to Rome there, I saw the menorah” (Sifre Zuta, Numbers 8:2). I can imagine Rabbi Shimon visiting Vespasian’s Temple of Peace to examine the sacred lampstand. Later sources have it that those vessels are “still” in Rome. That is, during late antiquity they were “still” there: “The grinding tool of the house of Avtimas [used for making incense] and the showbread table and the menorah and the curtain and the headpiece [of the high priest] are still in Rome” (Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan A, ch. 41). For ahistorical readers, “still” is forever. Medieval Jewish and Christian legends had it that Temple vessels were hidden in a cave, though the source, Benjamin of Tudela (12th century), does not report actually seeing them. For some moderns too, the menorah is “still” in Rome.
Some contemporary Jews today believe the menorah is hidden somewhere in the Vatican? How did this menorah myth originate?
This is a very modern story, one that I explore in short in my book, The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel (Harvard, 2016). It does not show up in Jewish literature until the post-War era, though some retellings of tales about rabbis sometimes are set in the early 20th century.
One story that I particularly like comes from North Africa and Israel, it began its life in a biography published in 1946 of a prominent Libyan rabbi, Yitzḥak Ḥai Bokovza (d. 1930). According to this text, Rabbi Bokovza, then chief rabbi of Tripoli, hosted King Victor Emmanuel III in the central synagogue of the city during a royal visit to this Italian colony. Some months later, the rabbi received a telegram inviting him to the wedding of the king’s son. In fact, the king did visit the synagogue in October 1929, and his son Umberto was married on January 8, 1930. The rabbi made the journey, and according to the biography, Victor Emmanuel invited him to a private meeting. The biography reports that “all of his [Rabbi Bokovza’s] requests for his community were fulfilled.” He returned to Tripoli ecstatic. The author is clearly thrilled by this newfound attention from the king and its implications for his community.
By the 1970s, the story had developed further, claiming that Rabbi Bokovza asked the king to see the menorah and other Temple vessels, and that Victor Emmanuel turned to the Pope for assistance. Here is some of the addition:
The Pope replied that he [the rabbi] may come [to the Vatican] at such and such a time, but he must come alone. The king immediately contacted the rabbi and told him that it was all agreed with the Pope and that he would show him the Temple vessels. The day and time were set, and the honored rabbi went [to the Vatican], and was received graciously. He went down into the basement, where the vessels are kept. When the servant was about to open the curtains [and show him the vessels] the rabbi told him that he has seen enough and that he is not capable of seeing more. We do not know, and will not know, what the rabbi saw. He returned from there to the ship and from the ship to his house. In his house, he went up to his bed, [where he stayed] for forty days after which he was summoned to the heavenly yeshiva. The secret was hidden with him. This is what I heard from Ben Zion Ḥayya, of blessed memory, the husband of his [the rabbi’s] granddaughter Yehudit.
By the 1970s, legends of the Menorah at the Vatican were so ingrained in Israeli and broader Jewish culture that this motif was imposed on Rabbi Bokovza’s tale. None of the other “evidence” adduced by those who believe that the menorah is at the Vatican is any better, but go try to convince people otherwise. This is some of what I said in my book: The menorah at the Vatican is an urban legend, often believed by people of goodwill who really want the menorah to exist. For them, the menorah is the symbol of the Jewish people—all the more so once the Arch of Titus menorah was chosen for the Symbol of Israel. This decision opened a new pathway, making the arch menorah all the more present—on government buildings, passports, official documents, and on all sorts of textbooks and posters. In 1949 placement of the state “symbol” above the door of the Israeli embassy in Rome was taken by some to be a kind of triumph. In that way, it is far more than the legend of the menorah in the Tiber. As long as the menorah exists, some tie with eternity is maintained. It is a relic seen and unseen, seen in the arch and seen in Raphael’s painting of Heliodorus in the Temple at the Vatican and seen in the Jewish catacombs and in Rome’s museums, but unseen in its golden brilliance. It is a symbol of the State of Israel, called in Israeli liturgical texts “the first flowering of our redemption,” but not the hoped-for messianic kingdom for which all traditionalist Jews wait. When the menorah is restored, many believe, the messiah will be that much closer. The Vatican menorah myth is the newest stage in the long Jewish and Christian “search” for the Temple vessels. It is a Jewish version of the Holy Grail, the stuff of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code…
The seven-branched menorah and the golden Table of the Showbread, taken as war spoils at the Jerusalem Temple are of particular importance to Jews and Christians. Ten years ago (June 5-7, 2012) you were standing on the scaffolding within the Arch of Titus, just inches from its gray stone. You and an international team found traces of yellow ochre on the arms and the base of the menorah, a monumental achievement in polychrome studies, Roman and Jewish studies. With this being said, do you think the myth of the menorah hidden in the Vatican will continue to be a topic of controversy for future generations?
As I said, there are so many images of the menorah in Rome— in churches including Santa Maria Maggiore, synagogues, the Arch, the Jewish catacombs, the Jewish Museum and the Vatican Museums. Some were made by Jews, others are Christian lampstands. Visitors to Rome are surrounded by the menorah. This presence raises interest in this holy object and encodes it into modern Jewish tourism as a kind of Jewish pilgrimage to the Eternal City.
Since antiquity, Rome has been paired with Jerusalem in Jewish and Christian imaginations. As Freud scribbled on the face of a postcard showing the Arch, “The Jew survives it,” or as other modern Jews are wont to say as they stare up at the menorah carved in the Arch, “Titus you’re gone, but we’re still here. Am Yisrael Chai, the people of Israel live.” While the Vatican menorah myth is relatively new, it is potent and enduring— an ill-conceived yet understandable projection of hopes and longings millennia old.
At this point, nothing a scholar like me can do will disprove this urban myth to the committed, however unfounded it is!