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Article by Leo Zagami
Myths of The Da Vinci Code/Indiana Jones variety about some of the most important ancient Jewish relics that were originally placed in the Herodian Jewish Temple located in Jerusalem 1,950 years ago, being squirreled away somewhere in the Vatican’s vault, have been abundant in the last 100 years.
What is history and what is myth? What is true and what is legendary?
In his 1996 meeting with Pope John Paul II (1978–2005), Israel’s Minister of Religious Affairs Shimon Shetreet reported, according to The Jerusalem Post, that, “he had asked for Vatican cooperation in locating the gold Menorah from the Second Temple that was brought to Rome by Titus in 70 C.E.” Shetreet claimed that recent research at the University of Florence indicated the Menorah might be among the hidden treasures in the Vatican’s storerooms. “I don’t say it’s there for sure,” he said, “but I asked the Pope to help in the search as a goodwill gesture in recognition of the improved relations between Catholics and Jews.”
Of course, the speculation that the Vatican actually had such items, including the famous menorah, or seven-branched candelabrum, at the center of the Chanukah story, has yet to be proven a reality, but historian Josephus Flavius reported the event in which Emperor Vespasian took these items specifically as his special treasures for safekeeping, including an ancient Torah scroll.
Now, in more recent years according to Vatican expert Dr. Michael A. Calvo, there is more confirmations and evidence that these ancient artifacts found their way to the Vatican, after making their way to Byzantium: “These include the Temple candelabra given to Pope Innocent III by Baldwin I after the sacking of Constantinople and the massacre of the Christian Orthodox population,” Calvo claims.
“Temple shofars and utensils; garments of the High Priest; the Tzitz – a gold plaque with the words Kodesh L’Hashem (“Holy to the Lord”); cultural objects, and many other objects d’art, books, and manuscripts that the Vatican and other churches have appropriated and placed in their own storerooms, libraries, and museums.”
The Jerusalem Post is now back on the case stating that “There are several people alive that can personally attest to being eyewitnesses of the Vatican possessing Temple vessels, including the Menorah candelabra.”
One of the first encounters with the Temple vessels happened in 1930, when Italy’s King Vittorio Emanuel III managed to grant 77-year-old Rabbi Yitzchak Chai Bozovka, an expert in all areas of Torah both hidden and revealed who authored many outstanding books, the possibility of a rare visit to see these incredible artifacts from the Second Temple. The rabbi met with a guard at the Vatican gates who would personally take him there, with the students of the rabbi remaining outside. He went four stories down, under St. Peter’s Museum, to a hidden maze of ancient galleries attached to the Necropolis. After finally reaching the cave entrance, he saw what he saw, and wrote later that he saw “enough,” and was not capable of seeing anymore. He then turned around and ran out of the building. Upon exiting the place, his students were shocked to find that his face was shining. From that day forth, the rabbi took it upon himself to abstain from speaking, until he died on February 21, 1930, 40 days later.
More recently, thirty-five years ago, a certain outstanding Swiss Vatican guard (now legally blind probably from seeing the same shining light) who was posted close to the dormitories, found out that he was Jewish. This inspired him to decide to open the gate at night and make his way down. He speaks of walking right to the end and finding a narrow, cramped tunnel that leads to a room of statues, a mysterious hallway, and then the cave where he saw (and nearly touched) the Menorah candelabra, shining with white light. The next morning he told the whole tale to the chief rabbi of Rome at the time, Rabbi Elio Toaff, who was known to have testified to its truth.
From the moment the Menorah was originally placed in King Solomon’s Temple sometime between 967-961 BCE, it entered, in Leone’s felicitous phrase, “the temporal web of the history of humankind.” The menorah remained in the First Temple until 586 BCE, when the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, carried off its treasures, and in the process presumably melted Moses’s menorah down for its gold—“presumably” because, being prone to abundant legends, even this original menorah has been thought (or rather: hoped against hope) to have survived hidden in the foundations of the First Temple, where it still awaits discovery.
Whether Moses’s Menorah was saved or, more likely, newly fabricated, a golden Menorah was on hand when the Jews returned from their Babylonian exile and built the Second Temple (535-515 BCE). This is believed to be the Menorah described in Zechariah’s fifth vision as being “all of gold, with a bowl upon the top of it, and his seven lamps thereon, and seven pipes to the seven lamps.”
The Menorah that is now supposed to be in the Vatican was rescued from the Second Temple after it was set on fire by one of Titus’s soldiers.
The view that the Temple vessels, or keylim, are in Rome, dates to the early Middle Ages and builds on rabbinic arguments that they are still there, but the myth about the Vatican is a product of the post-Holocaust generation in New York, which harbors “justifiable” suspicion of Catholics. That’s according to Steven Fine, who directs Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies and is the scholar behind the university’s exhibition The Arch of Titus — from Jerusalem to Rome, and Back.
The prevalence of the myth among Jews “increased with Vatican II and their still-justifiable disbelief that the Church, which had been a persecutor for centuries, could change,” Fine says. “The strength of the myth grew as the menorah became a symbol of Israel, and it exploded in public as the Vatican and Israel established relations late in the last century.”
The official liaison of the pope to Israel, Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, apostolic nuncio in Israel and apostolic delegate in Jerusalem and Palestine, stated in an official letter dated November 15, 2013, that if the Temple treasures do exist, surely the church would return those lost items to their “legitimate owners” but that’s not always the case with the Vatican.
Harry Moskoff who is the Canadian-born Managing Director of Moskoff-Media (Israel), MMLC and a contributor to many Israeli publications, and an internationally acclaimed expert on sacred Jewish artifacts seems to want to take a more legal approach to the subject.
Moskoff writes in a recent article published by The Jerusalem Post, that, “a team of lawyers and ambassadors associated with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) are joining me in this undertaking, as I meet up with the Department of World Religions at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as the Papal Nuncio to Israel, Archbishop Adolfo Tito Yllana. My aim, ultimately, is to identify the sacred items mentioned above at the Vatican by cross-referencing them with the earliest acquisitions of the Vatican (including the 12th-13th century) as they appear in their original inventory listings. It’s interesting to note that this manifest can be found in the Papal Secret Archive located behind a heavy door at the end of a corridor on the lower floor in the Tower of the Winds (originally built in 1578). Only the chief prefect has this key. This inventory list predates the time when the popes first used the Vatican as a place of residence, beginning in 1377. If things don’t work out with the Vatican, that’s not so great. The State of Israel, therefore, should start preparing a legal repatriation case arguing that the ancient Temple artifacts, wherever they may lie, fully belong in Jerusalem as the everlasting national heritage of the Jewish people. Unless this happens, we might have to face a new reality coming down from those long corridors sometime soon.”
 Lisa Palmieri-Billig, “Shetreet: Pope Likely to Visit Next Year,” Jerusalem Post January 18, 1996, p. 1.
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