Searching for the Vatican's Menorah

I still vividly remember the image. Our Talmud class was studying Tractate Pesahim, for which we regularly consulted the commentary of the outstanding medieval scholar, R. David of Bonfil. While only that single volume remained extant, legend had it that R. David had authored a commentary spanning the entirety of the Talmud. One day, before launching into his lecture, my teacher opened with an “important” (read: humorous) announcement: he had dreamed that upon visiting Rome, he unearthed the missing volumes in the Vatican’s basement.

This small episode, I think, captures something of the immense popularity, both in popular culture—think Indiana Jones and The Da Vinci Code—and Jewish culture, of the notion that sacred treasures are concealed in the lower level of the Vatican. At this time of year, the legend that the Temple candelabrum, the Menorah, has been stashed away in a secret location, is especially resonant. What is the provenance of this fable, and what are we to make of its pervasiveness?

This year, thanks to Steven Fine’s new book The Menorah: From the Bible to the Modern State of Israel, which dedicates an entire chapter to our subject, we have new insight into the evolution of the Vatican narrative. It is worth stating at the outset that, to the best of my knowledge, no academic historian believes there is any credible evidence placing the Menorah in today’s Vatican. But perhaps more fascinating is not the historicity of the folklore but its three-stage development. If I understand Fine correctly, it turns out that the unfolding of the Vatican legend mirrors key elements in the development of the Hanukkah story. Before coming to the present holiday, let’s begin with the earliest roots of the Menorah’s sojourn into exile.

The Menorah in Rome

Texts placing the Menorah in Rome extend back to the rabbinic period. Sifri Zuta (to Bamidbar 8:2) reports that Rabbi Shimon traveled to Italy’s capital—he couldn’t have visited the Vatican, of course, because it wasn’t built until roughly 700—and saw the candelabrum. Along similar lines, the Talmud records that R. Shimon bar Yohai viewed the still-bloodied Curtain while in Rome (Me’ila 17b). Another text records that “the grinding tool of the house of Avtinas, Table, Menorah, Curtain, and Head Plate are still placed in Rome” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan I:41:12).

While a highly influential view circulated by the 6th century historian Procopius (d.c. 556) places the Temple vessels in modern-day France or even Jerusalem, a number of modern authors reiterated the rabbinic view. In his Biur, for example, even after rejecting the reliability of Roman sketches of the Menorah as a reliable source of information, Moses Mendelssohn approvingly cites the relevant rabbinic sources.

The early twentieth century saw an important new wrinkle in the narrative, with authors increasingly placing the Temple vessels not just in Rome but specifically at the Vatican. Drawing on Arthur Conan Doyle’s widely-circulated 1899 fictional story The Jew’s Breastplate, R. Judah Yudl Rosenberg, a broadly-educated rabbinic scholar and startlingly creative literary personality, wrote a series of belles lettres entitled Nifla’ot Maharal that were later acclaimed as classics of pseudepigraphy. His Hoshen Mishpat shel ha-Kohen Gadol, published in 1913, presented itself as a newly discovered manuscript penned by none other than sixteenth century rabbinic titan R. Judah Leib Loew, known by the acronym Maharal. “Maharal” records that in 1590, he learned that the twelve stones of the priestly breastplate had been stolen from a British museum. By posing as a wealthy collector of antiquities, Maharal managed to make contact with a Captain Wilson, who recovered the precious stones. En passant, Rosenberg writes:

Regarding the curtain and the headpiece of the high priest: I can respond that they are not found in Britain, and only in the royal treasures in Italy they are located—but only in pieces, and some are quite small. Small pieces of them are also located in the museum of the papists in the city of Rome.

Of course, Rosenberg mentions nothing of the Menorah, but his (invented) stories were taken quite seriously by many in the Orthodox, especially Hasidic, communities. This helped fuel the widespread contemporary belief that the Temple vessels, including the Menorah, are secretly stashed away in the Vatican basement.

Rosenberg spun his literary yarn, as stated, in 1913. Just a few decades earlier, around the turn of the nineteenth century, another layer was being added to the legends. Reports began to circulate of imagined expeditions by great rabbis to view, if not repossess, the candelabrum in Rome.

An early instance of such an imagined trek was attributed to the Radziner Rebbe, best known for his attempt to rediscover the tekhelet dye. As part of his search, R. Leiner traveled to Italy in 1887 and again in 1888, visiting Naples’ then-cutting-edge saltwater aquarium. Radziner tradition adds that while in Italy, he took the opportunity to stop off at the Vatican, where he examined the priestly clothing and headplate. Later Hasidic lore added the Menorah to the list.

A second example concerns Baruch Shneur Zalman Schneerson, who reports that the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Sholom Dovber Schneerson, was in Rome in 1906 and could have chosen to view the Temple vessels. Having been told that a local rabbi was the gateway to receiving permission to enter the Vatican, the Rebbe went to the synagogue on Friday eve. To his dismay, he found that the local Temple was a modernizing one in the style of the Reform movement. Placing his halakhic commitments ahead of his curiosity, the Rebbe chose to forego the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, did an about-face and returned home.

Finally, a legend, first circulated in 1946 and elaborated in the 1970s, tells that the Libyan king arranged with the Pope in 1930 for Rabbi Bozovka, chief rabbi of Tripoli, to view the Temple vessels. The story records that the rabbi had the opportunity to view the vessels but, at the last second, opted not to:

When the servant was about to open the curtains the rabbi told him that he has seen enough, and that he is not capable of seeing more … We do not know, and we 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, for forty days, after which he was summoned to the heavenly yeshiva. The secret was hidden with him (Daor Yehuda, “Memories of Rabbi Yitzhak Hai Bozovka,” in Sefer Brit Ha-lahmi, ed. Yitzhak Hai Bozovka (Jerusalem, Ha-Ma’arav, 1975), 22).

The story borders on the melodramatic. But there is a common denominator between these modern retellings. With dramatic shifts in transportation, for perhaps the first time since the rabbinic period, Jews imagine that their leaders now have viewed—or for religious reasons, opted not to view—the Temple vessels in Rome.

A Menorah Fantasy

As the first few decades in the twentieth century passed, however, the Jews’ political position became increasingly precarious. The relationship to the Church remained poor, and, in the 1930s, menacing storm clouds began to gather over Europe. Not coincidentally, in these years, the Menorah myth took a turn from legend to fantasy.

In particular, Stefan Zweig’s The Buried Candelabrum (1937), although technically not falling under the rubric of the Vatican stories, is worthy of mention. Zweig draws upon the aforementioned literary-historical tradition popularized by the sixth century historian Procopius, who cites an account that the Menorah was restored to Christian Jerusalem in 455. In Zweig’s fictional narrative, however, the Jews managed to clandestinely swap out the real candelabrum for a replica. The true Menorah was restored to Israel and buried on the road from Jaffa to Jerusalem.

Zweig concludes his tale by comparing the lampstand to the long-suffering Jewish people, imagining that one day “someone will dig the Menorah on that day when the Jews come once more into their own, and that then the Seven-Branched Lampstand will diffuse its gentle light in the Temple of Peace.”

The precipitously declining political fortunes of the Jewish community triggered a radical change in the meaning of the lost Menorah. In the face of the rise of the Nazi party, the myth transformed from plausible narrative to escapist fantasy.

After Nostra Aetate

Following the end of World War II, the founding of the State of Israel, and Vatican II, the Council at which the Church adopted the ecumenical document Nostra Aetate, the narrative shifted again, first subtly and then quite publicly. In 1994, The Jewish Press ran a column highlighting the experiences of an Oscar Goodman of Queens, who relates that in 1962, he and his wife were invited to meet with Pope John XXIII. According to Goodman, the Pope was murdered in 1963 for having invited Jews to see the Temple vessels. (In fact he died from stomach cancer.) Oscar records that after meeting with the Pope as part of a delegation, he was taken down a number of flights of stairs to a dimly lit room containing a gold Menorah—he described it as similar to the Arch of Titus Menorah but without a base or pedestal—wooden table, washing basin, and a number of blackened utensils. The article explains Oscar’s goal in publicizing his story: “Oscar just wants to see the artifacts he saw on that fateful day be returned to their rightful owners, the Jewish people.”

For perhaps the first time, there is not only a dream of restoration, but a concrete desire that the vessels be returned. The turnaround from Zweig’s fictional account is stunning: instead of imagining a Trojan Horse-like ploy that restored the Menorah, Goodman puts forward a practical program of requesting the vessels’ restoration. Whether Goodman saw the original Menorah or a mere medieval imitation is beside the point. More remarkable is his insistence upon their rightful rightful.

The new sense of Jewish empowerment became fully realized on January 18, 1996, when Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs Shimon Shetreet met with Pope John Paul II for the first time. Shetreet asked for the Church’s cooperation in locating the Menorah. While acknowledging that he was not certain that the Menorah was in the Vatican, and stopping short of asking outright for the stolen goods’ return, Shetreet’s request marked a previously unimaginable assertiveness from the Jewish side. According to the Haaretz write-up, following the appeal, “a tense silence hovered over the room.” The forward request, at least according to the left-leaning daily, was taken as borderline offensive. The possibility of an icy response apparently did not dissuade the Israeli official.

Following Shetreet’s inquiry, Israel’s Chief Rabbis Metzger and Amar made a similar solicitation upon their first visit to the Vatican, and President Moshe Katsav followed suit as well. In 2004, at Katsav’s urging, the Israel Antiquities Authority sent a team to Rome to search the Vatican storerooms for signs of archaeological artifacts. (They found nothing unexpected.) In 2009, right-wing politician Baruch Marzel filed suit against Benedict XVI, demanding the return of the Menorah just days before the Pope’s arrival in Israel. In 2013, following the appointment of Pope Francis, Rabbi Yonatan Shtencel of Bnei Brak sent a poignant letter to the Pope requesting the return of the Menorah. The Vatican responded with a diplomatic missive dryly noting that there was simply no evidence to support the claim.

The legend of the Menorah, then, has mirrored the Jews’ political position vis-a-vis other nations and the Church in particular. The story began as a mere historical assertion of fact intermingled with legends about pilgrimages to view the holy vessels. In darker times, it took the shape of fictional fantasies imagining a reassertion of vanishing Jewish power. In context of the new landscape in Jewish-Christian relations, a resurgent global Jewish community, and the modern State of Israel, it developed into a concrete reaffirmation of power. What is more, tellingly, only the final stage provoked significant discomfiture, whether from the Israeli left (Haaretz), historians (such as Fine), or the Vatican (in the case of Shetreet and possibly Shtencel).

The Story of Hanukkah

At this juncture we can observe some striking similarities between the story of the Menorah and Hanukkah. In brief, Hanukkah too underwent three primary stages of development. The consensus of historians and many traditional thinkers, following the books of Maccabees, is that Hanukkah was originally endowed with a heavy military character. The rabbis, however, seeking to avoid stirring up rebellion and pressing a more spiritually-minded vision of post-Temple Jewish life, stressed the miracle of the oil at the expense of the battlefield miracles. Later, in Zionist circles, there was a resurgence of interest in the political and military elements of the Hanukkah story, with both the Labor and Revisionist movements recasting the cause of the Hasmoneans as their own. Although, for a variety of reasons, Hanukkah became less popular in the era of Ben Gurion and the founding of the State, Religious Zionist groups such as Gush Emunim, architects of the settler movement, have described themselves as modern-day Maccabees: we are, as Eliezer Don-Yehiya recorded it, “the Hasmoneans of [our] generation, the few against the many, fired with the spirit of truth and faith.”

Although the storylines of the Menorah and Hanukkah are far from identical, it is worth noting their points of convergence. Each has undergone radical transformations in emphasis as Jewish power has waxed and waned. What is more, it is specifically in context of Jewish autonomy that the hard ethical questions confronting nation-states arise: To what extent should power be celebrated and/or strongly asserted? Ought we demand the restoration of the Menorah, emblem of the modern State of Israel? Do we really desire a Religious Zionism that sees itself as the Maccabees’ heirs? The restoration of sovereignty inevitably generates not only increased responsibility but also ethical quandaries, leading, all-too-often, to internal division within the Jewish community.

The Menorah and its holiday remind us of the dialectical lessons of power. On the one hand, with power comes the potential for abuse and therefore grave responsibility. At the same time, as Ruth Wisse underscored in her vigorous volume Jews and Power, it is possible to overdo the self-flagellation. After all, the problem of power is inherent to the restoration of sovereignty. Better to be questioning the ethics and historical bona fides of Shetreet’s request, or even be compelled to confront the extremism of people like Marzel (and confront we must), than to be Zweig’s sheep just two years from being led to slaughter. Hanukkah, at least in its earliest and possibly present incarnation, reminds us that while we must always remain vigilant, there’s also a time and place to celebrate, in the words of Maimonides, “the return of Jewish monarchy for over 2,000 years” (Laws of Megillah and Hanukkah, 3:1). Power, when wielded responsibly, is not a dirty word.

We are no more likely to find a Menorah in the Vatican than we are to discover the “lost” Talmudic commentary of R. David of Bonfil. Still, Hanukkah and its illuminating symbol remind us of the dual lessons of Zionism, too often presented as representing opposing views, but which in fact are in healthy dialectical tension with one another. On the one hand, power is seductive. It’s all too easy to overstep boundaries, make inappropriate and even dangerous requests, and to otherwise misuse the gifts of sovereignty. Still, better to be in position to demand the Menorah than to only imagine taking it back in our wildest of dreams.