When the Romans breached Jerusalem’s walls in 70 AD, they set upon a spree of slaughter and pillaging, the barbarity of which truly chills the blood.
Josephus records the death toll at 1.1 million – a number compounded by the many visitors who had come to celebrate Passover. Jerusalem’s houses were burned, its walls were razed. Even the Second Temple was reduced to rubble (though some say the fire, though left to rage by the Romans, was started by the Jews to impede the advancing legions).
So complete was Jerusalem’s destruction, Josephus writes, that “there was left nothing to make let those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited.” But the Romans did take mementos of their victory away with them in the form of both slaves and spoils from the Temple.
Standing near the entrance of the Roman Forum, the Arch of Titus depicts several such treasures the Romans paraded in triumph during their procession through the city.
Jewish treasures on the Arch of Titus
We can clearly make out two trumpets (the silver trumpets mentioned in Numbers 10:2?) leaning against what appears to be the shew-bread table. And upon this shew-bread table sits a chalice (which is curiously an image found throughout the Jewish rebels’ coinage throughout the war).
But the image that draws your attention most powerfully is the Six-Branched Menorah hoisted atop the processing legionaries’ backs.
As an object of symbolic and ritual significance, the Menorah needs no introduction, dating right back to the time of Moses who received its design from God. What is significant about its appearance here, however, is that this is the last trace we have of the sacred candelabrum.
Subsequently lost to history, the Menorah has become an intense subject of historical speculation, the culmination of which appears in the recent publication Secrets of the Menorah, for which I have contributed a chapter.
→ For more information on religious Jewish symbols during the Roman period, see Rabbi Harry H. Moskoff
What happened to the Menorah?
Some experts believe the Menorah remained in Rome until the Vandals sacked the city in 455 CE. Others suggest it was melted down in one of the many fires that tore through the city during antiquity, perhaps even the one under the emperor Titus in 80 CE.
Certain accounts locate the Menorah in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), where it was transported after being transported to the North African city of Carthage. Others believe it lies on the bed of the Mediterranean, consigned to oblivion after its transport ship was wrecked en route.
Perhaps the most intense search for the Menorah was carried out in 1818, here in Rome. Believing this shipwreck occurred not out at sea but on the River Tiber, a navigation company was founded to trawl the river bed in search of the sacred Menorah. But it won’t surprise you to learn the search yielded no results, and that before long the venture was abandoned.
But what if the Menorah never left Rome after all?
The Vatican’s Jewish Treasures
Perhaps the most attractive hypothesis situates the Menorah deep within the vaults of the Vatican’s vast collection. Many have claimed the Catholic Church hid the candelabrum either in the secret vaults beneath the Vatican or beneath the Church of Saint John the Lateran (which was officially theorized in 1291).
The search for the Menorah is certainly intriguing, and experts are always finding new angles on the evidence to seek out its location and bring Judaism’s symbol to light.
One story above all fascinates me: that told by Rabbi Mizrachi (available online at DivineInformation).
Rescuing the Menorah
Rabbi Mizrachi talks of a conversation he had with Rabbi Aderet in New York a few years previous. Rabbi Aderet had made contact with someone inside the Vatican who was offering to release the Menorah in exchange for $6 million.
As we have said, that the Menorah may be located in the Vatican is hardly unsurprising. Its 7 floors of secret vaults contain trillions of dollars of Jewish treasures – ancient letters written by rabbis, relics and treasures. Looted throughout history during pogroms and, most recently, the Holocaust.
The plan for retrieving the Menorah was simple. Upon its release, it would be smuggled aboard a ship to New York, and upon its arrival it would be buried in the rabbi’s backyard. Hidden, but safe. According to Rabbi Aderet, an anonymous Persian man had already advanced $1 million for its release, but then others got wind of the plan.
The Israeli Chief Rabbis intervened, hastily making their way to Italy to request that the Menorah was sent to Israel instead. In getting involved, they inadvertently ensured that the Menorah was never released at all.
And what about the $1 million? Well, the Persian refused to take the money back, content in the knowledge that he had done what he had to do in trying to return the Menorah to the Jews.
Discover all about the Vatican’s Jewish Treasures in Rome
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