The Vatican and the Temple Vessels

Is there any substance to the claim that the Church has in its possession vessels from the holy Temple?

Reprinted with permission from Ami magazine.

Rabbi Yonasan Shtencel of Jerusalem never imagined that his Talmud learning would lead him to explore the age-old mystery surrounding the disappearance of the vessels of the Beis Hamikdash, the Holy Temple. Are they really hidden in the catacombs of the Vatican in Rome?

Rabbi Shtencel is the owner of a successful pharmaceutical company, and is fortunately able to spend much of his time in learning Torah.

“About three weeks ago I was learning Talmud with my study partner, Rabbi Hirschman, where it talks about Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Yosi seeing several objects from the Beis Hamikdash: the Menorah, the Table, the tzitz (crown) of the High Priest and the paroches (curtain). They also found the grindstone of Beis Avtinas.”

“I thought to myself,” continued Rabbi Shtencel, “Wow! This happened almost 2,000 years ago. I wonder where they are today.” I began to do research into the topic and discovered several instances of people claiming to have seen the Temple’s vessels firsthand. For example, there’s a famous story about Rabbi Yitzchak Bokovza, zt”l, of Tripoli, Libya. (He passed away in 1930.) In his work Beit Halachmi he recounts having gone to Rome for a wedding, where he met the Pope who took him to the Vatican and showed him the vessels of the Beis Hamikdash. The Arch of Titus, which dates back to the first century, also shows the Romans carrying the Menorah. To me, this obviously meant it was in their possession.

“Being that there’s a new pope now who’s supposed to be sympathetic to the Jews and considers Rabbi Skorka of Argentina a good friend, I figured it would be a good time to reach out to the Vatican’s representative in Israel regarding the vessels. I wrote a letter in Hebrew and had it professionally translated, then sent copies to the Vatican in Rome as well as to the Pope’s representative in Israel, Papal Nuncio Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto. I also sent it via email. I’m not exactly a president or prime minister, but I figured I’d take a chance. Even though it wasn’t likely I’d get an answer, a Jew has to do his effort. Amazingly I received a response via fax.”

Rabbi Shtencel takes exception to the fact that the papal nuncio assumed his query was an accusation of anti-Semitism, something he insists he clearly took precautions to avoid. “I wrote my letter carefully and respectfully so as not to come across as accusatory in any way. I believe I accomplished that in my letter. I deliberately appealed to his heart rather than bolstering my argument with supposed proofs. I also found the nuncio’s diplomatic usage of the words ‘return to the legitimate owners’ rather than ‘to the Jews’ troubling. Perhaps the Church believes that they are the legitimate owners. For that reason, I found the response unsatisfactory.”

“I’m not a professional researcher and I don’t plan on bringing a lawsuit. But I did an awful lot of research and found over 20 references to the vessels being in the Vatican.”

As far as the opinion that the vessels are supposed to remain hidden until Mashiach comes, he said, “Let them first return whatever they stole from the Jewish people, then our rabbis can sit down and figure out what to do. Just getting them to admit it or even allowing us to take photographs would be an accomplishment. They have thousands of Jewish books and manuscripts, and everything is a big secret.”

As for what we can do to rectify the situation, Rabbi Shtencel said, “Perhaps when Pope Francis visits Israel we should greet him with large signs in English and Spanish so the international media will be aware of what’s going on. Everyone should know that we haven’t forgotten about the vessels.”

Historical Inaccuracy

Professor Lawrence H. Schiffman, one of the world’s leading Jewish historians, is Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University. As chairman of the International Committee for Interreligious Consultations, the official Jewish dialogue partner of the Church, he has worked many years to improve Jewish-Catholic relations and has served as a negotiator with the Vatican over a number of issues, including the legal status of Christian sites in Israel. I asked him about the factual validity of the claim that the Vatican has our vessels.

“Well, I’ll tell you this,” he began. “I do believe that most Jews think that the Vatican has them. The theory that the Church somehow got them is a fascinating story in and of itself. It’s also amazing that Rabbi Shtencel got an answer. It would actually be nice if the Vatican had them because then they could give them back. But the historical facts show that it would have been virtually impossible. So while it is a popular theory, I highly doubt you will find a true scholar who has knowledge in this area who would lend it credence. According to those who have studied it, it’s only a modern myth.

“You have to realize that the Vatican didn’t exist in the first century of the Common Era. The Vatican only came into being around the year 700. And Rome was sacked by the Visigoths, the Vandals, the Saracens and the Ostrogoths in and around the 5th century, so whatever vessels might have been there were destroyed. The Vatican wasn’t established until hundreds of years later. In fact, the popes only took up residency there in 1377. We know that the vessels were taken to Rome from the Sages and other testimony, including Josephus. The Arch of Titus clearly depicts the Menorah. But there’s no way the vessels made it to the Vatican, as the Vatican wasn’t the successor of the Roman Empire.”

Professor Schiffman discussed several factors that may have led to acceptance of the faulty notion.

The Manuscript Myth

“Many people are under the impression that the vessels aren’t the only valuable Jewish items the Vatican has hidden,” he continued. “Any mention of hidden vessels is usually accompanied by the mention of hidden manuscripts. People believe the Vatican has troves of them, including long lost writings of the Rambam, Ritva and others. But in truth, almost all of the manuscripts in the Vatican’s archives are available for viewing online, and others are available in microfilm.

“One time, someone approached me about a specific manuscript he claimed the Vatican was keeping secret. I was alarmed, and went to the Hebrew University where I found that exact manuscript. The entire Vatican Hebrew Collection is available online and dispels the notion that the Vatican would decide to publicize certain manuscripts and not others; it makes no sense. On the contrary, they would want to show the world they have them and put them on display. There’s nothing to gain by keeping it secret. Only a few years ago the Vatican released the Rambam manuscripts for an exhibit in Israel. I am aware that someone claimed that the Vatican had secret writings of the Ritva and others, but every work he mentioned had already been made public on microfilm.”

The True Secrets of the Vatican

For some reason, the theory that the Vatican has the Temple’s vessels has gained particular notoriety in the last 70 years, and Professor Schiffman believes this is not a coincidence. “There are several things the Vatican is keeping secret,” he explained, “which may have contributed to the myth of the vessels. The Vatican certainly has a lot of information regarding Pope Pius XII’s true actions during World War II, and also possibly a list of Jewish children who were kept in Christian homes during those years.”

The idea that the vessels are hidden in secrets caves or catacombs is also intriguing. Explains Schiffman, “There’s an amazing archeological expedition going on beneath St. Peter’s Basilica, where people claim to have seen them. So far, they’ve uncovered an entire Roman village and new discoveries are being made every day, but no one has ever come across any vessels. But I do admit that the idea is enthralling. A few years ago I was in the Vatican with someone who had connections to Pope John Paul II. We had gone there to discuss a possible exhibit. When I noticed two Menorahs on a shelf in his office he asked, ‘Do you want to see some Judaica we have in the Vatican? I’ll take you downstairs.’ Naturally, I started to salivate. We took an elevator six floors down to a conservation area where ten women were working on restoring old objects. He showed me two pairs of tefillin that were stored in a cardboard box. ‘That’s all I have,’ he said. My point is that if they have anything, they don’t know about it.

“It really shocks them and even amuses them that some Jews believe this rumor. Several years ago, when former Israeli Chief Rabbis Amar and Metzger visited the Vatican, they were instructed not to ask this question. One of them did, though, and while he was talking to the pope, some of the people who work in the Vatican office were chuckling. They find it ridiculous.”

Part 2 Next Week

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