Pretend for a moment that the Vatican has in its possession some sacred and precious relics that were originally in the Herodian Jewish Temple located in Jerusalem 1,950 years ago.
If you were the pope living in the 14th century and could verify this fact, would you not ask yourself how indeed such Jewish artifacts had come to your residence in the first place?
After some digging around (no pun intended), you would have found that your new Vatican residence was actually built over sections of Caesar’s Palace – the Vatican, including St. Peter’s Basilica, was constructed over Emperor Vespasian’s Roman palace approximately 200 years after the sacking of Rome in 455 AD. Indeed, there are excavations going on there right now, even as you read this magazine.
What this means is that the vandals and the Visigoths passed over, or simply didn’t find, the select treasures secreted away in that palace, and instead took with them the many items on public display in the Temple, located not far away.
It says in the Talmud that the famous Jewish sage and author of the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, went to Rome with his colleagues to nullify harsh decrees placed on Judea, and while there, saw the exact items mentioned in this article. They ended up being royal guests at Vespasian’s palace after being asked to attend to his ailing daughter. When they miraculously did heal her, the sages were afforded the chance to see these extremely holy items, proving that they were kept in that place.
The spiral stairs of the Vatican Museums, designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In fact, historian Josephus Flavius records the event in which Vespasian took for himself these items specifically as his special treasures for safekeeping, including an ancient Torah scroll.
According to Vatican expert Dr. Michael A. Calvo, those vessels and others found their way to the Vatican via another route, after making their way to Byzantium: “These include 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 objets d’art, books and manuscripts that the Vatican and other churches have appropriated and placed in their own storerooms, libraries and museums.”
But where is the factual, tangible proof that the Vatican “inherited” these sacred items and retains them until today?
The Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry and security services may already have evidence: about 50 years ago, there was a certain Jewish student – let’s call him DM – who was enrolled in a correspondence course at the Urbaniana, the Vatican’s university. Upon attending in person for the last semesters of his doctorate, he found himself the only Jew among 17,000 students! DM told me that he was well-loved, but when push came to shove, both professor and student approached him respectfully in order to convert him.
After firmly refusing time after time, a friend of his (later to become one of the Vatican archivists, Cardinal Antonio Samore) offered to show him what “used to be” his Jewish heritage – the Temple vessels – in an attempt to entice him to convert. DM agreed to be taken to see them months later, at night. When I asked him if there was anything in that cave that had belonged to the Temple, he simply replied: “Everything is there!”
Did he really see anything, or just come close? Many years later, in 2002, DM apparently gave sufficient proof to then-foreign minister Shimon Peres and others who were in negotiation with high-level Vatican officials at the time. If this is true, Israel may already have a solid, well-documented case.
So now what? Today in the 21st century there is a thriving sovereign State of Israel, being the sole worldwide representative of the Jewish people, or the World Jewish Congress, both being adequate addresses to make an arrangement for some sort of repatriation deal.
In the meantime, Roman Catholic relations with Israel are on the rise, dialogue and cooperation with the Jewish state are close, and there are even several Jews who have been knighted by recent popes. So why not negotiate over whatever there is now?
The Torah is shown to Pope Benedict XVI at the Park East Synagogue in New York on April 18, 2008. (credit: GARY HERSHORN/REUTERS)
Before getting to that, however, let the thoughtful reader peruse through true stories suggesting that the Vatican does have much to hide?
ONE OF the greatest rabbis in his generation at the beginning of the 20th century was the chief rabbi of Libya, 77-year-old Rabbi Yitzchak Chai Bozovka, an expert in all areas of Torah both hidden and revealed who authored many outstanding books. In 1929, Italy’s King Vittorio Emanuel III came to Tripoli for a royal visit. Libya was then under Italian rule, and the Jews of the city made a huge banquet reception, indeed fit for a king, with their beloved chief rabbi at the forefront.
Rabbi Bozovka made quite an impression on the monarch, and before the king set sail back to Rome, he invited the rabbi to attend the wedding of his son, the prince. A year later, the rabbi received the royal invitation, but declined to go due to being weak, although he did add the question, “Why am I needed though when you have the pope?”
Within 48 hours, the king sent a telegram back stating not to worry, and that he very badly wanted the rabbi to bless the new couple (again). He offered to send him his royal boat, give him all the kosher food and accommodations that were required, and even signed it: Your Friend, the King. The rabbi reluctantly agreed. When he arrived in Rome, he was treated like royalty and the wedding was a huge success.
As the ceremonies came to an end, the king asked the rabbi if there was anything he could do for him. Bozovka responded that he so desired to see the holy vessels of the Jewish Temple in the cellars of the Vatican. When the king first heard this, he refused, saying that there is a separation of church and state, and that he didn’t have jurisdiction over the pope in these matters. The two didn’t exactly get along!
Nevertheless, after much prodding, the king went ahead and managed to convince the pope (making him an offer he couldn’t refuse), but on the condition that it was only the rabbi alone. That day he was even invited to the Holy See for a personal audience with the pontiff.
Late that night, and after much spiritual preparation, the rabbi met the guard at the Vatican gates, with his students remaining outside, and went down the steps (four stories 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 writes in his book of Responsa that he saw “enough,” and was not capable of seeing anymore. He then turned around and practically ran out of the building.
Upon exiting, his students were shocked to find that his face was actually 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.
Another story, about the famous Rabbi Benjamin (ben Yonah) of Tudela, a Jewish merchant from modern Navarre in Spain. He spent significant time in Rome after the election of Pope Alexander III in 1159, and again from November 1165 until 1167. His mission was to record the lifestyle of Sephardi Jews across Europe and Africa. His travels took him from Spain to France, Italy, Turkey, and the Near East, including Beirut and Jerusalem. A well-known Iberian traveler, he kept complete and extremely accurate records in his travelogue, as noted by his contemporaries. When the rabbi passed through Rome in the 1160s, he noted the “honorable position” of the city’s Jewish population, as well as the “wonderful buildings” there.
Was he credible, though? Evidently, the commentators on this work held their subject in high esteem. A commentator that translated the itinerary in 1840, A. Asher, had glowing praise for Rabbi Benjamin: “The whole work abounds in interesting, correct and authentic information on the state of the three-quarters of the globe known at this time, and in consideration of these advantages, stands without a rival in the literary history of the Middle Ages. None of the productions of the period is as free from fables and superstitions as The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela.”
Tudela wrote, “Rome is the head of the kingdoms of Christendom, and there live about 200 (families of) Jews, who are respected and who pay no tax to anyone.” And now folks for the meat and potatoes: “In Rome, there is… the cave where Titus the son of Vespasian stored the Temple vessels that he brought from Jerusalem.”
This was before popes took up residence in the late 1300s at the Vatican. It appears that indeed, vandals didn’t run off with the whole hoard after all.
There is an old picture in my possession of that mysterious corridor in front of the cave, replete with creepy skeletal people embalmed to this day, 50 on each side, and showing the huge, arched wooden door at the end. This picture was taken at least 50 years ago with the custodian guard wearing all black and holding a lantern, essentially attesting to Tudela’s account.
RABBI DAVID ROSEN, international director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, has a different approach. Rosen – who headed the International Jewish Committee for Inter-religious Consultations (IJCIC), the broad-based coalition of Jewish organizations and denominations that represents world Jewry in its relations with other world religions – was granted a papal knighthood in 2005 for his contribution to Jewish-Catholic reconciliation.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Francis and president Shimon Peres leave the House of Santa Marta at the Vatican on June 8, 2014. (credit: RICCARDO DE LUCA/POOL/REUTERS)
He was also chosen to lead the famous 2013 prayer service with the pope, PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres at the Vatican. Rosen suggests approaching various museums in Israel that already had exhibitions of Vatican art and archaeology (which had come from Israel originally), and suggesting a loan arrangement for a limited period, to display some ancient vessels of their choice.
This would constitute a win/win for both parties, and would certainly be a major event! Rosen cautions that the whole idea of restoring artifacts of cultural or religious heritage back to their countries of origin is a complex one that must take into account the interests of the country that currently possesses the artifacts, among other things.
Can, or more importantly, should Israel make use of today’s international laws of repatriation? This can be considered as well, but then uncomfortable issues are bound to arise. For instance, in this age of political correctness, the following might have to be addressed: are the Jewish people still the legitimate owners of this ancient treasure?
What about replacement theology? Could it be that after 2000 years, behind closed doors, the ownership of these historical religious artifacts is being debated and disputed? The same way, for instance, that the legal ownership of Jerusalem is debated and disputed? I say, yes!
This is not just food for thought. Believe it or not, and with all due respect, I have reason to suggest here (without getting into detail) that this is part and parcel of a new attitude and approach, an indication of what’s really being discussed in the long corridors of Rome, the United Nations, the EU and also the PA. It even has a name: Lawfare.
Here’s a case in point: Not long ago, Abbas had a personal consultation with Pope Francis. After agreeing that the two-state solution was the only way forward to make peace with Israel, Abbas stated that with respect to the advent of a Palestinian capital, “Jerusalem’s identity must be preserved through a special internationally guaranteed status.” In other words, the territory that used to belong to the Jewish people so long ago does not necessarily mean that it belongs to Israel today, according to Abbas. There’s more.
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 in fact still exist, surely the church would return those lost items to their “legitimate owners.” Let that sink in a bit.
I’m willing to make a wager that as sure as the sun rises in the east, if Vatican officials were to claim that they own it all (having acted as paternal preservationists, as it were), and that the treasure would theoretically be kept in a “Vatican Jewish museum” somewhere, everything would change. Indeed, this is in fact Plan B: no more need for the Vatican to ignore the elephant in the room; diplomatic evasion no longer required. And yes, at that point, I’m sure that the chief Prefect would take whatever they have out for all of humanity to see.
Let’s be clear, though. Plan A isn’t politically correct but in this author’s view it’s the truth, that this vast treasure was, is now, and will always be Jewish, with its home ultimately in Jerusalem, the united capital of Israel.
At the end of the day though, the proof is in the gelato. There are several people alive that can personally attest to being eyewitnesses of the Vatican possessing Temple vessels, including the Menorah candelabra. Will any one of them come forward and expose what they know (along with themselves)? No, and I quite frankly don’t blame them. That might be unwise. It doesn’t end here though, because if this were in a judicial court setting (and it isn’t), the majority would agree that there is enough information already on file to have reasonable, or “justifiable cause” to move forward. What this means in our case is that making that museum deal is starting to look better and better.
After over 25 years of research into the whereabouts of the lost Temple treasures, more Vatican details have been included in my book series, The A.R.K. Report, including the existence of the oldest (and very fragile) Torah scroll taken from the Temple building, the golden head plate of the high priest with the holy name of God engraved on it (tzitz in Hebrew), the giant curtain that hung from the Temple entrance (parohet in Hebrew) that still has the tear from Titus’ sword in it, trumpets, and various other ritual (copper) altar utensils to boot, as mentioned previously, and documented by Josephus.
Thirty-five years ago, a certain outstanding Swiss Vatican guard (now legally blind) who was posted close to the dormitories found out that he was in fact Jewish. This inspired him to decide to open the gate at night and make his way all the 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 apparently nearly touched) the Menorah candelabra, apparently shining with a white light. The next morning he apparently 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.
But back down to business! The main concern now really lies on the political level. In 2022, far from being outrageous or insulting, approaching the Holy See with the museum idea whereby the Vatican retains ownership and sends a display of certain ancient Temple items to Jerusalem presents a brilliant idea. This is an international trend nowadays. Most people realize that there’s no sense in holding onto precious items that are in a sense for all humanity in a cellar or cave somewhere.
However, if the Holy See feels that the time is not yet ripe for such a gesture, things might get a little messier.
Some arbitrary ruling may come forth from the powers that be (think UN Security Council Resolution #2334) designating, in this case the lost Temple vessels, as something other than Jewish and therefore should stay put. Although the status quo vis-à-vis the hidden Temple treasures has remained in-situ for millennia, one can assume that it won’t go on like that forever. Either way, like in the case of Jerusalem, decisions will eventually be made with or without the consent of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
If things do work out with the Vatican, great! Now’s the time, and testimonies of various forms are coming in, all with the message that it’s high time that the Jews brought their pride and glory back home.
In the meantime, 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 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 actually 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.
Now let’s finish off with something BIG, something not known before, something new, that has added impulse to this whole undertaking. There have been many stories written about this subject matter before, but none has tackled the fact that up to 10 incense shovels have been found in Israel over the many years of biblical archaeology here. I know because I’ve held them in my hands: 2,000 year-old bronze (now green, of course!) shovels that are about 40 cm long that can still be used today! They were found all over Israel, from Jerusalem in the region of the Temple area itself, to cities near Tiberias in the north and on the shores of the Kinneret.
They all have one thing in common. They belonged to the various synagogues that were in Israel during the late Roman period, some perhaps being consecrated for the Temple itself! Many of these treasures were sent abroad to places such as Abu Dhabi, South Korea, and Singapore, while others went to Rome (acquired by the Vatican), and even Beverly Hills. They fit the description of the machtah (incense shovels) perfectly, being the same size and shape of those utensils that were used by the priests in the Herodian Temple, as described in the Talmud.
Why does this matter? Because it turns out that the Vatican is party to some of the international conventions regarding restitution and repatriation of ancient cultural artifacts to their original countries of origin.
This particular item would not prove difficult to find in the Vatican inventory list on my upcoming trip to Rome, where I would learn not only how many they have, but the location as to where exactly they are being kept. ■
Harry (Hirschel) Moskoff is an investigative archaeologist, Temple scholar, film producer, and author of The A.R.K. Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org