The Question: Where are the treasured vessels from the Holy Temple? Many are those who have searched for them: Jews who long for the Redemption and the rebuilding of the Temple, archaeologists bent on making a famous discovery and achieving fame, antique dealers looking for fantastic riches, and some who were simply curious explorers.
Teaser: When the saintly Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Chofetz Chayim, was informed of the answer to the centuries-old question, he burnt the map that led to the location of the precious treasure. "It is yet too soon," he explained.
We continue to pray that the time be soon when the Temple will stand once again in its full splendor, replete with all its vessels and accouterments returned to their rightful stations.
The Temple was burnt to ashes, its treasures plundered, its priests cruelly butchered. The spirit of sanctity that had once lodged within its soaring, golden walls was no longer accessible to mere men of flesh and blood. The Sages tell us that it rose on high, to the Heavens, there to await the arrival of the Redemption and the rebuilding of a third Temple, the Temple which will never be destroyed.
And the altars, the Menorah (candelabrum), the Table of the Divine Presence, the Holy Ark, and all the accouterments used in the daily services, the silver trumpets, the lavers, firepans, snuffers, tongs, basins, and more – where are they all? Was everything lost forever with the destruction of the Temple itself?
And what of the unique Torah scroll which was preserved yet from the time of Moses – written by his own hand, and kept on a shelf to one side of the Holy Ark? Was this precious scroll also lost?
Regarding the Ark and the Torah scroll that was kept with it, we have a clear answer from ancient texts. They were hidden away in good time, some fifty years before the Temple fell to Nebuchadnezzar and his troops in 586 B.C.E.
Even before he completed the new Temple, King Solomon knew that it would not stand forever. The day would come when G-d would reclaim the House He had allowed His people to establish for Him, because it would no longer serve the purpose for which it had been built. Therefore he prepared a secret hiding place deep under the Temple so that there would always be a place to secret the Holy Ark when foreign powers threatened to attack.
Hundreds of years later, the pious King Josiah summoned the priest Hilkiah, the father of the prophet Jeremiah, and commanded him to purify the Temple and to restore it to its former glory.
The High Priest entered the Holy of Holies. There he found that the Torah Scroll next to the Ark was open. His eye fell on the verse which appeared on the exposed parchment, and he was overcome with dismay and fear; the words that met his eye spelled doom for the Jewish People:
The L-rd will bring you and your king whom you shall set over you unto a nation that you have not known, not you nor your fathers; and there shall you serve other gods, wood and stone.
King Josiah realized that this was a sign from Heaven. He also knew that the moral stature of the nation was less than the high standards demanded of Israel. Accordingly, he convened the leaders of the country to renew their covenant with G-d in a desperate attempt to avoid the evil decree, or at least, to postpone it.
King Josiah went on to fight the idolatry that had crept into the country. He worked tirelessly to purify his nation spiritually. At the same time, he took the precaution of ordering that the Holy Ark, together with the unique Torah Scroll kept next to it, be safely hidden away in the secret cache prepared by King Solomon. Since the time of Josiah, the Holy Ark has remained there. It was not restored to the Second Temple built by Ezra and Nehemiah over four hundred years later.
According to our sources, in the First Temple, the Ark was positioned directly over the Foundation Stone. In later times, after the fall of the Temple and the Arab conquest of the Holy Land, the Arab mosque, the Dome of the Rock, was built in this same spot.
However, in later times, there were those who questioned whether the rock under the golden dome on the Temple Mount was indeed the same Foundation Stone which had been under the Ark. They cited the fact that traditional sources state that only about twelve inches of the stone protruded above the ground, but it was well known among the Jews that the rock in the Arab mosque was much higher.
This question was addressed by Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Zimra, also called the Radbaz after the initials of his name, Rabbi David iBn Zimra. Born in Spain in 1479, the Radbaz was banished from Spain together with his family and the rest of Spain's Jews in 1492. The family made their way to Safed where the young Rabbi David studied and became a scholar, posek, (decisor), teacher, and chief rabbi. He also authored several scholarly works.
The Radbaz explains the apparent discrepancy between the description of the Foundation Stone found in Jewish sources and the actual state of affairs in the Dome of the Rock in his times:
"It is true that today (in the sixteenth century) the height of the Foundation Stone exceeds the three tefochim (palms – about four inches each) mentioned in our sources. This is because over the generations the Arabs tried to find the Holy Ark buried under it. When they discovered nothing there, they gave up. However, the stone is now higher because of their excavations."
There is a second opinion found in Jewish sources that suggests that the Ark was hidden in a slightly different location, also on the Temple Mount. A chamber was set aside for storing and inspecting the wood which was used to burn offerings on the altar. A priest once noticed that the flooring in this chamber was uneven, and called a fellow priest to come look at it with him. Before he finished speaking, he passed away.
The priests concluded that this irregular flooring must mark the place where the Ark was buried. Rabbi Alfandari writes that this chamber was located near the Cotton Gate, the entrance nearest today's Mosque of Omar. Due to this incident, continues Rabbi Alfandari, to this day, people have the custom not to walk along the Cotton Market (a well-known street in the Old City of Jerusalem, which still bears that name today).
One way or the other, we cannot dismiss the possibility that the Ark is well hidden somewhere on the Temple Mount, safely stowed away in the secret chamber that the wisest of all men, King Solomon, prepared for it. It is hard to believe that anyone will uncover the Ark before its time.
Yet another opinion in the Talmud suggests that, after destroying the First Temple, Nebuchadnezzar took the Ark with him to Babylon (Tractate Yoma 63b). Others hold that the Ark which was taken to Babylon was the one made in the time of the Tabernacle, during the forty years in the Wilderness. When King Solomon built the First Temple, the Ark from the Tabernacle was replaced. In the Midrash, Bemidbar 15:10, we read that the craftsmen who were exiled together with King Jeconiah purposely took the Ark with them to protect it, so that it would not be vandalized by the gentile conquerors. When Ezra later came back to Jerusalem, bringing with him a vanguard of Jews to resettle the Holy Land and rebuild the Temple, he brought the Ark back with him.
Where, then, is the Ark? In Jerusalem, or in Babylon?
In the Book of Daniel, we find testimony to the fact that at least some of the vessels from the Temple found their way to Babylon. The famous tale of the "handwriting on the wall" relates that King Belshazzar indulged in a drunken feast during which he took sacred golden and silver vessels, which had been removed from Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem by his predecessor, Nebuchadnezzar. Using these holy items, the King and his court praise 'the gods of gold and silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone'.
Immediately upon this blasphemy, the disembodied fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the wall of the royal palace the words Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin.
Despite various inducements, none of the royal magicians managed to interpret the omen. The King sent for Daniel, an exiled Jew taken from Jerusalem, who had served in high office under Nebuchadnezzar.
Daniel refused any promise of reward. Before he turned to reading the text on the wall, he warned the king of the danger of his arrogant blasphemy. The meaning that Daniel decrypted from these words is based on passive verbs corresponding to the measure names.
And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN. This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE, God has numbered (Hebrew: manah) the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end TEKEL, you have been weighed (shakal) on the scales and found wanting; PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.
That very night King Belshazzar was murdered.
Why was he punished? The Sages state that it was because he profaned the vessels of the Holy Temple. Was the Ark there as well? We do not know.
Later, as we read in the Book of Ezra, (Chapter 1:7=11), King Cyrus ordered the vessels sent back to Jerusalem. At the time of Esther, we find King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) using golden vessels from the Temple for his feast:
And they gave them drink in vessels of gold – the vessels being diverse one from another – and royal wine in abundance, according to the bounty of the king (Book of Esther 1:7).
The Midrash identifies these vessels as those taken from the First Temple. Were King Cyrus' orders to return the vessels to Jerusalem not carried out?
Some offer the opinion that the more expensive, gold vessels were sent back to the Holy Land, but smaller, less expensive ones remained in the hands of the Persians.
Where are they today? We do not know.
Many are those who have searched high and low for them: Jews who long for the rebuilding of the Temple, and the Redemption, archaeologists bent on making a famous discovery and achieving fame, antique dealers looking for fantastic riches, and some who were simply curious explorers.
From 1867 to 1870, Sir Charles Warren carried out archeologist's digs on the Temple Mount under the aegis of Britain's Palestine Exploration Fund. He sank a number of shafts into the ground, but failed to find any sign of the Temple's treasures.
The Second Temple also was looted by those who conquered the Land. Antiochus plundered the Temple and made off with the altars and the menorah made by Zerubabel for the Second Temple. When the victorious Hasmoneans regained possession of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, there was much renovation work to be done. The menorah, originally of solid gold, could not be replaced overnight. They started with an iron candelabrum plated with lead to give it the appearance of silver. Some time later, when their rule was better established, a new replica of the gold menorah was made, this time of silver.
It was only some time later that the new rulers found the resources to commission an authentic, solid gold menorah.
Later, less than one hundred years before the destruction at the hands of the Romans, the Temple was extensively renovated and expanded by Herod the Great. It seems that no alterations were made to the altars and the Table of the Presence, and the Temple service continued uninterrupted. The only vessel Herod did replace was the menorah made by the Hasmoneans, who had ruled before him, and whose memory he wished to eclipse.
Another source of information which led to speculations about the fate of the Temple vessels is the copper scroll found among the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the Cave at Qumran in 1952. The bulk of the scrolls in the cave were written on parchment; further to the back, on their own, were two scrolls engraved in copper. They were found to be two parts of one document, 2.4 meters long, when unrolled, and 28 centimeters high. While the parchment scrolls were deciphered as texts, the documents in copper proved to be lists of hidden treasures together with a description of where each one had been secreted. The total value of the items listed is estimated to total over one billion dollars.
The copper scrolls found their way to Amman, Jordan, where they were put on display. Since they were corroded and fragile, no attempt was made to unroll them and so that their message might be deciphered. The Jordanian authorities turned a deaf ear to the pleas of archaeologists and researchers from all over the world that some method be devised to unroll the precious metal scrolls and glimpse their secrets.
By holding a mirror up to the portion of the rolled-up scroll that was visible from the outside, scientists managed to record at least a small portion of what was written inside. Their findings only whetted their appetite to read the full contents. It was obvious from what little was accessible to them that these strange metal documents contained a list of hidden treasures from the Holy Temple.
However, the Jordanian antiquities authority was adamant: any attempt at unwinding the brittle metal would destroy this precious find. The scrolls were not to be touched.
It was only after four years of negotiations, and the payment of a very substantial sum of money, that permission was given to saw the scrolls to pieces, taking care to cut them only between the columns of writing. The results were breathtaking. Row after row of letters described caches of silver and gold, all hidden away in a cave:
"In the cave that is next to the fountain belonging to the House of Hakkoz, dig six cubits. (There are) six bars of gold."
The text gave a precise description and location, row by row, for one item after the other. It notes sixty-four locations, sixty-three of which hold treasures of gold and silver, with a total weight estimated in the tons. Everything was so clear, and yet, so mystifying. Where was the cave with these fabulous riches?
The "House of Hakkoz" mentioned in the scroll apparently refers to the family of Hakkoz who were treasurers of the rebuilt Temple, following the return from Babylon, as noted in the Biblical Books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
When the Second Temple fell, the tradition tells us, Titus took the parochet, the curtain which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple, and fashioned a sack out of it. Into this sack, he placed the vessels of the Temple and took them with him back to Rome. Titus' victory is commemorated by an arch erected in Rome shortly after his death in the year 81, only two years after he became emperor. Some of the vessels from the Temple are clearly seen: the Menorah, the silver trumpets, and large trays which are presumably from the Table of the Presence, the Shulchan. All are borne by captives from Jerusalem; their heartache as they are paraded before the masses is preserved to this day in the cold stone.
We once had a Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Titus destroyed it, and plundered its vessels. Perhaps they are in Rome. The famous Jewish traveler of the twelfth century, Benjamin of Tudela, included Rome in his itinerary. He reports having seen the vessels from the Holy Temple there. He writes that the famous ten martyrs tortured and executed by the Romans all lie in a burial cave which he visited. He prayed at their graves, and also viewed the Temple vessels there.
Another source describes a large stone building in Rome – not a place of worship, but a building within the boundaries of the State of the Vatican City.
Inside, the tradition recalls, one could view two large stone pillars which the Romans took from the Temple when they left Jerusalem. The tradition of the Jews of Rome recounts that each year, on the Ninth of Av, the day the First and Second Temples fell to our enemies, the pillars "weep" endlessly.
The structure is impressive, long and narrow with long rows of stately columns with ornately decorated capitals. The roof is also decorated with sculptures, and a large tree spreads its leafy branches over it. Who knows what secrets lie within?
"Once there were two ancient pillars there. They were removed to storerooms. No one is allowed to approach the two pillars..."
Another tradition preserved among the Jews of the "eternal city" describe the victory march of the Jewish captives, bearing the Menorah, as pictured on Titus' Arch:
They marched along in silence, their faces expressionless. The pain and the anguish were sealed in their hearts, within. Zion's prisoners, exiled to Rome, revealed not their inner agony. Their city had known the intrusion of strangers; now they themselves were strangers in an alien land. Titus' victory parade was demeaning and humiliating not only for them as individuals, but even more so, for the Holy Temple, the Holy City, and all they represented.
As they marched along the banks of the Tiber River, the eyes of the crowd examined every face, every nuance of their expression. It was more than they could bear. Their arms grew weak with the weight of the golden Menorah. Suddenly there was a loud thud, then a huge splashing of water. The sacred Menorah fell on the waves of the Tiber and sank into its waters. Their arms might have been strong enough to carry its weight, but the burden of the Menorah's disgrace was more than their hearts could bear. The Jewish slaves preferred to consign it to the muddy bed of the Tiber. According to the tradition of the Jews of Rome, there it remains to this day.
An additional testimony is found in the Midrash called Milchemet Melech Hamashiach, to be found in Otzar Hamidrashim. This source reports that the Menorah is located in the home of Julius Caesar. Other sources mention a candelabrum which was brought out on parade during celebrations and festivals; possibly this was the sacred Menorah from Jerusalem.
The Fate of the Holy Vessels
A Roman source describes the sack of Rome, led by Geiseric, King of the Vandals, in the year 455. For two weeks, the Vandals plundered, destroyed, burnt and looted anything and everything they could lay a hand on. The Temple vessels, on display at Rome's Palace of Peace, were a prime target. They were loaded onto ships for the voyage back to Geiseric's capital, Carthage, in North Africa. Some say the ship sank on the way from the preponderate weight of the gold and silver vessels.
Others report that the ship returned safely to Carthage, and King Geiseric proudly displayed the booty in his palace, including the vessels of the Holy Temple. They remained the pride of the monarchs of the Vandals for some eighty years, but eventually were captured by the forces of the Byzantine emperor, Justinian I. Under the direction of Justinian's general, Belisarius, the Byzantine forces captured Carthage and carted its king and the vessels of the Holy Temple off to Byzantium.
The Roman historian, Procopius, who lived in Caesaria, was a contemporary of Justinian. He records the events, and reports:
The king was a devout Christian, and he believed in a Supreme Power. The words of his Jewish advisor swayed his heart:
"Your life is in danger," the Jew told his sovereign. "Wherever the vessels of the Holy Temple were found, they caused tragedies. When they are not in their proper environment, they endanger those around them. There are no proofs, there are no tracks to follow, there are no signs to see, but these are the facts. Why take any risks? Send them back to their rightful place, Jerusalem," he urged.
The emperor had no desire to live out his days in constant tension. "Let it be as you say," he commanded.
To where did he transfer the vessels? Justinian had recently completed construction of the Nea Church in Jerusalem, in 543 C.E. It is reasonable to assume that this was the destination he chose for the precious treasures from the Temple.
But where was the Nea Church of Justinian? For centuries, its location remained a mystery, until the discovery in 1894 of the Madaba Map, in the Jordanian city of the same name. This huge mosaic, measuring twenty-one by seven meters and containing over two million tesserae, presents a detailed map of the Holy Land and surrounding territory. The most detailed city depicted is, quite naturally, Jerusalem, with many sites are labeled by name. It clearly indicates the location of the Cardo, the main, colonnaded thoroughfare running north to south through Roman-ruled Jerusalem. At the southern end of the Cardo, the Nea Church is shown and clearly named.
In 1967, archaeological excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem uncovered the remains of the Cardo and the Nea Church in the exact position indicated on the huge mosaic map in Madaba. This was clearly the site.
The Nea Church itself had long since been destroyed. Some claim it was done by Jews who were incensed when the religious authorities took stones from the Temple Mount and used them to expand the church. The ruins, however, were clearly identifiable, using the map from Madaba.
The tradition tells that the treasures from the Temple, however, were removed from the church and transferred to the Valley of the Cross, near the present-day Rechavia neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Are the Temple treasures hidden somewhere beneath the ruins?
The Time Has Not Yet Come
At the beginning of the twentieth century, a farmer and his ox were plowing a field near the new city of Jerusalem. The sky was blue above, and the sun pounded down in full force. Suddenly the ox started bellowing in terror. A pit had opened up in the ground. The farmer suddenly felt himself falling. All was dark.
"Where am I?" he asked himself, trying to get to his feet. As his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he answered his own question. "In the ground." He looked around to try to size up the situation, and his eye fell on something shiny,
He drew nearer to see what it was. "Vessels – from the Temple!" The words rolled off his lips without any conscious thought. Quickly he sought a way to climb out of the pit. Even after he managed to scramble back to his field, he was shaking like a leaf. His hands fluttered as though they were the wings of a white moth drawn to the light. He quickly scooped up one handful of dirt after the other, and filled the pit with fresh earth. Then he collapsed onto the soft earth to try to collect his thoughts.
Should he tell anyone what he had just seen? Whom should he tell? Whom could he trust with so awesome a secret? Would anyone believe him, or would they brush him off as mentally deranged?
He drew a map of the spot, put it in his pocket, and headed for home to think.
After much thought, he decided to make a trip to his daughter in the United States. Once in New York, he turned to the home of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Herman, and divulged his secret. He showed Rabbi Herman the map he had made, and the description he had noted of the exact location.
Rabbi Herman attached prime importance to the discovery, but he would not take any action without consulting a great Torah scholar and leader. Consequently, he summoned his son, Reb Nochum Dovid, and charged him with making the arduous trip to the generation's leading Torah authority, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, who lived in Poland.
In Radun, the hometown of the sage, Reb Nochum Dovid received a warm welcome. He explained what had prompted his father to send him on so long a journey, and took out the well-guarded papers that his Rabbi Herman had entrusted to him.
Rabbi Kagan (also known as the Chofetz Chayim), took the documents from Reb Nochum David and looked them over.
"Are they truly the vessels from the Holy Temple?" asked the visitor in tense anticipation.
"Perhaps," answered the saintly sage. "It is definitely possible that they are."
Then he took a match and set fire to them. His only comment was, "It's not yet the time."
Whatever lay there in the pit on the outskirts of Jerusalem would have to wait yet some time.
Will some archaeologist one day thrust his shovel into the earth and hear it clang against the metal of a silver trumpet or golden tray from the Temple?
Only time will give us the answer.
Rabbi Bukovza's Request
During the early years of the previous century, the king of Italy visited Libya and had occasion to meet with the chief rabbi of Tripoli at the time, Rabbi Rafael Bukovza.
The king was so impressed with the refined, pious character of Rabbi Bukovza that he invited him to attend the upcoming wedding of his son, the prince, and to bless the young couple on their nuptials.
The rabbi indeed made the trip to Rome, and the local Jewish community took great pride in the fact that his highness had conferred such honor on one of their leaders.
When the good rabbi presented himself in court to bid farewell to his highness, the king asked him how he might repay him for his efforts to attend the royal wedding.
Rabbi Rafael responded: "I thank Heaven that I lack for nothing."
"Even so," pressed his majesty. "Perhaps there is some favor you wish to ask of the crown?"
"My only request is to be allowed to view the vessels from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem!" declared the rabbi.
"We shall do everything in our power," answered the king.
He kept his word. Rabbi Bukovza was invited to the Vatican, and instructed to come alone. When he returned, he was obviously very excited and moved by the experience. He boarded a ship and sailed for Libya. When he arrived home, he fell ill. Forty days later, he passed away, taking with him to the grave whatever secrets had been revealed to him in Italy.
Genuine or Not?
A professor of numismatics associated with the Israel Museum carried on a correspondence over a period of time with the officials of St. Anne's Church concerning a large collection of valuable ancient coins in their possession.
After Israel's Six Day War, and the return of the Old City of Jerusalem to Jewish hands, the professor was invited to come to the church and view the collection first hand. He gladly accepted the offer, and a date was set for his visit.
When he arrived, the church officials led him to the room that housed the collection, and told him that he would be allowed three hours to examine the coins there. The door to the room would be locked behind him, but in three hours' time, the guard would return to let him out.
The professor eagerly set to examining the coins. When he was finished, he looked at his watch. There was still some time for him to remain in the room, but he had no particular interest in being there. He knocked on the door several times, but there was no response.
Perhaps there was another door to the room? He began to circle around the walls in hope of discovering another exit. Indeed, he came upon a door which was hidden off to one side. He reached for the handle, and was pleased to find it unlocked. Perhaps he could make his way out of the church from this alternate entrance.
Opening the door, he discovered a flight of stairs, unlit, and almost completely dark. As he groped his way down the stairs, his eyes gradually became accustomed to the lack of light. At the foot of the stairway, he found himself in a cellar. He looked around, surveying his surroundings in the little light that penetrated to the spot, and gave a gasp of disbelief.
"The vessels of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem!" He could not believe his eyes.
Suddenly a deep voice boomed out of the darkness: "You have no right to be here!" At once he was politely but firmly escorted out of the church.
Some time later, the valuable collection of coins was stolen. The police and the insurance company both turned to the professor asking him to evaluate the loss. He had seen the entire collection, and was qualified to estimate its true value.
The professor told the church authorities that he was willing to help them, but he set one condition: that he be allowed to view the treasures from the Temple hidden in the cellar.
They refused. "There's nothing to see there," they countered.
And as for us? We need only wait patiently. The day is not far off when we, too, will be privileged to see the vessels of the Temple once again in the hands of the kohanim (priests), engaged in their service of G-d in the Holy Temple. The Midrash assures us that the day will surely come. May it be speedily, in our days.