Is the Menorah Still in Rome (and Does it Matter)?
A few years ago on Chanukah, I heard a Jewish day school educator mention in a speech at an event that the menorah of the Temple “we believe is somewhere in Rome right now.”
He said it with a slight smile, and with a little bit of hesitancy in his voice, so he probably also felt it’s not so certain.
In fact, it’s not in Rome. This golden candelabra built to biblical specifications was in Rome, but it’s a common myth that it’s still there today. Where the Temple-era menorah exists is in our hearts and hopes – this educator’s valid (and main) point in his evening message to the students he was addressing, as he suggested, by analogy, that they are the candles that burn brightly with Jewish existence and belief, the continuity. Just as the flame of the menorah represents the victory of Torah and mitzvot observance that prevailed then, at the time of the original Chanukah, these students, as they reach the age of becoming obligated in the commandments – bar and bat mitzvah, the group the educator was specifically speaking to – are the continued illuminated flames. The physical menorah was taken away at a time of plunder and looting during the culmination of the conquest of Jerusalem, but not the “candles,” not the flame of the menorah.
Scholars say that the menorah indeed came to Rome following the destruction of the Second Temple (as the Arch of Titus relief shows), and there are authentic sources that prove that it was still believed to be there somewhere – even if never actually seen in the city – many centuries after the time when the Temple vessels arrived and were initially displayed for public viewing. The menorah is not thought to have survived the years, including the downfall of the Empire around the fifth century, and is certainly not in the Vatican archives, as many suppose. The menorah would have likely been melted long, long ago for its extraordinary gold content, which would be valued by any person or group who could get their hands on the object.
Professor Steven Fine of Yeshiva University says that this somewhat-popular notion that the Vatican (as the inheritor of Ancient Rome) has the menorah is an American Jewish urban myth, as the myth doesn’t appear elsewhere in documented Jewish folklore. It’s a relatively new invention. I remember a couple of years ago a woman told me that she thought she met someone who said he’d seen it, and there are many other similar stories.
In some respects, I think we’re generally willing to accept that whether stories are factual or not (or not yet proven) may not matter as much as the message or moral of the lore. In our own community, we have a longstanding tradition of and allegiance to rabbinic storytelling.
But how much allowance should we have for stories that are related to us as fact, by authors or speakers, and presented with no disclaimers whatsoever? What can we transmit further to those we teach – if the facts are iffy. Fake news has called so much into question, even legit sources, and in the classroom, or from the pulpit, or in that which we publish (or post), our credibility needs extra preservation.
In 2011, I read a short article in a Jewish magazine popular in the religious sector and known for solid editorial content, which prompted me to write to a scholar to ascertain its validity. The author wrote about the Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Edeles, 1555-1631) and recounted a story of a church sinking into the ground. The church would ring bells to annoy the Jewish funeral processions that would pass by it on the way to the cemetery. Supposedly when Rabbi Edeles died, he arose from his coffin along the route, and thumbed through his sefer, his authored work, which he had commanded to be put on his body at this time of departure from the world. As he turned the pages, the church and all its people inside sank into the ground.
The author not only relates this miracle but says in his piece that the story is “heard from a reliable source” and therefore attests to the greatness of the Maharsha. He clarified his source in an email a couple of years ago, when I wrote to him yet again. (he said he had not received my emails at the time I initially contacted him in 2011 when the article was published). His specific source, that he now shared with me, is Kochavei Or by Rabbi Avraham Chazan, a book based on Rabbi Nachman’s teachings, and it’s found in a section of the book titled Sippurim Niflaim (I have not seen it myself).
When I read the story about the Maharsha eight years ago, I wasn’t in total disbelief (if there were miracles way back then, why not some now in the relatively recent centuries?), but I wanted to see if I could find a source for the story, and felt the author should have provided some reference for the “facts” he was sharing with readers, possibly a couple hundred thousand readers (numbers the magazine touts at their website).
I searched and discovered an article by an Israeli professor of literature and folklore. I looked only at a couple of pages, but understand that this narrative is a retold tale that appears in various versions. I wrote to her and asked her what might be the origins of the fable of ringing bells, falling churches, etc., and if there could be veracity to the story, even if it shows up in various forms.
A few hours later, Professor Haya Bar-Itzhak (presently a professor emerita of literature and folklore at the University of Haifa and author of 11 books) replied to my email.
“This a Jewish folk legend that was told by Eastern European Jews. Some of these legends have been recorded and written down. As I mention in my article I have found seven such versions: the one recorded by the famous An-Ski expedition told about the town Ostrog (Ostre in Yiddish), the version published by the famous historian Mayer Balaban told about Lublin, the version published by Olsvanger, and four versions from YIVO archives.
“In the two legends set in Ostrog the holy protagonist is R. Samuel Eliezer Edeles, known as the Maharsha, that was buried in Ostrog and Yevei (R. Jacob Jeseph ben Judah).
“All of these legends that focus on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles are etiological in nature, and attempt to explain the local topography. (When I visited Lublin I could see the Jewish cemetery on a hill above the church.)
“As all folk narratives, the story existed in many versions, but not all of them have been recorded. The topography is factual. If this really happened is a question that folk literary scholars don’t ask. What we ask, for example, is what was the function of these legends for the oppressed Jewish society. And one function was to show the strength of the Jewish holy figures.”
I appreciated the professor’s clarification, which came so quickly. I had wanted to know, “did it happen or didn’t it happen,” but she redirected me. She slowed me down and introduced that it’s not always about what happened, rather why people relate something as having happened. I still feel the writer and his editors at the magazine had an obligation to provide referenced sources for their material that implies truthfulness to something less the norm, and especially if the writer claims to have a “reliable” source for a miraculous occurrence.
In a similar vein, I think we can also ask educators, whether they are speaking to impressionable students or even impressionable adults, to cushion that which is probably mythical (and if they are not in the know, it’s possibly because they got their “facts” from others who relayed the myth). The message and moral is paramount, but the factual does need to be present at all stages of teaching unless it’s introduced specifically to the audience as storytelling and fable, which have their own worth and play a valuable role in the educational process.
For more on the Temple Menorah and Roman acquisition, see Dr. Fine’s article:
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Judah S. Harris
Judah S. Harris is a photographer, filmmaker, speaker, and writer. He documents special events, both in Israel and the US; produces documentaries for families wanting to preserve their multi-generational history; and works with non-profits and companies seeking to market more effectively using enhanced visual storytelling.