Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Av 5766 - August 1, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Quest for the Temple Vessels

by Aryeh Gefen

The disappearance of the Temple vessels since the churban, the search for them and the secrecy and mystery surrounding their absence have struck the imagination of people around the world. After centuries of searching, many despaired of finding them and tried to produce forgeries or claimed seeing them in secret basements and museums, but even today some people continue the quest.

Many have tried to make miniature replicas of the Mishkon and Beis Hamikdosh as teaching aids and to imprint a vibrant image in people's memories. At first there were just illustrations and drawings but over the generations there have also been miniature, large and even nearly life- size models.

This article surveys replicas of Beis Hamikdosh and its vessels over the generations, the history of the searches for the original vessels and the desperate attempts to forge them.

Drowning in a Sea of Tears

After Churban Beis Hamikdosh some Tanoim reported seeing certain vessels from the Temple. After Titus conquered and burned Yerushalayim he took the paroches with him to Rome, wrapping another few vessels in it while traveling. R' Eliezer the son of R' Yossi reported seeing the paroches in Rome with a few drops of blood on it and the golden head-plate of the Cohen Godol.

Chazal tell us the Ohel Moed and its vessels, the Aharon Hakodesh and the broken pieces of the tablets are hidden in Yerushalayim. The table, the menorah, the paroches, the head-plate and the mortar and pestle belonging to Beis Avtinas, are hidden in Rome (Gittin 56b, Ovos DeRabbi Nosson 41, 12, Yoma Yerushalmi 41, 3 and other places).

Titus' victory procession was immortalized by his brother Domitian with a famous relief on an arch in Rome now known as the Arch of Titus. The relief depicts Jewish captives transporting the spoils and the Temple vessels, including the chatzotzoros, the trays for Lechem Haponim and of the course the large menorah.

Ever since then there have been many accounts of sightings of the vessels, but only He Who Examines Every Heart knows where the dividing line lies between imagination, fantasy and yearning, and the sad truth.

The renowned Jewish traveler Binyomin of Tudela recounts seeing a cave in which the vessels were deposited by Titus while roaming the world in the year 4932 (1172) when he went to pray in the Cave of the Ten (Roman) Martyrs in Rome. He also says that a local church has two bronze columns taken from the Beis Hamikdosh that are the work of Shlomo Hamelech. Each has engraved on it: Shlomo ben Dovid.

A careful examination of other travel journals and a comparison of descriptions done by expert historians, shows one source that tells of two ancient pillars that were in the Beis Hamikdosh, remnants from the time of Shlomo Hamelech, that were taken to Rome. Binyomin of Tudela records that the Jews of Rome told him that every year the pillars would shed copious "tears" every Tisha B'Av.

According to some of the findings the pillars are located in the Vatican. Others place them in the Church of St. John in the Lateran.

An official description of a stone building reads, "Stone statues stretching up from the roof of the building pierce the sky. An impressive, narrow and elongated structure. Supported by high pillars crowned with spectacular stone carvings artistically engraved. Tall trees with wild foliage spreading over large patches of grass."

What is this stone structure? HaRav Menachem Bornstein claims the original stones were hidden in warehouses and replaced with replicas created by artists and then erected in the Vatican. The real pillars are off-limits.

According to a legend told by Roman Jews, while passing along the banks of the Tiber River during the great procession to Rome, the captured Jews could no longer bear the disgrace of seeing the appropriated menorah. Whether it was planned or spontaneous nobody knows, but as they crossed the bridge suddenly the menorah dropped from their hands and fell into the river, sinking down to the muddy bottom with just a few fleeting large waves on the surface.

An Italian engineer named Joseffe Forteza believes in this legend wholeheartedly and submitted a detailed plan to search the river bottom. While serving as foreign minister, Shimon Peres met with him, but due to the Italian government's skepticism Forteza has nothing to show except grand plans.

Roaming Between Jerusalem and Constantinople (Kushta)

The fate of the Temple vessels has fired the imagination of investigators around the world. Tales travel from one person to the next, becoming more dramatic with every telling. According to one such tale the Romans conquered Jerusalem but many subsequent wars took place on Roman soil and with every new victor the Temple vessels changed hands, bringing a new twist in the story.

According to a reliable Roman witness, when Geiseric the king of the Vandals brutally conquered Rome his soldiers sacked the city, pillaging and destroying for 14 days and demolishing all remnants of the glorious Roman empire. They plundered the Temple vessels on display in the Hall of Peace, taking them when they went on to Africa.

At this point opinions begin to diverge. Some historians hold the ship sank during the long journey because it was over- laden with war spoils. Others maintain the vessels reached Carthage, where they were used to adorn King Geizeric's magnificent palace.

But soon Justinian, the King of Byzantine grew jealous and dispatched his general Belisarius to reconquer North Africa and in particular to bring the spoils of the vainglorious African king to Constantinople. Following a brief war they carried general Belisarius back to Kushta with the vessels.

Non-Jewish sources continue spinning an imaginative tale about the outcome of the vessels, claiming that the Byzantine king's advisor warned him that the vessels bring calamity upon their possessors and persuaded him to bring them to Jerusalem. There they arrived at a church in ancient Jerusalem and when it was destroyed they were brought to the Valley of the Cross right next to Rechavia, and then . . . ?

The Height of the Mystery

On May 7, 1911 the lead headline of the New York Times read, "Did the Englishman Find the Temple Vessels?" The topic soon became the talk of the day in salons and on street corners. Mystery and secrecy surrounded the ten crates researcher Montague Parker managed to smuggle from the depths of the Har Habayis ruins to the US.

The first excavations under Har Habayis were conducted in the 19th century, starting with British researcher Charles Warren, who dug shafts in various spots in search of the missing vessels. Eventually he gave up and returned to England in frustration. In 5629 (1869) a second British researcher decided to try his luck in the shafts but all of his searches failed to uncover even an ancient shard of pottery.

After consulting with one of the members of the Islamic Wakf, Montague began searching from the direction of the City of David. Before performing the excavations he had to secure permission by giving large sums of money to the leaders of the Muslim community. In addition to the bribes, he had to promise the Wakf that when the vessels were found they would receive a share of the profits.

To cover up the major excavation project and its purpose, the local newspapers reported that construction on a hospital would soon be underway. Three hundred workers were hired to build the great "hospital construction" project. The fruit of their labor: a few ancient shards of no significance.

The quest continued in earnest until the digging reached deep into the mountain where they ruptured a water pipe, flooding the upper chambers on the Har Habayis. Parker decided to scrap the whole plan rather than imperil his life at the hands of agitated Muslims.

Before the public learned what had happened underground Parker and his associates took some ten crates and fled to Jaffa, where a waiting British ship set sail in the middle of the night.

The crates and the furtive escape piqued the media's curiosity. Had Parker found the Temple vessels?

The Islamic world was enraged. A delegation of distinguished Muslim figures was sent to investigate the affair and to determine whether the corruption had spread to the Wakf who were supposed to watch over Har Habayis.

Once safely on British soil Parker felt he could dupe the whole world and published an article saying the contents of the crates included King David's crown and King Solomon's sword. However nobody ever set eyes on them and they were never displayed in any museum.

Finding Golden Vessels in a Basement

According to rumor, in the not-so-distant past the Rothschild family funded searches for the Temple vessels.

After the Six-Day War, Professor Yaakov Meshorer, a numismatics expert at the Israel Museum, arrived at a monastery near the Old City's Lion's Gate to examine some ancient coins, following a long correspondence with that monastery.

He was placed in a locked room for several hours to study the coins. Finishing his examination before the appointed time he looked around the room and discovered a hidden door handle. As someone who lived and breathed the mysteries of history, as he turned the handle he felt this was the moment he had been waiting for. Behind the door were a few stairs and, unable to contain his curiosity, he descended.

Once his eyes had adjusted to the dim light he discovered numerous golden implements—shovels, fire-pans and other similar items. Before he had a chance to take it all in, the booming voice of one of the monks brought him back to reality.

"You're not allowed to be in here," he said, his voice echoing in the thick darkness. Soon the professor found himself escorted off the premises.

A short time later the coin collection was stolen. The insurance company and the police summoned Professor Meshorer as a witness to estimate the value of stolen property. He agreed to come on condition he was allowed to visit the basement once again. The monks looked at him and just shrugged their shoulders, as if they didn't understand what he meant.

Today Professor Meshorer says, "Those are fabulous forgeries, on a par with the Shapira ones . . . "

Shapira was one of the all-time greats in the art of forgery. In March 1884 Moses Wilhelm Shapira died following gunshots. Police investigators determined that Shapira, one of the world's leading collectors and forgers, had apparently taken his own life. Exhibiting considerable talent he fabricated historical writings on genuine, ancient scrolls and succeeding in hoodwinking some of the world's most respected museums.

He began his major counterfeiting efforts following the discovery in Transjordan of the Misha Memorial, which depicted the King of Moab's victory over the kings of Judea, Israel and Edom (see Melochim II, Chap. 3). The discovery led to a tremendous surge of interest in antiquities worldwide and with his broad knowledge, expertise and talent Shapira tried to turn an easy profit by taking advantage of the public's ignorance.

At first he laid the groundwork with all sorts of ancient earthenware vessels and statutes he claimed to have found or bought from Bedouin traders in Transjordan which bore early Jewish writing. Scientists and historians, museums and universities, clamored for his findings, studying and scrutinizing them until a competing researcher from France named Clairemont Ganou, who also engaged in archaeology, revealed them to be no more than a big hoax. Ganou would not keep quiet. He went and sniffed around everywhere Shapira had made an appearance and continued to pursue him, thwarting Shapira's schemes and pursuing him wherever he took his so- called discoveries.

The British were prepared to pay one million sterling to Shapira for a long scroll supposedly found in the Arnon riverbed and purchased from a Bedouin sheik, but Ganou was keeping tabs on him and published an article ridiculing the new "discovery" Shapira brought to the world. A meticulous examination indeed revealed that whoever wrote the text did not distinguish between "tes" and "tov," as well as between "ches" and "chof." Not restricting himself to pottery and scrolls the counterfeiter even tried his hand at the Temple vessels and he may have even been behind the articles found in the monastery basement.

Heavenly Fire Descends

Fifteen years ago HaRav Sa'adia Chozeh, an elder member of the Yemenite community, told this writer an amazing story about an attempt to build a living model of the mishkon in the city of Shar'ab, Yemen—and the price paid by all those involved.

A major debate developed among the Yemenite rabbonim over the appearance, size and construction of the mishkon. Forty chachamim held one view, while another forty chachamim had a different interpretation. The two sides debated but did not find any middle ground. In their heated war—milchamto shel Torah—the two camps decided to leave the matter of who was right to be decided by attempting the actual construction according to their respective approaches, and they would await a decision from Heaven as to who was correct.

Each side immediately set about trying to build the Mishkon according to its interpretation. They gathered the materials from all over. Their substitute keroshim and brichim were made from the pegs of their tents and from the roofing of their stores and the support beams they finished the other parts. The substitute yeri'os were made from used clothing and from rolls of cloth that they used in trade.

The site where they would build was divided into two. Each group measured the other's site to check whether the construction accorded with their opinions and once the work was complete the two sanctuaries were again checked to verify that they were properly proportioned.

Then there was a tragic turn in events. One group decided that since it was working according to a Divinely inspired approach, its replica of the mishkon had the correct dimensions. They thus felt that they could make HaKodosh Boruch Hu Himself, as it were, agree to their work and they thought to do so by bringing a korbon. In the heat of the debate they forgot about the prohibition against making sacrifices outside of the Azoroh (shechutei chutz), and proceeded to shecht a calf and lay it on their altar.

The calf was specially purchased, with a sincere expectation that if their model truly resembled the mishkon built by Moshe Rabbenu, fire would come down from Heaven and take the korbon that they offered.

And then it happened. A pillar of fire did descend from Heaven — but seconds later there was an oppressive silence. Where the model of the mishkon had stood only scorched earth remained. And where the 40 chachamim had stood, only piles of ash were left.

The members of the second group all feared for their lives. They felt hollow inside, as if only their skin remained. Upon regaining their composure they pinched themselves to make sure that they were still alive and then they quickly took apart their mishkon. Nobody believed it happened, but within one year all 40 of the surviving chachamim went to their graves.

HaRav Chozeh investigated the story for many years. He was shown the scorched earth in the desolate spot where the fateful incident took place. Nothing grew there—not even a flower or a wild bush—and none of the local residents dared to set foot on the spot.

The local residents were serious people who made their work incidental to their study of Torah which was their main focus (keva). Whenever they would meet they would discuss their learning, entering into debates and constantly trying to clarify halochoh. Monday was market day throughout the area and all of the Torah scholars would gather on that day to spend their time clarifying halachic matters. In fact they would build the entire week around these opportunities to speak with colleagues to delve into learning.

Fifty years after the tragic incident, also during parshas Terumoh, they again began to argue over the appearance of the mishkon. Again they decided to build a model — but in light of the bitter experience they agreed to leave a part out and to stipulate that no kedushoh would inhere to the site. The project would be solely to clarify their learning. After it was built and scrutinized it was taken apart in peace. The parts were stored away in a cave and nobody dares to touch them.

Elderly Yemenites now living in Eretz Yisroel report having seen the opening of the cave where the glinting tops of the posts and the planks that remained can be seen. In silence they tell the story of the replica that was eaten by Heavenly flames. A pillar of fire goes before the camp to show that it is forbidden to violate the words of the Torah, even to clarify a halachic matter, and to illuminate the proper path to follow.

The $7,000 Menorah of Gold

Throughout the generations many Jews engaged in replicating the Mishkon in one form or another, whether through drawings and illustrations or building miniature models. Who is not familiar with the large and impressive model of ancient Jerusalem, Har Habayis and Beis Hamikdosh at the Holyland Hotel (soon to be moved to a new site)? Groups of students and tourists come from around the world to study its construction.

Several museums in Eretz Yisroel and in other parts of the world have other models of the mishkon and its vessels on display. Artists and experts have produced wood and stove carvings and metalworkers have even made bronze, silver and gold renditions. Not surprisingly these works seldom conform with halochoh and certainly not the majority of opinions, but few claim that their work matches the Temple vessels perfectly. Rather they are put on display for aesthetic and artistic purposes alone.

An exception is the exhibit being built in Jerusalem and other places under the title, "Klei Hamikdash." They are endeavoring to create shovels, fire-pans, tools for the altar, the menorah and the showbread table as they really looked. Some of them are driven by Messianic and nationalist motivations. They have spent astronomical sums on gold and silver toward their misguided intentions of preparing the Temple vessels for Moshiach and the Kohanim.

In Jerusalem they built a menorah of pure silver valued at $7,000. The menorah was assembled from separate parts rather than made as a single unit as the Torah requires for a gold menorah. Many of them do not bother to consult the great morei horo'oh of the generation to find out what is permissible and what is not. They have already made garments for the Kohen Godol and the poroh adumoh is ready and waiting for the right time.

These institutes are forcing matters before their time: They want to bring sacrifices and light the menorah on Har Habayis, looking for a shortcut to the complete geuloh as if they've forgotten the Three Oaths that we were sworn to, with the stipulation that if we do not fulfill them our flesh will be left like the ayalos of the fields Rachmono litzlan . . .

Many talmudei Torah, schools and seminaries across the country have a display illustrating the mishkon and its vessels. One such exhibit is made of wood and metal painted golden and sturdy glass and is constructed with reasonably large dimensions. It is available for rent and travels from one school to another in large crates to illustrate the study material in a tangible way.

In the yellowing newspapers of 35 years ago we find a vibrant description of a visit by the Ponovezher Rav, HaRav Y.S. Kahaneman, at the home of a wealthy Tel Aviv personage. With the help of artists he had designed a model of the mishkon based on many halachic sources. The vessels and posts of the mishkon were overlaid with real gold and silver. The parts specified in the pesukim to be gold were real gold, the silver parts were real silver, even the copper and cloths and woven fabrics were of the highest quality and the correct materials.

The Ponovezher Rav was unable to hold back the tears. "I'm a kohen," he said. Although he had intended to stay for just a few minutes and had even left the car engine running, he began to scrutinize the mishkon and its vessels to verify whether all accorded with halochoh, checking every detail over the course of three hours.

Once dozens of non-Jewish professors came from the US to visit the exhibit. After examining it thoroughly based on what they understood from indications by chazal and in the Torah itself they determined that it was consistent with the original, except for one detail. To the great surprise of Mr. Moshe Levine, the director of the exhibit, they said that the keruvim were standing whereas in the Torah they are sitting. To prove his point the professor quoted the words, "yosheiv keruvim."

"But `yosheiv keruvim' is a designation for HaKodosh Boruch Hu," said the owner of the place.

The professor nodded and admitted his mistake. "You can see I think like a goy."


The stories above only provide an overview on the dramatic quest for the Temple vessels. There have been many other searches in various parts of the world. All of them share in common a yearning to see the complete rebuilding of the Temple and the joyous return to Tzion.

Where the Vessels Lie, According to Chazal

Several different opinions appear in Chazal regarding where the Aron Ho'Eidus was placed for safekeeping. In maseches Yoma 54a the gemora says the aron was hidden away before the time of Beis Sheini in the Wood- Storage Chamber, which was located to the right of the entrance to the mikdosh. There the logs were checked for worm infestation, which would disqualify them for use on the altar. One day, the mishna recounts, one of the kohanim noticed a floor section that appeared a bit odd. He summoned his colleagues to the Stone Hall (Lishkas Hagozis) to take a look, but in the meantime his soul departed.

The same story appears in the Talmud Yerushalmi in a slightly different form: The kohen noted the floor did not look right and when he struck it with his sledgehammer a fire leaped out and burned him up. Chazal explain that he had come across the spot where the aron was hidden.

Regarding the rest of the Temple vessels the gemora says, "Once Bayis Rishon was built, the Ohel Moed and its boards, posts and bases were hidden away under the cavities of the Temple Hall" (Sotah 9a).

The Rambam also explains that when Shlomo Hamelech built the Beis Hamikdosh he had a special hiding place included (Hilchos Beis Habechiroh, Chap. 4,1). And according to various sources the aron was hidden beneath the Even Shesiyoh, whose location is a longstanding matter of debate.

The Ridvaz agrees with the opinion that the stone found at the center of the Dome of the Rock is indeed the Even Shesiyoh (Responsa II, 691 ). Others rejected this idea, claiming that the stone in the Dome of the Rock is a solid mass of bedrock, whereas "even" refers to an individual stone that can move from place to place. Beyond a shadow of doubt if Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest among men, built hidden cavities to keep the Temple vessels from being found, certainly nobody would uncover them by turning over a few rocks.

Where is the area where the Wood-Storage Chamber once stood? According to some traditions, Rechov Mochrei Hakutnoh (Cotton- Sellers) in the Old City is located opposite the part of the mikdosh where the aron and other vessels were hidden away.

This street and its gate are located in the spot closest to where the Wood-Storage Chamber once stood, and according to HaRav Alfandri this is one of the gates that surrounded Har Habayis. Some people even avoid walking on this street in the part that is considered today to be outside the Har Habayis for this reason.

According to another account (Yoma 53b) the Aron was taken to Bovel by Nevuchadnetzar. Some claim this is the separate Aron that Moshe Rabbenu made, for Shlomo's Aron was different. Medrash Rabboh recounts that the cheireish and the masgeir exiled with Yehoyochin took the Aron with them to safeguard it properly and later it was returned to Jerusalem by Ezra the Scribe (Bamidbar 15).

In Doniel we find further evidence: the Babylonian King Belshatzar used the Temple vessels at a party and a hand emerged and wrote, Mene mene tekkel ufarsin. In Ezra we are told that Koresh ordered the vessels to be returned to Jerusalem (1:7). According to the medrashim on Megillas Esther some of the vessels from the Beis Hamikdosh were laid out on Achashverosh's table.

Meanwhile the historical chronicle Chashmonaim relates that Yirmiyohu hid the Ohel Moed, the aron and the mizbeiach on the mountain from which Moshe Rabbenu surveyed Eretz Yisroel, and when his talmidim asked him to reveal the location Yirmiyohu refused.

Its location has been the subject of wide speculation and many teams of archaeologists have set out to explore the areas around Har Nebo. Although there seems to be no logical connection, an ancient church in the area features an old mosaic floor that depicts the building of the Temple and its vessels.

In his work Emek Hamelech, kabbalist R' Naftoli Ben R' Yaakov Elchonon of Frankfurt writes that the holy vessels were hidden away by Shamor Halevy and his colleagues Chizkiyohu, Tzidkiyohu, Chagai and Zecharyoh in a tower in Bovel in a city called Bagdat, and when Moshiach Tzidkeinu arrives a large river will flow forth from the Kodesh Hakodoshim and reveal the vessels.


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