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Menorah Myth Busters

Students in Yeshiva College Summer Course Discredit Claim That Vatican is Hiding Temple Relics

When Yeshiva University senior Ari Rosenberg signed up for a summer school course on the Arch of Titus, he was just trying to fulfill his last history requirement with what sounded like an interesting class taught by Dr. Steven Fine, a professor who was clearly excited about his work and sharing it with his students.

Students in Professor Fine's Arch of Titus summer course Students in Professor Fine's Arch of Titus summer course

“What I did not know was how fantastic a professor he really is and how stimulating the course would be,” said Rosenberg, a history major at Yeshiva College who hopes to attend medical school.

Fine is a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva College and Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and director of the Center for Israel Studies and its Arch of Titus Project. In 2012 he led an international team in the discovery of the original yellow paint that was used to color the Arch of Titus menorah nearly 2,000 years ago.

The summer course focused on the Arch of Titus, one of the most significant Roman monuments to survive from antiquity, from the perspectives of Roman, Jewish and Christian history and art. Built in 81 CE, it commemorates the Roman victory over Judea a decade earlier, an event that Jews mourn each year with the Fast of the Ninth of Av—Tisha B’Av, which falls this year on August 4-5. The course examined the contexts for the construction of the monument and the continued reflection that it has evoked, especially since its menorah relief was chosen as the symbol of the State of Israel in 1949.

Professor Steven Fine Dr. Steven Fine stands at the Arch of Titus

A few days before the start of the summer session, Fine was forwarded a letter written by Rabbi Yonatan Shtencel of Jerusalem. Rabbi Shtencel had written to the Vatican representative in Israel, Archbishop Guiseppe Lazzarotto, requesting that the Church release the Temple relics, including the menorah. The rabbi believes that these holy artifacts of the Jerusalem Temple are in the possession of the Vatican in Rome.

To his surprise, Rabbi Shtencel received a friendly letter in return from Archbishop Lazzarotto, restating the Church's position that the Vatican has no knowledge of possessing Temple relics, but adding that if the rabbi could "provide any evidence that the sacred vessels are indeed kept in the archives or somewhere else in the Vatican,” he would “forward his request to the Prefect of the same archives and to Pope Francis himself.”

Rabbi Shtencel proceeded to detail his evidence in a public letter to then President of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres, requesting that he raise this issue during a forthcoming meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

Since the letter was public, Fine, who is currently writing a book that deals with the many myths of the menorah, decided to challenge his students to investigate the claims.

“The letter dealt with all the themes of our course,” said Fine. “I asked the students to check the sources as any scholar or professional journalist would. They looked up every text that Rabbi Shtencel cited and spoke to everyone that he spoke with, chasing down sources that were often very hard to get. They really did their job well.”

The students contacted all the living informants whom Rabbi Shtencel had mentioned in the letter, including Professor Shimon Shetreet, the former Minister of Religious Affairs. They also tracked down copies of rare books in Israeli libraries that are unavailable in the United States.

Finding that none of the claims could be substantiated, they drafted a public letter to Peres detailing the results of their research.

Arch of Titus Arch of Titus with menorah relief

“Our research showed the implausibility—from the fall of the Roman Empire and its sacking by Vandal hoards in the 5th century onward—that the Temple vessels are there,” said Rosenberg. “We also went through the specific stories of recent ‘menorah sightings,’ seeing that each one lacked any proof or evidence that could hold up either in a court of law or in a rabbinic court. The claims rely solely upon second or third-hand hearsay, describing Jews coming close to a dim, dark room at the Vatican where they were told the menorah might be, but even these stories don't claim that anyone actually saw it.”

The goal, said Fine, "was to better understand the world in which the Arch of Titus was built and the ways that Jews and Christians have lived with it. We were able to experience real artifacts, visiting Arch of Titus-related artifacts in collections across New York City .”

The course included research excursions to Yeshiva University Museum, the Department of Special Collections of YU's Mendel Gottesman Library, the Park Avenue Synagogue and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the students closely examined ancient Roman artifacts, rare books, art objects and public sculpture.

“I learned an enormous amount regarding the examination of stated and assumed proofs, rumors, stories and assumptions,” said Rosenberg. “Dr. Fine's focus on understanding the characters of history as living, breathing people just like the rest of us brought to our class a sense of sincerity.”

“The research we did on the Temple relics was great,” said David Silber, a junior at Yeshiva College majoring in biology. “Professor Fine has a tremendous depth of knowledge in the area, and he had us explore all the Jewish sources, Christian sources, Roman sources and perhaps most importantly, how the different views and historic accounts interacted with one another, whether by intent or by coincidence. What I gained most from the class is that there is a way to approach matters such as myths that the Vatican is hiding the Temple relics in an academic, rigorous way, while at the same time still embracing and preserving the endearing minhagim [customs] of the Jewish people. And, if done properly, not only can the two co-exist, but that each one enriches the other.”

Read more in The Wall Street Journal.