The Holy Vessels from the Beis Hamikdash:
Where Are They Now?
During this time of the year, when we mourn the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and yearn for its rebuilding, we also wonder what the third Beis Hamikdash will be like. We know that it will be built in the exact same location where the first two stood. But will it contain any of the keilim from the first or second Beis Hamikdash? Do these keilim even still exist? That is the question we will explore in this article.
The part of the Beis Hamikdash where the avodah was performed, consisted of an outdoor area called Azara and a building called the Heichal. The Azara housed the large mizbei’ach, which is where virtually all the sacrifices were brought. During the avodah, the kohanim used many gold and silver implements, such as spoons, bowls, and pitchers.
The Heichal was divided into two parts: The front section, called the Kodesh, contained the menorah, the golden mizbei’ach on which the ketores was offered, and the shulchan that held the lechem hapanim. The inner section, called the Kodesh Hakodoshim, contained the aron.
What happened to all of these holy vessels after the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed?
When Shlomo Hamelech built the first Beis Hamikdash, he anticipated a time when its most precious contents would need to be protected from enemies. Underneath the Beis Hamikdash, he built a special hidden chamber for that purpose.
Centuries later, King Yoshiyahu, aware of the impending danger, made use of that chamber. He commanded the leviyim of his time to hide the aron there.1Divrei Hayamim, vol. II, 35:3. To the best of our knowledge, the aron remains hidden in the chamber to this day.
The second Beis Hamikdash functioned without the aron. No one knew its exact hiding place. However, some had an inkling. The Mishna2Shekalim 6:1. relates that members of the households of Rabban Gamliel and of Rabbi Chanania Segan Hakohanim used to bow in front of the chamber of wood [Lishkas haEtzim] because they had a tradition that the aron was hidden there.
The Other Keilim
In fact, no one knows if they still exist. For anyone looking to get rich, the keilim were valuable for their gold content. In the wrong hands, they would have been quickly melted and reused for profit. And even if human conquerors appreciated the keilim and kept them intact, they could have been destroyed in fires, common in the ancient world, or some natural disasters.
However, mentions of these keilim have occasionally surfaced in different places, at different times, over the course of the past two thousand years, and there are reasons to believe that they still exist today. We will attempt to trace the route of the keilim over the millennia based on such references.
After the Roman general, later to become emperor, Titus destroyed the Beis Hamikdash in 70 CE, he brought the spoils of victory to Rome, where they were displayed in a triumphal procession. Josephus, who presumably was present at the procession, describes in detail the opulence and festivities of the occasion.3Josephus. The Jewish War. Translated by G. A.Williamson. Penguin Books, 1981. Pages 383 – 386. He writes that all of Rome came out to see the triumph, “so that there was barely enough room left for the procession itself to pass.” Titus, together with his father, Emperor Vespasian, sat on ivory chairs at the dais, dressed in traditional silken crimson robes and wreathed with bay.
It is impossible to give a satisfactory account of the innumerable spectacles, so magnificent in every way one could think of, whether as works of art or varieties of wealth or rarities of nature; almost all the treasures that have ever come one at a time into the hands of fortune’s favorites – the priceless marvels of many different peoples – were brought together on that day, showing forth the greatness of the Roman Empire.
Josephus continues to describe the intricate displays and the travelling stages depicting scenes of battle and victory. Then he writes specifically about the spoils from the Beis Hamikdash:
Most of the spoils that were carried were heaped up indiscriminately, but more prominent than all the rest were those captured in the Temple at Jerusalem – a golden table weighing several hundredweight, and a lampstand similarly made of gold but differently constructed from those we normally use. The central shaft was fixed to a base, and from it extended slender branches placed like the prongs of a trident, and with the end of each one forged into a lamp: these numbered seven, signifying the honour paid to that number by the Jews. After this was carried the Jewish Law [presumably a sefer Torah], the last of the spoils.
While Josephus does not mention the golden mizbei’ach, he seems to testify that the menorah and the shulchan were brought to Rome and displayed in the triumphal procession. Moreover, the Arch of Titus confirms Josephus’s testimony. Built by Titus’ brother, Emperor Domitian, in the year 81 CE to commemorate Titus’ victory, the arch depicts the menorah, the shulchan, and two trumpets carried by Jewish prisoners during the procession. Titus also brought other spoils to Rome, not depicted on the arch or described by Josephus, as we will see shortly.
Josephus goes on to describe what happened to these spoils after the procession:
When the triumphal ceremonies were over, as the Roman Empire was now most firmly established, Vespasian made up his mind to build a Temple of Peace. This was completed with remarkable speed and surpassed all human imagination … [I]n that temple was collected and deposited all those works that men had hitherto traveled over the whole world to see … There too he laid up the golden vessels from the Temple of the Jews, for he prided himself on them; but their Law and the crimson curtains of the Inner Sanctuary he ordered to be deposited in the Palace for safekeeping.
Josephus does not specify which keilim were deposited in the Temple of Peace and which were kept in the palace. However, we know from other sources that various objects from the Beis Hamikdash were seen in Rome.
In the centuries that followed the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, several Tannaim were able to see some of the keilim. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai saw the menorah,4Sifrei Zuta Bamidbar 8:2. and Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Yosei saw the tzitz5Yerushalmi Yoma 20b. and the paroches.6Meila 17b; Yoma 57a.
After the period of the Tannaim, personal viewings of the menorah and the shulchan are never mentioned again in any Jewish sources. However, the famous Jewish traveler R’ Binyamin of Tudela describes what he saw on his visit to Rome in the 12th century CE:7Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela. Digitized from Marcus Nathan Adler’s The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Critical Text, Translation, and Commentary (New York: Philipp Feldheim, Inc., 1907).
In the church of St. John in the Lateran there are two bronze columns taken from the Temple, the handiwork of King Solomon, each column being engraved “Solomon the son of David.” The Jews of Rome told me that every year upon the 9th of Av they found the columns exuding moisture like water. There also is the cave where Titus, the son of Vespasianus, stored the Temple vessels which he brought from Jerusalem.
Thus, we see that the Romans brought additional spoils from the Beis Hamikdash, besides what is described by Josephus and depicted on the Arch of Titus. Based on this passage and the above-quoted passage from Josephus, we know that the loot was divided and stored in different locations.
R’ Binyamin of Tudela mentions a cave where Titus hid the keilim from the Beis Hamikdash. He does not specify, however, whether he had seen the cave or was only told about it by the Jews of Rome. He also doesn’t clarify whether the keilim were still in the cave at the time of his travels. Rabbi Benjamin visited Rome a thousand years after Titus’s rule, and much could have happened during the intervening years. It could be Titus had indeed hidden the keilim in the cave, but someone else could have removed them and transferred them elsewhere. It is also possible that only some of the keilim were hidden in the cave while others were stored in another location.
In any event, while keilim from the Beis Hamikdash are not mentioned in any other Jewish sources, they are mentioned in non-Jewish sources. These sources do not tell us which specific keilim they refer to, but they allow us to trace the journey of some of what Titus took from the Beis Hamikdash.
As we saw above, at least some of the keilim were stored in the Temple of Peace in the center of Rome. This temple stood for hundreds of years, but along with the rest of what had been the great Roman Empire, it fell into the hands of Barbarians in the 5th century CE.
In 455 CE, the Vandal king Gaiseric, based in ancient Carthage (what is now Tunis, in North Africa), attacked Rome and plundered its treasuries. Theophanes Confessor, a Christian monk who authored a lengthy manuscript on the history of the Byzantine Empire, wrote:8As quoted in G-d’s Gold: A Quest for the Lost Temple Treasures of Jerusalem by Sean Kingsley, Harper Collins, 2007, page 220.
[T]aking all the money and the ornaments of the city, he [Gaiseric] loaded them on his ships, among them the solid gold and bejeweled treasures of the Church and the Jewish vessels which Vespasian’s son Titus had brought to Rome after the capture of Jerusalem … [Then] he sailed back to Africa.
Thus, some keilim made their way to the Vandal palace in Carthage.
Note that the Vandal plunder of Rome took place over 500 years before Rabbi Binyamin of Tudela’s travels. Therefore, either the keilim taken by the Vandals were not the same ones as the keilim hidden in the cave in Rome, or the keilim from the cave were long gone by the time Rabbi Binyamin visited Rome.
The next mention of keilim from the Beis Hamikdash occurs in the writings of the Byzantine historian Procopius. Born in Caesarea in Eretz Yisrael, Procopius came to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and participated in military campaigns. In 533 CE, the Byzantine emperor Justinian sent his general Belisarius to conquer the Vandal kingdom in North Africa. Procopius accompanied Belisarius and chronicled the campaign in his book The Vandal War.
Procopius relates that when Belisarius captured Carthage, he did not at first find any treasures because the Vandals had taken measures to protect their bounty. Procopius writes,9As quoted in G-d’s Gold: A Quest for the Lost Temple Treasures of Jerusalem by Sean Kingsley, Harper Collins, 2007, page 245.
At the beginning of this war Gelimer [the king of the Vandals] had put [a scribe named] Boniface on a very swift-sailing ship, and, placing all the royal treasure in it, commanded him to anchor in the harbor of Hippo Regius, and if he should see that the situation was not favorable to their side, he was to sail with all speed to Spain.
However, Boniface’s attempt to escape to Spain was unsuccessful due to a severe storm. Thus, the ship was captured by Belisarius, who took the treasures it contained to Constantinople.
Upon returning home after his victory, Belisarius was given his own triumph. Procopius describes the treasures displayed to the public:10As quoted in G-d’s Gold: A Quest for the Lost Temple Treasures of Jerusalem by Sean Kingsley, Harper Collins, 2007, page 220.
And there was booty – first of all, whatever articles are wont to be set apart for the royal service – thrones of gold and carriages in which it is customary for a king’s consort to ride, and much jewelry made of precious stones, and golden drinking cups, and all other things which are useful for the royal table. And there was also silver weighing many thousands of talents and all the royal treasure amounting to an exceedingly great sum (for Gaiseric had despoiled the Palatium in Rome…), and among these were the treasures of the Jews, which Titus, the son of Vespasian, together with certain others, had brought to Rome after the capture of Jerusalem.
Thus, keilim from the Beis Hamikdash came into possession of the Byzantine Empire. It was up to Emperor Justinian to decide what to do with them.
Back to Eretz Yisrael
Jews were present at Belisarius’ triumph, and they saw the keilim of the Beis Hamikdash that were brought from the Vandal kingdom. We can only imagine what they felt at the sight. Procopius tells us what happened next:11As quoted in G-d’s Gold: A Quest for the Lost Temple Treasures of Jerusalem by Sean Kingsley, Harper Collins, 2007, page 220.
And one of the Jews, seeing these things, approached one of those known to the emperor and said: “These treasures I think it inexpedient to carry into the palace in Byzantium. Indeed, it is not possible for them to be elsewhere than in the place where Solomon, the king of the Jews, formerly placed them. For it is because of these that Gaiseric captured the palace of the Romans, and now the Roman army has captured the Vandals.” When this had been brought to the ears of the Emperor, he became afraid and quickly sent everything to the sanctuaries of the Christians in Jerusalem.
Thus, thanks to a courageous Jew, these keilim returned to Yerushalayim.
Presumed Present Location
There are no further known mentions of keilim of the Beis Hamikdash. We don’t know where exactly in Yerushalayim, Emperor Justinian sent the keilim that had fallen into his hands, but there are various hypotheses. At the time, Justinian was involved in several building projects in Eretz Yisrael, and among them was a large church with extensive underground chambers. Some historians suggest that the keilim were hidden underneath this church.12Carl Rasmussen. A.D. 70 The Destruction of the Temple — Where did the Temple Treasure Go? Part 3. Available at holylandphotos.wordpress.com; accessed on June 23, 2020.
Where are these keilim now? British archeologist Sean Kingsley spent four years trying to determine their present location. He chronicles his search in his book, G-d’s Gold: A Quest for the Lost Temple Treasures of Jerusalem. Kingsley suggests that the disappearance of the keilim from historical sources after their arrival in Yerushalayim was intentional. He writes,13Kingsley, loc.cit., page 282.
Christianity had taken over three hundred years to break free from the shackles of Judaism and paganism and was not about to have its thunder stolen. The repatriation of the Jewish treasure to Jerusalem was a double-edged sword for the city’s patriarchs, which reflected the very real muscle-flexing between Church and State. But the patriarchs adhered to Justinian’s imperial prerogative and … quietly locked the Temple relics away…
According to Kingsley’s theory, the keilim stayed hidden under a church in Yerushalayim until the threat of Persian conquest in 614 CE. When the Persians did conquer Yerushalayim after a twenty-day siege, they ransacked and looted the city for three days straight. Through force and torture, they managed to uncover all the treasures then extant in Yerushalayim. A number of Arab sources describe the Persian booty in detail, but none of them mention the keilim from the Beis Hamikdash. Kingsley concludes that the keilim never reached Persia.
How did they escape the clutches of the ruthless Persian conquerors? Kingsley suggests that they were spirited away from Yerushalayim and hidden by a monk named Modestus, who later became the patriarch of Yerushalayim.
Before the Persian attack, Modestus headed the monastery of St. Theodosius, located southeast of Yerushalayim, near Bethlehem. Kingsley proposes that Modestus hid the keilim somewhere on the grounds, or perhaps underground, of this monastery.
In his book, Kingsley describes his attempt to visit the monastery, which still exists in the same location today. Under control of the Palestinian Authority, the monastery is not a safe place to visit. Nevertheless, Kingsley took the risk, even though he and his Israeli-Arab driver were stopped by Palestinian police several times.
However, the trip did not yield the desired results. The residents of the monastery refused to open the gates for Kingsley, and he was only able to explore the area right outside of it. He noticed a number of caves nearby and suggested that the keilim might be hidden in one of these caves.
This seems to be the end of the trail. And yet, there is another story that bears mention. This story, which occurred in the 1920s, is told by Rebbetzin Ruchoma Shain in her book All for the Boss.14Ruchoma Shain. All for the Boss: The Life and Impact of R’ Yaakov Yosef Herman, a Torah Pioneer in America. Feldheim, 2001. Pages 146-148.
A farmer in Eretz Yisrael was plowing his field when he discovered a deep cave under it. He used a rope to go down into the cave and was amazed to discover the shiny gold keilim from the Beis Hamikdash. Not sure what to do with his discovery, the farmer covered the cave with earth to hide it from other people and drew a map of its location. Then he travelled to New York and sought the advice of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Herman, Rebbetzin Shain’s father, who was known for his yiras shamayim and dedication to Torah and mitzvos.
Rabbi Herman felt that the only person who could decide how to proceed in such a delicate situation was the Chofetz Chaim. At the time, Rabbi Herman’s son, Rabbi Nochum Dovid, was learning in the Mirrer yeshiva in Poland, and Rabbi Herman sent him a registered letter, in which he enclosed a sealed letter for the Chofetz Chaim.
Rabbi Nochum Dovid delivered the letter and read it aloud to the Chofetz Chaim. Rebbetzin Shain relates:15Ruchoma Shain. All for the Boss: The Life and Impact of R’ Yaakov Yosef Herman, a Torah Pioneer in America. Feldheim, 2001. Page 148.
The Chofetz Chaim listened very intently… He then took some seforim from his bookcase and became deeply engrossed in them.
After a while, he told Nochum Dovid that according to the description of the discovery site, these golden vessels could very well be holy vessels from the Beis HaMikdash.
The Chofetz Chaim then lit a match and burned [Rabbi Herman’s] letter to ashes. He advised Nochum Dovid not to reveal anything to anyone about this matter, and added, “As long as that Jew lives, the secret will be kept.”
Many years later… [Rabbi Herman] said to Nochum Dovid, “The man must have passed away without revealing the secret, as the Chofetz Chaim prophesied.”
Thus, we’ve reached a dead end. Perhaps the keilim from the Beis Hamikdash are hidden in a cave not far from Har Habayis, but the time has not yet come for their location to be revealed. We can hope and pray that a time will come when these keilim will be taken out of their hiding place and used in the third Beis Hamikdash. May it be soon, in our days!