There is much controversy and misinformation surrounding this question, so let’s begin by clarifying the facts of the story.

After laying siege to Jerusalem, the Romans, led by Titus, finally breached the walls of Jerusalem, and on the 9th of the Jewish month of Av, in the year 69 CE,1 destroyed the Holy Temple and plundered it.

In the year 81 CE, shortly after the death of his older brother Titus, the emperor Domitian had an arch built depicting the triumphal procession after Titus’s victory over Jerusalem. The Arch of Titus, which stands in Rome to this very day, depicts the procession carrying a number of items plundered from the Jewish Temple, including the silver trumpets, the Table of the Showbread, and most prominently the golden Menorah.

The treasures plundered from Jerusalem were housed and displayed in the so-called “Peace Gardens” of Rome, which were built using the booty acquired through the sacking of Jerusalem.2

The story is told in the Talmud of how Rabbi Eliezer, son of Rabbi Yossi, together with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and other sages, went to Rome to try to rescind some of the harsh decrees against the Jews. While in Rome, they were miraculously given the opportunity to heal the caesar's daughter, who had fallen ill. After successfully healing her, they were given the opportunity to see some of Rome's treasures.3 These sages later testified to seeing various items looted from the Holy Temple, including the golden tzitz4 (golden band worn by the high priest), Parochet (Curtain)5 and the Menorah.6

Based on these stories, one can understand why many claim that the Menorah, as well as other items plundered from the Temple, was taken to Rome and may be found there to this very day.

However, as we examine this theory, things get a bit murkier.

The Sacking of Rome

The so-called “Peace Gardens” of Rome were damaged or destroyed a number of times, including in a fire in the year 191 CE. While the garden was subsequently restored, it is not clear if the vessels remained there or perhaps were taken to some other place in Rome.

Additionally, Rome itself was sacked and plundered many times, including in 410 CE, by the Visigoths under Alaric I, and more significantly in 455 CE by the Vandals and Moors under King Genseric, who spent 14 days looting Rome of its treasures.

So what happened to the Menorah?

Some claim that the Menorah may have been hidden or lost in the Tiber River in Rome during one of the sackings. Some claim that the Menorah may have eventually been melted down for the gold. Others say that, according to legend, when King Alaric of the Visigoths died shortly after the sacking of Rome in 410 CE, the Visigoths buried him together with the Menorah they looted.7

Yet others opine that the Menorah was taken from Rome by the Vandals in the more significant sacking of 455 CE and taken to Carthage (modern-day Tunisia). When Carthage itself was sacked, it ended up in the hands of the Byzantine Empire. However, Emperor Justinian, due to the superstition that the Menorah was cursed, sent it off to Jerusalem, where it disappeared (destroyed or stolen) when the Persians captured Jerusalem in the 7th century CE.8

And then, of course, there is the claim, mentioned at the beginning of this article, that the Menorah has remained in Rome and is currently hidden away somewhere deep in the Vatican. Indeed, over the years, various people have claimed to have seen various Temple vessels in the Vatican.

All of the above theories, however, are based on the claim that the Temple Menorah was brought to Rome in the first place.

Was the Temple Menorah Ever in Rome?

Although we have cited the depiction of the Menorah in the Arch of Titus as well as Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s testimony as evidence of the Menorah having been taken to Rome, these proofs in and of themselves are questionable.

On the Arch of Titus, although the upper half of the Menorah can arguably be a depiction of the actual Temple Menorah,9 the bottom half is not. It depicts the Menorah’s base as being similar to a two-tiered cake, while the Temple Menorah had a tripod base.10 And the Menorah on the Arch is decorated with images of eagles, a sea lion and mythological creatures, including a dragon, while the Temple Menorah didn’t have any of these images.(Some argue that the base itself may have been damaged and replaced.11)

Based on this, some explain that either the Menorah brought to Rome was, in fact, one of the other lamps in the Temple, or the depiction was based off a Menorah that was made to resemble the Temple Menorah.

Similarly, the sages disagree with Rabbi Eliezer’s description of the design of the tzitz, implying that he did not see the actual tzitz, or at least it was a tzitz that wasn’t made in the usual manner.12 Thus, the testimony of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai regarding the Menorah may be questionable as well.

The Chashmonaim’s Tin Menorah

Although there is much ado about the Menorah possibly having been brought to Rome, it is important to keep things in perspective.

The Midrash lists the Temple Menorah—which was originally made by Moses for the Mishkan—as one of a handful of vessels of the Holy Temple that were hidden by the Jews before the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians.13

Later, during the Second Temple, the Menorah went through a number of different iterations. In the words of the Talmud:

[In the time of the Hasmoneans, the Menorah was fashioned from] spits [shappudim] of iron, and they covered them with tin. Later, when they grew richer, they fashioned a Menorah out of silver. And when they again grew richer, they fashioned the Menorah from gold.14

Thus, even if the Menorah was indeed taken to Rome, ultimately that Menorah isn’t the one we need for the Third Holy Temple. As the Midrash15 regarding the hiding of the Menorah concludes, ultimately, when G‑d will turn His mercy to build His Temple, He will also restore the vessels that were hidden (including the Menorah) to their place and cause Jerusalem to rejoice. May it be speedily in our days!