Photo Credit: The Temple Institute
Artist's rendition of the aron.

Last month, The Jewish Press spoke to three experts regarding the location of the aron constructed under the watch of Shlomo HaMelech. Due to interest in this subject, we recently interviewed another three experts on this general topic.

We begin with David Lev Bannister, an archeologist, a filmmaker, and host of the “Trail of the Ark” show on www.IsraelNationalNews.com.

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The Jewish Press: Where do you think the aron is?

Bannister: I would place it somewhere in a deep tunnel that passes under the Temple Mount and leads towards the Dead Sea. This theory is based on both Biblical sources as well as research of the regional topography. The question is how far eastward in the tunnel the ark is located.

Most people assume the aron is under the Temple Mount.

There are various Scriptural and secular texts that support the possibility of the aron being outside Jerusalem. One example is the second Book of Maccabees, which opens with the prophet Jeremiah traveling with the aron towards “the mountain where Moses had gone up and had seen the inheritance of G-d.”

Scholars debate whether the reference is to Mount Sinai or Mount Nebo, where Moses was buried. There are strong arguments that place the aron close to Qumran, while others support the prevalent belief that it is hidden under the Temple in Jerusalem.

Both schools of thought point to it being in a subterranean cavity. Accordingly, our research focuses on finding a tunnel stretching from the Temple Mount to Qumran where the late Vendyl Jones held several exciting excavations and where his student, Jim Long, is exploring now.

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Jim Long, a Noahide scholar and filmmaker, is currently developing a documentary series based on the book “The Sistine Secrets” by Rabbi Benjamin Blech, professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University, which seeks to prove that Michelangelo was familiar with Jewish teachings and Kabbalah.

The Jewish Press: Having worked with Mr. Jones on several digs, can you tell us a little about him?

Long: Vendyl hailed from Sudan, Texas. In college and grad school, he studied divinity and theology. He began his career as a Baptist pastor, but felt drawn to learn more about Jewish sources, so he started to attend Torah classes.

Attracted to the moral lessons of the Old Testament, he decided to become a Noahide. In 1967, he moved to Israel and studied Judaica at Hebrew University, developing a keen interest in archeology. He began the first of his eight Qumran excavations in 1972.

Some argue that the character of Indiana Jones in Steven Spielberg’s movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is based on him. Is that true?

He denied it. But he enjoyed the publicity and the fact that the recognition helped him raise money for his digs. He insisted, though, that the only thing they shared in common was the same last name and quest for the holy ark.

How are you carrying on his work?

We’ve gone back to exploring the Qumran caves following Vendyl’s hunch that the Copper Scroll, which a Bedouin found in 1952 in Cave 3, may hold the key to the whereabouts of the Temple treasures.

The Scroll, written on copper rather than parchment, is an inventory of gold and silver treasures from either the First or Second Temple, with references to where the objects were hidden in the mountains above the Dead Sea.

Last month, using ground-penetrating radar, we surveyed a man-made tunnel in the vicinity of Cave 3, which we hope will reveal the treasures “under the stone steps” mentioned in the Scroll.

What are some of the more interesting items you’ve discovered in previous digs?

In 1988, we dug near Cave 11, where the Temple Scroll was found. Vendyl and the archeologist Yosi Patrick uncovered a small clay jug filled with a sticky substance that may have been the Anointing Oil mentioned in the Bible. It was analyzed and found to contain a large percentage of balsam. What was amazing was the fact that the oil was still sticky after 2,000 years.

Then, in 1992, Vendyl unearthed a 600-kilo cache of organic red power. A chemist at the Weizmann Institute and an American expert in pollens agreed that it was composed of nine different spices like those used to make the ancient ketoret that was burnt in the Holy Temple.

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Rabbi Menachem Bornstein is founder and head of the Puah Institute in Jerusalem. One of his hobbies is researching the whereabouts of the Temple menorah.

The Jewish Press: How do we know the menorah is in Rome?

Rabbi Bornstein: Everyone is familiar with the Arch of Titus of the Roman victory parade that portrays the menorah being carried away to Rome after the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash. Tractates Gittin and Yoma, Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, and Avot D’Rabbi Natan state that many Temple vessels, including the menorah, were taken to Rome.

Midrash Melech HaMashiach states: “And the Mashiach, the Son of Yosef, will come… and he will kill the king of Edom and destroy the state of Rome, and he will leave there with some of the vessels of the Mikdash that were hidden away in the House of Caesar Volinus, and he will take them to Jerusalem, and Israel will hear of it and gather around.”

One often hears the claim that the menorah is hidden in the Vatican.

That certainly is a strong possibility. Seeing itself as the heir to Israel as the chosen nation, the Church had reason to take possession of the menorah.

A little over 100 years ago, the king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, visited Tripoli and befriended the noted scholar Rabbi Yitzhak Chai Bokovza. The king invited him to Rome to see the menorah for himself. In the underground vaults of the Vatican, behind layers of curtains, the rabbi from Tripoli came upon vessels of the Mikdash. “I have seen enough,” the astounded rabbi said, and hurried out from the chamber.

A reliable Jew from Luv told me that after HaRav Bokovza returned home, he refused to speak for 40 days and, a short time afterward, died. After World War II, Israel’s Chief Rabbi Herzog visited Rome and asked to see the vessels, but he was refused.

In 1987, in response to my request to explore the Jewish treasures held by the Church, the Vatican replied in a letter: “Dear Mr. Bornstein, I am directed to acknowledge the letter which you addressed to Pope John Paul II, and I regret that this office does not have the information you are seeking.”

When the Chief Librarian of the Vatican was asked for permission to conduct research on the Temple vessels, he answered, “There is no doubt that I would grant such a request if the treasures of the Temple were in our possession; however, unfortunately for us, this is simply a fairytale legend.”

Can a person enter a place filed with idols to search for Temple vessels?

I asked that question to Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, of blessed memory. He replied: “Certainly. We have a great concern that the vessels are located in a place that brings disrespect upon them or that they are in the hands of unworthy people. Therefore, it is a mitzvah to redeem them.”

Are there other theories concerning the whereabouts of the menorah?

Enough to fill a book. One is that a Roman emperor decided to parade the menorah throughout his kingdom to show off his power and riches. To foil his plan, the Jewish slaves who carried the menorah, upon crossing the Tiber River, threw it off the bridge, where it remains to this day buried in the muddy depths of the river.

As the legend goes, the Jews did this hoping to retrieve it when they returned to Eretz Yisrael. The account was preserved by the Jews of Italy, including the reputed location, near the Ponte Fabricio Bridge, opposite the Great Synagogue of Rome.

In 1985, an Italian engineer, Josepha Porteza, presented the Jewish community with a plan to raise the menorah from the river. Porteza turned to me for help. I spoke to Israel’s foreign minister, Shimon Peres, and requested his assistance. He asked me if I believed the story. I told him I was skeptical. “Then what do you expect from me?” he asked.

When I told him it would be an honor for him to do something for the sake of the Temple, he agreed. On an official visit to Italy, he met with Porteza and a representative of the government. He told them Israel was willing to take part in the rescue endeavor. Unfortunately, the governments in Italy change almost as rapidly as ours. When a new regime took over, less sympathetic to the project, the undertaking never began.

Rav Yehuda Meir Getz, the former Rabbi of the Kotel, records in his diary that the Lubavitcher Rebbe discouraged him from looking for the aron. Is there rabbinic opposition to searching for other vessels too?

Apparently the Chofetz Chaim opposed such efforts. In All for the Boss, Rebbetzin Ruchoma Shain writes that a farmer was plowing a field in Israel when the ground suddenly opened before him. Descending into the hole, the farmer saw a resplendent golden treasure buried there. Afraid to tell people lest they take him for a madman, he kept the matter a secret. The discovery haunted him, though, and on a visit to America he consulted with Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Herman.

After verifying the man’s integrity, Rabbi Herman instructed his son to bring a letter about the matter to the Chofetz Chaim, along with a map from the farmer. When he looked at the letter and map, the Chofetz Chaim went into the kitchen, lit a match, and burned the documents, saying, “It may be that the vessels are there, but the matter should not be publicized.”

Nonetheless, in our time, several leading rabbis in Israel maintain that the search for the vessels, and the possibility of finding them, should be made public in order to bring people closer to Torah.

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