Bible stories

A victim of fire, theft, war and intrigue, the remaining leaves of the Aleppo Codex now rest peacefully in Jerusalem.

Aleppo Codex 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Aleppo Codex 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
This elegantly crafted account of the fortunes of the world’s most perfect Hebrew Bible could easily have been the stuff of a fictitious thriller. It certainly has the right cast of characters: secret agents, shadowy antiquities dealers, greedy government officials, seemingly pious civil servants, rabbis and merchants with murky motives. The plot is thick with unsolved mysteries, cover-ups, expunged evidence, conflicting testimonies, theft and avarice.
Because it’s a true story, it is all the more thrilling. And because the object of such great desire is not a diamond or a painting but the ancient manuscript Maimonides used as his personal reference book, it is a uniquely Jewish thriller.
What came to be known as the “Aleppo Codex” originated in Tiberias around the year 930 CE. (Traditional-minded readers will be rankled by author Matti Friedman’s use of the Christian date-reference terms “BC” and “AD” and his presentation of the Five Books of Moses as the outcome of a long human process, rather than the immediate product of revelation. But these points do not detract from the book’s overall excellence.) Meticulously recorded by the master scribe Shlomo Ben-Buya’a under the direction of the “lord of scribes and father of sages” Rav Aaron Ben-Asher, the bound manuscript of just under 500 parchment leaves became the authoritative source for the correct spelling, pronunciation, cantillation and punctuation of the 24 scrolls that comprise the Hebrew canon.
“The text must be perfect because an imperfect text loses information vital to the divine message,” writes Friedman.
Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the holy book was the sole glue cementing the Jews, and “[t]he Jews could not be held together by a book if they were not reading precisely the same one.”
Although it was not the only biblical codex, the Ben-Buya’a work was nicknamed “The Crown” because it surpassed the others. “Aleppo Codex” was a later appellation.
In the 11th century, the work was purchased and donated to the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem. Crusaders snatched it, along with countless other treasures, when they sacked the Jewish Quarter in December 1099. The Jews of Fustat in Egypt pooled their cash to redeem the Ben-Asher codex. That’s how it reached the hands of the court physician and Jewish philosopher Moses Ben Maimon, who chose it as his authoritative reference text when writing his legal compendium, the Mishne Torah, around 1170. Sometime in the 14th century, Maimonides’s descendant David fled Egypt for Syria, taking along much of his illustrious ancestor’s library.
The Crown was secreted in a safe in a grotto of the Aleppo Great Synagogue for the next six centuries. “Over the years, it came to be venerated less as a source of wisdom than as a precious possession of great age and worth, like a jewel or an ornament,” Friedman writes in The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible. Aleppo Jews ascribed potent powers to the locked-up book.
The story heated up, literally, on November 29, 1947, when the UN’s vote to partition Palestine led to anti-Jewish rioting in Aleppo. The great synagogue was torched, and the community’s leaders let it be believed that the Crown had gone up in flames. In reality, the tome had been tossed into the courtyard and rescued almost in entirety by... well, many people took credit for that, but probably it was the sexton.
Following a decade of safekeeping, during which the codex may have “lost” some more of its now unbound pages, the community’s last rabbis spirited the Crown out of Syria with a cheese merchant headed to Israel. This hyperbole-prone character was victimized by any number of opportunistic and patronizing souls such that the ever-shrinking manuscript wound up deteriorating in a file cabinet at Israel’s Ben-Zvi Institute instead of reaching the transplanted Aleppo leadership that desperately wanted it back.
Friedman discovered that the transfer of the codex to the Israeli government was the subject of a lengthy and bitter top-secret trial in Jerusalem’s Rabbinical Court, and he spent months digging up related documents that had never before seen the light of day.
This issue is much graver than a dispute over a priceless antiquity. It illustrates the fundamental struggle to understand the role of the new State of Israel in preserving the sacred texts arriving with Jews from the Diaspora.
Many handwritten codices and scrolls were vouchsafed to Israeli authorities, never to be seen again by those who brought them from Arab lands.
Was the Jewish state the rightful heir to these disappearing communities’ religious artifacts now that the exile was ending? Or, did these items belong to the remnants of the communities that had zealously guarded them over centuries and considered them private property? Friedman’s detective work did not end with the trial transcripts. The more vexing mystery was finding out what happened to some 200 pages of the codex.
The extant leaves were painstakingly restored and stored at the Israel Museum, but despite many people’s best efforts, nobody knows the fate of huge chunks of the ancient manuscript.
The author points out the tremendous irony that these leaves were stolen from a book that taught the world to condemn theft. In fact, among the pilfered pages is the one with the passage “Thou shalt not steal.”
“We might file this tale between Cain and Abel and the golden calf, parables about the many ways we fail: A volume that survived one thousand years of turbulent history was betrayed in our own times by the people charged with guarding it,” he concludes. “It fell victim to the instincts it was created to temper and was devoured by the creatures it was meant to save.”