The Aleppo Codex: Secret History of An Ancient Bible

December 1, 2012 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson.

As I write this, bloody street battles rage in the ancient city of Aleppo, as Syrian government and insurgent forces fight for dominance. Hard as it is to imagine, Aleppo was for centuries the peaceful dwelling place of a vibrant Jewish community and home to one of Judaism’s greatest treasures, the oldest and most venerated Hebrew Bible, known grandly as the “Crown of Aleppo” or, more simply, the “Aleppo Codex.”  Israeli journalist Matti Friedman brings to light the fascinating, extraordinary history of this preeminent Jewish book in The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible (2012).

A Thousand-Year Journey

Nearly 1,100 years ago in Tiberias, two renowned scholar-scribes collaborated to write what would later be called the Aleppo Codex. (A codex is a handwritten bound book, in contrast to a scroll.) Encompassing all 24 books of the bible, the Aleppo Codex was the crowning achievement of generations of work by Masoretes – sages dedicated to preserving ancient oral tradition regarding the meaning and vocalization of Judaism’s sacred texts. Unlike Torah scrolls, the Aleppo Codex includes vowels, punctuation, trope marks, and marginal notes, indicating how the sacred words are to be understood, pronounced, and chanted.

Down the years, the fabled codex was captured by the Crusaders, ransomed by Egyptian Jews, relied on by Maimonides to write his great works of Jewish scholarship, and in the 14th Century, carried to Aleppo, Syria, where it remained for nearly six centuries and gained its name. The Aleppo Jews locked the codex in an iron safe within Aleppo’s Great Synagogue, treasuring it like a priceless religious icon. Pregnant women and others in need would pray and light candles before the iron safe.

In November 1947, rioting mobs torched the Great Synagogue, raging at the UN resolution permitting a Jewish state in part of Palestine. Miraculously, the codex escaped the flames. For the next 10 years, the codex remained hidden in a storeroom in the Old City bazaar, until the local rabbis sadly concluded that Jewish life in Aleppo was over.

The rabbis recruited a cheese merchant, Murad Faham, to smuggle the codex out of Syria by concealing it in a washing machine.  Arriving in Israel, Faham entrusted the treasure to President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, a scholar who had long sought the codex for his Ben-Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the Middle East.

Controversy and Mystery

In the restricted records of a bitter lawsuit, Matti Friedman discovered that the Aleppo Jews of Israel fought to regain the codex from the Ben-Zvi Institute. They declared that the codex belonged to the Aleppo community, not to the institute or the State of Israel, and that the courier, Faham, betrayed the rabbis’ instructions. Crucial to the dispute was the question: who owns the treasures of the Jewish Diaspora?

Many immigrant groups came to Israel bearing rare Jewish texts. The state saw these treasures as the patrimony of the entire Jewish people, insisting that those who safeguarded them while the Jews were in exile must relinquish them to the Jewish homeland. To the Syrian Jews, this reasoning was preposterous. Aleppo had been home, not a place of “exile,” nor had they been mere “temporary guardians” of the precious codex.

The Ben-Zvi Institute retained custody of the codex, but, tragically, did not safeguard its treasure. Two hundred pages of the codex – including virtually all of the Torah – disappeared, possibly on the institute’s watch. On this mystery, too, Friedman sheds some light in his fast-paced suspenseful book.