The Aleppo Codex
By Matti Friedman
Algonquin Books 2012
298 pages $24.95
In the city of Tiberias on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee around the year 930 A.D., the swift scribe Shlomo Ben-Buya’a under the direction of the scholar Aaron Ben-Asher created a perfect copy of 24 books of the Old Testament in Hebrew.
The codex, or book, represented generations of study and was meant to be a reference for scholars with thousands of tiny notes in the margins. It came to be known as the Aleppo Codex, the Crown of Aleppo or simply the Crown.
According to Matti Friedman, author of “The Aleppo Codex,” it is “the singular and authoritative version, for believing Jews, of God’s word as it was sent into the world of men in their language.”
Friedman, a writer for the Times of Israel, tells the 1,000-year story of the ancient Bible by following its trail from Palestine to Egypt to Syria and finally to Israel. The book centers around two mysteries — how it ended up where it did and what happened to 40 percent of the pages that are now missing.
About a century after the codex was written, it became the revered possession of the Karaites, a sect of Judaism that followed only laws written in the Torah. In 1099, it was taken as loot by Crusaders who plundered Jerusalem.
However, wealthy Jews in the Egyptian city of Fustat raised money and bought back the Crown.
In Egypt, the famous codex came into the hands of the great Jewish physician and philosopher Maimonides, who used it as a source for his writings. His great-great-great-grandson, in a time of political conflict in Egypt, moved much of Maimonides’ library including the Crown to Aleppo, a city in northern Syria. There it remained for the next 600 years.
The Jews of Aleppo kept the Crown in a grotto in the city’s Great Synagogue. Because of an inscription in the book, “Blessed be he who preserves it, and cursed be he that steals it, and cursed be he that sells it...” a legend grew up around the codex that it would protect the Jewish community from harm. Because for centuries the Jews had lived peacefully with their neighbors, they believed the legend.
And then, on Nov. 29, 1947, the United Nations approved a resolution to create the Jewish state of Israel by the partition of Palestine.
The Syrian Muslims were irate. A group entered the Great Synagogue of Aleppo and torched the Torahs and other sacred books.
A newspaper in Palestine reported, “the famous Bible that was the glory of the Jewish community of Aleppo . . . is lost and gone.”
But it was not lost and gone. Rabbis hid the Bible in the Old City in the care of a wealthy merchant.
When almost all of the Jews in Aleppo had left, the rabbis decided that it was time for the sacred Crown to leave, too. In 1957, the job of smuggling the codex to Israel was given to a cheese merchant, who turned it over to representatives of the government.
The former residents of Aleppo were furious. They said that the merchant had disobeyed instructions as to where the Crown was to be delivered.
What followed was a four-year trial in a rabbinic court between the Jews of Aleppo and the state of Israel as to who actually owned the Crown. The case ended with a settlement in favor of the government.
Even so, it turns out that about 40 percent of the book was missing including almost all of the most sacred part, the Five Books of Moses.
Friedman, who has made a career in investigative journalism, sets out several scenarios as to what may have happened to the missing pages. Two fragments actually turned up in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Even though there is yet no answer to the mystery, Friedman creates a riveting story, one that the reader will have a hard time putting down.