Matti Friedman’s The Aleppo Codex is not, by his own admission, the book he set out to write. What began as a glimmering of interest evolved quickly into a web of mystery, intrigue, and unanswered questions as Friedman mined the story behind the legendary “Crown of Aleppo”—the oldest authoritative manuscript of the canonized Hebrew Bible, written in the tenth century by a famous scribe, used by the legendary Maimonides while writing the Mishneh Torah, and protected for centuries in the ancient synagogue of Syria’s largest Jewish community. When the Aleppo community began to disperse in the 1940s and ‘50s, after the State of Israel’s founding, the Codex found itself in transit for the first time in thousands of years, leaving its burnt-down sanctuary and traversing the border to Israel. It is here that the story hiccups: Faced with the half-told story of a controversial trial, rumors of missing pages, and hints of political machinations, Friedman uncovers more questions than answers at every turn, adding to his conviction that the book that was once a community’s greatest pride has been ruined by a “conspiracy of silence,” a dearth of reliable information, and intentional ambiguity. Friedman shines as a magnificent and thoughtful storyteller, shifting between time and place with facility, bringing the story of the Codex until 1948 to life and weaving it skillfully with the present and recent past. With Friedman’s crusade at its center, The Aleppo Codex might be an unintentional thriller but it is a great one nonetheless, introducing us to compelling, sometimes shifty characters, and drawing us into the sad story of a relic that was destroyed by the humans entrusted with its care. Thoroughly — even obsessively — researched, Friedman’s book brings to light a wealth of information never made public before. It may not solve the mystery, but it comes pretty close.
Review by Ray M. Katz