Jewish Tribune review: Paul Shaviv

TORONTO – Toronto-born Jerusalem journalist Matti Friedman has published a cracking good yarn.

If you like historical detective stories or mysteries, The Aleppo Codex is an excellent example of the genre – and it’s not even fiction.

Anyone who looks into the history of the text of the Hebrew Bible very quickly comes across the work of the Masoretes, rabbinical scholars of the sixth to ninth centuries. Living in Tiberias, they were the sages who determined the correct vowels for the consonantal Hebrew text and they recorded or perhaps invented the ‘trop’ – the musical notes – to which we read the Torah. They put together the text of the Tanakh that was, and is, regarded as the standard to this day.

Miraculously, a copy of the entire Bible written under the supervision of the last of the Ben Asher family, Aaron Ben Asher, still survives, over 11 centuries later. It was seen, examined and approved in the 12th century by Moses Maimonides. The codex (a manuscript in book form, not a scroll) eventually came to the city of Aleppo, in Syria, where, known as the ‘Crown’ or in Hebrew ‘HaKeter,’ it was the most preciously guarded possession of the Aleppo community and was deposited in a carefully guarded and protected strongroom underneath the synagogue. Its existence was known to scholars, who over the centuries journeyed to Aleppo to examine it, and resolve questions of minor spelling differences between local Sifrei Torah.

But following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the safety of the community and of the Keter could no longer be assured. During rioting, the manuscript was taken from its protected room and thrown into the synagogue courtyard. From there it was rescued, and for 10 years was hidden in Aleppo. To protect it, the community announced that it had been destroyed.

In 1958, a Syrian Jew smuggled it out of the city, and via Lebanon it arrived in Israel. After some years of restoration and conservation, it was displayed (or, more accurately, two pages of it were displayed on top of a simulated codex) near the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum.

That, however, is not the end but the beginning of the story.

Journalist Matti Friedman, an Israeli-based foreign correspondent who has written some excellent stories on archaeology and similar topics, thought that a feature on the Keter might make interesting, non-political, ‘feel-good’ reading. But as he researched the story, he uncovered not one, but a string of mysteries, scandals and cover-ups associated with the precious object. What was the real story about the rescue of the Keter from the Aleppo synagogue? Who authorized the ‘messenger’ to take it – and to whom was he meant to give it on arrival in Israel? How did it end up in Jerusalem’s Ben Zvi Institute, to the fury of the Syrian Jewish community in Israel?

The story is at best murky, and at worst scandalous.

Worse was to come. It was known that some pages (leaves) of the Keter were missing. The official version was that they had been destroyed by fire in the sacking of the Aleppo synagogue in 1948. But the ‘fire damage’ on the remaining manuscript turned out to be fungus. No traces of burning were found. Then it became clear that what were missing were almost 200 leaves from the codex – constituting the most important part of the bible – the first five books. And…the evidence suggested that they had disappeared after the Aleppo Codex, the Keter – one of the most important Jewish cultural treasures of the world – arrived in Israel and was handed over to the Israeli government for safe keeping.

Matti Friedman does a masterful job of untangling the puzzle.

The Jewish Tribune, June 25, 2012

For the full review click here.