Revealed: The scandalous history of Judaism’s most precious book

Theft, espionage, corruption and a cover-up lasting decades — a new book by a Times of Israel reporter exposes the extraordinary saga of the uniquely revered, 1,100-year-old Aleppo Codex

The Aleppo Codex, the manuscript at the heart of Matti Friedman's award-winning novel, is arguably Judaism's most important book
The Aleppo Codex, the manuscript at the heart of Matti Friedman's award-winning novel, is arguably Judaism's most important book

A new book by a Times of Israel reporter reveals dramatic new information about the fate of a manuscript many consider Judaism’s most important book — the 1,100-year-old Aleppo Codex.

The manuscript — or the part of it that did not go mysteriously missing in the mid-20th century — is currently held alongside the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It is revered as the authoritative version of the Hebrew Bible and considered by believing Jews to be the perfect version of the divine text.

The fate of the manuscript’s 200 missing pages, and the question of how the codex traveled to Jerusalem from a dark grotto in Aleppo, Syria, have been the subject of speculation and are at the heart of author Matti Friedman’s investigation, The Aleppo Codex, slated for publication in the U.S. on May 15.

“I did not imagine,” Friedman writes of his first encounter with the codex at the museum, “that there could be much new to say about something so old, and it certainly did not occur to me that the true story of the manuscript had never been told at all.”

Friedman's book details a lengthy investigation into the history of the codex, considered the most perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible (Courtesy of Algonquin Books)
Friedman’s book details a lengthy investigation into the history of the codex, considered the most perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible (Courtesy of Algonquin Books)

Publication of the book in Hebrew on May 1, and an extensive article on the investigation in Israel’s biggest daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, several days later, have revived interest in the codex in Israel and have drawn angry responses from some involved or implicated in the story.

The codex was written in Tiberias around 930 CE, and then moved to Jerusalem, where it was stolen by Crusaders in 1099. It was ransomed by the Jews of Cairo, studied by the great philosopher Maimonides, and then taken in the 14th century to Aleppo, Syria, a trading city home to an ancient Jewish community. It was kept in Aleppo’s Great Synagogue for 600 years, until 1947.

On November 29 of that year, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine. The next day, Syrian rioters angered by the decision attacked the Jewish community, burning homes, businesses, and houses of prayer, including the Great Synagogue. The riot triggered the end of a Jewish community that had been in Aleppo for more than 2,000 years and marked the beginning of the codex’s travels through the turmoil of the modern Middle East.

Friedman’s investigation focuses on events after the riot, which is when the manuscript’s history becomes oddly murky.

According to the known story of the codex, the manuscript was damaged around the time of the fire, and it was then that the pages — including the most important part of the manuscript, the Five Books of Moses — went missing, never to be recovered. In 1957, the chief rabbis of Aleppo smuggled it to Israel and presented it to the president of the new state, Itzhak Ben-Zvi, who was also a scholar of Middle Eastern Jewish communities. The academic institution the president founded, the Ben-Zvi Institute, remains the official custodian of the codex today.

According to the new book’s findings, that version of the manuscript’s travels is mostly false, serving in large part to conceal the actions of government officials and academic scholars in Israel.

The events around the codex’s arrival in Israel triggered a four-year legal battle in Jerusalem between the Jews of Aleppo and the state. The trial was then kept secret and its details — including the role of Israeli agents in Turkey who intercepted the manuscript en route — have never before been published.

Unearthing documents, gathering material from earlier investigations and tracking down elderly witnesses, Friedman learned that the codex had not been significantly damaged around the time of the synagogue fire. In fact, Friedman shows, there is no evidence the missing pages were missing at all before the book arrived in Israel.

“Talking vaguely about ‘lost’ pages was safe,” Friedman writes. “Talking about ‘stolen’ pages was not, because it meant that someone must have stolen them — that a crime had been committed.”

Friedman also unearthed documents showing the manuscript was damaged by years of neglect at the Ben-Zvi Institute, and that officials censored a version of the codex’s history published in the 1980s in order to protect the Israeli government and the institute itself.

In responses released since the book’s publication in Hebrew, the Ben-Zvi Institute has called the charge of neglect a “smear.” In response to Friedman’s account that officials at the Ben-Zvi Institute tried to suppress potentially devastating information about events in its manuscript library in the 1950s and 1960s, the institute said only that it had the legal right to withhold that information.

Editions of “The Aleppo Codex” will be published this year in Germany, France, Holland, Australia and the Czech Republic.


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