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The Search for The Aleppo Codex Print E-mail

By Jay Bushinsky
December, 2007

A worldwide hunt is under way for missing segments of the Hebrew Bible's oldest and most reliable copy.  Nearly half of this religious and linguistic treasure disappeared 60 years ago during the anti-Jewish riots that broke out then in Aleppo, Syria.

Known as the Aleppo Codex, the text dates back nearly 1,000 years and is regarded by scholars as unsurpassed in accuracy and calligraphy.  "It is the most reliable version of the Old Testament,"  said Gabriel Barkay, an outstanding Israeli archaeologist who specializes in ancient Jewish history. 

  "Although the Dead Sea Scrolls predate it by nearly a millenium, they do not include all of the books that comprise the Jewish Bible's three sections most of which are in Hebrew and some of which are in Aramaic -- the Pentateuch (Five Books of Moses), The Prophets and The Scriptures.  The Aleppo Codex contained all three until it fell victim to vandals and looters," he said.

The Ben-Zvi Institute here is spearheading an effort to retrieve as much of the missing material as possible.  Its namesake, the late Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who was Israel's second president, was instrumental in recovering 60 per cent of the so-called 'massoretic' (traditionalist) text and, through secret negotiations and arranged for it to be smuggled from Syria to Israel in 1958.

"We are appealing to the older members of Aleppo's once-great Jewish community who are scattered throughout the world to look for the missing fragments and bring them to us," said Zvi Zameret, the institute's director. This campaign stems the circumstances in which they disappeared.  It has slow-going if only because the individuals who may possess them are dispersed throughout the world and may be unaware of the ongoing quest. 

The anti-Jewish violence that erupted in Syria was triggered by the United Nations General Assembly's vote, Nov. 29, 1947, to partition Palestine into adjacent Jewish and Arab states. According to Barkay, the Syrian government, which like all of the other Arab states was vehemently opposed to the partition plan adopted by the UN, allowed the riots to break out and permitted the participants to ransack Aleppo's main synagogue, an ancient structure that was built during the Byzantine era. 

"They were allowed to loot, but were forbidden to kill," he said. The precious and unique Aleppo Codex, was stored inside with the utmost care.  Its Hebrew name is indicative of the reverence in which it was held: 'Keter Aram Tsova,' which means 'the Crown of Aram Tsova.'  Aram Tsova is Aleppo's Biblical name.

Kept in a special wooden chest, wrapped in fabrics and exempt from use during the synagogue's rituals, it was treated as a priceless treasure.  However, the rioters set the building on fire and when the distraught members of the community entered the ruins they found dozens of the sacred book's parchment pages scattered on the synagogue floor.  They were unable to locate dozens of others.

Some of the pages were picked up by Aleppo's Jews, perhaps in the belief that they could assure their safety.  But over the years they were taken to all the countries where Aleppo Jewry was dispersed, especially the United States where its members chose Brooklyn, NY, as their preferred domicile. "One of them answered the Ben-Zvi Institute's appeal a few months ago," Barkay recalled.  "He had been keeping a precious segment as an amulet, but agreed to bring it to Jerusalem."

The history of the Aleppo Codex reflects the Hebraic scholarship and Judaic piety that existed in the middle ages.  Besides the elegant shaping of the Hebrew letters and the precise grammatical markings that assured correct pronunciation there also were erudite footnotes in the margins.  It was transcribed in Tiberias, the Roman-era city
on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, where, as late as the 10th century, Hebrew still was the spoken language, Barkay said.  (The Dead Sea scrolls do not contain grammatical signs.)

Aharon Ben-Asher, who was an astute linguist and grammarian as well as a gifted calligrapher, worked on the text there.  It was transferred to Jerusalem a century later, but because the city was conquered and reconquered at the time, it fell prey first to the Seljuk Turks and then to the Crusaders.

"They stole it, but refrained from any desecration," Barkay said.  He attributed this to the fact that it was sold and resold until it arrived in Cairo where it was placed in the Egyptian city's great Fustat synagogue. Maimonides, the outstanding Jewish philosopher of the medieval period, pored over it there and referred to it reverently and enthusiastically in one of his books entitled, "Yad Ha'hazaka" ('The Strong Hand).  By the 15th century it turned up in Aleppo, then the most important center of Syria's thriving Jewish community, where it remained until the mid-1950's.

Shortly after it came into the possession of the Ben-Zvi Institute, the then-president discovered that the parchment pages were deteriorating because of fungi and other detrimental factors.  This prompted him to turn to the Israel Museum for assistance.  Its personnel quickly solved the problem after which an agreement was reached to put the Aleppo Codex' 295 surviving pages (out of 491) on display at the museum's Shrine of the Book which also houses the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

The conditions for preservation within this architectural gem are optimal inasmuch as they neutralize the heat and dryness of Jerusalem's summers and the cold and dampness of its winters respectively.

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