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By: Yirmiyahu Cohen
Who is its rightful owner?
Where are the missing pages?
Sixty years after the Keter Aram Tzova (Aleppo Codex) was brought to Israel, the unanswered questions surrounding it are being revisited in an upcoming documentary by Avi Dabach.
The Keter Aram Tzova is the oldest complete manuscript
of the Tanach in existence. Written in Eretz Yisrael in the
10th century CE, it was then verified and provided with nekudot(vowels) and marginal notes by Aharon Ben-Asher, the last and most prominent member of the Ben-Asher dynasty of experts on the mesorah. Members of the Ben-Asher dynasty were experts on the preservation of the accurate text of the Tanach.
The Rambam, who lived in Egypt in the 12th century, used this very manuscript to write his own Sefer Torah and to determine the proper places for its paragraphs. In Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Sefer Torah 8:4 he writes: “The book on which we have relied in these things is the
well-known book in Egypt that contains the 24 books, which used to be in Jerusalem for many years in order to edit scrolls, and everyone relied on it because Ben-Asher edited it and checked it for many years and edited it many times as he was copying it.”
The Keter, called a codex because it is not a scroll but rather is a collection of parchment pages bound together, similar to a modern book, was brought to Aleppo and kept there for six centuries.
It was housed in an iron box in a cave under the Great Synagogue.
Mr. Dabach’s great-grandfather, Hacham Ezra Dabach, was one of the last caretakers of the Keter in Aleppo, holding the keys to that iron box.
The Aleppo community guarded the Keter zealously; there was a legendary curse associated with it: “Cursed be its seller, cursed be its defiler, and cursed be the community of Aram Tzova if it were to depart from there.”
In November 1947, in reaction to the UN vote on the creation of a Jewish state, there was rioting against the Jews of Aleppo and a fire partially destroyed the synagogue. The Keter was rescued from the building by the shamash, Asher Baghdadi, and his son. It was kept in secret locations in Aleppo for ten years after that, while Aleppo’s Jews told the Syrian government – who wanted to sell the Keter – that it had been burnt.
In the mid-1950s, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the second president of the State of Israel and founder of the Ben-Zvi Institute for the preservation of historic documents, began putting pressure on the Aleppo community to send the precious Keter to Israel.
In 1957 two Aleppo rabbis, fearing their community was approaching its demise, decided to take advantage of a chance to smuggle the codex to Aleppo Jews then living in Israel. Murad Faham, an Aleppo Jewish merchant who had been expelled from Syria, was chosen for the mission. He was to deliver it to the Aleppo community in Israel, but the Mossad apparently convinced him to turn it over to the Ben-Zvi Institute instead.
“I have been researching this for 23 years,” said Ezra Kassin, who is working closely with Dabach in producing the film. “The Keter got to the Ben-Zvi Institute in a way that raises a lot of questions.”
The biggest mystery is that only 294 pages of the Keter survive, out of an estimated 487 pages. In particular, all but the last few pages of the Torah are missing. It was once thought that the missing pages were destroyed in the fire in 1947, but that notion was debunked when the surviving pages were transferred to the Israel Museum in the late 1980s, and Michael Maggen, an expert in manuscript preservation, found that they showed no trace of fire damage.
It was also thought that perhaps Jews from Aleppo had kept pieces of the Keter for themselves, but in all the years, only one page and one small fragment (kept by a Brooklyn man named Sam Sebbagh) have come forth. Also, eyewitnesses testify that the Keter was still almost whole upon arrival in Israel. Did someone steal the missing pages while the Keter was at the Ben-Zvi Institute? Who has them now? Dabach’s film will attempt to unravel this mystery.
“I’m currently raising funding for my film,” said Avi Dabach in an interview with Community magazine. “We chose to rely on public support – support from people who identity with the story – so we have the freedom to tell it like it is. But more importantly, I’m looking for members of the Halabi community who have a story to tell, or documents that might shed light on this matter. The film will not only be about the codex, but also will be about the Halabi community. I’d appreciate hearing from older people who remember life in Aleppo.”
“Aside from the mystery of the missing pages, what do you think is the main issue?” we asked Mr. Dabach.
“The ownership of the Keter. Does it belong to the State of Israel, or to the Aleppo community? After all, it was guarded by the Aleppo community for 600 years. We shouldn’t take for granted that the Ben-Zvi Institute or the Israel Museum owns it. Not that it shouldn’t remain there – perhaps it should – but who is the rightful owner?”
Anyone who wishes to be interviewed for the documentary, or who has any information or documents that might help unravel the secret of the Aleppo Codex, should contact Avi Dabach at 972-52-375-5338, or email him at