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ALEPPO CODEX – THE EARLIEST COMPLETE MANUSCRIPT OF THE BIBLE

By: Sarina Roffé



The Keter (Hebrew for “Crown”) sits in secure,
temperature-controlled cases on the lower level of the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, and holds a placeof honor akin to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Otherwise known as the Aleppo Codex – signifying the Aleppo Jewish community’s careful preservation of this text for nearly 600 years – the Keter is the earliest known complete manuscript of the Bible ever written.

“Keter”is a Jewish term of respect in Middle East countries for a select few ancient Hebrew biblical manuscripts. A codex is in the form of a book – not a collection of scrolls – and represents a transformation from scrolls to book format. The Aleppo Codex is the first known manuscript in this format.

The Codex is seen as a fulfillment of the words of the prophet Yeshayahu (2:3), “for instruction (Torah) shall come forth from Zion; the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” – that Torah knowledge and instruction will emerge from the Land of Israel. Written by the Masoretes scholars in the 10th Century in the city of Tiberias – a major center of Jewish learning after the destruction of the Second Temple – the text includes the pronunciation, spelling, punctuationand cantillation handed down through many generations, and it was used by the Rambam in outlining the laws relevant to a Torah scroll in his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah.

Most of the Codex was written in three columns, vocalized according to the Tiberian system where vowels were placed beneath the letters, unlike the Babylonian system of placing the vowels above the letters. Cantillation accents are inscribed above or beneath the words, providing phonetic information about where a word should be accented, as well as information on where to pause and how the words should be sung. The Codex also includes commentary on spelling, which may affect the meaning of words. These comments appear in the margins, between columns and above and below text. These pages can be viewed at www.aleppocodex.org.

A Manuscript’s Journey

The colophon (inscription at the end of the manuscript) indicates that it was copied by the scribe Solomon ben Beya’a, a scion from a well-known family of scribes. It also states that the manuscript includes all 24 books of the Bible, and that it was purchased years after its completion by a wealthy Karaite from Basra, Iraq named Israel Simhah, who donated it to the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem. The vocalization, cantillation and masoretic comments were added by Aaron ben Asher, the last of the Masoretes who represents the final link in the chain of tradition. The only copy of the colophon was made by Professor Umberto Cassuto during his visit to Aleppo in 1943 to study it.

The thick manuscript has had an adventurous journey. Taken from Tiberias to the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem and then to Cairo at the end of the 11thcentury, it reached Aleppo around 1375, where it remained for nearly 600 years before being returned to Jerusalem in 1958.

When the Aleppo Codex was in Cairo, the Rambam relied on it in formulating laws relating to the Torah scrolls in the Mishneh Torah, as he testifies in his concluding remarks to this section:

In these matters we relied upon the Codex now in Egypt, which contains the 24 books of scripture and which had been in Jerusalem for several years. It was used as the standard text in the correction of my books. Everyone relied on it, because it had been corrected by Ben Asher himself, who worked on its details closely for many years and corrected it many times whenever it was being copied. And I relied on it in the Torah scroll that I wrote according to Jewish law.

(Hilkhot Sefer Torah 8:4)

In the 11thcentury, the Codex was smuggled out of Jerusalem, either by Seljuks in 1071 or Crusaders in 1099, and was sold in Egypt. At the end of the 14thcentury, the Aleppo Codex was brought from Cairo to Aleppo and deposited with the Jewish community. Some believe that a great-great-great grandson of the Rambam brought the Codex to Aleppo, though this has not been verified.

The Codex was placed in a metal chest with a double lock in the “Cave of Eliyahu” in the ancient synagogue of Aleppo. The community believed that the Codex had magical properties, and viewed it as the most important manuscript in their possession.

An inscription on the opening page reads, “Sacred to the L-rd […] it shall be neither sold nor redeemed forever and ever […]” The people feared thatgreat harm would befall the community if they sold it, relinquished their custody of it, or even if it was just removed from the synagogue.

The manuscript’s fame spread as scholars and scribes sought authoritative answers. The community was so protectiveof the Codex that only seven people were permitted to study or view it while it was held in Aleppo. These include Yishai ben Amram Hakohen Amad of Kurdistan in the late 15thcentury; Rabbi Yosef Karo of Safed, author of Shulhan Aruch, and Rabbi Moshe Isserles of Cracow (the “Rema”), in 1559; Moshe Yehoshua Kimhi, on the instruction of his father in law, the renowned scribe Rabbi Shalom Shachna Yellin (1790-1874); British-born Alexander Russell in 1753; Professor Umberto Cassuto in 1943, and Moshe David Cassuto in 1953. A copy of one page of the Codex appears in a book written by scholar William Wickes (1877), and missionary
J. Segall published a photo of two pages of the Codex containing the Ten Commandments in his book Travels Through Northern Syria(1910).

Rescued From the Flames

In 1943, Aleppo native Yitzhak Shamosh was sent on a mission by Judah L Magnes, the first president of Hebrew University, and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, then president of the Vaad HaLeumi, the National Council of Jews in Palestine, to the Jewish community of Aleppo to persuade the elders to move the Codex to Jerusalem for safekeeping during World War II. The community refused, as its rabbis believed that if the Codex left their possession, the community would be destroyed. Shamosh went ona second mission to obtain permission for Moshe David Cassuto, a Bible scholar, to study the Codex in its entirety. While Cassuto’s notes survived, he did not live long enough to prepare them for publication.

Fires were set to the ancient synagogue duringpogroms that broke out in Aleppo in December 1947 after the United Nations Resolution to establish the State of Israel. What remained of the Codex was rescued from its hiding place of nearly 600 years and hidden for 10 years.

In 1957, Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Ben-Zion
Meir Hai Uziel, formally annulled the edicts of the Aleppo Codex (“cursed be he who steals it, sells it or mortgages it. It may never be sold or redeemed”), thereby allowing the community to move it out of Aleppo. In 1957, Rabbi Moshe Tawil and Rabbi Shlomo Zafrani entrusted what remained of the Codex to Mordechai Faham, who smuggled it out of Syria to Turkey by placing it inside a washing machine.

In January 1958, what remained of the Codex was entrusted to the care of Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. Extensive repairs were made to the documents in the Israel Museum over six years.

Ongoing, intensive efforts are still being made today to locate missing parts, some of which are rumored to existin the private hands of members of Brooklyn’s Syrian community. The Aleppo Codex is overseen by a board of eight trustees, including four from the former community in Aleppo.

In 2007, a piece of the Codex was returned by the descendants
of Sam Sabbagh. Sabbagh had picked up a piece of the Codex from the floor of the burning synagogue in 1947, and carried the 1000-year-old fragment in a plastic pouch in his wallet as a “good luck charm” for over 60 years. The fragment was from the Book of Shemot, and described the plagues brought upon Egypt as well as Moshe’s famous order to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.”

In its original form, the Codex included all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, though in a different order than is used today. Only 295 of the original 487 leaves remain; 193 pages were missing, mostly from the Torah. The last six chapters of the five Books of Humash survived. Missing sections include Kohelet, Echah, Ester, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemyah, as well as certain chapters from Melachim, Yirmiyahu, Tehillim,and some other books. Also missing are Ovadyah, Yonah and Haggai.

The Aleppo Codex is now on public view at the Shrine of the Book in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and modern printed editions of the Bible base their texts on this ancient artifact. In 1976, a photo edition of the Aleppo Codex was made publicly available and is now on the internet at www.aleppocodex.org, where it can be leafed through in its entirety.