Mysteries of the Aleppo Codex
The thousand-year-old book with a thousand stories

Dave Gordon

The hurried clopping of shoes through the narrow streets of Halab (Aleppo, Syria), like a stampede in all directions, lasted through the night. Windows shattered. Doors were beaten down. Shouts of “harik – fire!” shrieked through the air, while clouds of thick, black smoke billowed to the skies all around. Crowds of people, consumed by coughing or running or blinding disorientation, scrambled, trampling and tripping wherever they went.

And after them, came other crowds – larger in number– moving with fierce purpose, led by makeshift torches, alighting new fires to homes, shops and anything else that would catch fire. Their shoes were heard, too; often muffled by absorption, pounding against human flesh or bone, on bodies grounded, followed by bursts of pain or groans.

The radio described it euphemistically as “political upheaval,” and announced that supporters of the new regime must not be tolerated.

This was not Aleppo of 2012. This was Aleppo in November, 1947. Following the United Nations’ vote to partition the land of Israel to establish a Jewish state, the Jewish people in Syria – who had thrived there for four millennia – were targeted for days by rioting mobs, egged on by the government.

It seemed that no window or door was left intact in any of the dozens of synagogues of Aram Soba (the biblical name of Aleppo). Chairs and books were set aflame. Torahs were tossed into the inferno as extra fuel. In addition to at least 75 murders of innocent Jewish citizens, the government sanctioned Arab mob gutted nearly 20 synagogues and smashed, burned and looted five Jewish schools and some 50 Jewish-owned shops.

A Crown Set Ablaze

Anti-Jewish riots were not confined to Halab during this period. Many other cities and towns throughout the Arab world also saw their share of violence and destruction. But in Aleppo, the stakes seemed higher. A priceless, treasured holy book, – the thousand-plus-year-old Keter Aram Soba (Crown of Aleppo), also called the Aleppo Codex – which had been guarded with people’s lives for hundreds of years, allegedly went up in flames together with the building that housed it. It was deduced, amongst the chaos, that rioters – well aware of the value of the Codex to the Jewish people – rushed into the Kinees Kibere of Halab (Great Synagogue of Aleppo), grabbed the iron chest that contained the Codex, and with vengeful glee, busted the lock and lit this precious parchment.

The tragedy was especially agonizing for the Halabi community, which for countless generations had been instilled not only with the pride of being protectors of the Keter, but also the dire warnings of failing to do so. These warnings, which were widely known among Halabis of all ages, were expressed in severe terms in the form curses inscribed on the Keter itself by the rabbis of Halab from previous generations. “Cursed be its seller, cursed be its defiler and cursed be the community of Aram Soba if it were to depart from there.”

Despite the joyous news of the reconstitution of the Jewish State, it was a sad day in Jewish history. Death and destruction consumed Jewish communities of the Near East and one of the most important preserved holy books had reportedly gone up in smoke.

That was the official story and, apparently for security reasons, the official end of the Aleppo Codex. But 10 years later, a new, surprising development arose.

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The Genesis of a Sacred Bible Text

The Aleppo Codex is a text of the Bible written in Tiberias, along the Sea of the Galilee, around the year 930 C.E. The Biblical text was written in a magnificent script with margin notes to clarify the text and cantillation, and with complete punctuation and cantillation notes, for use as a reference guide. Modern studies have shown the Codex to be the most accurate representation of Masoretic principles in any extant manuscript. About 100 years after the Codex was written, a dedication was appended to the end of the book at the direction of Israel Ben Simcha of Basra, a wealthy man who purchased the manuscript from the descendants of Aharon Ben Asher.This dedication reveals the name of the scribe who wrote the Codex – Shlomo Ben Boya – and further elucidates that Ben Asher, who was known in his time, and for centuries after, as a master in Hebrew grammar and an expert on cantillation, oversaw Ben Boya’s scribal work, as a mentor. Ben Simcha of Basra then gave the Codex to the Karaite community of Jerusalem.

When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in the 11thcentury, they stole the Codex, whereupon the Jews of Cairo – the foremost Jewish community at that time – ransomed it back. Two centuries later, the Rambam used the Codex to refine his own writings, including the Mishne Torah. Of all the texts available to him, he chose the Codex because of its precision. In the generations following the Rambam’s death in 1204, the manuscript was passed down along his descendants, one of whom, Rabbi David Ben Yehoshua, left Egypt in 1375, and traveled through the land of Israel to Syria. It is believed that he brought the Codex to Halab, where it remained for six centuries, under lock and key, and where it was given its permanent name – the Keter Arab Soba.

For centuries, the Codex was regarded as the most authentic and precise Biblical text, and was carefully preserved in the Kinees Kibere of Halab with tight security. Two men in the community held keys to the chest in which it was kept, and both had to be present to open it. It was opened on very rare occasions, perhaps just several times a generation. As a result, only a precious few knew what the text looked like. It was never photographed, and no known copies existed anywhere in the world.

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The Codex’s Place in Jerusalem

In 1958, rumors spread that, unbelievably, not only had the Codex survived the riots, it had also somehow been smuggled to Israel. According to reports, the Codex’s odyssey back to Israel began when the shamosh (sexton) of the Kinees Kibere of Halab, a man named Asher Baghdadi, and his son, returned to the kinees after the riots. The two retrieved the charred pages of the Keter and handed them over to two community leaders, Hacham Moshe Tawil and Shlomo Zaafrani. After the Syrian government began investigating the whereabouts of the Keter, following a $20 million offer for the treasure from an American antiquities dealer, community leaders maintained the official account of the book’s destruction while transferring it to a local Christian merchant for safe keeping. The manuscript was later moved to a storeroom owned by a Jewish textile merchant named Ibrahim Effendi-Cohen, where it may have remained for some time.

By 1957, with about 80 percent of the pre-1947 Halabi community having emigrated, and the remaining families facing extreme financial and political difficulties, the rabbis of Halab decided it was necessary to move the Codex to Israel to ensure its safety. Two Halabirabbis assigned the task of bringing the sacred article from Syria to Israel to Murad  Faham, a Jewish cheese merchant who had suffered torture at the hands of the despotic Syrian dictatorial regime . At great risk to himself and his family, Faham agreed to smuggle the Aleppo Codex out of Syria to Israel. And so Faham, his wife and four children set out on the holy mission, driving to Turkey with an Iranian passport. On December 11, 1957, a telegram was sent from Istanbul to Israeli government offices, stating: “Thirty people are setting sail today on the Marmara. Among the passengers is Mr. Faham.” The family proceeded from Turkey to Lebanon , and then to the port of Haifa in Israel and safety.

Jews around the globe learned of the Codex, its importance and the successful operation that led to its arrival back to Israel after a thousand years. But for the rabbis and leaders of the Halabi community in Israel – and especially the for Jews who remained in Syria and risked their lives for the Keter’s rescue – this turn of events was actually cause for concern.

Given or Taken?

Four years ago, Jerusalem-based Associated Press reporter Matti Friedman set out to investigate the Codex, an irresistible tale for a journalist’s knack for a case to crack. Friedman was caught up in the swirl of obscurity surrounding the text’s transfer from the Jews of Halab – where it had been tightly guarded for six centuries – to institutional control in the State of Israel.

The Toronto native had never heard of the Aleppo Codex until he stumbled upon it at the Shrine of the Book, a wing of Jerusalem’s Israel Museum. The Codex was on display at the museum in a rather non-descript manner, with not too much attention paid to it, and Friedman filed a one-off story about the Codex. “I did see the existing pages and it was quite the emotional experience for me,” he says.

The book on display, he later learned, showed a fake book beneath – a dummy tome – all in the name of conservation and security. The real McCoy is kept in a vault. Access to the surviving text requires three magnetic keys, and a secret code. “Like so much else in this story, it was a useful deceit,” Friedman says.

Friedman soon also noticed that the official story of the Codex’s journey contained too many contradictions, too many omissions. He started investigating the subject, and during the process, his suspicions grew. At one point in his investigation, a professor involved in the preservation of the Codex stopped returning emails when Friedman asked too many questions.

His research brought him to a book published in 1980 by the Ben Zvi Institute, the educational and archive organization named after the Israeli President, who reportedly received the Codex from the dairy merchant Faham.

“Though it (the book) offered much detail about the Crown’s history before 1947, it was oddly blurred and contradictory about everything that had happened since,” Friedman observed.  Several sources and leads warned him of a conspiracy of silence surrounding this story, and Friedman experienced this blockade firsthand over the course of his research. He encountered mountains of bureaucratic stonewalling from the Israeli archives before he was allowed to see paperwork on the topic, and sift through some 60 years of officially classified materials.

What he found was a trail pointing to governmental coercion to obtain the Codex. A letter from the Aliyah Department essentially demanded the book be brought into Israel at any cost, or perhaps by any means necessary – encoded with euphemism and implied threat. Friedman contends that the Aliyah Department was doing the government’s bidding at the time. According to Friedman, Ben-Zvi used his leverage as President to retrieve the Crown. By the mid-1950’s, some 2,000 Jews remained in Syria, a third of whom were destitute. It appears that the President threatened to withhold Joint Distribution Committee funds earmarked for poor Syrian Jews if they did not comply in helping to move the Codex to Jerusalem.

Additionally, contrary to official accounts, Friedman found that the Codex’s destination was carefully planned well before its arrival on Israeli shores, and, in fact, Israeli agents were waiting for Faham at the Turkish border. Unbeknown to the rabbis of Halab who commissioned Mr. Faham, the Mossad and the Jewish Agency had apparently dispatched agents to Turkey to track Faham’s movements in an effort to ensure that the Keter would be handed over to Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and not the Chief Rabbi of the Halabi community in Israel, as they had intended.

This information comes into clearer focus in light of other documents obtained by Friedman which tell of a trial brought before a rabbinic court in February, 1958, when the Halabi community of Israel retained a lawyer and sued the Israeli government, demanding that the Codex be returned.

“To them, the idea that the Israeli government had any claim to the book was absurd,” he says. It was a dispute over who owned the patrimony, with Israel arguing she was the rightful heir of the Codex, while the Halabis were determined to have it returned. “It was theirs, and they wanted it back,” Friedman says.

At the trial, Mr. Faham explained his understanding that he was to give the book to the man of his choosing. His family maintains that he delivered the Keter to the president of Israel because he believed that the Keter belonged to all of the Jewish people and not just one community. The Halabis argued that a messenger was not legally entitled to transfer ownership of the Keter and alleged that,  with his family’s immigration status hanging in the balance, Mr. Faham may have been coerced to cooperate with the Jewish Agency. Mr. Faham denied that there had been any undue pressure and, having heroically risked his life on behalf of the Jewish people, many found it implausible to believe that he could have had any immigration trouble following his successful mission. The claims of the rabbis were made all the more difficult to prove because virtually all arrangements had been made verbally in order to help avoid detection by the Syrian authorities.

The apparent obsession of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi with the Codex also came to light. Since 1935, when he got a glimpse of the Keter during a visit to Aleppo, Ben-Zvi had been preoccupied with bringing the manuscript to Jerusalem. At one point, in 1943, he sent an emissary – an Israeli who was a native of Halab – to try to either cajole the community to allow its transfer, or, if that failed, to steal it from them.

After about four years of wrangling, the trial ended when the Halabi community reluctantly agreed to a secret deal which would allow them a seat on the council overseeing the Keter while it remained in government control at the Ben-Zvi Institute.

“The Crown of Aleppo was never given to Israel,” Friedman says. “It was taken.” He adds that the Jews of Aleppo got the raw end of the deal, with half a say in what to do with the Codex. “The state took the sacred property of people [the Halabi Jews] who did not give it voluntarily…”

The Missing Pages

More of an enigma was how some 40 percent of the 500-some pages of the Codex disappeared. The book, as it exists now, begins with Moshe Rabbenu’s passing; everything before then is gone. While the fires of 1947 were offered as an explanation, Friedman doesn’t buy it. To be sure, the flames from the riots raged every which way, burning books by the thousands, and those purplish marks on the lower corners appear to be traces of burn marks. However, as Friedman noted, “Fire warps, blackens and hardens parchment, but the damaged corners of the Crown were soft and brittle.”

During the Keter’s restoration, scientists from the Israel Museum examined the burn marks of the document with modern high-tech scanners. They found that the marks were not caused by fire, but rather by a fungus, leading to an obvious and potentially explosive question. If the pages weren’t consumed by fire, then what happened to the 200 or so missing pages of the Codex?

“There’s a lot of new information about the circumstances surrounding the missing pages,” Friedman says. It is believed that some Halabi Jews may have divided the pages in order to preserve them. And indeed, in recent years, several individuals came forward to repatriate individual pages.

Two Crown fragments popped up in Brooklyn, surfacing in the 1980’s. Samuel Sabbagh who is well known in modern Codex lore, held a piece in his wallet, keeping it as a good luck charm. He found the piece on the floor of the Kinees Kibere in 1947. The page made its way back to Jerusalem after his heirs donated it.

Mary Hedaya, who was living in Brooklyn in 1947 when the Aleppo riots raged on, was concerned for the welfare of her sister and her family still in Syria, and flew them to New York soon afterwards. Upon arrival, they were so filled with gratitude that they gave her a “page from a holy book”. In 1981, Mary’s husband passed away and the family’s rabbi came to pay a condolence call. Mary showed him the piece of parchment, and he immediately recognized it as a leaf from the Codex. For more than three decades it was stored in a wardrobe dresser. Following its discovery, the page was then graciously reunited with the rest of the Keter in Jerusalem.

Other evidence suggests that pages were possibly buried while the Keter was in Lebanon, says Friedman. But perhaps the most credible theory about the fate of the missing pages is also the most shocking one. Ironically, Friedman says that while the primary refrain on the Israeli side all along was that, “Only academic scholars (in Israel) could properly care for the Codex,” the sad truth was that the Keter may have sustained the most damage under Israeli care. After being transferred to Ben-Zvi, the Keter ended up going on to decay in a file cabinet for 40 years until a Halabi philanthropist from New York donated funding for its restoration. Even more disconcerting is the suspicion that during the time the Keter was under the care of the government, large sections were looted from it.

At the heart of this theory is the murky chain of possession that followed Faham’s delivery of the Keter to Israel. At the Port of Haifa, Faham was met by a colleague of Shlomo Zalman Shragai , head of the Aliyah Department of the Jewish Agency, to whom he gave the treasure. The manuscript then apparently made a stop at the Shragai home where both Shlomo Zalman and his son each later confirmed that it was largely complete save for three or four pages. It was when the Keter was entrusted to Meir Benayahu, who was President Ben-Zvi’s personal secretary at the time and the first director of the Ben-Zvi Institute, that events become shrouded in mystery. Oddly, the receipt for the Keter, signed by Benayahu, includes no details about the state of the manuscript, such as number of pages, condition, etc. This glaring inconsistency, made all the more stark by Benayahu’s reputation as a meticulous scholar,has led some to speculate about his possible complicity in the disappearance of the Keter’s pages.

Friedman uncovered a story about Haim Schneebalg, an ultra-Orthodox dealer of high-value Jewish manuscripts, who was also an acquaintance of Benayahu. According to an account given to Friedman by Shlomo Moussaieff, a wealthy jewelry magnate from London who was known as a prolific collector of Judaica, Schneebalg and an associate approachedthe collector at the Jerusalem Hilton hotel during a book fair in the mid-1980s. After going up to a hotel room, Schneebalg revealed what appeared to be about 90 or so pages of the Keter and the men began haggling about the price. Moussaieff told Friedman that they did not make a deal that day in the hotel room and that Schneebalg ended up selling the pages for $100,000 more than his highest offer to an ultra-Orthodox man in London whom he refuses to identify.

Friedman also heard of antiquities dealers, backroom exchanges, forgeries, foreign agents, and black markets – all hearsay, and possibly intentional red herrings to steer investigators off the scent of the trail.

While the fate of the missing pages remains a mystery, Friedman’s recorded findings were recently published in the book The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible. “I hope the publication of my book shakes the tree a little bit,” Friedman says. “It’s still thought that pages are circulating in the Aleppo Jewish community… Perhaps my research and my book can help locate pages… and help change the understanding of what happened to the Codex.” Despite the considerable amount of time that has passed since the missing sections of the Keter were seen last, Friedman remains optimistic. “I believe these pages can and will be found.”