History was made this past May when the Codex Sassoon was sold for over $38 million, making it the most valuable manuscript ever sold at auction. The record-breaking transaction begs the question, what would be the value of the, even older, Aleppo Codex?
Syrian Jewry’s Sacred Treasure
Visitors to the “Shrine of the Book” section of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem are treated to a display of several rare, precious manuscripts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in the Judean Desert in the middle of the 20th century. They will see also a manuscript which has long been regarded as the most authentic copy of the Tanach (Bible) in existence.
Commonly referred to as the “Keter Aram Tzova” (literally, “Crown of Aleppo”), or Aleppo Codex, this special book was held for centuries in the Central Synagogue of Aleppo, Syria, where the community protected it with extreme care. The Aleppo Codex remained completely intact until just 75 years ago, making it the best existing source for historians, religious scholars, linguistic and others delving into the world of Jewish lore. And although a significant portion was, sadly, destroyed, the majority of the sacred text is proudly displayed, serving as a living testament to our authentic tradition, and our unwavering commitment to preserve it.
The Rambam’s Bible
What makes this ancient copy so valuable is its representing the most authentic available text of the Bible, a source for determining the precise spelling, punctuation and melody of each word. Extraordinarily, the Aleppo Codex contains nikkud (vowel signs) as well as te’amim (cantillation notes), thus clarifying for us the authentic pronunciation and chant for the reading of the sacred verses of the Tanach.
Community Magazine reached out to Rabbi Yechiel Goldhaber, a talmid hacham and renowned historian and researcher, for more information about this precious text. A leading expert in the field of Jewish customs and traditions, Rabbi Goldhaber has the distinction of being a former havruta (study partner) of Rav Chaim Kanievsky zt”l, with whom he learned privately for a period as a young man during the 1980s.
Rabbi Goldhaber explains that the Keter Aram Tzova is, in all likelihood, the source which the Rambam (Maimonides) used in the 12th century to determine the correct text of the Bible. In the eighth chapter of his Hilchot Sefer Torah (4), the Rambam speaks of the widespread confusion that existed regarding certain aspects of the writing of the Torah scroll. In order to establish the correct layout of the text, the Rambam writes, he used “the book that is known in Egypt…which was in Jerusalem…and upon which everyone relied.” He adds that the famous scholar Aharon Ben-Asher carefully reviewed and corrected this text, making it the most authentic available source. Many scholars understood that the Rambam refers here to the Aleppo Codex. Among the proofs drawn to substantiate this theory is the Rambam’s ruling that the poem of Ha’azinu, which appears toward the end of the Humash (Devarim 32:1-43), should be written on 67 lines – precisely as the poem is written in the Aleppo Codex. Rabbi Goldhaber says that he is “99.99 percent certain” that the Aleppo Codex is the text used by the Rambam.
Later rabbinic scholars, like the Rambam, also looked to the Aleppo Codex as the most authoritative text of the Jewish Bible. It is told that Rav Yosef Karo (“Maran”), 16th-century author of the Shulhan Aruch, sent an emissary from Safed to Aleppo to make a copy of the precise text of the Codex, and bring it back. Rav Yosef Karo then proceeded to write a Torah scroll on the basis of this text. Legend has it that Rav Yosef Karo sent the copy of the Aleppo Codex which he had commissioned to his distinguished colleague – Rav Moshe Isserles of Cracow, Poland – who likewise wrote a Torah scroll using this copy.
In the mid-19th century, Rabbi Yaakov Saphir, one of Jerusalem’s leading Torah scholars at that time, dispatched a messenger to study the Codex in order to clarify certain issues regarding the Torah text.
Rabbi Goldhaber says, “This gives an indication that this is the best ‘blueprint’ of the Torah.”
The Odyssey of an Ancient Manuscript
The story of the Codex’s survival and journey across the Middle-East is characterized by a great deal of mystery and intrigue. It is a saga that spans the vast expanse of three continents and several nations and empires that no longer exist. Like the story of the Jewish Nation itself, this story is one of miraculous survival and a passionate, steadfast commitment to the preservation and everlasting endurance of a sacred tradition.
It is known with certainty, Rabbi Goldhaber says, that the Codex was written in the early 10th century, in Tiberias, a city on the shore of the Lake of the Galilee (Kinneret) in northern Israel. The text was then carefully reviewed by Ben-Asher, who also added scholarly notations. While some scholars maintain that Ben-Asher belonged to the heretical Karaite sect, that denied the authority of the rabbinic oral tradition, Rabbi Goldhaber dismisses this claim, while acknowledging that the Karaites played a major role in the text’s preservation after its composition. Indeed, around a century after it was written, the book was purchased by a wealthy individual named Israel Ben Simcha of Basra, who donated it to the Karaite community of Jerusalem.
In 1099, the Catholic Church in Europe launched the First Crusade, and the crusading army captured Jerusalem from the Fatimid Caliphate that had controlled the region. During the conquest, the crusaders looted the manuscript. Knowing how valuable the text was – and how high a ransom they could demand for it – the soldiers were careful not to damage the document. It is believed that Egyptian Jews later ransomed the Codex for an exorbitant price, and had it brought to the city of Fustat (now part of Cairo), which was home to a large Jewish community. The Rambam, who had fled with his family from Cordova, Spain, following the Almohad conquest, settled in Fustat around the year 1168. As mentioned, the Rambam in his writings makes reference to a Torah scroll which was known throughout in Egypt for its authenticity, and it certainly stands to reason that he refers to the Keter Arab Tzova.
At some point in the 1400s, the Codex ended up in Aleppo, Syria. Historians believe that it was included among the ancient manuscripts brought to Syria by Rabbi David Ben Yehoshua, a seventh-generation descendant of the Rambam, who traveled from Egypt to Syria, where he settled. Regardless of how the Codex found its way to Syria, it is known that the Jews of Aleppo guarded the Codex like a precious treasure for nearly six centuries, as they had received a tradition warning of grave calamity if the sacred manuscript would be taken from them. It was stored in the famous Central Synagogue of Aleppo, the foundations of which, according to legend, were built by King David’s general, Yoav, who led the Israelite kingdom’s conquest of the region (see Shmuel II 8:2-7). The iron chest in which the book was kept had two keys, which were entrusted to two guardians. It is believed that the text was stored in “Eliyahu’s Cave,” one of the seven arks in the synagogue, together with other precious manuscripts, including the “Damascus Crown” (Keter Damesek), which was written in the 13th century.
Rabbi Goldhaber notes that the Aleppo community’s efforts to protect and preserve the precious text paid off. In the 17th century, English Christian missionaries came to Syria to research Christianity’s roots. The scholars studied the manuscripts at the book depository in Damascus, and then brought the texts back with them to England and gave them to Oxford University where they still have a home. Had the Aleppo Codex remained with these other manuscripts, it would have ended up in Oxford. Fortunately, Syria’s Jews had the foresight to carefully protect the Codex so it would not be lost.
A Heroic Rescue
Following the United Nations’ vote on November 29, 1947 to create a Jewish State in Palestine, a wave of violence targeted Jews throughout the Arab world, including Syria. Just days after the vote, mobs of Syrians, abetted by the Syrian army, attacked the synagogue. Chanting, “Palestine is our land, and the Jews are our dogs,” the mob set the sacred building on fire. The Jews barricaded themselves in their homes during the three days of violence, and when they finally emerged and surveyed the damage, they found that the Codex had disappeared. It was later discovered that a courageous Jew named Asher Baghdadi had managed to sneak into the synagogue and rescue the Aleppo Codex from the flames. Unfortunately, the book was severely damaged, and only 295 of the original 487 leaves remained intact. Asher brought the book to the home of the synagogue’s rabbi, Rabbi Salim Zafrani. Together with the community’s Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Tawil, Rabbi Zafrani buried the burned segments of the Codex, and announced that the book was entirely burned, fearing that the rioters might try to seize or damage the remnants of the manuscript if they knew that it had survived.
A decade later, the manuscript was miraculously shipped from Syria to the newly-established State of Israel. A cheese merchant named Murad Faham, an Iranian national living in Syria, was caught smuggling Jews out of the country. The authorities ordered his expulsion, and before he left, Rabbis Zafrani and Tawil secretly gave him the Aleppo Codex to bring with him so it would be safe. Faham hid the sacred text in a washing machine, beneath bags of food and clothing. In 1958, it was presented to Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi, Israel’s President at the time. After undergoing extensive restoration, it was put on display by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in the Shrine of the Book.
A Missing Piece
The Aleppo Codex was in the news back in 2007, when a lost fragment of the text was retrieved. A Syrian Jew named Sam Sabbagh had found the piece of text on the floor of the torched synagogue after the 1947 riots. He kept it with him in his wallet throughout his life, believing that it provided him with protection and blessing. Seven years after Mr. Sabbagh’s death in 2000, the family agreed to bring the precious fragment to Israel so it can be “reunited” with the rest of the surviving text of the Aleppo Codex. The missing piece was added to the display in the Israel Museum.
Michael Glatzer, academic secretary of the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2007 that efforts were being made to retrieve other fragments which were taken by the Jews of Aleppo.
“There must have been other fragments held by people today who might not even know that it is the Aleppo Codex, who don’t know this is the most important manuscript of the Bible,” Glatzer said. “We are trying to reach out to Jews from Aleppo who live all around the world to see if they have [pieces] and if they will come forward. We would like to contact anybody who thinks they might have a piece of the codex. We are very eager to put this puzzle back together.”
The fascinating story of the Keter Aram Tzova is not just a matter of historical intrigue; it is symbolic of the story of the Jewish People. We guard our sacred tradition with the same level of care, concern and vigilance with which the Codex was preserved. We fiercely adhere to authentic Jewish religious practice, down to the last detail – just as the Codex is the most authentic source for the sacred text of the Torah. We have survived expulsions, pogroms, upheavals and displacement – just as the Codex has. Additionally, just as the majority of the Codex was miraculously saved from the raging fires of Aleppo and brought to the Holy Land, so has much of the Jewish Nation emerged from the ashes of hostility and persecution and assembled in Israel. And, like the Codex, we eagerly await the time when all the missing “fragments” of our nation will be reunited, and our nation will once again form a complete “Torah scroll” joined together in the devoted service of Gd.