Occasionally, a book comes out that changes history. One of these books is the Aleppo Codex, the Hebrew Bible manuscript that has survived a millennium and several perilous journeys. Another is “The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible,” by Canadian-Israeli journalist Matti Friedman (Algonquin, $24.95).
In or around the 10th century CE, a scribe in Tiberias named Shlomo Ben-Buya’a completed an authoritative version of the Hebrew Bible — the five books of the Torah, the prophets and writings. Written on folios of animal hide, rather than as a scroll, this Bible was not meant for religious purposes.
By the time Ben-Buya’a set his tree-gall, iron-sulfate, black-soot ink to the page, the Jewish people had been dispersed for about 1,000 years and lived in independent communities, most of which were now under Islamic rule. Like Jewish communities across the world today, they read from the Torah throughout the week and relied upon it for religious guidance. But the Torah wasn’t written in stone, and the need arose for an accurate Bible with codified spellings and pronunciations that Jewish communities could refer to without differentiation. This version became known as the codex, or the Crown.
The Crown lived intact for 1,000 years, managing to escape, unscathed, attacks by the Seljuk Turks, the Crusaders, the Mongols, and a devastating earthquake. It was ransomed along with human lives and traveled from Tiberius to Jerusalem to Cairo, making its final stop in Aleppo, Syria. The ancient community of Aleppo Jews guarded the Crown in a safe in a grotto in the bowels of the main synagogue. They revered it, even believing it harbored protective powers.
So, how, after a millennium of survival in death-defying conditions, sometime after 1947, did nearly half of the pages of the Crown of Aleppo get lost? This is the story Friedman is here to tell.
It’s a story others have tried to tell, and failed.
Friedman, who currently writes for the Times of Israel and has specialized in religion, archaeology and politics in the Middle East, is a master storyteller. He weaves through a millennium of history with the ease of a seasoned time traveler, starting in 1947 Flushing Meadow, N.Y. From there it’s to Aleppo and a zigzag to Crusader-sacked Jerusalem, 1940s Syria, 12th-century Egypt, and 1950s Israel, coming up for air periodically at the present day, where he holds scraps of history that crumble to dust in his hands.
The popular story goes like this: When news of the vote to establish a Jewish state hit the Arab world, mobs looted and burned down synagogues and Jewish businesses, and in Aleppo they dragged the codex from its safe and burned it. After the dust settled, Jewish community members collected the scraps of parchment and saved what they could; other fragments disappeared with individuals, later to turn up in people’s homes and wallets in New York, where they were cherished as talismans. Rumor had it the codex was lost. In time, however, it resurfaced almost entirely intact. After much pressure and one botched operation, the Aleppo Codex was smuggled into Israel in 1958 and entrusted to the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. The book’s story of survival, rescue and return would seem to be no less miraculous than the Jewish people’s itself.
Today the codex lives inside a secret vault at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. But the manuscript that reportedly left Syria complete is now missing almost half of its story: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah and most of Deuteronomy, Amos and Song of Songs are gone.
Friedman stumbled upon the Crown in 2008 while working on an article for the Associated Press. He was intrigued by its virtual anonymity. How was it that hardly anything was known about this epic work, which came to dictate the Bible’s pronunciation and cantillation for the future of Judaism, and about the 40 percent of it — including almost the entire Torah — that disappeared? But as he started investigating the deeper questions about the book’s missing sections, his leads went cold, and his contacts stopped returning his calls.
Friedman found himself in the Aleppo Codex Underground, with a cast of characters chasing the same elusive goal: The missing pages.
“Listen,” Ezra Kassin, amateur Crown sleuth and Aleppo émigré to Israel, says to Friedman in the book’s introduction, “you’re entering a minefield.”
“I nodded, pretending I knew what he meant,” writes Friedman. “He shook his head. I had no idea.”
The Aleppo Codex, as it turns out, has had more sightings than Elvis, and the story of its emergence from the synagogue’s flames has several vastly different versions. In the 1990s, Mossad operatives went into Syria looking for the missing pages. Even they came back empty handed. Something happened to the Crown, and the onus, Friedman comes close to but shies away from concluding, is on the Israeli government.
In this way, Friedman is no more successful than his predecessors at closing the case. The key witnesses won’t talk, have given contradictory statements, or have died. Friedman, talented investigative journalist as he is, continuously runs toward the heart of the mystery, only to realize it is a trompe l’oeil as he smacks into another wall.
Friedman’s narrative provides hope: The rest of the codex is out there, and, as one player informs him, readily available if someone would come forward with just $1 million. But hope dissolves into frustration. “The Aleppo Codex” challenged some of my most staunchly held beliefs: That libraries are always the best places for books, that Zionism was good for all Jews, that human beings will ultimately do the right thing.
It’s painful to think about the possibilities for the codex’s fate. How could the people of the book “lose” half of the most important manuscript outside of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Could it have been stolen and sold by Israeli officials, who worked so hard to obtain it? Could a community that feared the supposed awesome power of the book be reduced to selling its desecrated pages on the rare book circuit?
Friedman passes over, disappointingly, one other theory: The spiritual potency of the Crown is keeping it hidden. Ronen Bergman, writing in the New York Times Magazine (“A High Holy Whodunit,” July 25), picks up this thread. The Crown was inscribed with a blessing and a curse: “Blessed be he who preserves it and cursed be he who steals it, and cursed be he who sells it, and cursed be he who pawns it. It may not be sold and it may not be defiled forever.”
At one point, Bergman writes, Israel’s chief rabbi reversed the curses, so that anyone harboring parts of the Crown would be cursed and hence turn them in. But the community replied that “the faith of the Jews of Aleppo in the power of the codex is greater by far” than the rabbi’s pronouncement. Could it be that the keeper of the rest of the Aleppo Codex is not a thief, but instead perceives the Western-influenced State of Israel, with its unquestioned faith in libraries and institutions, as the real thief?
It requires a paradigm shift, and it may be out of left field, but I wish Friedman had pondered the possibility.
That critique aside, “The Aleppo Codex” is a rare example of untold Jewish history. It’s riveting, mysterious, and a piece of good literature, like its subject.