This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Crown of Aleppo*

News Item:

Shepherdstown, West Virginia December 1999 -- January 2000. Prime Minister Barak of Israel and Foreign Minister Farouk a-Shara of Syria enter into ill-fated peace negotiations under American auspices.

The negotiations between Israel and Syria, which are currently proceeding with great intensity, have concentrated on borders, armies and diplomacy. To the best of my knowledge, little attention has been directed to the religious and cultural treasures of Syria's Jewish community. Though that community has been all but eliminated over the last generation, we should not forget that it was one of the most ancient in the world.

In this article I wish to describe one of the most extraordinary exploits of that beleaguered community, the tale of its custodianship over the Aleppo Bible Codex.

An aura of legend has always radiated from the "Crown" of Aleppo, which was believed to be the oldest existing manuscript the entire Hebrew Bible containing all the vowels and cantillation signs. In thousands of instances the Aleppo codex exhibits readings that are superior to those of any other manuscript or printed edition of the Biblical text.

Although the codex has generated some extravagant legends concerning its antiquity, such as the one that ascribes its writing to Ezra the Scribe, it was probably written closer to the year 900 c.e. in the Land of Israel, near the birthplace of the Tiberian vocalization system of which it is the most faithful representative.

The scholar who added the vowels and accents was Rabbi Aaron Bar Asher, one of the most illustrious experts in the specialized science of the Biblical text that goes by the name "Masorah." The Masoretes developed elaborate systems for maintaining the accuracy of the written, consonantal text of the Bible, as well as for recording the vowels and accents, which had previously been handed down through oral memorization. Though several such systems were devised during the early medieval era, in the end the one from Tiberias achieved dominance; and Aaron Bar Asher was perhaps the most distinguished exponent of the Tiberian school of Masorah.

It is now clear that this was the very same manuscript that was used by Maimonides when he formulated his regulations for writing Torah scrolls, in spite of many doubts that were once cast on the authenticity of the claim. Modern scholars were initially misled by some apparent discrepancies between the codex and Maimonides' rulings. However, it was eventually established that the fault lay with the printed editions of Maimonides' code, which had been tampered with in order to bring them into conformity with the current conventions. When reliable manuscripts of Maimonides were consulted, they revealed his consistent agreement with the distinctive readings in the Aleppo Codex.

In the sixteenth century, the Keter was stolen from Cairo by bandits. Eventually it found its way to Aleppo, where the local Jewish community held on to it tenaciously, refusing to lend it out to scholars, let alone to consider selling it. A local tradition declared that if the codex were to leave Aleppo, the community would cease to exist.

In a profound sense, the prophecy turned out to be true.

With the rise of Arab nationalism in the early years of the twentieth century, Biblical researchers began to worry about the safety of the Keter. Scholars from Jerusalem's Hebrew University began investigating whether there might be some way to preserve its invaluable contents. The leaders of Aleppo's Jewish community staunchly dismissed invitations to remove it from their town for safekeeping. What was worse, they would not even allow it to be photographed. With great reluctance, they permitted a visit from the renowned Biblical scholar Prof. M. D. Cassuto, and then did all they could to heap obstacles in the way on his examinations of the codex.

In 1947, following the United Nations resolution to partition Palestine, the worst fears were realized. Anti-Jewish rioters, with help from the army, set fire to the Jewish quarter of Aleppo, including all its synagogues and Torah scrolls (though they were careful not to hurt the Jews themselves). The report was soon circulated that its precious treasure was irretrievably lost.

As Jewish refugees from Aleppo began to trickle into Israel, they told a different story: The details are still not clear, and at least four different Aleppo Jews (and one larcenous Syrian politician) have been credited with returning to the synagogue and rescuing the burning Keter. Many of the details are not yet being published in order to protect individuals who still reside in Syria. The story of the manuscript's destruction had evidently been disseminated for the benefit of the Syrian authorities.

A similar confusion obscures the story of how the Keter was kept in strictest secrecy from 1947 to 1958 by members of the Aleppo Jewish community, apparently after a detour to Beirut. At length, it was hidden among the personal effects of a Jew of Persian nationality who had recently been expelled from the country. At grave peril to his life, he succeeded in evading the customs inspection, and was able to smuggle his priceless cargo to Turkey, and from there to Jerusalem.

Even now, the Aleppo Jews would not acquiesce to give up the Keter to outsiders. A concerted campaign of pressure and persuasion was directed at the Aleppo community leaders, by the Israeli government, scholarly institutions, Jewish organization, and by members of the Aleppo Jewish diaspora, culminating in an official letter, issued in 1953, by Sepharadic Chief Rabbi Ouziel.

The most relentless of the manuscript-hunters was Yitzhak ben-Zvi, the learned authority on Middle-Eastern Jewry who became Israel's second President. He had a life-long obsession with the Keter, which he had been allowed to view in 1935. As President, he tried to conscript to the cause the Israeli diplomatic and Intelligence services.

In 1958, President ben-Zvi was able to announce officially that most of the Aleppo codex had found its way to safety in Jerusalem. It remains there, under expert preservation, today.

However, one third of the Aleppo codex has never yet been found. Unfortunately, that third includes most of the Torah, until Deuteronomy 28:17. Scholars have been reluctant to abandon hope for the recovery of at least some of those lost pages.

There are some grounds for optimism. Stories are in circulation that some pages were misappropriated while still in Aleppo. None of the surviving sections exhibits signs of fire damage, so the story of its burning was probably untrue. A very auspicious development involved a single leaf of the Keter that was turned over to the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem in December 1982, thirty years after it had been brought to Brooklyn by a family of Jewish refugees from Aleppo. More recently, a researcher at Bar-Ilan University identified, in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, a printed Bible from 1490 with handwritten notes in its margins by a sixteenth-century savant who had systematically recorded the readings of the Aleppo codex.

The ultimate fate of this priceless treasure might ultimately be linked to the future of Israel-Syrian political relations. If true peace does emerge between the two warring nations, then the complete recovery of the Aleppo Bible might be one of the crowning achievement to that accord.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Ask Now of the Days that Are PastAsk Now of the Days that Are Past


University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, February 3 2000, pp. 8-9

  • Bibliography:
    • Beit-Arié, Malachi. "A Lost Leaf from the Aleppo Codex Recovered." Tarbiz 51, no. 2 (1982): 171-4.
    • Ben-Zvi, I. "The Codex of Ben Asher." Textus: Annual of the Hebrew University Bible Project 1 (1960): 1-16.
    • Goshen-Gottstein, M. H. "The Authority of the Aleppo Codex." Textus: Annual of the Hebrew University Bible Project 17-58 (1960): 1-16.
    • Penkower, Jordan S. New Evidence for the Pentateuch Text in the Aleppo Codex. Edited by M. Goshen-Gottstein and U. Simon, Ha-makhon Le-toledot Heqer Ha-miqra' Ha-yehudi: Mekorot Umehqarim. Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1992.
    • Shamosh, Amnon. Ha-Keter: The Story of the Aleppo Codex. Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 1987.