The Aleppo Codex Mystery

How and why did 200 pages of the Aleppo Codex (Hebrew: כֶּתֶר אֲרָם צוֹבָא‎), the oldest, most complete, most accurate text of the Hebrew Bible, go missing? Ronen Bergman investigates in a thrilling piece for New York Times Magazine:

For a thousand years after the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, the Jewish holy scriptures — the five parts of the Torah and 19 other holy books — were copied and passed down in the various Jewish communities from generation to generation. Some of these texts, according to Jewish faith, were handed down directly by God and included signs, messages and codes that pertained directly to the essence of existence. The multiplicity of manuscripts and the worry that any change or inaccurate transcription would lead to the loss of vital esoteric knowledge created the need for a single, authoritative text. And beyond its mystical significance, a unified text was also necessary to maintain Jewish unity after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Roman Empire. As Adolfo Roitman, the head of the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls and parts of the codex are displayed, said: “One can regard the thousand years between the scrolls and the codex, the millennium during which the standardization of the text was carried out, as a metaphor for the effort of the Jewish people to create national unity. One text, one people, even if it is scattered to the four ends of the earth.”

According to tradition, early in the sixth century, a group of sages led by the Ben-Asher family in Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, undertook the task of creating a formal and final text. The use of codex technology — a method that made it possible to record information on both sides of a page, in book form, as a cheaper alternative to scrolls — had already evolved in Rome. Around A.D. 930, the sages in Tiberias assembled all 24 holy books and completed the writing of the codex, the first definitive Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. From Tiberias, the codex was taken to Jerusalem. But Crusaders laid waste to the city in 1099, slaughtering its inhabitants and taking the codex. The prosperous Jewish community of Fustat, near Cairo, paid a huge ransom for it. Later, in the 12th century, it served Maimonides, who referred to it as the most accurate holy text, as a reference for his major work, the Mishneh Torah. In the 14th century, the great-great-great-grandson of Maimonides migrated to Aleppo, bringing the codex with him. There it was kept, for the next 600 years, in a safe within a small crypt hewed in the rock beneath Aleppo’s great synagogue.

The story of what happened next — how the codex came to Israel and where the missing pages might have gone — is a murky and often contradictory one, told by many self-serving or unreliable narrators. In his book, “The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible,” published in May by Algonquin Books, the Canadian-Israeli journalist Matti Friedman presents a compelling and thoroughly researched account of the story, some of which served as the catalyst for additional reporting here.

This piece is a contender for one of the best longreads of 2012. Continue reading here.

One thought on “The Aleppo Codex Mystery

  1. Hello, Eugene. You should, as I have done, read the book cited in this article (“The Aleppo Codex” by Matti Friedman). Bergman does not, as you say, “investigate” — he basically uses the structure and investigation of Friedman’s book and embellishes it somewhat. I am surprised that the NY Times would allow this. The article does not give nearly enough credit to Friedman and his very readable and fascinating book.

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