Fragment of Ancient Parchment From Bible Given to Jerusalem Scholars

Man who saved 1087-year-old fragment from burning Aleppo synagogue in 1947 kept it as 'good luck charm'.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

An eight-centimeter-square piece of the 1087-year-old Aleppo Codex will be given to a representative of the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem on Thursday, following 18 years during which Israeli scholars tried to retrieve it from businessman Sam Sabbagh.

Sabbagh salvaged the fragment from a burning synagogue in Aleppo, Syria in 1947.

Inscribed on both sides, it is one of the lost fragments of the codex, a copy of the Bible written in 920 C.E. in Tiberias by the scribe Shlomo Ben Buya'a. The fragment Sabbagh had bears verses of Exodus chapter 8, including the words of Moses to Pharaoh: "Let my people go, that they may serve me..."

Sabbagh believed the small piece of parchment was his good luck charm for six decades. He was convinced that thanks to the parchment, which he kept with him always in a transparent plastic container, he had been saved from riots in his hometown of Aleppo during Israel's War of Independence, and he had managed to immigrate from Syria to the United States in 1968 and start a new life in Brooklyn and make a living. The charm was with him when he underwent complicated surgery.

Just two years ago, it completed its task, when Sabbagh passed away.

The Aleppo synagogue in which the codex had been kept was burned down exactly 60 years ago by an enraged mob, following the United Nations decision to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. The fate of the Codex was subsequently unknown for 10 years. It had disappeared from the locked cabinet in which it had been kept for centuries, and many believed it had burned together with 40 Torah scrolls, some of them ancient.

But in 1958, the Aleppo Codex was smuggled to Israel via Turkey, wrapped in burlap, inside of an old washing machine belonging to a family coming to live in the country. The codex was presented to the Ben Zvi Institute, as a representative of Israel and in recognition of its research into Mizrahi Jewry. But then, a number of Jews, formerly of Aleppo, sued to keep the codex in the community. A legal battle ensued, the outcome of which was that the manuscript would remain in the possession of the Ben Zvi Institute, but would be transfered to the National Library, and later, when complex restoration work was needed, to the Israel Museum. It is now on display in the museum's Shrine of the Book.

But only 294 out of the original 487 pages survived. Most of the Pentateuch up to the middle of Deuteronomy was gone, and some of the last books of the Bible: Ecclesiastes, Job, Esther, Daniel and Ezra, were lost.

It was first thought they burned in the fire, but further tests on the surviving portions showed that their darkened edges were not caused by burning but rather by a fungus. New theories stated that parts of the codex must have been taken from the ruins of the synagogue. Rumors emerged that pages of the codex were being sold by antiquities dealers for huge sums of money. But in the last 50 years, only one additional page came to Jerusalem to join the others.

In 1987 Professor Menahem Ben-Sasson, then head of the Ben Zvi Institute and now chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, went to the U.S. to obtain funding from a wealthy member of the Aleppo community, Steve Shalom, for an urgent restoration of the codex.

"While I was meeting with him, another member of the community came in and said that the codex had burned but that his brother Sam had a page. I asked for the brother's phone number and called him right away. He told me 'I won't give it to you under any circumstances. It has saved me from disaster.' I asked if at least I could photograph it, and he agreed."

Michael Glatzer, the academic secretary of the Ben Zvi Institute confirmed that the shape of the letters the vowels and the cantillation marks left no room for doubt: it was part of the codex.

Glatzer documented Sabbagh's testimony about finding the page on the day of the fire. "I saw the pages scattered on the floor and damaged by the fire. I could have taken the whole remaining part but my hands shook with fear and the horror of what I had seen. I thought they were going to butcher us all like the Turks massacred the Armenians. I only took the little piece that was separate."

It is now believed that other Jews came in and took pieces of the legendary codex and subsequently refused to part with them. Although Sabbagh agreed to bestow the fragment posthumously, Ben Zvi Institute Director Dr. Zvi Zameret says negotiations with the family took time. "In the end we paid the small sum of a few thousand shekels so they would feel good and we had a little ceremony in New York with Sabbagh's widow."

On Thursday, Sabbagh's daughter Rachel Magen, will present the fragment to the institute.

"We hope to find more fragments," Zameret says. "This is the No. 1 manuscript of the Jewish people. The most complete and ancient surviving Bible, and it is important that people understand that this is a national matter, not only a religious one. The Bible is part of all of us," he says.

Ben-Sasson says that since he found the fragment Sabbagh had, whenever he would give a lecture to Jews of the Aleppo community, he would ask them to find the missing pieces of the codex. "They bring me all kinds of manuscripts and charms but it was never that. I've even asked the community's rabbis to place a ban on anyone holding parts of the codex, but they told me it wouldn't help. The connection between the Aleppo Jews and the codex is just too strong."

The Masoretic Text

The Aleppo Codex is considered to be the most complete extant version of the Hebrew Bible, on which for centuries other Bibles have been based, and is also known as the Masoretic Text.

About 100 years after it was written, it was purchased by the Karaite community and transfered to the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem. During the Crusades the synagogue was plundered and its books were transfered to Egypt, where they were purchased at a high price by Jews. For the next 300 years, the codex remained in Cairo, where Maimonides wrote of it, "everyone trusts it." In 1375, one of Maimonides' descendents brought the codex to Syria and placed it in the synagogue in Aleppo, where it began to be known by its present name.

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