60 Years After Smuggled Into Israel, Aleppo Codex Gains UNESCO Recognition

Rare and ancient copy of the Hebrew Bible, on display at the Israel Museum, will be listed along with 300-odd other items of unique universal and cultural importance.

A section of the Aleppo Codex, on display at the Israel Museum. On February 8, 2016, UNESCO decided to add it to its International Memory of the World Register,

Sixty years after it was secretly smuggled into Israel from Syria, the Aleppo Codex – purportedly the oldest and most authoritative copy of the Hebrew Bible in existence – has been recognized as a unique treasure and will be included in the International Memory of the World Register, compiled by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The codex, or Crown of Aleppo (called Keter Aram Tzova in Hebrew), is on permanent display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The provenance of this extremely important manuscript, which was written in Tiberias around 930 C.E., is shrouded in mystery, contradictory information and half-truths. The original copy included 500 pages but 200 have disappeared since it arrived in Israel.

On Monday UNESCO officially recognized the codex – also called “the most perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible” and "the perfect edition of God’s words” – as a unique item with universal characteristics. As such, it is worthy of inclusion in the organization's registry of 300 items and collections, located around the world, which it started compiling in 1995. These include cultural treasures that have contributed to human development, and the documents it includes are well-preserved and accessible.

Two other items from Israel are already listed in the Memory of the World Registry: the Israel Museum’s Rothschild Miscellany, a collection of illustrated manuscripts from the 15th century, and the Pages of Testimony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Authority – a project that has documented the names and stories of Holocaust victims since the 1950s.

In the over 1,000 years since the Aleppo Codex was written, it was moved around, hidden, smuggled out and rescued from pogroms. Eventually, it reached Egypt, where it served Maimonides when writing the Mishneh Torah, his code of Jewish religious law, in the late 12th century.

In the 14th century it started "traveling" again, this time reaching Aleppo in Syria, where for hundreds of years it was kept in an iron safe with two locks, in a dark cave under the city’s great synagogue. Members of the local Jewish community prayed before the manuscript for health and salvation, believing it would protect them from the evil eye. Most of the time it remained locked up, far from public scrutiny. On the rare occasions in which the safe was opened, community elders were on hand to ensure the precious documents would not be stolen.

Mythical powers

In time a myth developed, forbidding removal of the Crown of Aleppo from the safe, lest some harm befall the community. One of the few people who did manage to see it was Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, later Israel’s second president, when he visited Aleppo in the 1930s. In 1947 local Jews were the target of pogroms that broke out in Syria after the UN partition plan was adopted that November.

The synagogue in which the manuscript was kept was torched and, according to rumors that held sway for decades, it was damaged. In all the commotion, a number of its pages went missing. Some believe that they were taken by Arab looters; others thought that community members took pages to protect them, or that fire had consumed them.

In any event, the codex survived the upheaval and remained in Aleppo until 1957, at which time one of the local Jewish leaders asked a community member to bring it to Israel, where a group of former members were living. However, to their dismay, the manuscript ended up in the hands of the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, a research center set up by the country's second president, and dedicated to Jewish communities from Arab countries. 

After an in-camera trial at Israel’s high rabbinical court, it was decided that the codex would remain at the institute, under the watchful eyes of representatives of the state and the former members of the Aleppo community.

Only in 1960 did the president reveal that the Crown of Aleppo was in Israel. It is kept in a safe at the Israel Museum, protected by three locks, a secret code and a magnetic card. Sections of it are on display at the museum’s Shrine of the Book.

Some of the missing pages were scattered around the world and eventually found years later, but people are still trying to locate the other sections that disappeared, due to their spiritual, emotional, religious and monetary value.

For years it was claimed that senior officials at the Ben-Zvi Institute were involved in stealing and smuggling some of the manuscript’s pages out of the country. Over a month ago, Haaretz Hebrew Edition published the testimony of Prof. Yom-Tov Assis, who headed the institute in the past and was himself from Aleppo. In an interview he gave during preparation of a documentary called “The Lost Crown,” he said that books are stolen from every library and archive, and added that maybe a senior official was involved in this case as well. “The institute wanted to press charges but apparently the country’s president asked it not to do so.”

Also added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register this week are 7,200 pages written by Isaac Newton on the subjects of theology and alchemy, which are kept at Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem. These documents first belonged to the University of Cambridge but were auctioned off in 1936, ending up in the hands of Avraham Shalom-Yehuda, a researcher of Jewish history and Arab culture. He later bequeathed his library to the Jerusalem repository.