My Great-grandfather, the Man Who Held the Key to the Aleppo Codex

Descendant of man who cared for the oldest complete copy of the Hebrew Bible sets out to trace the text's history in a documentary - and maybe solve the mystery of its missing pages.

The Aleppo Codex.
Iris Pshedezki

In the span of little more than a decade, hundreds of pages of a priceless, 1,100-year-old Jewish manuscript go missing. Were they burnt in a synagogue fire, as had initially been speculated, or were they stolen?

Others may have gotten a head start on him in solving the mystery of the missing pages of the Aleppo Codex – the oldest and most authoritative copy of the Hebrew Bible known to exist. But documentary filmmaker Avi Dabach brings a unique perspective to this ongoing quest: He is the great-grandson of the caretaker of the great synagogue in Aleppo, Syria, where this Judaic treasure was housed for almost 600 years before it found its way into the hands of Israeli government officials in the late 1950s.

As part of his job as caretaker of the facility, Chacham Ezra Dabach held the key to the iron safe located in the basement of Central Synagogue of Aleppo where the bound manuscript was held. To be precise, one of the two keys. 

“What I heard growing up is that there were two locks on the safe, so that it couldn’t be accessed unless both key holders were around to open it,” recounts Dabach. Many Jews came to pray at the site, as Jerusalem-born Dabach learned growing up, but indeed, only a rare few were allowed to see and touch the community’s prized possession.

Ezra Dabach, one of the last caretakers of the Aleppo Codex in its home in Syria.
Courtesy of Avi Dabach

Dabach never met his great-grandfather, who had moved from Aleppo to Jerusalem in 1925 with his family. 

As a child, recalls the 43-year-old filmmaker, he was intrigued by his family’s personal connection to the most valuable Jewish book in the world. As an adult, his interest grew into an obsession, especially as details began to emerge of its latest and most controversial handover. 

“For me, making this documentary is a way of finding out the truth,” says the 43-year-old filmmaker, who also teaches cinema at various institutions around the country. “I’ve been doing investigations all my life, so it was only natural that I’d want to investigate something that hits so close to home.”

Not only has the mystery of the missing pages been consuming him for years, but so too has the following question: How did the Syrian Jewish community come to be stripped of its most treasured asset after guarding it for so many centuries? 

“This is not a case of the British Museum taking from others,” notes Dabach, referring to controversies over artifacts like the Parthenon marbles. “This is a case of Jews taking from Jews. The Jews of Aleppo should have remained the caretakers of this great treasure here in Israel, and therefore, a great injustice has been done to them.”

Dabach has just launched a crowdfunding campaign to help finance production of his film, tentatively titled “The Lost Crown,” and is more than halfway toward his goal. He is collaborating on the project, still in preproduction, with film producer Judith Manassen Ramon.

Filmmaker Avi Dabach.
Filmmaker Avi Dabach.

Also known as the “Crown,” the Aleppo Codex was written in the 10th century in Tiberias and has been long been considered the most authoritative version of the Hebrew Bible in existence. During the First Crusade, the manuscript was handed over to the Jewish community of Cairo for safekeeping in exchange for a hefty ransom payment, and from there it made its way, sometime in the late 14th century, to Aleppo. Maimonides was said to have referred to it as the most trusted version of the Hebrew Bible known to Jewish scribes. 

The Dead Sea Scrolls predate it by about a millenium, but the Aleppo Codex – at least until some of its pages went missing – had been the oldest complete version of the Bible known to exist in the world. Unlike the scrolls, it also contains vowel signs, as well as cantillation marks indicating how words should be chanted. 

In 1947, after the United Nations recommended establishing a Jewish state in Palestine, rioting broke out in Aleppo, and the ancient synagogue was set on fire. The treasured codex was rumored to have been destroyed in the flames only to resurface 11 years later in Jerusalem at the Ben-Zvi Institute, a research center set up by Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and dedicated to Jewish communities from Arab countries. 

Only years later did it emerge that the treasured manuscript had been smuggled out of Syria in a washing machine by a member of the Jewish community. But rather than end up in the hands of the chief rabbi of the Aleppo Jewish community in Israel, as was the plan, it was handed over to Jewish Agency officials who entrusted it to the Ben-Zvi Institute. Much later was it discovered that close to 200 pages – representing roughly 40 percent of the entire manuscript – were missing. That included almost all the five books of the Torah. 

In his 2013 book “The Aleppo Codex: In Pursuit of one of the World’s Most Coveted, Sacred, and Mysterious Books,” author Matti Friedman concludes that the pages were never damaged in the synagogue fire in Aleppo, but rather, they were stolen after reaching their destination in Jerusalem by a senior employee of the Ben-Zvi Institute. The Aleppo Codex was moved in the 1980s from the institute to the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum.

The Aleppo Codex may be a one-of-a-kind manuscript, but as Dabach notes, it suffered a similar fate to many other Jewish holy books that found their way to Israel during the mass immigration wave of the 1950s. “There was a major plundering going on at the time of the cultural assets of Jews from Arab countries,” he alleges. “We know of many cases of sacred books brought in from Yemen, for example, that either suddenly disappeared or were appropriated by the government. It all has to do with the patronizing attitude of the Ashkenazi establishment at the time toward Jews from Arab countries – an attitude that said these Jews are primitive and won’t be able to properly care for these treasures, so they need to be entrusted to the state.”

In his film, Dabach hopes to shine a light not only on this bigger story, but also, he says, on the once vibrant community of Aleppo Jews from which he descended. 

He is not sure he will have better luck than others in cracking the mystery of the missing pages of the Aleppo Codex. But he believes he has at least one advantage over the competition.

“Being the great-grandson of the caretaker of the Aleppo synagogue – that is definitely something that opens doors,” he notes.