The Aleppo Codex:
A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Book, by Matti Friedman
Algonquin Books, 320 pages, $24.95
Eight years ago, when I was living as a student in the Christian Quarter of Damascus, I would often wander across Straight Street to the Jewish Quarter of the city.
Still known as Harat al-Yahud by the local residents, its narrow alleys were haunted with vacant houses and entire sections of streets that had been left uninhabited when Jews left the city, many as recently as 1992.
A sculptor in a sprawling Jewish residence could point you down the road to an empty synagogue, hidden in a tiny alley and padlocked shut, its beautiful bronze doors intact. An estimated 30,000 Jews had lived in Syria in 1947. Though nearly all had left, they came up often in conversation, as merchants spoke of their former houses and shops, the noise their hammers made as they pounded their famed metal work. They had been there so long that the neighborhood couldn’t quite forget them.
Any traveler in the Arab world today is familiar with these absences, which seem to cast a shadow over otherwise ordinary afternoons. There are the Jewish houses in Essaouira, Morocco, cooled by the sea breeze; the empty synagogues in Cairo; the abandoned Jewish cemetery in downtown Beirut, many of the tombstones inscribed in Arabic, French and also Hebrew. And there is Aleppo, a trading city in northern Syria that was home for over two millennia to one of the world's most ancient Jewish communities, whose members were protected, in their minds, by their ownership of the book of books, the Aleppo Codex, also known as the Crown of Aleppo.
It is into this forgotten Aleppo that journalist Matti Friedman, formerly a correspondent for the Associated Press and now a journalist for the Times of Israel, brings us in his fascinating new book “The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Book.”
Ostensibly a book about the most perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible and its mysterious journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem in the 1950s, it is in fact a story about much more: about how the Aleppo Jewish community became tied up in the events of November 29, 1947, in ways that its members could never anticipate, and about how not only a book, but an entire world, began to quietly disappear.
The Aleppo Codex, still considered the most authoritative copy of the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible in existence, was compiled around 930 C.E. in Tiberias by the master scholar Aaron ben Moses ben Asher and the scribe Shlomo ben Buya’a. It was a time, as Friedman points out, in which “nine out of every ten Jews in the world, including the scribe and the scholar, lived in the lands of Islam.”
It was the very notion of exile, at a moment in which Jewish communities lay scattered, that laid the foundation for the creation of the Codex. Now that the Jews no longer had a king, a temple or geography in common, they needed to be bound by something else: in this case, a book. Though the Hebrew Bible had already been written down in scrolls, this alone was no longer enough, for the lack of vowels and commentary allowed for too much uncertainty. If a book was going to connect them, then they needed to agree on exactly what that book said, not only on the words, but on every aspect of the text, every vowel and cantillation mark. Disagreement on the smallest aspect of the text threatened to create rifts among the believers.
Hundreds of years after the destruction of the Temple, scholars in Tiberias set out to create the single authoritative version of the Hebrew Bible, a project that continued over generations. The greatest of the rabbis working on the project came from the Ben-Asher family.
In turn, their greatest scholar was Aaron, who inherited the cumulative knowledge of the five or six generations who worked before him, and whose wisdom culminated in what became known as the Crown of Aleppo, the most accurate version of the Bible in the world. This was the Bible on which all others would be based, complete not only with the Hebrew text but also with vowels and symbols that showed how the words should be chanted. Since it would be used as a reference book and not in worship, it was written down not on a scroll but in a codex, hundreds of parchment leaves bound together in the earliest version of a book
Ben Buya’a and Ben Asher labored over their work for years, the former writing out the words, the latter recording the vowels and cantillation marks above and below them and adding notes in the margins. The result of their labors was a document that generations of scholars could refer to any time they had a question or disagreement over the meaning of the text.
Taken by Crusaders
The story of the Aleppo Codex’s survival, which Friedman recounts in almost cinematic detail, is as unlikely as it is astonishing: Purchased by a wealthy Karaite benefactor in the 11th century, it was moved to a Karaite synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem, from which it was taken by the Crusaders after 1099, when they sacked the city, ransomed back by the Jews, and then brought to the thriving Jewish community in Fustat, outside of Cairo, where it was used by Moses Maimonides when he wrote his Mishneh Torah in the 12th century. In the 14th century, it was carried to Aleppo, where it joined a community that traced its roots back to before the destruction of the Second Temple. There it was housed in the so-called Cave of the Prophet Elijah, behind the city’s main synagogue, where it remained, largely untouched, for the next 600 years.
Friedman’s story begins not in the ancient past, but in Aleppo in 1947, on the eve of the UN vote on the partition of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel. Most of the city’s Jewish community, halfway across the world from UN headquarters in New York, seemed largely unaware that it was even happening. In one of the book’s more masterful scenes, Friedman takes us to Rabbi Moshe Tawil’s sermon shortly before the vote. Like many other Jewish leaders in the Arab world, Tawil attempted to publicly distance himself from Zionism, as the vote approached. In his sermon he warns the Aleppo community about the dangers of the Zionist movement, informing its members that the young Aleppo Jews who had already arrived in Palestine were “living among secular Socialists from Europe, eating food that was unclean and abandoning the faith of their fathers.”
At the same, the Jews of Aleppo had built a complex relationship with the Muslims and Christians of their own city. In what turned out to be a mixed blessing, Jews had enjoyed special influence and protection from the French Mandate, and when France handed over administrative control to Syria in 1946, the Jews were left to fend for themselves. Friedman brings this complex world alive, a city in which Jews spoke French and Arabic with a special accent belonging to Jews and Christians, a city in which most Jews purchased their kosher meat from Muslim-owned shops that hired Jewish ritual slaughterers. The young Rafi Sutton, an Aleppo Jewish teenager at the time who later becomes a Mossad agent in Israel and who is followed throughout the book, a character as obsessed with the Aleppo Codex as the author himself, recounts participating in the demonstrations against the French in an attempt to blend in with his Muslim neighbors.
It is the extent to which the Jewish community was completely entwined in the life of the city that makes the speed of its demise so tragic. After the vote in New York in favor of partition became known in Aleppo, mobs began burning the synagogues. Jews feared for their lives. This section of the book, beautifully written, recounts the realities of that period in all their complexity; even as some Muslims were torching shops, others were warning Jews not to leave their houses and were facing down mobs. One Jewish resident of Aleppo is sent to seek shelter in the home of his Armenian nanny. In the meantime, the rabbis began spreading the rumor that the Crown of Aleppo had been consumed in a fire. Instead, it went into hiding in Aleppo for a decade.
The ensuing story, of how the codex eventually made its way from Aleppo to Jerusalem, takes up the bulk of the book, and involves marauders and thieves at almost every stage. In it Friedman exposes an astonishing fact about the so-called “perfect version” of the Bible: At some point between its departure from Aleppo and its arrival in Israel and possibly even after its arrival in Israel several hundred of the volume’s pages went missing, including almost the entirety of the text of the Torah, never to reappear. Friedman sets out to track down the missing pages, and in doing so he exposes decades of cover-ups and an entire “codex underground,” whose members are obsessed with finding the same thing.
The controversy surrounding the damaged codex does not stop upon its arrival in Israel, but only deepens.
Who represents the Jews?
At the root of the complex story of the Crown of Aleppo are two very different ideas about what exile means and who represents the Jewish people. For many of the Jews who left Aleppo in the 1940s and 50s, largely immigrating not to Israel but to New York and more far-flung countries, Aleppo had been home, the crown a symbol of their ancient and vibrant community. For them, the flight from their city marked not the end but the beginning of exile, and from their perspective the Crown was undoubtedly theirs alone to keep. For Zionist leaders, the Crown, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, became a symbol of a larger Jewish history of exile one that had now triumphantly returned to the newly born Jewish State. The question of how Murad Faham, the Syrian Jew entrusted with spiriting the Codex out of Aleppo and to Israel, comes to hand it over not to the head of the Aleppo community but to the Aliya Department of the Jewish Agency, would create generations of disagreements and a court case, finally resulting in the Aleppo Jewish community losing their greatest treasure.
In describing the current state of the Aleppo Codex, now partially on display in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, Friedman does not mince words. “The Crown of Aleppo was never given to Israel,” he writes. “It was taken.”
As the story moves from the past to the present day, it reads less like a history book than a detective novel, as Friedman obsessively pursues the question of the codex and its missing pages. Yet oddly enough, it is the most shocking elements of the tale, those of corruption at the highest level of Israeli society, that in the end are the least gripping, for they lack the novelistic detail of the earlier scenes.
Friedman’s writing shines most when he resurrects a time and a place now vanished, and it is the residents of Aleppo and the ancient community they lost who are most memorable, as are the powerful stories of men fleeing Syria on Shabbat so they would not be suspected of being Jewish, the unlikely details of a Christian safe house on the Lebanese border that served as a haven for Jewish refugees, and the tale of a Jewish woman fleeing Syria by boat who cannot stand the taste of the pickled herring she is offered by a well-meaning local when she arrives in Israel. We read “The Aleppo Codex” expecting to be educated about a book lost, but we are captivated by a world lost instead.
As the situation unravels in the Syria of today, Friedman’s book takes on a resonance that he surely never anticipated when he began writing. Not long before I started reading, I spoke on the phone with a friend of mine, a Christian from Homs, home to one of the region’s most ancient Christian communities. Now, almost all the Christians have fled the city. I thought of her when I came upon a line in Friedman’s book: “A world thousands of years in the making simply vanished. Few besides the Aleppo Jews themselves seem to have noticed.”
Stephanie Saldaña is the author of the memoir “The Bread of Angels.” She lives in Jerusalem.