Burnt Aleppo synagogue parchment comes to Israel

It is almost exactly 60 years since the Aleppo synagogue in Syria – where a rare 11th century parchment, the Aleppo codex, had been kept – was burnt down by a rioting mob. Last week, a surviving fragment was presented to an Israeli institute. Regan O’Doherty of AP tells its amazing story (With thanks: Mercedes and Rona):

For six decades, Sam Sabbagh carried a good luck charm ˜ a parchment he found on the floor of a burned synagogue.

“Turns out that parchment likely is more than 1,000 years old, a fragment of the most authoritative manuscript of the Hebrew Bible. His family plans to present it to a Jerusalem institute next week, officials said Thursday.

“The parchment, about “the size of a credit card,” is believed to be part of the Aleppo Codex manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, said Michael Glatzer, academic secretary of the Yad Ben Zvi institute.

“It contains verses from the Book of Exodus describing the plagues in Egypt, including the words of Moses to Pharaoh, “Let my people go, that they may serve me.”

“In 1947, Sabbagh, then 17, picked up a piece of the manuscript off the floor of a synagogue in Aleppo, Syria. The synagogue had been burned the previous day in riots after the United Nations decided to partition Palestine, a step toward creating the Jewish state of Israel.
When Sabbagh later immigrated to Brooklyn, he carried the parchment around for years in a plastic pouch in his wallet, Glatzer said. Sabbagh used it as a good luck charm, even bringing it with him when he underwent open heart surgery.

“The codex is not just another manuscript ˜ it’s a landmark,” Maggen said, mainly because it provides insights into key aspects of Hebrew grammar and pronunciation.

“Portions of the codex that have already been retrieved are on display in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The Sabbagh fragment would eventually join its counterparts there, Glatzer said.

“Glatzer hopes that the parchment’s recovery will encourage others to check their safety deposit boxes and attics for similar treasures.

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This article from Haaretz has more detail :

After 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 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 up 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.”

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Smuggled out in a shopping bag: the fascinating story of the Damascus Codex

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