Murky truth behind the Aleppo codex

The mystery of the ancient but incomplete Aleppo codex is about to be revealed in a new book by journalist Matti Friedman. In this Times of Israel piece, Friedman discredits the story that the priceless 1,000-year-old Biblical manuscript was burnt when the Great Synagogue of Aleppo was damaged by fire in the riots of 1947. He charges that the codex was undamaged, but a cover-up shielded officials of the state of Israel from the murky truth. Instead of being responsible for custodianship of the codex, they were complicit in ‘stealing’ parts of it. Or is this the whole truth? The Haaretz article in the link below says that Syrian Jews also kept fragments of the document as ‘good luck’ charms.

The codex was written in Tiberias around 930 CE, and then moved to Jerusalem, where it was stolen by Crusaders in 1099. It was ransomed by the Jews of Cairo, studied by the great philosopher Maimonides, and then taken in the 14th century to Aleppo, Syria, a trading city home to an ancient Jewish community. It was kept in Aleppo’s Great Synagogue for 600 years, until 1947.

On November 29 of that year, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine. The next day, Syrian rioters angered by the decision attacked the Jewish community, burning homes, businesses, and houses of prayer, including the Great Synagogue. The riot triggered the end of a Jewish community that had been in Aleppo for more than 2,000 years and marked the beginning of the codex’s travels through the turmoil of the modern Middle East.

Friedman’s investigation focuses on events after the riot, which is when the manuscript’s history becomes oddly murky.

According to the known story of the codex, the manuscript was damaged around the time of the fire, and it was then that the pages — including the most important part of the manuscript, the Five Books of Moses – went missing, never to be recovered. In 1957, the chief rabbis of Aleppo smuggled it to Israel and presented it to the president of the new state, Itzhak Ben-Zvi, who was also a scholar of Middle Eastern Jewish communities. The academic institution the president founded, the Ben-Zvi Institute, remains the official custodian of the codex today.

According to the new book’s findings, that version of the manuscript’s travels is mostly false, serving in large part to conceal the actions of government officials and academic scholars in Israel.

The events around the codex’s arrival in Israel triggered a four-year legal battle in Jerusalem between the Jews of Aleppo and the state. The trial was then kept secret and its details — including the role of Israeli agents in Turkey who intercepted the manuscript en route — have never before been published.

Unearthing documents, gathering material from earlier investigations and tracking down elderly witnesses, Friedman learned that the codex had not been significantly damaged around the time of the synagogue fire. In fact, Friedman shows, there is no evidence the missing pages were missing at all before the book arrived in Israel.

“Talking vaguely about ‘lost’ pages was safe,” Friedman writes. “Talking about ‘stolen’ pages was not, because it meant that someone must have stolen them — that a crime had been committed.”

Friedman also unearthed documents showing the manuscript was damaged by years of neglect at the Ben-Zvi Institute, and that officials censored a version of the codex’s history published in the 1980s in order to protect the Israeli government and the institute itself.

In responses released since the book’s publication in Hebrew, the Ben-Zvi Institute has called the charge of neglect a “smear.” In response to Friedman’s account that officials at the Ben-Zvi Institute tried to suppress potentially devastating information about events in its manuscript library in the 1950s and 1960s, the institute said only that it had the legal right to withhold that information.

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More about the Aleppo codex


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