Monday, December 7, 2015

The Aleppo Codex In Israel

Book Review

The Aleppo Codex: In an article for The New York Times (“High Holy Whoodunit”; July 25, 2012), Ronen Bergman writes on the codex’s importance to Judaism and the Jewish People: “According to tradition, early in the sixth century, a group of sages led by the Ben-Asher family in Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, undertook the task of creating a formal and final text. The use of codex technology — a method that made it possible to record information on both sides of a page, in book form, as a cheaper alternative to scrolls — had already evolved in Rome. Around A.D. 930, the sages in Tiberias assembled all 24 holy books and completed the writing of the codex, the first definitive Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. From Tiberias, the codex was taken to Jerusalem. But Crusaders laid waste to the city in 1099, slaughtering its inhabitants and taking the codex. The prosperous Jewish community of Fustat, near Cairo, paid a huge ransom for it. Later, in the 12th century, it served Maimonides, who referred to it as the most accurate holy text, as a reference for his major work, the Mishneh Torah. In the 14th century, the great-great-great-grandson of Maimonides migrated to Aleppo, bringing the codex with him. There it was kept, for the next 600 years, in a safe within a small crypt hewed in the rock beneath Aleppo’s great synagogue.”
Photo Credit: ©Perry J. Greenbaum


The Aleppo Codex
by Matti Friedman
Algonquin Books, 298 pp., $33.95

The Aleppo Codex, known as the keter (כֶּתֶר) or crown in Hebrew, is considered by scholars to be as accurate a copy of the Hebrew Bible as there can be, a bound book of approximately 500 pages that dates to the tenth century, and which was safely and securely housed in Aleppo, Syria, for six centuries before being transferred to Israel in late 1957. Tradition and modern scholarship says that Maimonides studied and used the codex in the 12th century to publish the Mishneh Torah (Hebrew: מִשְׁנֵה תּוֹרָה), a code of Jewish religious law. His praise of it forever established its reputation and made it more valuable and venerable.

It is housed in the Israel Museum (at the “Shrine of the Book”), in Jerusalem, but access to it is controlled by the Ben-Zvi Institute, founded by Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. He is an important figure in this story, as are a few others, including Asher Baghdadi, sexton of the great synagogue at Aleppo; Moshe Tawil, the chief rabbi of Aleppo who decided to send the codex to Israel; Murad Faham, the Aleppo cheese merchant who smuggled the codex to Israel; Shlomo Moussaieff, a jewelry tycoon and buyer of ancient artifacts and manuscripts; and Meir Benayahu, an aide to Ben-Zvi and the institute's first director.

Two months after its arrival in Israel, in February 1958, the codex was at the centre of legal proceedings, where the Aleppo Jews sued the government of Israel for the rights of ownership; the court was the Jerusalem Rabbinic Court. Matti Friedman writes: “The hearings were held before three rabbis, instead of judges, but otherwise followed the recognizable formula of a trial” (116). After a long trial, the Aleppo Jews had to concede defeat and there was, in 1962, “an out-of court settlement” (137). The trusteeship agreement, Friedman writes, “gave the community theoretical part ownership of the manuscript, while effectively ensuring that it would remain in the hands of the state and would never leave Ben-Zvi’s institute” (137-8).

With this agreement, the Aleppo Jews lost control of a book that they had held for centuries, but did so unwillingly. How and why this book was transferred to Israel has everything to do with events that happened shortly after November 29, 1947, when the United Nations made a historic vote. Friedman explains the story in a succinct paragraph in an article (“The Continuing Mysteries of the Aleppo Codex;” June 30, 2014) for Tablet:
In 1947, in a riot that followed the United Nations vote on the partition of Palestine, the codex disappeared, surfacing 10 years later in mysterious circumstances in the new state of Israel. The codex is currently held in the Israel Museum, in the same building as the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is controlled not by the museum, however, but by a prestigious academic body, the Ben-Zvi Institute, founded by Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Somewhere along the way in the mid-20th century, 200 priceless pages—around 40 percent of the total—went missing. These include the most important pages: the Torah, or Five Books of Moses.
These form the heart of the Torah, the Hebrew Bible. What remains of the original codex is what Friedman refers to as a “mutilated codex” (143). It begins with the impending death of Moses found in the Torah’s last book, Deuteronomy, and where Moses, forbidden by G-d to enter the land, gives a farewell address to the People of Israel, which includes both blessings and curses (chapter 28). The mutilated codex does not contain the blessings, but gives warnings of what will happen to the nation of Israel should it deviate from the right path (“derech”) of G-d’s commandments:
It continues with a list of curses:
Cursed shall be the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock. Cursed shall be in your comings, and cursed shall you be in your goings.
The Lord will let loose against your calamity, panic and frustration in all the enterprises you undertake, so that you shall soon be utterly wiped out because of your evildoing in forsaking me.
One can read into this as much (or as little) as one wishes, but it is hard to deny the power of the words and how these relate to what happened to the codex. That these words are now the first words of the mutilated codex says much, perhaps too much.

The Aleppo Codex is part a story of historical preservation and continuity, interwoven with the re-birthing of the state of Israel; it is also a moral lesson of greed and monetary remuneration and how the two can come together when something of great value is placed in front of you. It is also a fine detective story on what might have happened to the 200 missing pages. There are possible answers, evidence pointing in a particular direction (270-71), but nothing proven, nothing conclusive. Powerful and influential political and religious figures have built a wall of silence, thus preventing the facts from leaking out (266-70) .

Today, there are two versions of the event (“the missing 200 pages“): the first and official version (posted on the Israel Museum site) is that the 200 pages were burned during the Aleppo riots in 1947 and that the codex was delivered to the Israeli government incomplete; the second version, which the author suggests is the more likely story, is that the book was delivered intact, except for a few pages, and that the missing pages were in fact later sold to a dealer or to many dealers who seek to buy such ancient artifacts and manuscripts. The book is as much about the murky (and sometimes deadly) world of the buying and selling of ancient artifacts as it is about the ethical ideas of why the public ownership of such documents is sacred.

Faith and obsession, words that can be used to describe religious feelings, can also be used to describe non-religious feelings, or secular emotion, as well. These are human emotions, human values. To possess something rare, which no one else has, is something that some people not only feel is important and necessary, but is something that they receive some pleasure in doing. Even if in the doing it is not particularly ethical or, broadly speaking, not in the public interest. In such cases, it is not too far-fetched to talk about a breach of public trust.

Such thoughts or ideas do not seem to take much prominence—if at all—in the minds and consciousness of such individuals when such decisions are made. The Aleppo Codex contains an inscription, Friedman writes (9), saying:
Blessed be he who preserves it
and cursed be he who steals it
and cursed be he who sells it
and cursed be he who pawns it.
It might not be sold and it may not be defiled forever,
Until recently, this admonition was taken seriously.