One of the greatest spiritual revolutions in human history was launched toward the end of the First Temple period, when the Jewish people began to shape their ancient traditions into holy scriptures. This process gathered momentum particularly after the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian exile in the late 6th century BCE and culminated in the first centuries CE with the canonization of the corpus of sacred books we now call the Hebrew Bible, which paved the way for both the New Testament and the Koran. By virtue of this contribution to human culture, the Jewish people came to be known as “the People of the Book.”
In time, the Bible became the cornerstone of Jewish national identity. It is thus not surprising that when the oldest biblical manuscripts (the Dead Sea Scrolls) were discovered in the Judean Desert in the late 1940s, the idea was conceived to build a “Shrine of the Book” in Jerusalem – the capital of the State of Israel – to house these ancient writings as well as other rare biblical manuscripts.
An important exhibition in the Shrine of the Book is devoted to the remarkable story of one of these manuscripts, known as the “Aleppo Codex,” considered the most accurate. The Aleppo Codex was written in Tiberias in the 10th century CE. Its text embodies traditions of pronunciation, spelling, punctuation, and cantillation handed down through the generations and finally committed to writing in Tiberias by scholars known as the “Masoretes.” From Tiberias the book was taken to Jerusalem, to Egypt, and finally to Aleppo, Syria; it was smuggled back to Jerusalem in the 1950s. The exhibition of the Aleppo Codex in the Shrine of the Book may be seen as a fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah (2:3): “For instruction [Torah] shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
From Sacred Books to Canon
The Bible tells us that during the reign of Josiah, King of Judah (639–609 BCE), the high priest Hilkiah found “a scroll of the Law” (an early version of the book of Deuteronomy?) in the Temple. This event is commonly regarded as the earliest evidence for the revolutionary process through which the ancient traditions of the Jewish people became sacred books, the most authoritative source for religious belief and practice. Scribes and priests among the Jewish exiles in Babylonia furthered this process by collecting the ancient traditions of the Bible, committing them to writing, and editing them; during the Persian period (ca. 5th century BCE), the first corpus of sacred books came into being, known as the “Torah [or Law] of Moses” (the Pentateuch?).
Another landmark in the canonization of the Hebrew Bible is documented in the opening passage of the book known as The Wisdom of Ben Sira (or Ecclesiasticus), written around the year 132 BCE. In this passage, the phrase “the law and the prophets and the other writings” occurs three times, indicating that a second corpus of sacred scriptures – namely, the Prophets – was already known at that time. Eventually, other books (such as Psalms and Job) were “promoted” to a level of sanctity, while others (including The Wisdom of Ben Sira) remained outside the canon, either surviving as apocryphal literature or disappearing altogether. The canonization process came to an end in the first centuries CE, when the Hebrew Bible received its final form.
From Scroll to Codex
Comparison of the biblical scrolls discovered at Qumran has shown that several versions of the biblical text were in use among the Jews, but that one of them, known to scholars as the “pre-Rabbinic” or “pre-Masoretic” text, was held in particular regard (accounting for some 40% of the scrolls). Toward the end of the Second Temple period, this version came to be seen as authoritative by mainstream Judaism, as indicated by the fragments of later biblical scrolls discovered at Masada, Wadi Murabba‘at, Nahal Hever, and Nahal Ze’elim, all of which follow that text. From the time of these scrolls until the 8th century CE, the period to which the earliest biblical manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah have been ascribed, no Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible have been preserved (some of the biblical fragments from the Cairo Genizah were written according to the authoritative version mentioned above). Evidence of the biblical text from the 4th to 8th century CE has been preserved only by Christians – in Greek, Latin, and other translations.
Translations of the Bible were circulated in the form of “codices” (sing. codex), such as the 4th-century CE Codex Sinaiticus, which were written on leaves of parchment folded and sewn together in a binding. This technological innovation made it possible to utilize both sides of the page for writing and to leaf through the manuscript easily. It was only in the 8th century CE, however, that Jews began to adopt this method, and even then, only for the purposes of study and interpretation. Books read as part of the obligatory synagogue service (such as the Pentateuch and the Book of Esther) were still written, as required by tradition, on scrolls; the text appearing on the scrolls consisted only of consonants, without vocalization or punctuation. The shift from scroll to codex made it possible, for the first time, to record in writing all the instructions for copying and pronunciation – the Masorah – which had until then been transmitted orally from one generation to the next.
The Birth of the Aleppo Codex
The Aleppo Codex, known as the keter (crown) in Hebrew or the taj in Arabic – a title of honor given to select ancient manuscripts, mainly in Eastern countries – was written at the beginning of the 10th century CE. Its colophon (an inscription placed at the end of a manuscript), copied by Professor Umberto Cassuto when he visited Aleppo in 1943, states that the manuscript, which comprised all twenty-four books of the Bible, was copied in the land of Israel by a scribe named Solomon ben Buya‘a, scion of a well-known family of scribes who specialized in copying biblical manuscripts; the vocalization, cantillation marks, and masoretic comments were added by Aaron ben Asher, the last of the Masoretes and the final link in this great chain of tradition.
The Aleppo Codex is considered to be the most accurate existing manuscript of the Masoretic text (another well-known manuscript is the Leningrad Codex of 1009). Its text is practically identical to the pre-Masoretic version of the biblical text that has been preserved in some of the biblical scrolls found at Qumran (approximately one thousand years older than the Codex) and the somewhat later scroll fragments found at Masada and the vicinity, as well as some of the biblical fragments discovered in the Cairo Genizah. The Codex originally contained between 480 and 490 leaves, but, unfortunately, only 295 of them have survived, representing some three-quarters of the Bible.
We do not know who commissioned the Aleppo Codex. We do, however, know from the colophon that it was purchased, many years after its completion, by a wealthy Karaite of Basra, Iraq, named Israel Simhah, who donated it to the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem. In the late 11th century CE it was smuggled out of the country, either by Seljuks in 1071 or by Crusaders 1099, and offered for sale in Egypt.
The Craft of the Medieval Scribe
In the Middle Ages, scribes worked seated on the floor or on a mattress, with a board laid over their knees as a working surface. The text was either dictated or copied from another book. To avoid making mistakes, the scribes would pronounce the words aloud before writing them. The texts were copied onto parchment or papyrus, and later also onto paper, using a stylus or quill dipped into ink. Other pieces of equipment included a knife for marking the lines and columns and piercing holes, scissors for cutting the parchment, a case to hold the writing implements, and an inkwell.
Ceremonial Objects of the Jewish Community of Aleppo
The rich artistic tradition of the Jewish community of Aleppo is notable in its ceremonial objects, which were donated by the members of the community to the synagogue to mark special occasions in their lives. The objects include Torah cases, crowns, elaborate silver finials, and oval plaques (breastplates) with dedicatory inscriptions, all on display in the lower gallery of the Shrine of the Book. Similar plaques were also attached to the curtains (parokhot) in front of the Torah shrines. The inscriptions are fascinating historical documents, which reveal the personal stories of members of the community and enable us to reconstruct some of the long-forgotten details of Aleppine Jewish life.
Maimonides and the Aleppo Codex
After the Aleppo Codex was smuggled into Egypt, it was bought by the local Jews and deposited in the synagogue of the Jerusalem Jews in ancient Cairo. According to tradition – and modern scholarship – the great philosopher and legal (halakhic) authority Maimonides (1138–1204) relied on the Aleppo Codex when he formulated the laws relating to Torah scrolls in his legal code, the Mishneh Torah, as he explains in the conclusion to that section: “In these matters we relied upon the codex, now in Egypt, which contains the twenty-four books of Scripture and which had been in Jerusalem for several years. It was used as the standard text in the correction of books. Everyone relied on it, because it had been corrected by Ben Asher himself, who worked on its details closely for many years and corrected it many times whenever it was being copied. And I relied upon it in the Torah scroll that I wrote according to Jewish Law” (Sefer Ahavah, Hilkhot Sefer Torah 8:4). Maimonides’ praise of the Aleppo Codex further enhanced the reputation of the venerated manuscript.
From Egypt to Aleppo
At the end of the 14th century, the Aleppo Codex was brought from Egypt to Aleppo, Syria, and placed in the “Cave of Elijah” in the city’s ancient synagogue, in a metal chest sealed with a double lock, far from public view. The Jews of Aleppo saw the Codex as the most important manuscript in their possession – so much so, that judges were sworn in with it, and magical, protective powers were attributed to it. It was strictly forbidden to sell the Codex or even remove it from the synagogue, as written on the title page, “Sacred to the Lord. . . . It shall be neither sold nor redeemed. . . . Blessed be he who guards it, accursed be he who steals it . . . .” The members of the community believed that if this injunction were violated, they would be severely punished.
Besides the Aleppo Codex, the Jewish community of Aleppo owned three other important codices. One of them, known as the “Small Codex,” was probably written in Italy in 1341 by an Ashkenazi scribe. Its main part comprises the Pentateuch, with vocalization and cantillation marks and an Aramaic translation. Masoretic notes are inserted between the columns, and Rashi’s commentary appears in the upper and lower margins. The Small Codex also includes an additional text of the Pentateuch in tiny Hebrew letters – without the translation, vocalization, and cantillation marks – as well as the Song of Songs with Rashi’s commentary, the Five Scrolls, the sections from the Prophets read in the synagogue after the Torah reading (haftarot), and a commentary (midrash) on the Masorah. It is currently on display at the Shrine of the Book.
The Fame of the Aleppo Codex
The fame of the Aleppo Codex spread far and wide, and generations of scribes consulted it in order to obtain authoritative answers to their textual queries. In 1599 Rabbi Joseph Caro of Safed, author of the legal code Shulhan Arukh, sent a copy of the Codex to Rabbi Moses Isserles (the “Rema”) in Cracow, who used it to write his own Torah scroll. Among the many “pilgrims” to Aleppo to examine the Codex, we know of Yishai Hakohen b. Amram Hakohen Amadi of Kurdistan, who visited Aleppo at the end of the 16th century; Moses Joshua Kimhi, who traveled to Aleppo on the instructions of his father-in-law, Rabbi Shalom Shakhna Yellin (1790–1874), a renowned scribe; and Professor Umberto Cassuto, whom the Aleppo community permitted to consult the Codex in 1943, prior to the publication of a critical edition of the Bible by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Not only Jews were fascinated by the celebrated manuscript: Sometime before 1753, a British traveler named Alexander Russell received permission to view the Aleppo Codex; a facsimile of one of the pages of the Codex appears on the title page of a book published in 1877 by a scholar named William Wickes; and in 1910 a missionary named J. Segall published a photographic reproduction of two pages of the manuscript – those containing the Ten Commandments – in his book, Travels through Northern Syria.
The Aleppo Codex Disappears
On December 1, 1947, two days after the adoption of the UN Security Council resolution to establish the State of Israel, anti-Jewish riots broke out in Arab countries. The ancient Aleppo synagogue was also targeted. After it had been destroyed, it was rumored that the Aleppo Codex kept there had been desecrated and burned; Professor Cassuto wrote in Haaretz on January 2, 1948: “Keter Aram Zova, as it was called, is no more.”
Saving the Aleppo Codex
Believed to be lost, the Aleppo Codex nevertheless rose from the ashes. When the riots had died down, it turned out that the Jews of Aleppo had managed to retrieve and hide it. Some ten years later, in 1958, the Codex was brought to Jerusalem in a bold clandestine operation, made possible through the intervention of President Yizhak Ben-Zvi of Israel and various rabbinical leaders. The Aleppo Codex was entrusted to the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, and a board of trustees, which included the Sephardi chief rabbi (the Rishon le-Zion), was appointed to look after it. It remained at the Ben-Zvi Institute for a while, and later was on display at the National Library before finally arriving at the Israel Museum.
Unfortunately, the Codex that reached Jerusalem was no longer complete – the beginning, the end, and a few pages from the middle were missing. Because of its poor physical condition, extensive restoration was necessary; this was carried out in the Israel Museum laboratories over a period of some ten years. Pieces of tape stuck to the Codex were removed, stains were cleaned, and the ink was reinforced where it had disintegrated and peeled off. Considerable efforts were made to locate the lost parts, for it was rumored that they still existed somewhere. These efforts have not been very successful. To date, only one complete page, with a passage from the Book of Chronicles, was discovered in NY in 1981. It was brought to Israel, and is now owned by the Israel Museum. In addition, a small fragment of a page from Exodus was kept as an amulet in the wallet of a member of the Aleppine community in New York. It too is now owned by the Israel Museum. Only time will tell if any other leaves of the Codex still exist.
The Aleppo Codex as a Symbol
Once the Aleppo Codex had left Aleppo and reached Jerusalem, the conditions under which it was kept changed completely. In Aleppo it had been enveloped in an aura of mystery and kept in a locked chest, far from the public eye. In Jerusalem, however, in the Shrine of the Book, it is on public view. Many printed editions of the Bible base their texts on the Aleppo Codex: The critical edition being published by the Hebrew University Bible Project; the scientific edition being published by Bar-Ilan University – Mikra’ot Gedolot “Haketer,” which includes the Masorah Parva and Masorah Magna from the Aleppo Codex; and, most recently, a new edition of the Hebrew Bible inspired by the Aleppo Codex, entitled Keter Yerushalaim (Jerusalem Crown).
After some one thousand years of wandering, the Aleppo Codex has reemerged in Jerusalem. It is now on display together with the Dead Sea Scrolls – they too were “brought to life” after two millennia. Interestingly, three of the scrolls were purchased by Professor Sukenik only a few days before the synagogue in Aleppo was burned This unique symbolism enhances the significance of the Shrine of the Book, whose very form represents the idea of the rebirth of the Jewish people after two thousand years of wandering, exile, and near-annihilation; to quote the prophet Ezekiel in his “Vision of the Dry Bones” (37:14): “I will put my breath into you and you shall live again. . . .”
“They shall not profane the city where I abide, for I, the Lord, abide amongst the children of Israel for ever and ever” (Temple Scroll XLV:13–14).