The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible

Reviewed by Kathy London

aleppo-codexThis book by Matti Friedman is a fascinating and unexpected tale.  Friedman says “I expected to write a heartening story about the rescue of this book… [instead] its story is a tragedy of human weakness.”

To read this book, it is important to understand why the Codex is important.  Jews dispersed across the world have no central institution to maintain their religion.  They have only their Bible.  Reading the text with the utmost precision is imperative; even the tune to which the text is chanted is important.  There may be knowledge in the Bible’s exact words not understood today, that will be understood in the future.  But the Hebrew Bible was originally written without vowels or punctuation.  Key knowledge on how to read the Bible had been handed down orally for centuries, but that teaching was lost in the Diaspora.

Ancient scholars set out to compile authoritative Bibles which included symbols for vowels, punctuation, and emphasis.  As scholarly works, they were sewn together into books – called codices – rather than written on scrolls as required for ritual use.  A thousand years ago, after centuries of effort, the final text of the Bible was accepted.  All other Bibles were to be based on this one text, which became known as the Aleppo Codex or The Crown.

The Codex had been written as a resource for scholars, but over the centuries it became jealously guarded by the Syrian Jewish community in Aleppo that owned it.  Almost no outsider was allowed to see it and no photographs were ever taken.

Friedman relates some of the Codex’s early history, as when it was stolen by murderous Crusaders and ransomed back by wealthy Jews.  But his story is primarily about the Codex’s history from the founding of Israel to today.

I was surprised to read how much discord there was among Jewish communities in the 1940s.  Middle-eastern Jews did not generally see themselves as “living in exile”.  They had lived peacefully within Muslim countries for generations.  The European Jews, who were the main force behind the creation of Israel, looked down on their Middle-eastern brethren as uneducated and superstitious.  Despite this prejudice, they viewed their mission as gathering all the world’s Jews, and their sacred texts, into the new state.

It must have seemed unbelievable to Middle-eastern Jews when the creation of Israel turned their Muslim neighbors against them.  They were driven out of Arab countries, their homes and synagogues burned and looted.  Friedman presents several stories of the attacks on Aleppo Jews and their escapes.  I was surprised to read that many Syrian Jews still did not view Israel as home.  After first escaping to Israel, many left to settle permanently in the United States and various South American countries.

The Codex was rumored lost, then turned up in Israeli government hands missing about 200 pages or 40% of the book.  The government promised to make the Codex available to scholars, as intended by its author, but access has remained tightly restricted.

Quite a detective story unfolds as Friedman tries to document what happened to the Codex and its missing pages.  There is a frustrating web of contradictory and changing stories, and many of the individuals involved are now dead.  The desire for secrecy, fading memories, and – perhaps – the need to hide crimes, leads people to conceal what they know to this day.

Friedman was persistent in his questioning, in one case flying back and forth between London and Tel Aviv to get a sentence or two after each trip from a collector who may have some of the missing pages.  Friedman “hoped [the collector] might be just old enough now to care less about keeping his secrets.”  Unfortunately, Friedman could not tell if he “was being given a clear glimpse of the solution to a great mystery or being taken for a fool.”  He frequently felt this way during his research.

Friedman is left believing that the Israeli government stole sacred texts, including the Codex, from the Jewish communities that rightfully owned them.  There is the possibility that somehow the irreplaceable missing pages from the Codex had been sold on the black market.  There may still be hope that heirs to the collectors will one day restore some of the pages to the Codex, which still resides in Israel.  Making the full Codex available again would be a boon to biblical scholars and a satisfying resolution to the “human weakness” that dispersed its pages.

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