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Raiders of the Lost Codex.

The Aleppo Codex

Matti Friedman

Algonquin Books

2012, $24.95, pp. 320

There is probably no more sacred text in Jewish history that still survives than the Aleppo Codex, a 10th-century text of the Bible. And yet until journalist Math Friedman came along, the story of its disappearance from Syria in 1947 and its emergence a decade later in Jerusalem was shrouded in mystery and betrayal, officially sanctioned deception and just plain lies.

For his relentlessly researched and gripping thriller, The Aleppo Codex, Friedman, a Jerusalem correspondent 14 the Associated Press, embarked on a four-year odyssey through the Middle East from Turkey to Cairo and on to Brooklyn to unravel the rumors, secrets and layers of complexity that marked the shifting fate of the Codex, a journey woven by the author into a unique tapestry of historical and religious significance.

Friedman offers compelling evidence to support a troubling explanation of how the Codex made its way to Jerusalem and what might have happened to its many still-missing pages. Along the way he recounts the story of the prideful and insular Jews of Aleppo and paints a series of intriguing portraits of craven Israeli officials, driven Mossad agents and shady antiquities dealers of Judaica. Revealing the particulars of a pivotal and previously sealed legal battle in 1958 over custody of the Codex between the Syrian Jewish community and the young nation of Israel, he describes a proceeding that on the surface was "a legal dispute between two sides over an object of great worth." But it was more than that, he writes: "The Jerusalem trial was an argument over who owned the patrimony of the Diaspora, and thus about the nature of Judaism, exile, and the state of Israel."

For me, Friedman's account was of more than historic and religious interest. It was deeply personal. l'he grandson of Jewish immigrants from Aleppo, I grew up hearing stories from my father and grandfather of the long line of rabbis who were my ancestors, most notably the chief rabbi of the ancient city for much of the 19th century, an influential scholar and spiritual leader named Haim Mordecai Labaton. I was often told that Aleppo, one of the oldest cities in the world and a trading crossroads between East and West, was for centuries a center of important Jewish scholarship.


What I did not know until many years later was one of the main reasons why. Kept in a safe in the basement chapel of the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, a building that was said to have been first built by King David's general around 950 B.C.E., was the Aleppo Codex. My ancestors, it turns out, were for many decades the guardians of the Codex.

Theologians and historians consider the Crown, or Keter, as the Codex is also known, to be the most perfect and oldest surviving Hebrew Bible, or as Friedman writes, "the singular and authoritative version, for believing Jews, of Cod's word as it was sent into the world of men, in their language."

Completed around 930 C.E. in Tiberias, a city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, the Codex was prepared by a scribe under the direction of a highly regarded scholar, Rabbi Aaron Ben Asher. It included the five hooks of Moses as well as definitive instructions on the correct vocalization and punctuation for the Thrah. The book, written on dried animal skin with indelible ink made from very small, powdered tree galls mixed with iron sulfate and black soot, consists of page after page of three columns of 28 lines of perfectly scribed Hebrew. It was the culmination of centuries of scholarship aimed, in Friedman's account, at collecting and recording oral traditions, reaching consensus where there was disagreement, and creating the text of the Bible on which all others would be based.

The value of the Codex for the survival and perpetuation of Jews and Jewish identity is difficult to overstate. For many centuries, the Jews, unlike other religious groups, were a scattered people, bound only by a common text, or "held together by words," as Friedman notes. "Judaism, unlike Catholicism, had no central institution, only thousands of self-contained communities linked by the content of their religious belief and practice. The Jews could not be held together by a book if they were not reading precisely the same one, because minor differences in the text could lead to diverging interpretations and a splintering of the faith. And yet much of the information crucial to reacting the book properly could not he found in the book itself. There needed to he another book, then, that would tell people how to read the first. It had to be written down before this key supplementary knowledge, which had been transmitted orally for centuries, was lost in the Diaspora. This is why the Crown was created."

Scholars have concluded that the Codex was used by Maimonides around 1170 when he wrote the Mishneh Torah, 14 books that codified the oral legal tradition and would become a pillar of Judaism. The Codex also was on his library desk, it was said, when the great philosopher and physician wrote Guide for the Perplexed, an Arabic-language guide to Aristotelian philosophy and Jewish theology that greatly influenced Christian thinkers. After Maimonides's death in 1204, the Codex remained in his library in Cairo. It was taken in the latter half of the 14th century by his great-great-great-grandson to Aleppo, where for centuries it was a magnet for Jewish scholars around the world.

Through the centuries, its Aleppo guardians protected the book from conquerors, earthquakes and other disasters. But ultimately, the 20th century arrived, and as the Jewish community in Aleppo slowly dwindled following shifting political and economic winds, it was the birth of Israel that sent the book into hiding once more.

The United Nations decision in 1947 to partition Palestine into separate states for Jews and Arabs prompted riots throughout the Arab world. The Great Synagogue was ransacked, set aflame and, according to news accounts (perhaps planted by Jews to discourage a further search by Syrians), the Codex was destroyed by the fire. In fact, it was hidden for years in the storeroom of a textile trader in Aleppo. According to the official accounts, it was smuggled into Turkey and then Israel by an Aleppo cheese merchant, Murad Faham, and presented to Itzhak Ben-Zvi, then the president of Israel and a highly regarded historian.

But the previously sealed transcripts of the trial over custody of the Crown that Friedman obtained show that Faham lied in the trial and ignored the instructions of the Aleppo rabbis who controlled the Crown to deliver it not to the Israeli government but to a Syrian rabbi in Israel. The three-judge court ultimately sided with the Aleppo community on the facts but constructed a myth that the key Syrian rabbi who was to have received the Crown in Israel had been out of the country when it arrived--to award custody to a philanthropic trust controlled by the Israelis.

"The Crown of Aleppo was never given to Israel," Friedman writes. "It was taken. The government may have believed it was serving the interests of its people and of the book itself, but though those circumstances deserve to be noted, they do not alter the ugly mechanics of the story: the state took the sacred property of people who did not give it voluntarily, with the collusion of a messenger who turned over something that was not his to give. Many of the fictions and evasions that have hidden this story for decades were designed to conceal what was, in effect, the theft of the Crown from the Jews of Aleppo."

The Codex remains under the control of the Ben Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East. It is kept at the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in a corridor steps from the display of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Friedman presents powerful support for the conclusion that for many years the institute, an organization devoted to preserving history, covered up the details of how it came into possession of the Crown. The institute, he writes, commissioned a deceptive official account of the affair by the Hebrew novelist (and Aleppo native) Amnon Shamosh. "If it's possible not to tell the truth, why tell the truth?" Friedman quotes Shamosh as confessing after tracking him down years later at his small home at a kibbutz along the Israel-Lebanon frontier. "The truth is a dangerous thing."

According to Friedman, the institute also badly neglected the Crown by storing it for many years in an office cabinet, causing severe damage to the ink and the parchment.

But the blockbuster accusation of The Aleppo Codex is that the institute may itself have been responsible for the hundreds of missing pages from the Crown. Of the nearly 500 pages of parchment, only 294 now remain. (One page and a portion of another have surfaced since the Crown arrived in Jerusalem. They had been in the possession of Syrian Jews in Brooklyn, who obtained them from ancestors who had been at the Great Synagogue when it was vandalized in 1947.)

Overcoming the institute's stonewalling, Friedman discovered that Meir Benayahu, the Ben-Zvi Institute's director when it received the Crown in 1958, had been quietly dismissed 12 years later after being discovered stealing dozens of rare manuscripts. The manuscripts were never returned and the scandal was kept secret, enabling Benayahu to continue his career as a scholar at Tel Aviv University, where he won one of the country's top academic prizes in 2004 before he died five years later.

Benayahu's supporters insist the pages were missing from the Crown before it arrived at the institute in 1958. But Friedman concludes that there is no evidence of that, and that the failure to investigate may have been a calculated decision to avoid drawing unwanted attention to the later thefts by the director.

"We might file this tale between Cain and Abel and the Golden Calf, parables about the many ways we fail," Friedman concludes. "A volume that survived one thousand years of turbulent history was betrayed in our times by the people charged with guarding it. It fell victim to the instincts it was created to temper and was devoured by the creatures it was meant to save."

I finally saw a portion of the Codex last August when I visited the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. Staring at the parchment in the dark and narrow corridor, I imagined my ancestors who had used and protected the manuscript for many generations so long ago. When Haim Mordecai Labaton became the chief rabbi in Aleppo, Andrew Jackson was about to become president of the United States. I tried to picture the rabbi hunched over the Crown as he worked on his own scholarship. I can only begin to wonder what lie might think about the fate of the plundered Codex and what it said about the modern world.

Stephen Labaton, a firmer senior writer at The New York Times, is 'builder and principal of Georgetown Policy Advisers LLC, a consulting company in Washington, DC.
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Author:Labaton, Stephen
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:May 1, 2012
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