The Aleppo Codex and the Ownership of Tradition
The Torah belongs to all Jews and, indeed, to anyone who cares to learn and live its ways. But it is not transparent. Copyists make errors. Torah scrolls lack vowels, making pronunciation and meaning uncertain.
Matti Friedman’s new book The Aleppo Codex tells the story of the oldest and most authoritative text of the Bible from its origins in Tiberias around 930 to its present home in the Shrine in the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Its travails are those of the Jewish people—the striving for unity, uncertain life in exile, and the return to Zion that left unhealed wounds.
A thousand years ago, a newly invented system fixed vocalization and meaning for the Jewish people. The scholars and grammarians of Tiberias, above all the Ben-Asher family, built on hundreds of years of scholarship to create a singular edition of all the books of the Bible. One bound book of some 500 leaves stood above all the others, as if a crown. Its value is beyond money.
The book was written in Tiberias, sojourned in Jerusalem until its capture by Crusaders, was ransomed, and went down to Egypt, where Maimonides consulted it when writing his Mishneh Torah. From there it went to Aleppo, Syria, where it stayed for 600 years. There, Jews called it the Keter Aram Zova, the Crown of Aleppo. The book reposed in the Great Synagogue in a safe under lock and key, becoming an object of veneration, invested with magical properties. Outsiders were forbidden to gaze upon it.
That repose effectively ended on the night of November 30, 1947, when word of the United Nations’ vote on the partition of Palestine sparked pogroms. The Great Synagogue of Aleppo was burned. The Crown was feared destroyed; but it had survived, almost intact, and was swiftly hidden by the community’s rabbis.
For the first time, Friedman tells how the Crown came to Israel and what happened to it there. With a sad and poetic touch, he meticulously reconstructs—from interviews with members of the Aleppo community and their descendants worldwide, former spies, amateur sleuths, and wealthy art collectors, as well as long suppressed government files—a shocking and degraded tale.
Yitzhak Ben-Zvi—politician, scholar, and future president of Israel—had attempted through emissaries to persuade the Aleppo guardians to transfer the Crown to Jerusalem during World War II, only to be rebuffed. But the 1947 pogroms and the darkness falling on Aleppo and across the Arab and Muslim world made the matter pressing.
After the attack on the Great Synagogue, the Crown was entrusted to a Christian merchant who hid it until late 1957. Then, a cheese merchant named Faham was given the task of transporting it to safety in Israel. Was he to take it to Rabbi Dayan of Israel’s Aleppo community or the Israeli government? In fact, in early 1958 it was turned over to an Israeli immigration official who then gave it to Ben-Zvi.
Friedman unearthed the proceedings of a four-year-long rabbinical court case brought by the Aleppo community in 1958 to recover the book. They show that Faham was in fact instructed to take the Crown to Rabbi Dayan, but the state began working to obtain custody even before Faham arrived in Israel. The case was settled out of court. Ben-Zvi’s Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the Middle East was given custody, and the official history covered up an effective theft by the government from the then-dispersed Aleppo community.
But in what sense can something so important to the Jewish people be considered the property of a separate community, and who becomes its steward when a community is lost? Ben-Zvi and his institute were indefatigable collectors of manuscripts and other materials belonging to “Oriental” Jews arriving in Israel. Those Jews were considered too primitive to look after property they had preserved for centuries. Theft of books, scrolls, and ritual objects, by Ben-Zvi and the state, was common.
As in Aleppo, the Crown, for its first decade under Israel’s stewardship, was locked in a filing cabinet with all but a select few forbidden to see it. Though it appears to have left Aleppo virtually intact, scholars who later examined it found some 200 pages missing, a full 40 percent of the book. What became of the rest?
Two leaves have recently emerged from the Aleppo community itself. But Friedman indicates that the vast majority were stolen while the book was in the custody of Ben-Zvi’s institute—that is, of the state. Friedman tries to trace their fate on the shadowy international manuscript market but has no answers. Their monetary value is such that least one ultra-Orthodox dealer connected to the missing leaves appears to have been murdered.
The Aleppo Codex is a marvelously written international thriller, but the issues it raises are profound and current. Who is the legitimate heir to the property of dispersed or extinguished Jewish communities? Israel’s assuming this role even before a community is gone was initially characterized by obsessive self-interestedness, dismissiveness towards fellow Jews, and outright theft; its treatment of Holocaust survivors and their property was not dissimilar. Can Israel, or any state, be fully trusted with cultural property?
But cultural properties cannot simply be left in place. For example, the so-called Iraqi Jewish Archive, a disparate collection of letters, books, and other documents of an extinguished Jewish community, was found in the basement of a flooded secret police building in 2003 and removed to the United States for conservation. Since then, Iraq has angrily demanded their return. Perpetrators of dispersal and death rarely have the good taste to refrain from insisting on their right to cultural properties that will enable them to boast of a “multicultural society” they themselves destroyed.
But deeming Israel the repository for all Jewish objects, knowledge, and culture has its own problem—namely, that the country has a large target painted on it. Like returning all Jews to Zion, putting all the Jewish people’s cultural eggs in one basket seems ill-advised. It was precisely the dispersal of Jewish knowledge among countless communities that preserved the whole even as individuals faltered or fell; today, the task is made easier by digital technology.
And what of unique and glorious objects like the Aleppo Codex itself? The need to venerate objects of antiquity and beauty, and those with singular histories, is deeply human. Jews are devoted to what might be called the abstract truth contained in the Bible’s many copies. But unique artifacts like the Aleppo Codex—literally, one of the sources of our knowledge of the Bible—create tangible, emotional connections with the past. Even those who do not subscribe to the idea of magic are touched by an object’s talismanic power to create closeness to the past, to fix an individual within a long continuum of aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual appreciation. That sense of continuum creates a responsibility to continue the chain of custody. More important, it demands becoming one with the tradition itself.