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BAS Rabbi's Message

Message from Rabbi Daniel Stein

August, 2012

The Syrian city of Aleppo has become the center of political and military tensions in Syria. This month, I look at its history and its greatest contribution to the Jewish people.

Tourists flocking to Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book, home to many of the Dead Sea Scrolls, are often deeply moved by the ancient scrolls that survived, untouched, for thousands of years in the scorching heat of the Negev. Many might be so deeply moved that they miss a small display off to the side, containing another book--perhaps slightly less ancient, but considerably more significant to the history of the Jewish people. The codex--a fancy word meaning a bound book as opposed to a scroll-- bears the name of the Syrian city of Aleppo. As best we know, the Aleppo Codex was completed around the year 930 by Aron ben Moshe ben Asher, a scribe living in Tiberias, and is the oldest and most likely first complete Hebrew Bible.

Until Ben Asher completed the Aleppo Codex, individual books of the Bible had been written in scrolls. So, the Book of Esther might have been written as a scroll, or the first five books of the Bible would be collected in a Torah scroll. But all twentyfive volumes of the Hebrew text had never been collected in a single volume. Anyone who has ever handled a Torah, though, knows that scrolls can become unwieldy after a certain size, and it would be impossible to create a single scroll containing the entire Hebrew Bible. Ben Asher’s Codex, using the technique of bound pages, was the first complete rendering of the biblical text from Genesis to Chronichles. More significant, though, was that the Aleppo Codex was the first complete Bible to contain a fully vocalized text and a grammatical commentary. Building on centuries–old scribal traditions, Ben Asher noted each variant spelling and vocalization, as well as how many times each spelling occurred throughout the Bible. And, unlike later additions, he completed this task with near perfect accuracy. [The task] took him most of his adult life.

This alone is substantial enough to make the Aleppo Codex one of the most important books in Jewish history. But its subsequent life and tribulations [do even more]: they tell the story of Jewish life in the Levant for over 1000 years. After Ben Asher’s death, the importance of his work was quickly recognized, and the Codex was purchased by Israel ben Simha of Basra (in present day Iraq), who subsequently gave the book to the Karaite (we’ll discuss the Karaites in a future column) community of Jerusalem. During the First Crusade, the book was held ransom, and ultimately redeemed by the Jewish community of Cairo. There it was transported, along with other Jewish books, via camel across the Sinai Peninsula.

The Codex was so important that Maimonides consulted it in creating his own personal Torah: “And the book that we relied upon in these matters is the well-known book in Egypt, which contains twenty-four books, which was in Jerusalem some years ago, to revise the books from it, and everyone relied on it, since it was revised by Ben Asher, and he worked meticulously on it for many years and revised it many times.” The Jewish community in Cairo and Egypt declined over subsequent centuries, and eventually its leader, Maimonides’ grandson David, left for Damascus and ultimately to Aleppo. We believe he brought Ben Asher’s Codex with him.

For almost 600 years, the Codex remained in Aleppo, known as the Crown of the Jewish community. It was stored in a special section of the synagogue, brought out for oaths and for solemn prayers. It took on a spirit of additional holiness, and was believed in to perform miracles. It was the greatest treasure of the Jews of Syria.

On the 29th of November, 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine and to allow for the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine. Throughout the Arab world, Jews who had lived in relative peace with their Arab neighbors became targets for attack. In December, the community of Aleppo raised a pogrom and murdered 75 of its Jewish residents. Here the story of the Codex becomes complicated. Somehow, the first five books of the Codex, consisting of most of the pentateuch, were lost. The local Jewish community claimed they were destroyed by fire, but the book contains no evidence of such damage. Scholars who examined the book once it arrived in Israel, think that in order to protect its contents, those pages were removed and guarded by members of the community. In the last fifty years, some of the missing pages have surfaced. One page, containing the Ten Plagues, was laminated by New Yorker Sam Sabbagh and kept in his wallet as a good luck charm. Today, myths about the whereabouts of other missing pages persists, but to date, their location remains a mystery.

Every time I pass by the Codex in Jerusalem, I think of it as a true miracle. Here, a book examined by Maimonides sits, both damaged and perfect. It has survived the waves of history from Crusades to Pogroms, and, like the Jews, has endured. It has found a home, safe and secure, within the holy city of Jerusalem. I can think of no greater symbol of our people.

Rabbi Daniel Stein