Jews are the people of the book. Scattered by time and circumstance across the globe, they are tied together by a common lore and tradition, all stemming from that original Tanakh canonized between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D.
But as the Jewish people are defined by the study of a book, or, more specifically, words, any regional variations of that text splinter the cohesion of the overarching culture. To complicate matters further, the Torah was traditionally written without vowels, which didn’t exactly encourage uniform verbalization.
So as the most perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible, written with vowels and annotations by the great rabbi Aaron Ben-Asher and the scribe Shlomo ben Buya in the 10th century, the Aleppo Codex was easily the most important Jewish artifact by the 1940s.
Superstition held that the book, housed in a dark grotto in an ancient Syrian synagogue, kept the local Jewish population safe. After being captured by Crusaders during the fall of Jerusalem, ransomed by the Cairo Jewish community and consulted by Maimonides, the book had slumbered in Aleppo for half a century. By that time, text became not a source of biblical knowledge, but a treasured relic few were allowed to see, and none permitted to replicate.
Israeli agents sent from Palestine couldn’t even convince the local elders to part with their book, but soon enough, disaster forced a change of heart. The declaration of the Jewish State turned the local Arab population against the Jews in their midst. Rioters burned the temple that housed the Aleppo Codex, and all thought the precious book to be lost in the fires.
This is the first of many carefully-constructed lies unearthed by journalist Matti Friedman in his book “The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible.”
“It didn’t occur to me that I could write something new about a manuscript that was 1,110 years old,” Friedman told the Times of Israel about his work. But behind the neat tale of a priceless book saved from the fire and delivered to Israel in 1958 is a more sordid truth riddled with evasions, cover-ups, thieves, former spies and one sly old millionaire who genteelly threatens, “The problem with this story is that it could damage your health.”
The layers of mystery surrounding the book, commonly referred to as the Crown, inspired an underground of amateur sleuths to go digging for the truth. Embedding himself in this subculture, Friedman charts the omissions, stonewalling and outright lies told by the so-called protectors of the Crown. What is supposed to be the most complete and accurate Torah is, in fact, missing more than 200 pages, sat in a filing cabinet for decades, and was effectively stolen from the Aleppo community by an unwitting Syrian cheese merchant and an enthusiastic Israeli government.
“The story is about the problematic meeting between the country’s early European Zionist establishment and immigrants from an Arab country,” writes Friedman, but “it’s also about what is arguably Judaism’s most important book. It’s not really a story about a manuscript, but about people—and what a book can do to people.”
Part of the fun is tagging along with Friedman as he removes each layer of the myth. With a journalist’s nose for truth and a writer’s passion for eloquence, Friedman sifts through the past and unearths a thrilling tale of deceit, lawsuits and the precious book at the center of it all.
Of course, one of the fascinating implications of the sordid history of the Aleppo Codex is that it was not a unique incident. The number of incoming precious texts that disappeared from docks and immigration centers in Israel, only to reappear at bookshops and auction sites is overwhelming. The Crown is just one in a list of treasures lost to Jewish subcultures that subsequently vanished within the Jewish State.
“A volume that survived one thousand years of turbulent history was betrayed in our times by the people charged with guarding it,” Friedman writes in his book. “We might file this tale between Cain and Abel and the golden calf, parables about the many ways we fail.” Perhaps “The Aleppo Codex” can atone for the past, in some small way, by finally setting the story straight.