Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Keter in Jerusalem

Quite some years ago, when I was a junior in high-school and not at all interested in academic learning, a young man walked into our class of arrogant teenagers and introduced himself as our new history teacher. He wasn't that much older than we were, and we looked at him a bit skeptically. Then he launched into his subject matter (I vaguely remember it had something to do with the American revolution, but perhaps not) and he shocked the socks off us. The fellow was a really good teacher.

Six years later, after the army boiled my brain and all I wanted to do was start using it again, I went to study history at the university, mostly because Menachem had showed us it could be interesting.

Last night he did it again. In the meantime Prof. Menachem Ben Sasson has become the president of the Hebrew University, but he still knows how to spin a fine yarn; I'm probably too far gone to be salvaged, but the story he told is worth sharing in brief.

In the old days before cloud computing and even before the printing press there was a major challenge in preserving the precise wording of important books, so people developed elaborate methods to do so. At the heart of the method was the master-copy, a text that was acknowledged to be so reliable and clear that it was never used as a book itself, but others would travel far and wide or pay the appropriate price to have a copy that was written from it. The Ramban (Maimonides - 1138-1204) wrote about his top-special master copy of the Bible, and there are documents showing how even after his death people made a point of having their Bible written from the Rambam's.

Ben Sasson showed us that the master copy owned by the Rambam was written in Tiberius around 930 CE by Shlomo Ben Boya'a, and edited by the best scribe of them all, Aharon Ben Asher. It remained in Tiberius for perhaps a century, then was taken to Jerusalem, where it was part of the largest Jewish library in the land, and probably one of the largest in the Jewish world - about 450 books. (By the 22nd century, with everything on gadgets, 450 real books will again look impressive).

In 1099 the Crusaders conquered and ransacked Jerusalem, but some canny fellow recognized that lots of Jewish books might be worth money to rich Jews, so they were auctioned and eventually reached Egypt, which is where the Keter, as it's now known, met up with the Rambam.

In 1375, or perhaps 1410, the book moved from Egypt to Allepo in present-day northern Syria, brought there perhaps by a seventh-generation descendant of the Rambam. (To recap: the Rambam had this old book, written more than a two centuries before his birth, and 200 years later his descendants were still treasuring it. It must have been quite a book).

In November 1943 the Hebrew University sent one of its top scholars, Moshe David Kassuto, to Aleppo to research the Keter, and record as much about it as possible. Kassuto was in Aleppo for all of 12 days; during those 12 days his two sons and a daughter-in-law were rounded up in their home town of Florence and sent to Auschwitz. (So we were told last night by a grandson of his who's a member of our congregation).

The book remained in Aleppo from about 1400 until November 29th 1947, during which time Columbus discovered America and Harry Truman became president; Martin Luther ignited the Wars of Religion and the Nazi heathens did their best to destroy the world. A long time for a book which was almost 500 years old when it first reached town.

On that night in November the UN decided to set up two states, one Palestinian and the second Jewish, and the citizenry of Aleppo went berserk. The told their Jews not to leave their homes on pain of death, then went around town systematically burning anything Jews including the cemetery. (Ben Sasson didn't say if they also burned Palestinian institutions). The next morning, the Keter was gone.

A large chunk of it reappeared in Jerusalem in1958, and another fragment arrived a few years ago. Ben Sasson assumes there are other fragments in the possession of Jews who escaped Aleppo after 1947, or their descendants.

Written in Tiberius more than a thousand years ago, it came to Jerusalem about a thousand years ago, may have traveled through Jerusalem 600 years ago on its way from Egypt to Aleppo, and arrived in Jerusalem again fifty years ago. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem. Not the semi-forgotten backwater we often think of when surveying Jewish history between the destruction and recent renewal.

The full version of the story is here, and there's lots to see on the adjacent web-pages.


Barry Meislin said...

I highly recommend Haim Sabbato's "Aleppo Tales," (translated into English by Toby Press), which mentions this episode in passing...

AKUS said...

As an interesting sidelight, the Iraqis are now demanding the return of Jewish items removed from Iraq by the USA. Although the Iraqis threw the Jews out, they seem to believe the Jewish books and other items are part of the great Iraqi cultural heritage. Of course, the Iraqi Jewish community can probably claim a heritage going back to before Christ.

First they destroy the Jewish community, then they store in secret the Jewish community's historical records ... then they demand them back...

Iraq demands return of its Jewish archive

zionist juice said...

it must be in the family.
ben sasson's son is also a marvelous teacher.

Anonymous said...

BTW, does anyone here know how to tell a Chet from a He in the Allepo codex (as shown on the site that Yaacov linked to)? The left side of the He is linked to the top and I cannot for the life of me tell one from the other except for context.

David E. Sigeti

Barry Meislin said...

You're right. The left vertical leg of the heh is connected to the top cross bar (instead of being shorter in length than the right vertical leg, thus creating a space between the top crossbar and the left, shorter vertical leg).

However, you can tell the two letters apart because the top crossbar of the heh has an overhang, to the left of the junction with left vertical leg.

The het doesn't have this overhang and its left vertical leg is all the way to the left.

Anonymous said...


Thanks very much for the explanation.

David E. Sigeti