Thursday, March 28, 2013

Book Review: The Allepo Codex

In my capacity as Israel's State Archivist, late last year I wrote and published a quasi-legal decision in the matter of the archives of the pre-Shoah Jewish community of Vienna. The pre-war Jewish community of Vienna was Europe's second largest (after Warsaw); after the war it was only a shadow of its former self, and in the early 1950s its leaders began shipping various cultural possessions to Israel; among them was the 250-year archives of the community.

A few years ago the current community leaders demanded it be sent back. The case wandered through the legal system for a while, and eventually it was sent to the state archivist. Having done my best to study the matter in a dispassionate and professional manner, my eventual decision was that the collection should remain in Jerusalem. (We blogged on this at the ISA blog here, here, here and here; the decision itself is online here, in Hebrew). The case is currently pending at the Supreme Court.

Shortly after I had completed my part of the story, my wife bought me a copy of The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible by Matti Friedman. The story of the Codex itself is one of those fantastic-yet-true stories that Jewish history sometimes throws up. Written in Tiberias more than a thousand years ago to be the definitive copy of the Bible, it was captured in 1099 in Jerusalem by the Crusaders, ransomed by the Jews of Cairo, and then came into the possission of the most famous Jew ever to live in Cairo, the Rambam (Maimonides). A couple centuries later a direct descendant of his (a great-great-grandson, if I'm not mistaken) moved to Aleppo and took the Codex with him. Ever since, from the 14th to the 20th centuries, it remained in Aleppo, the most prized possession of the ancient Aleppo community. For the entire time since its creation, it has always been the single most acurate copy of the Hebrew Bible.

Given what's been happening in Aleppo the past year, it's very fortunate the book isn't there anymore, but rather in Jerusalem. Yet as Friedman's story shows, that last chapter wasn't as straightforward as one might wish. The story that was given to be understood from its arrival in Jerusalem in 1958 was heroic and satisfying: The day after the UN adopted the plan to partition mandatory Palestine between a Jewish and an Arab state, in November 1947, there were riots in Aleppo, the central synagogue was attacked, and part of the Codex was burned. The rest was saved, smuggled to Jerusalem, and now resides in a very safe vault at the Israel Museum (I've seen it there); part of it is on public display in the Shrine of the Book.

Friedman's story is murkier. He suggests that the Codex was smuggled out of Syria with the help of the Mossad, and was brought to Yitzchak Ben Zvi, then President of Israel. Once the remnants of the Aleppo community in Israel heard it had been saved, they demanded it be returned to their possession. The State of Israel, however, had no intention of handing it over, and the case went to court, where it was decided that it belonged to the State but with Aleppo representatives on the board of a steering committee to determine its treatment. After Ben Zvi died, however, no-one was particularly interested in it anymore, and it spent the next years in a cabinet at the Hebrew University. Only in the 1980s was public interest re-kindled, the Codex was sent for a six-year treatment in the laboratories of the Israel Museum, and later also scanned and made public.

Ah - and there was the matter of the missing 40 percent, which includes the entire Pentatuch and other parts. Friedman shows that it wasn't burned in 1947, and that it was probably saved almost in its entirety; the 40% went missing sometime between 1957 and the end of the 1970s - which is a glum thing to reflect on, since it means Jews who should have appreciated it better did the destruction, not a Syrian lynch-mob.

While Friedman doesn't have full proof for this, he does tell a compelling tale. I recommend it.


David said...

From the title, I thought that you were going to review *the codex*, not a book about the codex. Was that an April fool's joke?

Barry Meislin said...

See "Aleppo Tales" by Haim Sabato (Toby Press).