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Pursuing the Aleppo Codex

January 29, 2014


Aleppo Codex

“Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.”  (Psalm 119:105)

Last week in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel ballroom, Canadian-Israeli journalist Matti Friedman received the Sami Rohr Prize for his non-fiction work The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible.

He also won $100,000 for this work of investigative journalism that explores the compelling story of what happened to this ancient Hebrew Bible manuscript—the Aleppo Codex, “one of the most important books on earth.”  (The Aleppo Codex)

This Bible codex (ancient manuscript in book form), which is being used in the translation of the Messianic Prophecy Bible, is of primary importance due to its accuracy and its ability to promote Jewish unity, especially after the Romans’ destruction of the Second Temple.

“It’s the perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible, and it’s also the oldest copy of the complete Hebrew Bible with all 24 books,” Friedman said.  “It was designed to be the authoritative version of the Divine Word.”  (Tablet Magazine)

The codex, which was compiled by sages in the city of Tiberias, was completed in AD 930.

“The codex crowned centuries of scholarship and was meant to be the perfect version of the twenty-four books that made up the Bible, a kind of physical incarnation of the heavenly text in a single manuscript,” Friedman writes in his book, The Aleppo Codex(p. 304)

He traces the history of the Codex from a Jerusalem synagogue during the First Crusade in 1099, when Christians held Jewish books for ransom, to the grotto in the great synagogue of Aleppo, Syria in 1947, where the book had been for 600 years.

“For the Jews of Aleppo, it had become over time less a scholarly resource than a talisman, the community’s mystic power source and guarantor of its survival: traditions of great age and import made clear that if the book were ever moved, the community would be destroyed,” Friedman writes.  (p. 305)


Joshua 1:1 in the Aleppo Codex

Then, on November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab; and the next day, rioting mobs burned Jewish homes, businesses, and the synagogue.

Even as the synagogue that held the Codex in Aleppo’s Jewish quarter burned, the holy book was saved and then hidden from Syrian authorities who had learned of its worth.

Finally, in 1957, two Aleppo rabbis, who feared the destruction of their community, made plans to smuggle the Codex, which is inscribed with a blessing and curses that read, “Blessed be he who preserves it and cursed be he who steals it and cursed be he who sells it and cursed be he who pawns it.  It may not be sold and it may not be defiled forever.”  (Aleppo Codex, p. 9)

After navigating curses, theft, intrigue and war, the oldest, most accurate and most comprehensive copy of the Hebrew Bible came to rest within a hidden vault in Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, minus 200 pages that went missing shortly after it arrived in the country.


A 1910 photo of Deuteronomy 4:38–6:3, two of the missing leafs of the Aleppo Codex.

Even before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Jewish leaders sought the Aleppo Codex in order to return it to the Holy Land, but were rebuffed several times by the Aleppo community.

“The official version of the story, the one I knew at the outset, states that the Aleppo Codex was given willingly to the State of Israel,” Friedman said.  “But that never happened.  It was taken.  The state authorities believed they were representatives of the entire Jewish people and that they were thus the book’s rightful owners, and also, perhaps, that they could care for it better.”  (New York Times)

Friedman elaborated on the transition of the codex to Jerusalem:

“The way the Codex makes it from Aleppo to Jerusalem is a very dramatic story,” Friedman said.  “There are beliefs connected to the book according to which if the book is moved the community will be destroyed. …  When I interviewed old people from Aleppo they used to kind of chuckle when they recounted that superstition, and then they would stop chuckling and they’d say, ‘But, you know, that actually happened,’ because, of course, the book does leave Aleppo, and the community is destroyed.”  (Tablet Magazine)

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