The Alep­po Codex: A True Sto­ry of Obses­sion, Faith, and the Pur­suit of an Ancient Bible

By – April 16, 2012

Mat­ti Friedman’s The Alep­po Codex is not, by his own admis­sion, the book he set out to write. What began as a glim­mer­ing of inter­est evolved quick­ly into a web of mys­tery, intrigue, and unan­swered ques­tions as Fried­man mined the sto­ry behind the leg­endary Crown of Alep­po” — the old­est author­i­ta­tive man­u­script of the can­on­ized Hebrew Bible, writ­ten in the tenth cen­tu­ry by a famous scribe, used by the leg­endary Mai­monides while writ­ing the Mish­neh Torah, and pro­tect­ed for cen­turies in the ancient syn­a­gogue of Syria’s largest Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. When the Alep­po com­mu­ni­ty began to dis­perse in the 1940s and 50s, after the State of Israel’s found­ing, the Codex found itself in tran­sit for the first time in thou­sands of years, leav­ing its burnt-down sanc­tu­ary and tra­vers­ing the bor­der to Israel. It is here that the sto­ry hic­cups: Faced with the half-told sto­ry of a con­tro­ver­sial tri­al, rumors of miss­ing pages, and hints of polit­i­cal machi­na­tions, Fried­man uncov­ers more ques­tions than answers at every turn, adding to his con­vic­tion that the book that was once a community’s great­est pride has been ruined by a con­spir­a­cy of silence,” a dearth of reli­able infor­ma­tion, and inten­tion­al ambi­gu­i­ty. Fried­man shines as a mag­nif­i­cent and thought­ful sto­ry­teller, shift­ing between time and place with facil­i­ty, bring­ing the sto­ry of the Codex until 1948 to life and weav­ing it skill­ful­ly with the present and recent past. With Friedman’s cru­sade at its cen­ter, The Alep­po Codex might be an unin­ten­tion­al thriller but it is a great one nonethe­less, intro­duc­ing us to com­pelling, some­times shifty char­ac­ters, and draw­ing us into the sad sto­ry of a rel­ic that was destroyed by the humans entrust­ed with its care. Thor­ough­ly — even obses­sive­ly — researched, Friedman’s book brings to light a wealth of infor­ma­tion nev­er made pub­lic before. It may not solve the mys­tery, but it comes pret­ty close.

Min­ing the Periphery

by Mat­ti Friedman

I began work­ing as a jour­nal­ist at the Je­rusalem Report, an Israeli news­magazine pub­lished in Eng­lish every two weeks. I men­tion the pub­li­ca­tion sched­ule because in ret­ro­spect it is one of those pure­ly tech­ni­cal lim­i­ta­tions, like left-hand­ed­ness or col­or-blind­ness, which end up alter­ing the way we think in ways that become appar­ent only much later.

Because the mag­a­zine was pub­lished just twice a month, and because there was a lag of a week between the time we fin­ished writ­ing our sto­ries and the time copies reached read­ers, we could not cov­er the cen­tral news sto­ry of the day. If we wrote about what­ev­er it was that all of the hun­dreds of oth­er reporters in Israel were cov­er­ing, the mag­a­zine would be obso­lete before it was print­ed. Instead, we had to find a sto­ry on the periph­ery, or under the sur­face, which some­how illu­mi­nat­ed the broad sweep of events. These sto­ries had a longer shelf life. In time, I dis­cov­ered that they were also invari­ably more inter­est­ing. No one else was report­ing what we were, so it was impos­si­ble to lean on the inter­pre­ta­tion and approach of oth­ers. These sto­ries took me to sur­pris­ing places and revealed Israel for the com­plex crea­ture that it is, rather than the car­i­ca­ture, pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive, that is so often por­trayed. And so dur­ing my for­ma­tive years as a reporter I learned that if I was around oth­er jour­nal­ists I was prob­a­bly doing some­thing wrong, because if there was a good sto­ry it was almost cer­tain­ly some­where else.

When I first encoun­tered the Alep­po Codex in 2008, in a dark under­ground room at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, the man­u­script struck me as being one of those sto­ries. This was before I had any sense of how won­der­ful the sto­ry real­ly was, or of the jour­nal­is­tic and legal com­pli­ca­tions that would con­front me as I tried to get to the bot­tom of it. The codex was sim­ply, in the most lit­er­al sense, on the periph­ery of people’s atten­tion — the gallery upstairs was full of onlook­ers view­ing the Dead Sea Scrolls, but the codex’s gallery down­stairs was empty.

The Alep­po Codex was not only itself a periph­er­al yet impor­tant sto­ry; it turned out to be a win­dow onto anoth­er such sto­ry much deep­er than the his­to­ry of one manuscript.

The annals of Israel, for most onlook­ers, are asso­ci­at­ed with the Jew­ish world of Europe: Her­zl, social­ism, the Holo­caust, the kib­butz. That is indeed one of Israel’s sto­ries. But half of Israel’s Jews do not come from Europe. They come instead from the lost Jew­ish communi­ties of the Mid­dle East, and have a dif­fer­ent his­to­ry. Their Jew­ish world was far old­er than that of Europe, and they were not new­com­ers to the Mid­dle East but natives. We think of them as the Jews of the Islam­ic world, but many of their com­mu­ni­ties exist­ed long before Islam. They spoke Ara­bic, Kur­dish, Turk­ish, and Per­sian. They brought with them to Israel an inti­ma­cy with the Mid­dle East and, in their fresh mem­o­ries of being dis­placed from their ances­tral homes by Mus­lims, a first-hand sense of the cru­el rules of this region. They came with an unapolo­getic and tra­di­tion­al Judaism very dif­fer­ent from that of the Euro­peans. Their pres­ence has shaped Israel into a coun­try that is Mid­dle East­ern, one very dif­fer­ent from the West­ern implant that was imag­ined by Israel’s found­ers or is por­trayed in the present by Israel’s ene­mies. Their sto­ry is some­how still seen as mar­gin­al, but is as impor­tant for understand­ing Israel in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry as that of the Jews of Europe.

The Alep­po Codex was very much a prod­uct of their world. The man­u­script was writ­ten here, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, under Mus­lim rule, and moved to Jerusalem and Cairo before reach­ing Alep­po and remain­ing there for 600 years. It nev­er left this region, and its cre­ators and keep­ers all spoke Ara­bic. It is an apt sym­bol for the rise and fall of the Jew­ish Mid­dle East. Like the Judaism of the Islam­ic world, much of the man­u­script arrived in Israel in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, and much was lost in tran­sit. So the sto­ry of this man­u­script became a way of telling anoth­er sto­ry that is also not near­ly well-enough known.

So much writ­ing about Israel seizes on tired tropes — set­tler, sur­vivor, sol­dier, spy. The trans­mis­sion of Israel’s his­to­ry in Eng­lish often seems stuck around the time of the Yom Kip­pur war, or per­haps the raid at Entebbe. If you are equipped only with these clichés, the com­pli­cat­ed and vibrant mod­ern-day coun­try at the cen­ter of the Jew­ish world will be bewil­der­ing to you. I learned as a young reporter that under­stand­ing this coun­try requires dis­tance from well-worn sto­ries and from the agreed-upon focus of the moment. That les­son, which will con­tin­ue to guide my work, led to the writ­ing of this book, send­ing me away from the crowds in a muse­um gallery one day and sug­gest­ing that I might instead find an unex­pect­ed win­dow in the basement.

Ray Katz used to intern at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. She cur­rent­ly lives in Man­hat­tan, works on prod­uct devel­op­ment for a small com­pa­ny that makes inter­ac­tive dig­i­tal prod­ucts for kids, and writes free­lance when she gets the chance.

Discussion Questions

1. At the heart of The Alep­po Codex is a tri­al over own­er­ship of the codex — but also over who owns Jew­ish his­to­ry. Did the State of Israel have a legit­i­mate claim to the man­u­script? Should any­one or any group own his­tor­i­cal trea­sures? Can they?

2. The Alep­po Codex makes men­tion of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the desert fortress at Masa­da as potent nation­al sym­bols. What did the codex sym­bol­ize for the new Jew­ish state? And what role in gen­er­al did myths and sym­bols play in the found­ing of Israel? How is this relat­ed to why Israel’s gov­ern­ment, and par­tic­u­lar­ly the pres­i­dent, want­ed the codex so badly?3. Why are the Dead Sea Scrolls famous while the Alep­po Codex has been large­ly forgotten?

4. What can we learn today from the Jews of Arab coun­tries — from their cen­turies of exis­tence in the lands of Islam, and from their com­mu­ni­ties’ bit­ter end?

5. One of the his­tor­i­cal fig­ures who makes a cameo appear­ance in The Alep­po Codex is Moses Mai­monides, the great physi­cian and philoso­pher who, per­haps more than any oth­er per­son, embod­ied Jew­ish life under Islam. What impor­tance does Mai­monides have for Jew­ish history?

6. What does it mean that Jews are called the peo­ple of the book” and how does the his­to­ry of the codex fit into that description?

7. Why is the codex also referred to as the Crown? What pur­pose did it serve for Jews in the Diaspora?

8. The codex pro­vides the instruc­tions for how to read the Hebrew Bible. Jews believe that there is infor­ma­tion in Bib­li­cal text that is beyond our under­stand­ing. Why is it so impor­tant that we not lose even a tiny vow­el sign, one that pro­longs the syl­la­ble ah” into aah,” for example?

9. For mil­len­nia, Jews have sanc­ti­fied sacred books and the act of writ­ing and read­ing them. How will the age of the e‑reader affect those traditions?