Ear­li­er this week Mat­ti Fried­man, a reporter in Jerusalem for the Times of Israel, and author of The Alep­po Codex, wrote about the codex vs. the Kin­dle and pro­vid­ed a mini-les­son on Jews from Arab Lands. He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Aleppo Codex (Deut)

When I set out to write the sto­ry of the Alep­po Codex, I imag­ined that I would be writ­ing an uplift­ing nar­ra­tive about how a sacred book was res­cued and returned home from the Dias­po­ra to Jerusalem. It was, judg­ing from the infor­ma­tion I had at my dis­pos­al at the out­set, a nice sto­ry. But that turned out not to be the case; the exist­ing infor­ma­tion was scant, rid­den with omis­sions and often pur­pose­ly mis­lead­ing. The rea­sons for this turned out to be linked to impor­tant events in the codex’s recent past, and are, I believe, inter­est­ing and instruc­tive for read­ers of his­to­ry, and espe­cial­ly of Jew­ish his­to­ry.

In 2008, when I start­ed my own project after hap­pen­ing upon the codex at the Israel Muse­um, only one book had been writ­ten about this man­u­script, the most impor­tant in Judaism and one of the most impor­tant in the world. This book was in Hebrew, and had been pub­lished in the 1980s by the Ben-Zvi Insti­tute in Jerusalem, the aca­d­e­m­ic body that is the manuscript’s offi­cial cus­to­di­an. While I was work­ing on my book, a sec­ond came out, this one in Eng­lish, writ­ten by two Amer­i­can schol­ars and pub­lished by the ven­er­a­ble Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Society.

The offi­cial sto­ry of the Alep­po Codex’s fas­ci­nat­ing and tan­gled his­to­ry in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry posit­ed that it had been dam­aged around the time of an anti-Jew­ish riot in Alep­po in 1947, lead­ing to the dis­ap­pear­ance of 200 of its price­less pages; was hid­den in Syr­ia for ten years; and was then smug­gled to Israel on the orders of the rab­bis of Aleppo’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and giv­en to Israel’s sec­ond pres­i­dent, Itzhak Ben-Zvi, whose aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tute is still in charge of the man­u­script to this day. This is the nar­ra­tive I knew at the beginning.

In truth, I found in sev­er­al years of research, very lit­tle of this was true. The codex end­ed up in the hands of the state of Israel through a series of com­pli­cat­ed maneu­vers by state author­i­ties – the codex was effec­tive­ly seized using agents who inter­cept­ed a Syr­i­an couri­er in Turkey. The state pro­tect­ed itself by putting for­ward a false ver­sion of events at a sub­se­quent tri­al in Jerusalem, records of which were then sup­pressed. And the strik­ing dam­age to the codex – some 40 per­cent of it is miss­ing, includ­ing the Torah itself – does not date to the 1947 riot, as the offi­cial ver­sion would have us believe. The codex was seen whole much lat­er. In fact, there is no evi­dence that any­thing sig­nif­i­cant was miss­ing when it reached Israel in 1957, a fact that was high­ly awk­ward and was thus cov­ered up.

The pro­fes­sors at the pres­ti­gious, gov­ern­ment-fund­ed Ben-Zvi Insti­tute could not pub­lish that sto­ry, because it would embar­rass the state and because the insti­tute also had to hide a rather shock­ing and long-con­cealed scan­dal in its man­u­script col­lec­tion. The his­to­ri­ans were torn between two roles – they were aca­d­e­m­ic schol­ars whose job it was to tell the truth, of course, but they were also pro­tec­tors of Israel’s offi­cial nar­ra­tive, of its insti­tu­tions and lead­ers. In the sto­ry of the codex these roles could not be rec­on­ciled, so they chose the lat­ter. The writer they employed to author their book about the codex was, per­haps telling­ly, a nov­el­ist, a sweet-tem­pered man who lacked a journalist’s nose for dirt and who was then ably manip­u­lat­ed and cen­sored by the aca­d­e­mics who con­trolled the codex and its story.

A read­er of that book will find no indi­ca­tion that any­one did any­thing unto­ward or was less than entire­ly hon­est. There are no agents in Turkey, no lies, no theft, and only the briefest ref­er­ences to a tri­al. It was a kind of Jew­ish his­to­ry accept­able to those who need to be reas­sured that every­one, espe­cial­ly in Israel, is quite decent and that things are fair­ly straight­for­ward; the acro­bat­ic exer­tions that were nec­es­sary to turn the true sto­ry of the Alep­po Codex into a nice one are evi­dent to an informed read­er. As an exam­ple of his­tor­i­cal writ­ing, it was a travesty.

The key fig­ure in the seizure of the Alep­po Codex by the state of Israel was an Alep­po Jew, Murad Faham, a cheese mer­chant who risked his life to smug­gle the man­u­script out of Syr­ia in 1957. Doc­u­ments and tran­scripts of the time make clear that Faham had been instruct­ed to take the man­u­script to a spe­cif­ic Alep­po-born rab­bi in Israel; the Alep­po Jews would nev­er have dreamed of let­ting it out of their com­mu­ni­ty and did not think the state of Israel had any claim to it. Instead, Faham turned it over to Israeli state author­i­ties and then gave a dif­fer­ent ver­sion of his orig­i­nal instruc­tions in court. The doc­u­men­tary record on this key part of the sto­ry is conclusive.

Yet the sec­ond book on the codex, the Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Society’s 2010 ver­sion in Eng­lish, gives a ver­sion of these events that does not tell that sto­ry. The one it does tell is con­tra­dict­ed by the court tran­scripts and oth­er doc­u­ments. Incon­ve­nient details are glossed over or omit­ted alto­geth­er. The rea­son for this is not com­pli­cat­ed: Though it does not say this explic­it­ly any­where, the authors were giv­en mon­ey by Faham’s fam­i­ly, and the fam­i­ly, in turn, was giv­en a veto over the con­tent. (One of the authors and the donor told me this in sep­a­rate inter­views.) The result, as in the first book, was a kind of his­to­ry that had been air­brushed in order to offend the min­i­mum num­ber of people.

And so it hap­pened that in the year 2012, the incred­i­ble, uncom­fort­able sto­ry of Judaism’s most impor­tant book had nev­er been told before – it had fall­en vic­tim to a Jew­ish weak­ness for telling nice sto­ries about ourselves.

I have two thoughts on this. First, I must admit, I’m glad – all of this left me, quite unex­pect­ed­ly, with the kind of sto­ry every reporter dreams of stum­bling on. And sec­ond, it has made me a more sus­pi­cious read­er of his­to­ry, and espe­cial­ly of Jew­ish his­to­ry. What else, I now find myself won­der­ing, do I not know? 

Vis­it Mat­ti Fried­man’s offi­cial web­site here and read more about the Alep­po Codex here.