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The Continuing Mysteries of the Aleppo Codex

Developments in the saga of the missing perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible, whose future is still unknown

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(Ben-Zvi Institute)
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I am not sure I expected the story of the long-forgotten Aleppo Codex, the perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible, to occupy me for very long after the publication of my book on the subject in 2012. I thought I would soon be on to other things, which is the way journalism tends to work. But, as sometimes happens, the story has taken on a life of its own: a cover-up energized by the fallout from my book; the rejuvenated activities of a small group of codex loyalists ranging in age from 36 (me) to 82 (former Mossad case officer Rafi Sutton); and a recent edict issued against me by a prominent rabbi in New York. In short, the story of the Aleppo Codex is alive today as it has not been in many decades, and I believe an update on developments over the past two years is warranted for those who find themselves fascinated by the strange and ongoing saga of one of the most important manuscripts on earth.

***

The Aleppo Codex

First, for readers unfamiliar with the story, a brief summary of the background.

The Aleppo Codex, a bound book of approximately 500 parchment pages, was compiled in Tiberias around the year 930 C.E., making it the oldest known copy of the complete Bible. It was moved to Jerusalem, stolen by crusaders in 1099, ransomed by the Jews of Cairo, and studied by the philosopher Maimonides, who declared it the most accurate version of the holy text. It was later taken to Aleppo, Syria, and guarded for six centuries. There it became known as the “Crown of Aleppo.”

In 1947, in a riot that followed the United Nations vote on the partition of Palestine, the codex disappeared, surfacing 10 years later in mysterious circumstances in the new state of Israel. The codex is currently held in the Israel Museum, in the same building as the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is controlled not by the museum, however, but by a prestigious academic body, the Ben-Zvi Institute, founded by Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Somewhere along the way in the mid-20th century, 200 priceless pages—around 40 percent of the total—went missing. These include the most important pages: the Torah, or Five Books of Moses.

There are two mysteries linked to the codex. The first: How did the book move to Israel from a grotto in Aleppo’s Great Synagogue and effectively become the property of the new state? And the second: How did its missing pages vanish, and where might they be now?

On the subject of the first mystery, the official version of the story accepted for five decades claimed that the manuscript had been ceded willingly to the state of Israel by the Jews of Aleppo. My investigation showed this was not the case. In fact, the manuscript was taken by the state in a complex maneuver involving Israeli agents who intercepted the manuscript after it was smuggled from Syria into Turkey concealed in a washing machine. After its arrival in Israel, the manuscript became the subject of a court battle between the Jews of Aleppo and Israeli officials. The trial embarrassed figures in the government and was never made public. The proceedings were made subject to a publication ban imposed in 1958 and never revoked; I published the transcripts for the first time 54 years later.

The second mystery, that of the missing pages, was long famous among a small number of people—Bible professors, Aleppo exiles, and a few others. The official version of the story, propagated by the academics in Israel who control the manuscript, claimed the pages vanished in Aleppo around the time of the 1947 riot. But we know now that the manuscript was seen whole as late as 1952, five years later. The first description of any significant damage to the codex dates, strikingly, only to 1958—after the manuscript reached the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem.

At around the same time, my investigation found, dozens of valuable books and manuscripts vanished from the library of the same institute. When I approached former officials at the institute with evidence of the other missing books, several went on record saying the man responsible for their disappearance was the institute’s director at the time, Meir Benayahu, a scholar who throughout a long and illustrious career studied, collected, bought, and sold rare Hebrew books. He left his post amid a legal battle over control of the institute in 1970.

Benayahu, who died in 2009, came from a powerful political family with roots in Iraq; he was the son of a Sephardic chief rabbi, Yitzhak Nissim, and brother of a senior Likud cabinet minister, Moshe Nissim. (As was common in those years, Benayahu adopted a more modern and Israeli-sounding last name.) This scandal has long been known in Israel’s small and insular academic world but was never made public. Legal proceedings were avoided at the time thanks to the direct intervention of Israel’s president, Zalman Shazar. Police were never summoned, no charges were filed, and no books were returned. Benayahu’s family denies any wrongdoing and says the accusations against him are a smear campaign aimed at covering up thefts by other people; they have asked, rightly, why no one went to the police at the time. Today Benayahu’s family owns a collection of Hebrew texts that is one of the world’s largest in private hands.

Whatever precisely happened at the Ben-Zvi Institute, the long-buried affair of the institute’s vanished books—whether it is connected or not to the disappearance of the codex pages—is arguably the worst corruption scandal in the history of the Israeli academy. Among the figures who have gone on record saying Benayahu was responsible for the institute’s missing books are Zvi Zameret, the institute’s longtime administrative director and subsequently one of the top officials in Israel’s Education Ministry; Joseph Hacker, professor emeritus at Hebrew University and a former deputy director of the institute; and the late Yom-Tov Assis, the professor who headed the Ben-Zvi Institute at the time of my own investigation.

Are the missing codex pages linked to the broader disappearance of books from the Ben-Zvi Institute? The scholars of the Ben-Zvi Institute have resisted any investigation while failing to produce any evidence to dispel the suspicion.

***

The Cheese Merchant

At the center of the codex’s story is the Jewish community of Aleppo, Syria. No Jews are left in Aleppo today, but the Syrian exile community rooted in that city remains one of the most successful and tightly knit in the Jewish world. The community’s largest outpost is located in Brooklyn, N.Y., with others in nearby Deal, N.J., and scattered throughout Central and South America. Nowhere was the emotional response to the publication of the story as strong as among the descendants of the Aleppo Jews. Not long after publication, I was informed by contacts in the community that what had been intended as a small book club meeting at a private home in Deal had drawn around 70 people and become quite heated. At around the same time, emails circulated warning people not to read my book because it defamed certain prominent members of the Syrian community.

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The Continuing Mysteries of the Aleppo Codex

Developments in the saga of the missing perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible, whose future is still unknown