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

By Matti Friedman|June 30, 2014 12:00 AM

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 [1] 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 [3]. 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 [4] 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 [5], 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.

The most important of the figures in question is Murad Faham, an Aleppo cheese merchant who risked his life to smuggle the codex out of Syria into Turkey and then to Israel in 1957. Upon arrival, he turned the manuscript over to representatives of the state of Israel. (Faham lived most of the rest of his life in the community’s hub in Flatbush, where he was well known for his role in the codex’s travels. He died in 1982.) In the official version of the story, the one supported by the academics of the Ben-Zvi Institute and by Faham and his descendants, the cheese merchant was following the instructions of the two chief rabbis of Aleppo when he gave the manuscript to the state. When the Ben-Zvi Institute—which is affiliated with Hebrew University, perhaps Israel’s most important institution of higher learning—published an official history of the codex in 1985, the scholars chose not to contradict this version of events even though they knew it to be fictitious.

What actually happened, as the transcripts of the trial show, is that the two chief rabbis of Aleppo instructed Faham to take the codex to Israel and entrust it not to the state but to the senior Aleppo rabbi in Israel, a scholar named Isaac Dayan. They never intended for it to leave the community. Under pressure from state representatives, Faham disobeyed them, and that is how the community lost control of its most important possession.

My book did not include copies of documents, and this allowed some to suggest I was fabricating this conclusion. I have thus included here a page from the transcript of a court hearing on March 1, 1960, at which the two rabbis make clear what happened.

“We believe the Crown of the Torah is dedicated to, and belongs to, the Aleppo community, and that should not be changed at all. We gave an object to a man who betrayed his mission,” one of the two chief rabbis, Moshe Tawil, told the court. “If Rabbi Dayan had not been in Israel, we would not have sent the Crown under any circumstances.”

“We gave the Crown to Mr. Faham to give it to Rabbi Isaac Dayan,” testified the second rabbi, Salim Zaafrani. “We did not tell him to give it to someone else at all, and he did not have permission to do so. … It is the property of the Aleppo community, and not of the state of Israel.”

One of the central and controversial questions in this story is where the Aleppo Jews who sent the manuscript to Israel intended for it to end up. For those still in doubt, this document should clarify the matter.


The Director

This January, the Israeli reporter Yifat Erlich published an investigation in the newspapers Maariv and Makor Rishon picking up where mine left off. She focused on Benayahu, the former director of the Ben-Zvi Institute. Faced with another reporter sniffing around the skeleton in its closet, the institute granted her access to more files than had been available to me—but gave her nothing directly related to Benayahu. The institute said it was not required by law to disclose “internal memoranda” or anything that could constitute an invasion of privacy. This was the institute’s decision even though its own director had gone on record in the daily Yediot Ahronot in May 2012 in response to another reporter’s questions about my book, confirming what he euphemistically referred to as a “serious disagreement between the Ben-Zvi Institute and an employee who left in 1970 related to the absence of manuscripts and books.” (Even in this admission the institute could not be entirely honest; the “employee,” Benayahu, was in fact the institute’s founding director and sole administrator at the time.)

According to Joseph Hacker, one of the academics who agreed to detail the charges against the former director in interviews with me and later with Erlich, a list was compiled after the director’s departure of books he was known to have taken. This list is what both Erlich and I were looking for; if it still exists, however, it has yet to be made public. Hacker told Erlich that he consulted one rare manuscript in the Ben-Zvi Institute’s library in the 1960s and then returned a few years later to be informed by Benayahu that the same manuscript was in fact his own property and was no longer available for research. “It was obvious that the border between the institute’s property and the director’s property was blurry,” Hacker said.

Erlich uncovered significant information in Israel’s state archive (where the Ben-Zvi Institute could not restrict her access) and elsewhere that allowed her to publish more details of the corruption scandal that rocked the institute around 1970. The fight at the institute, she found, reached not only the president but also the prime minister, Golda Meir, and the attorney general. Benayahu, the reporter’s documents showed, had responded to his removal with the astonishing legal claim that the Ben-Zvi Institute, a public institution, was owned privately by him—that is, that the institute’s collection was in fact his own. After he was forced out, she reported, he returned to the institute without permission; when the new administrators changed the locks he broke in, and eventually a guard had to be posted to bar his entry.

An audit by the state comptroller, the official Israeli government watchdog, from September 1970, found that the Ben-Zvi Institute library held around 8,000 books and 1,992 manuscripts—but that only half of them had been cataloged under Benayahu’s care. That meant there was no way of knowing what, precisely, the institute had, or once had, and what was missing.

Like me, Erlich turned up no smoking gun in the case of the codex—there is no evidence linking Benayahu to that disappearance. (A dealer in rare books who appears to have been selling codex pages on the black market in Jerusalem in the mid-1980s, and who died mysteriously in a hotel room a short time later, was an acquaintance of Benayahu’s and met with the former director a short time before his death. But because the world of rare Hebrew books is small and dealers and collectors know each other, this fact is interesting but not incriminating.) But neither did Erlich find evidence for any significant absence of pages from the codex before it reached the Ben-Zvi Institute and its director at the end of January 1958. Only afterwards was the absence of 200 pages noted.

The disappearance of the Torah section of the codex is impossible to miss, and it is hard to imagine that damage of this kind to the world’s most important Bible would not be mentioned by any of the literate Jews who handled the manuscript in the decade between the Aleppo riot and the manuscript’s arrival in Israel. But it is not mentioned in any documents—not mentioned, that is, before the manuscript reached the institute. The first to record the absence was Benayahu.

Erlich’s article added one particularly important new detail for sleuths on the trail of the codex. When the manuscript reached Israel, it was first given to the head of the Jewish Agency’s immigration department, Shlomo Zalman Shragai. The agency official held it for more than two weeks in January 1958 before turning it over to the institute. Shragai’s testimony is thus crucial—an educated man, he would surely have noticed if the pages were there or not. If they were already gone, the Ben-Zvi Institute is innocent. If, on the other hand, they were there when Shragai had the codex, the Ben-Zvi Institute is responsible for their disappearance.

Shragai, however, left no written testimony, or at least none that I or the other Aleppo Codex detectives have been able to find. This testimony—which I believe almost certainly exists somewhere—is one of the holy grails of the codex mystery.

A second-hand account of Shragai’s testimony does exist, however. It was collected in 1993, shortly before Shragai’s death, by Rafi Sutton, the former Mossad man who led a codex investigation for a TV documentary that aired in Israel. According to Sutton, Shragai told him that when he had the codex it was whole or nearly whole. The pages, Shragai said, went missing after he last saw the manuscript—they went missing, that is, at the Ben-Zvi Institute.

Although I know Rafi well and have found him to be entirely trustworthy and his memory reliable, I chose not to include this information in my book because I did not have a recording of this conversation or written notes made at the time. But after the publication of my book, Ezra Kassin, the unofficial chairman of the informal group I have come to think of as the “Aleppo Codex Underground,” located Shragai’s elderly son Ovadia. Ovadia was at home the night the codex was brought to his father in 1958. Ovadia said that he had seen the manuscript—and it was whole except for a small number of pages. Nearly all of the Torah, he said, was present and accounted for. This matched the testimony given to Rafi Sutton by the elder Shragai years before. Kassin taped the conversation.

Erlich included this new piece of the puzzle in her newspaper investigation, putting the onus for the disappearance more firmly on the Ben-Zvi Institute. The institute, for its part, has been unable to come up with any indication that the pages were missing when the manuscript arrived. This being the case, its strategy seems to obfuscate and lie low until the current wave of interest and suspicion dissipates. (This approach, which reporters are used to encountering from politicians and military officials, is even less edifying when practiced by academic historians.)

A conference on the codex planned jointly by the Ben-Zvi Institute, Hebrew University, and the Israel Museum was canceled abruptly and unilaterally by the institute earlier this year, to the surprise of many of those involved, with the explanation that there was nothing new and substantial worth discussing. When I asked the institute’s current director, Prof. Meir Bar-Asher, about the odd cancellation in a list of questions I submitted to him this month, he said the institute had consulted with “scholars” who did not think there was any new information on the codex that warranted a conference. I noted that the two leading scholars of the codex (Prof. Yosef Ofer of Bar-Ilan University and Dr. Rafael Zer of Hebrew University) wanted to hold the conference and objected to its cancellation, and I asked for the names of the codex scholars who supposedly thought otherwise. (I am doubtful that these scholars exist and believe the conference was canceled to save the institute further attention and embarrassment.) The professor did not reply.

When I contacted Benayahu’s family for a response before the publication of my book, I received a long letter defending him, which I duly quoted. But the family did not contact me further at the time and has not since. When Erlich approached them for a response, however, she was greeted with a vehement reaction—the family having presumably realized by this time the threat not only to their reputation but, at least potentially, to their collection.

Arriving at a meeting with the family, Erlich told me, she found herself confronted not only by Chanan Benayahu, the director’s son, who currently controls the collection, but also by Moshe Nissim, the director’s brother and a former finance minister who now heads a large law firm; by another prominent lawyer present at the family’s request; and by a PR professional engaged by the family. Erlich taped the unpleasant conversation that ensued. Pressure on Erlich, her editors, and her publisher to withhold the article did not succeed, and it came out on Jan. 17 of this year. “Erlich’s conclusions have no relation to the facts,” read the family’s response included in the article. “The ‘investigation’ includes cheap gossip, fabrications, fictions, and libel. It is a collection of nonsense infused with malignance, jealousy, and pathetic conspiracy theories.” The response goes on to attack Erlich for basing her conclusions on anonymous sources; in fact her important sources were named, as were mine, and even the Ben-Zvi Institute itself has grudgingly confirmed the affair.

The scholars and historians of the Ben-Zvi Institute, for their part, gave Erlich a typically evasive response that avoided addressing the theft but noted, tellingly, that their collection had been run well “for the last 40 years”—that is, since Benayahu’s departure. They justified their refusal to make all documents about the matter public by pointing to clauses in Israel’s Freedom of Information Act.

In a response to my questions this month, the current director, Bar-Asher, asserted that the institute “is not concealing a thing.” When I noted that the institute in fact admits it is concealing documents and wondered if it planned to change this policy, he did not reply. I asked if the institute denied the theft of its books and the suspicions regarding the Aleppo Codex, and if not, why it did not initiate a transparent investigation into the matter—the institute is not, after all, a private business, but a scholarly body funded by the public to document and preserve the heritage of the Jews of the East. The professor did not reply.


The Silvera Manuscript

In 2010, while in New York to conduct research for my book, I met a man named Maurice Silvera in an Aleppo synagogue a few paces from Central Park. Silvera showed me two receipts from the Ben-Zvi Institute for a valuable Bible manuscript donated by his father to the institute in 1961. One was signed by President Ben-Zvi himself, and the other by Benayahu. He wondered if I might help him locate the manuscript.

I took the documents back to Jerusalem and found that the manuscript had vanished. Confronted with the receipts, the official responsible for administration of the institute for nearly 30 years, Zvi Zameret, went on record naming Benayahu and attributing the disappearance of “dozens” of manuscripts to him. It was the two receipts, and Zameret’s forthright admission, that allowed me to make public the existence of this affair for the first time.

After I informed the Silveras, the family engaged an Israeli law firm and asked the institute to explain the disappearance of the family’s manuscript. When the scholars of the institute decided that the demands of academic integrity did not require them to be helpful and instead delayed, the family’s lawyers contacted the state comptroller. (The Ben-Zvi Institute is a state agency, receiving its budget from the public coffers and thus must answer to the comptroller.)

The institute then came up with what I believe it imagined to be a canny legal ploy: Because an administrative re-organization was carried out in 1969, attaching the institute to a new body known as Yad Ben-Zvi, their lawyers claimed that the institute after 1969 was no longer the same institute as the one before. While it might have the same name, that is, it bore no responsibility for anything that its institutional predecessor might or might not have done. Furthermore, the scholars had looked around for the Silvera manuscript and hadn’t found it. The comptroller accepted this absurd explanation and refused to investigate further. The Silvera family’s lawyer, Yaron Gaver, described this to me at the time as a “continuation of the scandalous behavior of government agencies in this case.”

“There is no logical explanation given here for the disappearance of a treasure of historical significance to the Jewish people,” Gaver said.

The institute’s scholars and lawyers may or may not realize how disappointing their legal explanation will seem to any who resent the transformation of the public heritage into private property. But they do not, I believe, realize what their position would mean should a challenge ever be mounted in court to the institute’s control of the codex, which arrived there in 1958. If the Ben-Zvi Institute after 1969 is not the one that existed before 1969, then the current incarnation of the institute not only has no legal liability for its missing manuscripts—it also has no claim to the pride of its collection, the Aleppo Codex.


‘The Deadly Arrow of His Tongue’

In May of this year, I was invited to speak at an Aleppo synagogue in Flatbush. Despite the energetic discussion of my book in the community, it was the first time I have been invited by the community in America to speak in the two years since the book’s publication. Some in the Aleppo community are acutely sensitive to the details of this story, which is understandable: Figures who, for most readers, are merely characters in a book are, for some members of the community, intimate acquaintances or relatives. And not everyone has been happy about the publication of this story by an outsider.

Resistance to the invitation quickly became clear to the organizers after the date had been set, but the synagogue refused to cancel the talk. According to my contacts in the community, the most potent backlash was coming from Benayahu’s family, rather than from Aleppo Jews: While the Benayhu family is of Iraqi, rather than Syrian, origin, it retains significant influence in the Sephardic world both in Israel and abroad thanks in part to the enduring reputation of Yitzhak Nissim, the former Israeli Sephardic chief rabbi, who was Benayahu’s father.

Not long before I arrived, a religious leader in New York’s Sephardic community, Shimon Alouf, issued a strongly worded legal opinion excoriating my book and forbidding attendance at the lecture. (Alouf heads an Egyptian synagogue in Brooklyn.) This ruling, the rabbi wrote, was his decision “according to halacha” (underline in the original), which he made after having read my book. According to the ruling, which consists of four pages of dense and flowery Hebrew with numerous biblical and Talmudic references, I had maliciously libeled a righteous man—he meant, but did not name, Benayahu—after his death. It was not enough for community members “not to hear him,” he wrote, referring to me, “but everything should be done to prevent him from visiting this city and shooting therein the deadly arrow of his tongue.” (The latter turn of phrase is from Jeremiah 9:8.)

Unlike journalistic articles, religious rulings of this kind apparently do not require full disclosure: Alouf did not make it clear to readers that he has personal ties to the Benayahu family, and neither, it appears, did he think anyone else would figure it out. In January 2012, the same rabbi provided an enthusiastic written endorsement for a prayer book edited by Chanan Benayahu, the son of the former director and the person currently in charge of the family’s book collection. In his published endorsement, the rabbi describes Chanan Benayahu as “yedidi, izi, ve-chavivi,” a hard-to-translate triple synonym in Hebrew for a warm and personal variant of the word “friend.”

I asked both the rabbi and the Benayahu family in writing if the family had engineered the religious ruling; neither responded. The talk at the synagogue drew a decent and interested crowd.


The Future of the Codex

Ezra Kassin, a resident of the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon and an Israeli of Aleppo extraction, is the person most deeply involved in the ongoing efforts to move ahead with an investigation of the codex story. Kassin hopes for an official state inquiry with power of subpoena, and for this purpose he has arranged several meetings with members of Knesset at which I and other members of the Aleppo Codex Underground have been present. No one has proven particularly eager to help so far, though one lawmaker—David Rotem of the Yisrael Beitenu party—was caught by the local equivalent of C-SPAN reading the Hebrew edition of my book in the Knesset. (I admittedly do not seem to have his full attention; Rotem is simultaneously checking his cellphone.)

Kassin has a plan for the future of the manuscript, for which he hopes to win backing from the Aleppo community.

Ownership of the codex, he believes, should revert in some form to the Aleppo Jews. The current legal arrangement from 1962 granting control to the Ben-Zvi Institute could be dissolved in court on two grounds. Firstly, based on the institute’s new claim to have been founded only in 1969, more than a decade after the codex arrived there; and secondly, based on documents that Kassin, I, and others have on our computers showing that the original legal arrangement was based on a false version of events. I have published one such document here, and there are many others.

According to Kassin’s plan, a board of directors made up of leaders of the Aleppo community in Israel and abroad would become the codex’s guardians, assuming responsibility for the manuscript’s well-being; they would meet once a year. This board would also be in charge of investigating the affair of the missing pages—preferably through an official Israeli commission of inquiry, and if not, by private means. Rafi Sutton, the former Mossad man, has several people in mind, former agents who are not finding their retirement sufficiently interesting.

The codex, Kassin believes, should remain in Jerusalem, on the campus of the Israel Museum. It should not, however, remain in its current location in the basement of the Shrine of the Book, where it is overshadowed by the Qumran scrolls. Instead, a new home should be constructed next door for the perfect copy of the Bible. This home should be a precise replica of the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, where the codex was guarded for six centuries. This reconstructed building would serve not only as a monument to one of Jewry’s greatest lost communities, but also as a functioning synagogue. The damaged codex would be kept within the synagogue where it was always kept—in a small grotto named for Elijah the Prophet. One day, perhaps, the missing pages will join the others there.

“The Aleppo Codex was never meant to be a dead museum exhibit,” Kassin told me recently. “It must become, once again, the living heart of a living community—of the community of Aleppo, of course, but in a broader sense of the Jewish people and the world.”


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