Another Review of Friedman’s Wonderful Aleppo Codex Whodunit

This fascinating review of Matti Friedman’s book, The Aleppo Codex, by Stephanie Saldaña is well worth reading. It appeared in the Israeli newspaper HaAretz on Monday. The extensive NYTimes magazine piece that I mentioned last week is also well worth a read. The NYTimes also has a fascinating interview with the Friedman here. You can find Matti’s wonderful book here.

It’s the most accurate extant text of what we know as the Hebrew Bible, and it survived handily for over 1,000 years. Then came 1947, and the UN decision to create the State of Israel, and the Aleppo Codex turned into a real hot potato.

HaAretz English Edition, August 6, 2012

By Stephanie Saldaña

The Aleppo Codex:
A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Book, by Matti Friedman
Algonquin Books, 320 pages, $24.95

Eight years ago, when I was living as a student in the Christian Quarter of Damascus, I would often wander across Straight Street to the Jewish Quarter of the city.

Still known as Harat al-Yahud by the local residents, its narrow alleys were haunted with vacant houses and entire sections of streets that had been left uninhabited when Jews left the city, many as recently as 1992.

A sculptor in a sprawling Jewish residence could point you down the road to an empty synagogue, hidden in a tiny alley and padlocked shut, its beautiful bronze doors intact. An estimated 30,000 Jews had lived in Syria in 1947. Though nearly all had left, they came up often in conversation, as merchants spoke of their former houses and shops, the noise their hammers made as they pounded their famed metal work. They had been there so long that the neighborhood couldn’t quite forget them.

Any traveler in the Arab world today is familiar with these absences, which seem to cast a shadow over otherwise ordinary afternoons. There are the Jewish houses in Essaouira, Morocco, cooled by the sea breeze; the empty synagogues in Cairo; the abandoned Jewish cemetery in downtown Beirut, many of the tombstones inscribed in Arabic, French and also Hebrew. And there is Aleppo, a trading city in northern Syria that was home for over two millennia to one of the world’s most ancient Jewish communities, whose members were protected, in their minds, by their ownership of the book of books, the Aleppo Codex, also known as the Crown of Aleppo.

It is into this forgotten Aleppo that journalist Matti Friedman, formerly a correspondent for the Associated Press and now a journalist for the Times of Israel, brings us in his fascinating new book “The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Book.”

Ostensibly a book about the most perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible and its mysterious journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem in the 1950s, it is in fact a story about much more: about how the Aleppo Jewish community became tied up in the events of November 29, 1947, in ways that its members could never anticipate, and about how not only a book, but an entire world, began to quietly disappear.

The Aleppo Codex, still considered the most authoritative copy of the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible in existence, was compiled around 930 C.E. in Tiberias by the master scholar Aaron ben Moses ben Asher and the scribe Shlomo ben Buya’a. It was a time, as Friedman points out, in which “nine out of every ten Jews in the world, including the scribe and the scholar, lived in the lands of Islam.”

It was the very notion of exile, at a moment in which Jewish communities lay scattered, that laid the foundation for the creation of the Codex. Now that the Jews no longer had a king, a temple or geography in common, they needed to be bound by something else: in this case, a book. Though the Hebrew Bible had already been written down in scrolls, this alone was no longer enough, for the lack of vowels and commentary allowed for too much uncertainty. If a book was going to connect them, then they needed to agree on exactly what that book said, not only on the words, but on every aspect of the text, every vowel and cantillation mark. Disagreement on the smallest aspect of the text threatened to create rifts among the believers.

Hundreds of years after the destruction of the Temple, scholars in Tiberias set out to create the single authoritative version of the Hebrew Bible, a project that continued over generations. The greatest of the rabbis working on the project came from the Ben-Asher family.

In turn, their greatest scholar was Aaron, who inherited the cumulative knowledge of the five or six generations who worked before him, and whose wisdom culminated in what became known as the Crown of Aleppo, the most accurate version of the Bible in the world. This was the Bible on which all others would be based, complete not only with the Hebrew text but also with vowels and symbols that showed how the words should be chanted. Since it would be used as a reference book and not in worship, it was written down not on a scroll but in a codex, hundreds of parchment leaves bound together in the earliest version of a book
Ben Buya’a and Ben Asher labored over their work for years, the former writing out the words, the latter recording the vowels and cantillation marks above and below them and adding notes in the margins. The result of their labors was a document that generations of scholars could refer to any time they had a question or disagreement over the meaning of the text.

Taken by Crusaders

The story of the Aleppo Codex’s survival, which Friedman recounts in almost cinematic detail, is as unlikely as it is astonishing: Purchased by a wealthy Karaite benefactor in the 11th century, it was moved to a Karaite synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem, from which it was taken by the Crusaders after 1099, when they sacked the city, ransomed back by the Jews, and then brought to the thriving Jewish community in Fustat, outside of Cairo, where it was used by Moses Maimonides when he wrote his Mishneh Torah in the 12th century. In the 14th century, it was carried to Aleppo, where it joined a community that traced its roots back to before the destruction of the Second Temple. There it was housed in the so-called Cave of the Prophet Elijah, behind the city’s main synagogue, where it remained, largely untouched, for the next 600 years.

Friedman’s story begins not in the ancient past, but in Aleppo in 1947, on the eve of the UN vote on the partition of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel. Most of the city’s Jewish community, halfway across the world from UN headquarters in New York, seemed largely unaware that it was even happening. In one of the book’s more masterful scenes, Friedman takes us to Rabbi Moshe Tawil’s sermon shortly before the vote. Like many other Jewish leaders in the Arab world, Tawil attempted to publicly distance himself from Zionism, as the vote approached. In his sermon he warns the Aleppo community about the dangers of the Zionist movement, informing its members that the young Aleppo Jews who had already arrived in Palestine were “living among secular Socialists from Europe, eating food that was unclean and abandoning the faith of their fathers.”

At the same, the Jews of Aleppo had built a complex relationship with the Muslims and Christians of their own city. In what turned out to be a mixed blessing, Jews had enjoyed special influence and protection from the French Mandate, and when France handed over administrative control to Syria in 1946, the Jews were left to fend for themselves. Friedman brings this complex world alive, a city in which Jews spoke French and Arabic with a special accent belonging to Jews and Christians, a city in which most Jews purchased their kosher meat from Muslim-owned shops that hired Jewish ritual slaughterers. The young Rafi Sutton, an Aleppo Jewish teenager at the time who later becomes a Mossad agent in Israel and who is followed throughout the book, a character as obsessed with the Aleppo Codex as the author himself, recounts participating in the demonstrations against the French in an attempt to blend in with his Muslim neighbors.

It is the extent to which the Jewish community was completely entwined in the life of the city that makes the speed of its demise so tragic. After the vote in New York in favor of partition became known in Aleppo, mobs began burning the synagogues. Jews feared for their lives. This section of the book, beautifully written, recounts the realities of that period in all their complexity; even as some Muslims were torching shops, others were warning Jews not to leave their houses and were facing down mobs. One Jewish resident of Aleppo is sent to seek shelter in the home of his Armenian nanny. In the meantime, the rabbis began spreading the rumor that the Crown of Aleppo had been consumed in a fire. Instead, it went into hiding in Aleppo for a decade.

The ensuing story, of how the codex eventually made its way from Aleppo to Jerusalem, takes up the bulk of the book, and involves marauders and thieves at almost every stage. In it Friedman exposes an astonishing fact about the so-called “perfect version” of the Bible: At some point between its departure from Aleppo and its arrival in Israel − and possibly even after its arrival in Israel − several hundred of the volume’s pages went missing, including almost the entirety of the text of the Torah, never to reappear. Friedman sets out to track down the missing pages, and in doing so he exposes decades of cover-ups and an entire “codex underground,” whose members are obsessed with finding the same thing.

The controversy surrounding the damaged codex does not stop upon its arrival in Israel, but only deepens.

Who represents the Jews?

At the root of the complex story of the Crown of Aleppo are two very different ideas about what exile means and who represents the Jewish people. For many of the Jews who left Aleppo in the 1940s and 50s, largely immigrating not to Israel but to New York and more far-flung countries, Aleppo had been home, the crown a symbol of their ancient and vibrant community. For them, the flight from their city marked not the end but the beginning of exile, and from their perspective the Crown was undoubtedly theirs alone to keep. For Zionist leaders, the Crown, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, became a symbol of a larger Jewish history of exile one that had now triumphantly returned to the newly born Jewish State. The question of how Murad Faham, the Syrian Jew entrusted with spiriting the Codex out of Aleppo and to Israel, comes to hand it over not to the head of the Aleppo community but to the Aliya Department of the Jewish Agency, would create generations of disagreements and a court case, finally resulting in the Aleppo Jewish community losing their greatest treasure.

In describing the current state of the Aleppo Codex, now partially on display in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, Friedman does not mince words. “The Crown of Aleppo was never given to Israel,” he writes. “It was taken.”

As the story moves from the past to the present day, it reads less like a history book than a detective novel, as Friedman obsessively pursues the question of the codex and its missing pages. Yet oddly enough, it is the most shocking elements of the tale, those of corruption at the highest level of Israeli society, that in the end are the least gripping, for they lack the novelistic detail of the earlier scenes.

Friedman’s writing shines most when he resurrects a time and a place now vanished, and it is the residents of Aleppo and the ancient community they lost who are most memorable, as are the powerful stories of men fleeing Syria on Shabbat so they would not be suspected of being Jewish, the unlikely details of a Christian safe house on the Lebanese border that served as a haven for Jewish refugees, and the tale of a Jewish woman fleeing Syria by boat who cannot stand the taste of the pickled herring she is offered by a well-meaning local when she arrives in Israel. We read “The Aleppo Codex” expecting to be educated about a book lost, but we are captivated by a world lost instead.

As the situation unravels in the Syria of today, Friedman’s book takes on a resonance that he surely never anticipated when he began writing. Not long before I started reading, I spoke on the phone with a friend of mine, a Christian from Homs, home to one of the region’s most ancient Christian communities. Now, almost all the Christians have fled the city. I thought of her when I came upon a line in Friedman’s book: “A world thousands of years in the making simply vanished. Few besides the Aleppo Jews themselves seem to have noticed.”

Stephanie Saldaña is the author of the memoir “The Bread of Angels.” She lives in Jerusalem.

Colorado: Update

Shock, sadness, sorrow, silence for

all those in Colorado in their suffering and loss.

Sunday: Watching the CBS “Sunday Morning” coverage of the Colorado tragedy and listening yesterday to the many commentaries on this “close to home” tragedy prompted a few thoughts. Someone pointed out about how we all, and especially our children, go to films to escape the grind of our daily reality and delve collectively and temporarily into an imaginary world, sitting together communally in a dark theater. We all know the atmosphere and if anything it is first and foremost safe. In all the comments about what would have motivated the shooter one stood out–he was most likely, in a word, forgettable. His was not the cause of a suicide bomber or a revolutionary, nor was his hatred directed against any certain ethnic group. He wanted to somehow, in this horrible way, to find notoriety and “instant fame” in a world that was largely ignoring him, even with his education and promise. Some have reported that he was working at McDonalds, even given his college degrees that had been awarded with honors.

Saturday: Like millions of other Americans I have been watching the TV coverage of the Aurora, CO shooting. This weekend feels heavy with the aftermath. President Obama and former Governor Romney have suspended their campaigns. Virgina Tech, Ft. Hood, and Columbine High School are being mentioned in all the news reports, not to mention Utoya Island, Norway and others of more distant memory. According to reports there are about 20 mass shootings in the U.S. per year. Most of these are males, striking out at an alienated family or because of a grievance–often the loss of a job. We even have an expression now in English, regarding someone “going Postal.” These seem somehow more “understandable” than those random shootings, usually by a 20s something male, armed to the teeth like a military comando, who strikes out on a campus or public place, for no specific grievance.

This weekend has caused me to think about our natural ability to identify with those like us and close at home–on a campus, at a school, in a mall, in a church, or at a movie theater. What is more difficult is to even track or be aware of these kinds of slaughters that go on daily on the planet all over the world, in countless countries and cultures, either by lone gunmen on a rampage or a militia type group that indiscriminately mows down innocents for this cause or no cause. Most cases are not even reported in the Western press, unless they happen in the U.S. or Europe. Wikipedia tries to keep track of “rampage killers” worldwide for all causes but one gets the sense a full tally would be impossible, and few of these any of us have ever heard of. In the meantime we mourn our own, which is as it should be, but one can’t help aching a bit as well for all those untold victims of senseless violence worldwide, including the daily toll of “suicide bombers” that have become so common they are hardly even reported.

Eretz Magazine Cover Story: Archaeological Storm

Regular readers of this blog are quite up to date on the strange web of intrigue and controversy since the publication of The Jesus Discovery by James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici, and the airing of the film “The Resurrection Tomb Mystery/The Jesus Discovery” in the US and Canada respectively. Slowly but surely more of the full story is coming out. Eretz, the magazine of Israel, has an exclusive cover story on our discoveries in the May, 2012 English with the intriguing title: Archaeological Storm: Who’s Afraid of the Tomb of Jesus?  There are some new and important facts and circumstances related to the 1981 discovery of what we have called the “Patio” tomb in East Talpiot–the one below the condominium building that we accessed via robotic arm and cameras. I will be blogging on this over the next few days. Stay tuned.

“Jesus and His Family” on Tour in America

As some of you know who have followed the story, the Dead Sea Scroll exhibit that was earlier at Discovery Times Square in NYC has now moved on to Philadelphia. Few seem to realize that included in this very comprehensive exhibit which was put together by the every talented James Sanna, are not only the Dead Sea scrolls but a trove of other archaeological artifacts from the IAA State of Israel collection, including–you guessed it–four of the ossuaries from the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb: namely Yeshua bar Yehosef, Mariamene Mara, Yose, and Matya. We filmed the ABC Nightline special (link here is you missed it) on the new Talpiot Tomb discoveries back in April in the Discovery Times Square exhibit and it was interesting to watch the droves of visitors in the exhibit hall walking obliviously past the display of the ossuaries, tucked behind a glass window.

Jesus Family Tomb Ossuaries at Dead Sea Scroll Exhibit

Unfortunately, Jude son of Jesus had to stay home as he is on special display in the Israel Museum and Maria is stored in the basement of the museum so far as I know. Other cities are to follow, I think Chicago is next, and it looks like it might be just in time for the SBL/AAR/ASOR/Bible Fest meeting, which could be most interesting. Maybe some of us might end up organizing something around this as there already are some things planned on the various programs dealing with the new Talpiot “patio” Tomb discoveries. I am doing a paper for SBL on both the Jonah image and the Greek inscription, also a lecture with the BAS Bible Fest, and Simcha Jacobovici and I are part of a forum on archaeology and the media hosted by Mark Goodacre, Robert Cargill, and Christian Brady, also for SBL. What would be nice would be some kind of forum/debate on the Talpiots tombs more generally but so far I don’t think anything like that has been included in the program. With the latest publications of the trial evidence on the James ossuary, which few of its naysayers seem to have noticed (see the comprehensive report “Implications of the “Forgery Trial” Verdict on the Authenticity of the James Ossuary” by Rosenfelt, et al. here), and all the other new evidence available for discussion, most of it posted now at (search “talpiot”), it would certainly be a topic of great interest. At the same time the comprehensive volume of papers from the January, 2008 Jerusalem conference titled: The Tomb of Jesus and His Family? Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs Near Jerusalem’s Walls, eds. James H. Charlesworth and Arthur C. Boulet (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012) will be published and available at the annual meetings in Chicago.

More Photos of the Talpiot Tomb Discoveries Released

We have just uploaded a dozen or so additional photos of the Talpiot tomb discoveries at our main web site: They are available for both viewing and downloading and can be used freely by anyone. You can find them under the tab: Photos and Graphics.

Some have circulated the charge that we have cropped, altered, manipulated, edited, “photoshopped,” or otherwise adjusted the photos we have released, while others have even suggested the poor quality of the images is a purposefully sinister move on our part since we don’t want the public to be able to see clearly our findings so we can control their interpretation. These charges and innuendos are as false as they are unfortunate.  Here are the facts:

1. No photos of the Jonah image or any other images from the tomb have been cropped, altered, manipulated, edited or adjusted in any way whatsoever. The photos we distributed were precisely what we took from the camera itself, or still shots taken from our monitors.

2. Because there is no single camera shot of the Jonah image but rather hours of camera footage and hundreds of stills, all taken at varying angles with different light, we asked our CGI people to produce a computer generated composite of what the whole image might look like. Our desire is to make this representation as accurate as possible and as time goes on we will continue to make improvements. The image is oriented downward, with the fish’s nose and “head” of Jonah pointing to the bottom of the ossuary, as is discussed and made clear in my preliminary academic report, in the book, The Jesus Discovery, on the ossuary museum model, and at our press conference in NY on February 28th. In fact this downward orientation was one of the reasons we rejected the nephesh or “tower” interpretation of the image, since an up-side-down monument made no sense to us or to many of our academic consultants.

2. In the case of the four line Greek inscription, the name MARA, and the photos of the “fish in the margins” along the top border of the ossuary, we have posted photos that are “lined in” to show how we see the letters or the images. These marks are clear and obvious. They are done by anyone wanting to illustrate something on a complex photo. So long as the original, unlined version is available, so people can make comparisons, marking features on photos, or otherwise highlighting, is certainly not “manipulating” “altering” or otherwise “adjusting” them with an intent to deceive. Recently several have used such marks to point out other features they want to call attention to–including “handles” they see on several of the images from both 1981 and our shots from 2010-2011. This is perfectly fine with us and the debate and discussion is then open as to whether what one “sees” in does in fact represent what one maintains.

3. No photos on the web site have been taken down, altered, manipulated, or otherwise adjusted. When our web person is in the process of arranging or uploading new photos the site remains live so it might appear to a visitor, for a very short time, that this or that has been taken down or added, but everything is up that we put up on February 28th, with more photos now added. We do continually want to correct anything wrong. For example, two of our photos were labeled 1980 rather than 1981, and we have corrected that. We appreciate anyone pointing out any other errors and we will do our best to correct them. I thank Mark Goodacre for his sharp eyes in noticing that one of the figures in my Preliminary Report is misidentified (the inside shot of the ossuary with the bones, Fig. 7 in my Preliminary Report, was incorrectly labeled as ossuary 5 when in fact it is ossuary 4 as our GE camera man has now confirmed). Robert Cargill suggested that the label “composite representation” for the complete Jonah image we produced should be clarified as a CGI representation and not a photo and we agreed and made that clarification.

We hope these additional photos will stimulate more discussion, collegiality, and “good faith” exchange of views. Once the film is aired in early April on Discovery TV we will no doubt have the green light to distribute live video clips of our filming and many other images.