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‘A window onto 1,000 turbulent years crucial to understanding today’s Mideast’

by Shmuel Rosner

May 27, 2012 | 4:30 am

Matti Friedman

Journalist and author Matti Friedman discusses his new book, the Aleppo Codex, and the significance today for this often overlooked chapter in Jewish history.

[Proper disclosure: Matti Friedman’s book was also published in Hebrew by Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan-Dvir, at which I’m the head of the non-fiction department - S.R.]

We should first provide some explanation for those who haven’t yet read the ‎book: What is the Codex and why is it important?‎
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The Aleppo Codex is arguably Judaism’s most important book, and one of the ‎world’s most important and valuable manuscripts. It is revered in Judaism as the ‎perfect version of the Hebrew Bible. It is also the oldest version of the entire Bible ‎‎- or at least it was until the mid-20th century, when a large section went missing, a ‎mystery that plays an important part in this story.‎
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The codex was written in the 10th century, but to understand why it is so ‎important we need to go back about 900 years before that, to the destruction of ‎the Temple in Jerusalem by Rome. Until then, most Jews lived in the same ‎country, spoke the same language, and were bound by geography and politics and ‎their ritual center in Jerusalem. Afterwards, Jews were scattered and moved ‎farther and farther apart from each other, and none of those ties applied. What ‎emerged was the revolutionary idea that a people could be held together by words ‎‎– by a book that they all would read. For this to work, though, everyone had to be ‎reading precisely the same book. So there had to be an agreed-upon version of the ‎text, a key to reading the Bible. That key is the Aleppo Codex. It was never ‎photographed and there were no known copies, making the original priceless and ‎irreplaceable.‎
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How did the Codex move from Syria to Israel, and was Israel right to believe ‎that smuggling it was justified?‎
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That’s a more complicated and interesting question than it may seem. The official ‎story of the manuscript’s history, the one that has been current until now, is that the ‎Aleppo rabbis realized their community was dying as part of the broader expulsion of ‎Jews from Arab lands in those years, and they sent the manuscript to Israel in 1957 ‎with instructions to present it to the President of Israel, Itzhak Ben-Zvi. My research ‎shows that story isn’t true, and was hatched to conceal what had really happened. The ‎story of the codex’s journey to Israel involves Israeli agents who intercepted the ‎Aleppo rabbis’ courier in Turkey, intervention from the highest levels of the state, and ‎a bitter 4-year trial that has not been recounted in detail until now.‎
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Since the 1940s, a circle of scholars in Jerusalem – including Ben-Zvi, who was a ‎scholar before he was President – had been trying to obtain the manuscript, without ‎success. The Aleppo Jews would not part with it. But the scholars believed the codex ‎should be in the hands of modern academics, not hoarded in secrecy by rabbis, and ‎that it could be better cared for in Jerusalem. They were Zionists, and thought ‎Judaism’s most important book should be in the center of the spiritual and national ‎rebirth of the Jewish people. Many years later, in 1958, Ben-Zvi’s wish was fulfilled, ‎and the codex effectively became the property of his academic institute. The way it ‎was treated after that is discussed at length in my book, and it raises very serious ‎questions about the state’s justifications for taking control of the manuscript.‎
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Why did we have to wait for your book to hear the true story of the Codex - ‎isn’t it strange that it took so long?‎
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It is strange indeed. Starting out, I found that very little had been written about the ‎codex’s recent history, and that the writing that did exist was oddly vague and ‎contradictory. This is largely because the telling of the story has been in the hands of ‎interested parties, which has crippled independent investigation. In the 1980s, for ‎example, the Ben-Zvi Institute, the codex’s custodian, published a book about the ‎codex that is notable for its deliberate omissions.‎
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In this story, the academic scholars in charge of the codex since the beginning, in the ‎‎1950s, have worn two hats: they have been scholars, and also representatives of ‎Israel’s political establishment. This confusion dates back to the character of Ben-Zvi ‎himself, who was both a scholar and a politician. This rendered them incapable of ‎telling the story, because its details were damaging to them and to the state, and their ‎institutional loyalty outweighed their role as historians – telling the truth in the most ‎complete and accurate way possible. That meant that when I began reporting this story ‎in 2008, five decades after the codex reached Israel, I found that I had an entirely ‎new story on my hands.‎
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Where are the gaps in your story - what details do we not know even after ‎your thorough research?‎
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There are two mysteries in the book: The mystery of the missing pages of ‎the codex, and the mystery of how the book reached Israel.‎
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The second mystery is solved here in full for the first time. As for the first ‎mystery, that of the missing pages, this book includes a great deal of new ‎information that has never been published. But of course the pages remain ‎missing, 200 of them, 40 percent of the codex, including the most ‎important part of the manuscript – the Torah itself. For many Bible ‎scholars, those pages are the Holy Grail. My research indicates clearly that ‎they were not destroyed, but are out there, and I hope the publication of ‎this book will help find them and reunite them with the rest of the ‎manuscript.‎
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Make the pitch: Why should an American - even a Jewish American - care to ‎spend money and time on this story? Is it just fascination with a thriller-mystery, ‎or is there something else perhaps, a lesson to be learned, better understanding to ‎be sought?‎
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The story certainly has elements of a thriller or a detective novel, and I would hope ‎that it is interesting enough to be enjoyable even for someone who has never read a ‎book about Jewish history or religion. For those who are interested in history, the ‎codex’s story is a window onto 1,000 years of turbulent and fascinating events that ‎are crucial to understanding the present in the Middle East.‎
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But in a deeper sense, this is a book about a book, and about the power a book can ‎exert on people. I think that appeals to pretty much anyone who reads.‎
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