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?
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.
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.
How did the Codex move from Syria to Israel, and was Israel right to believe that smuggling it was justified?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Where are the gaps in your story - what details do we not know even after your thorough research?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.