Title: Crown of Aleppo: The Mystery of the Oldest Hebrew Bible Codex
Author: Hayim Tawil and Bernard Schneider
Publisher: Jewish Publication Society
The Jewish people are known as the “people of the book,” and over the centuries it has sacrificed much not only to live by that book, the Torah, but to maintain the integrity of its text as well.
A Torah scroll, however, may not contain notations. Thus, Jews used to write codices (sing. codex) that contained, not only the Torah’s text, but punctuation (nekudos), musical signs (trop), and additional notes along the margins that assisted soferim who wished to write Torah scrolls (and other Biblical books) properly and accurately.
The oldest extant, and most authoritative, codex is the Aleppo Codex, or “Crown of Aleppo.” Many people believe that it is this codex that the Rambam refers to in his discussion of writing a sefer Torah in the Mishneh Torah.
This codex is also the subject of a new book,The Crown of Aleppo: The Mystery of the Oldest Hebrew Bible Codex, by Drs. Hayim Tawil and Bernard Schneider – both scholars of note (Tawil is a professor of Hebrew Language and Literature at Yeshiva University and Schneider is a highly-respected international lawyer with a special interest in the Bible). In it, the authors describe, in detail, the history and tribulations of this codex. “Who wrote it?” “How did it reach Aleppo, Syria?” are just some of the questions the book discusses.
The authors also describe, at some length, the events of 1947 that led up to an Arab pogrom against the Aleppo Jewish community and the destruction of the synagogue that housed the codex. Miraculously, most of the codex was saved and eventually made its way to Israel. When the codex resurfaced in Israel, however, most of the pages from the Torah were missing. The surviving portions were largely from Nevi’I’m and Kesuvim.
Were the other pages destroyed? Lost? Tawil and Schneider offer several different explanations, and hold out some hope that these pages may yet surface (being held, in the meantime, by members of the former Aleppo Jewish community).
All in all, Tawil and Schneider have managed to produce a book that, not only discusses the details of writing a Torah scroll and the history of the Aleppo Codex, but also presents a tale of mystery and intrigue that may yet be solved to the delight of scholars and the Jewish community.
Thus, the book, which includes wonderful photographs and interesting endnotes, appeals to readers of all sorts. As usual, the Jewish Publication Society has produced a truly fine work.
Hopefully, we will soon celebrate the resurfacing of the Aleppo’s Codex’s missing pages, and their relocation in Jerusalem.
Zalman Alpert is reference librarian at Yeshiva University’s Mendel Gottesman Library of Judaica.