Photo Credit: Courtesy of Sotheby's.
Codex Sassoon sells for $33.5 million, a record for a book sold at auction, at Sotheby's in New York on May 17.

Codex Sassoon, the oldest Tanach in private hands, was sold last week Wednesday, May 17, for $38.1 million, shattering the previous record of the highest price paid for a Jewish manuscript. In the general world, the current record holder for a manuscript is the Book of Mormon Printer’s manuscript, which sold for $38.7 million and the Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, acquired in 1994 by Bill Gates for $30.8 million, which adjusted for inflation would be $56.3 million.

In the world of Jewish books, the previous record holder is The Complete Babylonian Talmud, printed by Daniel Bomberg (The Bomberg Talmud) which sold at Sotheby’s in 2015 for $9.3 million.


The purchase was made possible by Alfred H. Moses, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to Romania from 1994 to 1997. Moses and his family purchased the codex on behalf of the American Friends of ANU — Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, where it will find a permanent home. “It was my mission, realizing the historic significance of Codex Sassoon, to see that it resides in a place with global access to all people,” Moses said in a press release. “In my heart and mind that place was the land of Israel, the cradle of Judaism, where the Hebrew Bible was originated. In Israel at ANU, it will be preserved for generations to come as the centerpiece and gem of the entire and extensive display and presence of the Jewish story.

Despite thousands of years of exile and persecution of the Jewish people, the Tanach we have today is remarkably intact and precise and demonstrably the same text used by our ancestors thousands of years ago. All books of Tanach aside from Esther were discovered in the last century within the Dead Sea Scrolls, and despite being written in the time of the Second Beit HaMikdash, no significant changes have been found to our printed text today. The explanation for such accuracy is the insistence of Jews throughout the centuries on copying their sifrei Torah and Tanachs in a careful and perfect manner, appreciating the holiness of the text and strictly forbidding any emendations of the texts. Over the centuries, though, minor differences have crept in, such as in the correct punctuation or cantillation of specific words. It is in such cases where experts on the masorah look for the earliest and most accurate text available and can thus clarify and determine what the correct tradition is.

From the era of the Geonim, we have very few remaining Tanach manuscripts, particularly nearly complete, the most famous being the Aleppo Codex, the Leningrad Codex and this Codex Sassoon, the last being the only one that remained in private hands. It is exceedingly rare that something of this importance becomes available for purchase and its appearance at auction brought much interest from the world’s greatest collectors, as well as from several institutions which would have been eager to add such a manuscript to its collection.

Rabbi Mordechai Breuer, of the world’s leading experts on the Tanach, has done extensive work on comparing the nuances and slight variations of the various early codices that survived to our times. While comparing the various texts, Breuer discovered that nearly every time when a variation occurred in one of the manuscripts, the majority of the other manuscripts had the traditional version that we have today. Therefore, by analyzing the different codices, we can look at the majority opinion of the different versions and we end up with the correct version, which matches the exact text that we have had in our printed editions in the last hundreds of years. From between these manuscripts, throughout the entire Torah, each codex has between 20-120 variations from our text, this Sassoon Codex being the one with the least variations, just 20, making it the more authoritative text that we have.

Despite the importance of the text of the Sassoon Codex, the Aleppo and Leningrad codices for example far surpass it in beauty and quality of the scribe and writing. The Aleppo Codex which is believed to have been written as a culmination of the work and efforts of the experts of the Ben-Asher Masoretic tradition was written in a beautiful script, with wide margins and generous spacing between chapters and books of the Bible, the Sassoon Codex falls far behind. The Sassoon Codex’s scribe appears to have been on a tight budget, with every page used to its maximum and in an apparent rush, resulting in the occasional forgotten vowel or cantillation. An unintended consequence was that with the wear of time, the lower margins of many pages in Ketuvim have been worn out, resulting in a loss of up to a third of the text on many pages in Ketuvim. For matters of the masorah though, the Sassoon Codex’s advantages remain and it is certain to remain an invaluable tool to anyone interested in the masorah of Tanach.

Codex Sassoon is believed to have been written from between the late 9th to early 10th century as has been determined by carbon-dating, thus making it earlier than the Aleppo Codex. The earliest known record of its ownership is from around 1000 years ago indicating that it was sold by Khalaf ben Abraham, a businessman active in Palestine and Syria, to a certain Isaac ben Ezekiel el-Attar, who later gave it to his sons. Two hundred or so years later we find ownership inscriptions in the codex from Makisin, a city in northeast Syria, where it was owned by the synagogue. Inscriptions in the book note that after the destruction of the synagogue in Makisin, the codex was given for safekeeping to Salama bin Abi al-Fakhr, who was to return it when the synagogue was rebuilt. It is unknown what transpired to the codex over the next centuries, until it surfaced in 1929, when it was offered for sale for 350 British Pounds, purchased by David Solomon Sassoon (1880–1942). A grandson of Baghdadi Jewish community leader of the same name, David Sassoon accumulated what was then the finest collection of Judaica in the history of the world. Aside from the Sassoon Codex, his collection included an astounding number of important manuscripts, such as the Damascus Pentateuch, written in the 10th century, a codex which he bought in Damascus in 1915, and which was acquired by the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem in 1975.

In 1978 the book was sold by David Sassoon’s heirs to a most unusual buyer, the British Rail Pension Fund, which bought it for $320,000 as an investment. The return on their investment was a fine one, when it appeared at auction in 1989 it sold for 3.19 million to a dealer who then sold it to Safra for an undisclosed amount. It was out of public view until this time, though a digitized version has been made available and can be accessed by all via the National Library of Israel’s site.

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Israel Mizrahi is the owner of Mizrahi Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY, and He can be reached at [email protected].