The Scandalous History of the Aleppo Codex

May 15, 2022

7 min read


How the oldest, most complete and most accurate text of the Hebrew Bible founds its way back to Jerusalem.

I am not sure what Socrates would have made of the internet and social media, but in one of the dialogues recorded by Plato, Socrates criticizes the art of writing as something that would destroy memory. “This invention of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember by themselves….”1

To some extent Jewish tradition agrees and this is one reason that for over 1,500 years most of Judaism was transmitted in an oral format, known as the Oral Torah.2 Eventually it became clear that due to the circumstances of exile, unless this information was committed to writing it would be lost completely. In about 170 CE Judah the Prince, a Rabbi and leader of the Jewish people, decided to write down the oral information in the form of a six-volume work known as the Mishnah.3

A Torah scroll

There is, however, one text that the Jewish people have preserved, copied and transmitted for over 3300 years in a format unchanged since antiquity – the Torah scroll. The scroll, written on parchment in an ancient script, does not contain vowel sounds or punctuation, has variations in the spelling of words as either plene or defective, and has words that are pronounced differently than they are written. All this information is part of the Oral Torah. As the Talmud puts it, “Rabbi Yitzḥak said: The vocalization of the scribes, and the ornamentation of the scribes, and the verses with words that are read but not written, and those that are written but not read are all laws transmitted to Moses from Sinai.”4

Concerned that this information would be lost, a group of scholars, known as the Masoretes, decided to write down everything in the Oral Law regarding the text of the Torah scroll. They vowelized the text (nekudot), recorded the cantillation notes which provide punctuation (taamei hamikra or tropp), listed every possible textual variation, and indicated every form of spelling and pronunciation of the sacred text. Because of our veneration for the Torah scroll none of this information may be recorded in the scroll itself – the scroll is pure, unadulterated, pristine, ancient Torah – nothing else.5

The Masoretes were at the right time and place to engage in the monumental task of preserving the text of the Bible and its Oral traditions.

The Masoretes, primarily the Ben Asher family, lived in the 10th century in Tiberias, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. At that time Tiberias was the scholarly, political, economic and cultural capital of Israel and Muslim conquest had brought with it the import of paper-making technology from China. The Masoretes were at the right time and place to engage in the monumental task of preserving the text of the Bible and its Oral traditions. They paid attention to every single letter, to spaces between paragraphs and chapters, to the text’s layout, differences between the written and spoken text and counted the occurrence of words throughout the entire Bible.

The Aleppo Codex

After years of work they produced a codex, a book that contained all the above information both within the text and as marginal notes known as Mesorah.6

Eventually the codex, called the Crown, or Keter, was moved to Jerusalem sometime in the 11th century, but it was apparently stolen by Crusaders at some point. History gets a little murky here, but it seems that the codex was ransomed from the Crusaders at great cost to the Jewish community.

In the 12th century the codex turned up in Fostat, (a city that eventually became Cairo) where there was a large, well-established Jewish community.7 The most famous sage of Fostat was Moses Maimonides, who saw the codex and wrote, “The codex on which I relied on for these matters was a codex renowned in Egypt, which includes all the 24 books [of the Bible]. It was kept in Jerusalem for many years so that scrolls could be checked from it. Everyone relies upon it because it was corrected by ben Asher, who spent many years writing it precisely, and checked it many times.”8

A page removed from the Codex, where the marginal notes can be clearly seen.

In 1375, Maimonides’ great-great-great grandson, David. moved to Aleppo in Syria and it is believed that he brought the treasure with him. The codex became known as the Crown of Aleppo, Keter Aram Tzovah, and it was kept by the Syrian Jews in the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, under intense security, brought out only for the occasional consultation or perusal of scholars.

The Crown remained in the synagogue until November 1947. Due to the rise of Arab nationalism, and the pro-Nazi sympathies of the Syrian regime, many believed that the Crown was in danger. Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, an historian and Zionist leader, who later became second president of the State of Israel made attempts to bring the codex to Israel but was unsuccessful.

In November 1947 the Syrian government instigated riots against the Jewish population and the Great Synagogue of Aleppo was burnt down. Rumors flew regarding the fate of the codex – some said it was destroyed, some said it was saved, some claimed that it was saved by one person, others claim a different savior. Two eminent scholars of the codex, Chaim Tawil and Bernard Schneider, list no less than seven different accounts of the fate of the Crown.9

The Great Synagogue of Aleppo before and after the riots of 1947

After the State of Israel was established and the border with Syria was closed efforts to recover the Crown became much more difficult. Yitzchak Ben-Zvi enlisted the aid of the Israeli security services, and involved diplomats, spies and Rabbis in returning the Crown to Israel. Unit 504, a top-secret section of the Israeli Military Intelligence specializing in infiltration of agents into Arab countries was also involved (my security clearance is not high enough to confirm this). This was the unit that took part in obtaining the Dead Sea Scrolls later.

Here again, there are many different versions of what happened, but eventually the Crown, albeit with missing sections and damaged by fire and fungus, came back to its birthplace, Israel. Now the focus turned to preserving the Crown and researching the surviving parts.

Second president of the State of Israel, Yitzchak Ben-Zvi with a Hebrew manuscript.

A manuscript written in Tiberias, Israel in the 10th century, traveled to Jerusalem, was “kidnapped” and ransomed, taken to Egypt, from there to Aleppo, Syria and from there back to Jerusalem, Israel. The Crown of Aleppo is a symbol of Jewish continuity, of Jewish devotion to the Torah, and of the return of the Jewish people to its ancient homeland.

For further reading: The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible, by Matti Friedman

  1. Plato, Phaedrus 14, 274c-275b
  2. See Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 7b, Midrash Tanchumah (Buber), Parshat Noach 3
  3. E. E. Urbach, “Introduction to the Mishnah and to One Hundred Years of Its Scholarship”, Scholarship in Jewish Studies, Vol. 2, (Jerusalem 5758) pp. 716-738
  4. Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 37b
  5. Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh Deah 274:7
  6. Crown of Aleppo: The Mystery of the Oldest Hebrew Bible Codex – Hayim Tawil and Bernard Schneider – Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2010 pp. 15-27
  7. Ibid. pp. 47-56
  8. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Torah Scroll 8:4
  9. Crown of Aleppo pp. 82-83
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