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The Aleppo Codex

by Matti Friedman

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The Aleppo Codex
© Algonquin Books
Algonquin, May 2012

Sitting poolside at a friend's party a couple of weeks ago, a young woman asked me if I liked the book I was reading, which I had put down for a minute to grab some barbeque from the grill.

"Yes" I said, "it's quite a story. "Why, have you read it?"

"No, but it's my people," she replied.

"Ah, so you're a Syrian Jew from Aleppo?" I looked her up and down and tried to see a Middle Eastern spice market in her eyes, but all I saw was Brooklyn's Ocean Parkway.

"Yes, I am," she answered with pride. And then she moved on to feeding her young child.

That interaction, though, put The Aleppo Codex in perspective for me. Fifty years after her grandparents fled Aleppo, there was still this pride racing through her veins, enough to tell a complete stranger that they were "her people."

And the glue of that community was the Aleppo Codex, also known as the "Crown."

I had actually never heard of the Aleppo Codex until a few years ago, when I bumped into it online late one night on a Wikipedia marathon.

"Why don't I already know about this?" I muttered to myself, my Jewish education having been extensive.

Turns out the Aleppo Codex is very important to Jewish scholarship but not so much to the lay Jewish community today-at least not on a day-to-day basis. But for almost a thousand years this codex was the pride and glory of the Aleppo community, and many great sages throughout the millennium used this text when a verse, word, or letter from the Old Testament was nebulous.

Written around the year 930 in Tiberias, Israel, by the greatest scribe at the time and under the scholarship of the great Aaron Ben-Asher of the Ben-Asher dynasty, this book was perfect. It was annotated with Ben Asher's scholarly notes, and is the most comprehensive recording of the Bible to this day. In short, any Torah in any synagogue today is connected to this Crown. All those beautiful, black letters, their shapes and sizes, their embellishments and spaces, are a tradition-and that tradition was brought to the fore in the Aleppo Codex. It's basically the original of all later copies.
After bouncing around the Middle East a bit, it finally found a home in the synagogue in Aleppo, where it remained for almost 800 years. They cherished and guarded it with their lives.

But that sense of security and community all came to a crashing halt when in 1947 the UN voted for a Jewish state in what was then known as Palestine. This angered the local non-Jewish Aleppo population, who overnight became a marauding mob and set fire to the synagogues and plundered its treasures.

And this is where Matti Friedman's The Aleppo Codex picks up-and reads like a mix between a detective and a suspense novel.

The codex was reported to have been burnt, so everyone assumed it was gone forever. But it wasn't consumed in the flames; it was saved in the nick of time and the tragic story was a red herring, disseminated to save the historical document.

It was then smuggled into Israel a couple of years later, and a power struggle began over who had jurisdiction over it. That story is fascinating in itself.

But Friedman is not satisfied with that story alone. He goes deeper and talks to many people who are suspicious of him, and who wish he'd just stop poking his nose around a topic that many assumed was closed long ago.

Using his keen journalistic instincts (he works for the AP bureau in Jerusalem), he wants to get to the bottom of the mystery of all mysteries: several hundred pages of the Codex are still missing, their whereabouts a complete enigma. Were they burnt, stolen, ripped to shreds, devoured by mice...?

Most people believe that they were burnt in the 1947 fire in Aleppo, but Friedman has his doubts. If you met the people he interviewed, you would be just as doubtful.

With a cast of colorful characters from London to Jerusalem, Aleppo to Brooklyn and many locations in between, Friedman weaves his way through a tale of deceit, cunning, smoke-and-mirrors, religious piety and even, yes, murder-and an unsolved one at that.

This book is a story about a book. A book that many people want a piece of. By the time you finish it, you will want a piece of it, too.

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