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By Fire or By Fraud

By Avi Friedman

For years, the story seemed straightforward enough: the Aleppo Codex, a precious historical manuscript, was saved from the torches of Arab rioters, smuggled into the fledgling state of Israel, and brought to Yad Ben Zvi. But why are there no burn marks on the rescued pages? And why would a Sephardic religious treasure end up in a secular Ashkenazic research institution? A new book documents the efforts of a journalist, an amateur historian, and a former Mossad agent to unravel the mystery.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

hebrew typeAsk most scholars of modern Syrian Jewish history, and they’ll tell you the interesting, if painful, “official” history of the Aleppo Codex, the oldest known manuscript of the Hebrew Bible and perhaps the most valuable treasure in the Jewish world.

Here’s what you’ll hear: In November 1947, as the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states, an Arab mob set upon the ancient Jewish community of Aleppo, in northern Syria. Over a day of rioting, approximately 150 Jewish-owned buildings were ransacked and burned, including 10 synagogues and five schools. One of those synagogues, Aleppo’s Great Synagogue, was the home of the Codex. During the rampages, nearly half of the Codex’s priceless pages were lost in a fire set by the mob. When the rioting subsided, community elders entered the synagogue, packed the manuscript away in a secret location, and circulated rumors that the Codex, also known as the “Crown of Aleppo,” had been completely destroyed, in order to discourage Syrian authorities from trying to seize the priceless manuscript.

Ten years later, in 1957, an Aleppo cheese merchant named Mourad Faham received an exit visa from the Syrian government (a rarity for Jews). Two leading Aleppo rabbis, Rabbi Moshe Tawil and Rabbi Shlomo Salim Zafrani, persuaded Faham to hide the Codex in his washing machine and, after he reached Israel, to deliver it to “a religious man” of his choosing. Faham agreed, and dutifully handed the remains of the manuscript to one Shlomo Zalman Shragai, the head of the Jewish Agency’s Aliyah Department.

Shragai was also a close associate of Yitzhak Ben Zvi, Israel’s second president and a recognized scholar of “oriental” Jewish communities. Shragai decided to give the Crown to Ben Zvi, and it immediately became a prized possession for the president’s new research institute, Yad Ben Zvi, as well as a feather in the cap of the young country that claimed to represent the Jewish People in its entirety.

It’s a neat story, one that offers clean explanations for both the presence of the Codex at Yad Ben Zvi for the past 55 years, as well as the fact that the Codex contains some 300 pages out of the original 500 leaves (manuscript pages are properly referred to as “leaves” or “folios”). Of the Crown’s five books of the Torah, all that remains from the 1947 fire is the final half of the book of Devarim.

The only problem with the story is that large parts of it aren’t true, and the rest is riddled with holes, conflicting versions, and contradictory testimony. For instance, the Ben Zvi Institute, in a 1987 publication entitled The Story of the Aleppo Codex, presented the fire story as fact, even though some leading Syrian Jews have argued that the Codex was complete, or nearly complete, at least as recently as 1953 — a good six years after the riots. The same volume mentions a court case in 1958 that created a trustees’ council for the Crown a year after it arrived in Israel, but it makes scant mention of the nature of those proceedings; namely, that Syrian Jewish leaders claimed the Ben Zvi Institute stole the Crown from the community, or at least obtained it by highly questionable means.

Despite the contradictions, a series of academic works and television documentaries have repeated the myth that some 40 percent of the Codex was destroyed by fire back in Aleppo. These and other accounts have downplayed the anger among Syrian Jews at the loss of a community treasure and their frustration at being denied access to records of a four-year lawsuit to get the Crown back. The reports have also glossed over the dismay expressed by a group of Aleppo rabbis in Israel, who on February 21, 1958, alerted the Israeli president that “pages [were] missing from the great Crown.”

Since Yad Ben Zvi officials and other parties involved with the Crown’s history in Israel have repeatedly and pointedly refused access to the relevant documents dating from that period, the official version of the story might have remained the only version, as far as the outside world was concerned. But in 2007 the Syrian community got a new advocate, a determined Canadian-born journalist named Matti Friedman, who, after he heard about the story, was consumed by a burning desire to uncover the truth.


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