The Riddle of the Aleppo Codex

The Aleppo Codex, by Matti Friedman. Algonquin.  320 pages. $24.95.

This brilliant piece of investigative reporting traces the origins, travels, and controversies surrounding a bound, parchment manuscript know as the Aleppo Codex (or the Aleppo Crown). This manuscript is valued as the most authoritative text of the Hebrew Bible. It was written to be the standard against which later versions of these scriptures were tested. Created about 930 C.E. in Tiberias, it was meant to insure that the Jewish communities of the Diaspora were studying the same text – the same stories, chronicles, prophecies, and laws – word by word and letter by letter. 

Compiled by the scholar Aaron Ben-Asher and scribed by Shlomo Ben Buya’a, the Crown was, perhaps still is, the ultimate book of the People of the Book.

It got around.

First safeguarded in a Jerusalem synagogue, the Crown was taken by Frankish Crusaders during the Sack of Jerusalem in 1099. Through an exciting series of events that Friedman traces with skill and grace, it ended up in Fustat (now part of Cairo) where it was safeguarded by the sizeable Jewish community there. Next, it came under the purview of the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who drew upon it in the writing of his magnum opus the Mishneh Torah. Spanish by birth, Maimonides became an influential courtier and physician in Cairo. After Maimonides’ death in 1204, the Crown remained with his descendants until his great-great-great grandson brought it (and other important books) to Aleppo, Syria in the late 14th century.

There is remained “for six hundred years, until the Jews in the land of Islam – the world of Maimonides – disappeared.”

I should make clear that one of the strengths of Friedman’s book is that he avoids organizing by the strict chronology that I’ve been employing.  Rather he moves back and forth, juxtaposing ancient pieces of the story with modern and even contemporary ones, allowing them to interact with one another. He really has two major stories to tell: one is the history and importance of the Codex, the other is the story of his investigation, which peels back layers of ignorance, obfuscation, and raw deceit. One story covers a millennium, the other covers a few years. It’s hard to tell, sometimes, which story is wrapped around which. We are offered an intricate, satisfying weave.

The fulcrum on the broad timeline is 1947, when the deceits that Friedman exposes begin and when the Crown is moved from Aleppo back to Jerusalem.


Friedman meticulously lays out how the Crown survives the Muslim-Arab attacks on Aleppo’s synagogue after the United Nation’s vote to usher modern Israel into being. He then traces the hands through it passed through, its interval in Turkey, and its delivery to the authorities in Jerusalem. Clearly enough, for the nascent Israeli government, the Crown represents part of the nation-building enterprise. Its connection to Jerusalem and Tiberias are, symbolically at least, part of the Jewish claim to the land.

However, once in the hands of the Ben-Tzvi Institute, it seems as though this treasure is sometimes neglected, and at other times purposely made inaccessible. Questions about its condition arise that do not receive convincing answers. Huge sections (including most of the Five Books of Moses) are found to be missing, but just when did these leaves disappear? During the attacks on the synagogue before the Crown left Aleppo? While in Turkey?

In exploring this dilemma, Friedman encounters a conspiracy of silence. Useful facts are few, though there is some finger-pointing. Slowly, patiently, Matti Friedman presses his investigation forward. Eventually, he comes to a conclusion that is consistent with all the evidence he has gathered, including the personalities and opportunities of the principal players.

Friedman’s book is subtitled “A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible.” It delivers on all those ingredients and more as the author orchestrates his materials into a fine, suspenseful symphony of detection and revelation.

This review (under a different title) appears in the September 2012 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota and Manatee Counties).

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Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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