Real story of ancient Bible thrilling
"The Aleppo Codex," by Matti Friedman. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 298 pp. $24.95.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
SALISBURY - For a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, look no further than "The Aleppo Codex," a nonfiction detective story about one of the most valuable books in history.
The Aleppo Codex, or the Crown of Aleppo, as it is better known, is the oldest and some say, most precise and holiest source of the Hebrew Bible. It is the text the legendary scholar Maimonides used in writing about the laws regarding Torah scrolls. It survived even the bloody Crusades, only to be the object of modern greed during the formation of Israel in 1948.
Author Matti Friedman, an Associated Press reporter based in Jerusalem, did a story on the Crown and its missing pages and became consumed by the search for the real story - the one that tells what happened between the time the Crown was saved from the 1948 riots in Aleppo, Syria, to the time it became the property of then-Israeli President Ben Zvi's Institute a few years later.
It was whole when it was saved from the burning synagogue in Aleppo; it was missing most of the Torah - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy - once it reached the institute.
What had been a scholarly object had become a holy relic, with miraculous powers attached. It later became an object so desirable, men were willing break the very commandments it set out to have a piece of it.
Friedman, an unrelenting investigator, finds the gaps, the unanswered questions, the winks and nods far too suspicious to believe the stock story that part of the Crown was burned in the synagogue fire in Aleppo. Studies showed that what looked like burn marks on the parchment were actually the marks left from who knows how many fingers, moistened with spit, that turned the pages over centuries.
Despite Friedman's efforts and that of former Mossad agent Rafi Sutton and others, the true story remains a mystery. Friedman takes the reader along on his quest, sharing interviews with the men and the sons of the men who touched the Crown or who had seen it. You will meet rabbis from Aleppo, the Israeli immigration minister, Turkish smugglers, displaced Jews in New York, Argentina, Italy and Brazil.
You will meet a famous collector, Shlomo Moussaieff, who is surrounded by his riches like King Solomon. After Friedman repeatedly visits him, asking specific questions he has gleaned from his investigation, the old merchant finally tells him someone offered him the missing pages for $1 million in the 1980s, after the glory of the find had been supplanted by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
What Friedman realizes shortly before this is: "It meant the missing pages of the Crown were not 'lost.' They were not burned, looted by rioters, or picked up as souvenirs and spirited to New York. The missing pages were missing because one or more of the keepers of the codex had stolen them."
The closer Friedman gets to learning the truth, the more fiercely the secret is held - one man who probably knew the truth dies suspiciously, and all the rest have gone silent. It's as if someone has done something horrible, and the rest of the people involved are too embarrassed to even admit it. It is a scandal best kept quiet, one that could ruin many reputations or even rewrite history.
Friedman writes near the end: "The hunger for old and beautiful things is not new. … But here the object stolen is not a thing of beauty but a book that condemns theft. The page with the passage Thou shalt not steal was stolen. Also missing are the commandments not to bear false witness, covet another's property, or commit murder, all of which have been violated …"
Friedman's relentless investigation proves to be an education on many levels, from cultural to criminal. He has provided sources for his material and a few photos of the men who knew something about the Crown.
Beyond being a fascinating puzzle, "The Aleppo Codex" is an interesting history of the formation of the Israeli state, the violence done to the Jewish people over centuries, the volatility of the Middle East and a way of life most of us do not know anything about.
If you hated reading history in a textbook, this book is like a thriller - full of twists, turns, lies, secrets, even death - about a precious religious artifact. It will leave a lasting impression.