The WORD 8/2/12. This past Sunday, the NY Times Magazine featured an article about the Aleppo Codex which is described as “the oldest, most complete, most accurate text of the Hebrew Bible.” Amazingly, despite the fact that there was a great deal of conversation about the “culture” of Judaism and Israel this past week, there was very little mention of this article. To my mind, the story of the Aleppo Codex says much more about Judaism and Israel than any of the nonsense being thrown around by political campaigns.
So, what is the Aleppo Codex and why is it such a big deal?
The Aleppo Codex is a 500-page manuscript which was carefully handwritten in approximately 930 CE in the Galilee. Unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls and other Torah Scrolls, the Aleppo Codex has vowels, punctuation and cantillations. Over the centuries, it was housed in Jerusalem and in Cairo. Eventually, it was brought to Aleppo – which has been in the news due to the civil war in Syria – where it was kept for over 600 years until the establishment of the State of Israel. What exactly happened after that is a mystery.
Approximately 300 pages of the original made their way to the Israel Museum under less than honorable circumstances. It is not clear what happened to the remainder of the manuscript. They have been the subject of conjecture and intrigue for the past 60 years. A great deal of money has changed hands, people have died under mysterious circumstances and even the Mossad – Israel’s intelligence agency – has been employed in the search.
Now, keep in mind, we are not talking about jewels or other treasures. We are talking about a book.
And THAT is the part of the story that tells us a little something about this funny group of people we call Jews. To us, books are invaluable. When we complete a sacred book, we recite the “Kaddish” just as we do when a loved one passes away. When we drop a Torah scroll, we are supposed to fast for 40 days. When sacred books are no longer useable, we bury them.
This love affair with books – which has led to our people being known as the People of the Book – began in this week’s Torah portion, in which Moses was recalling his 40 days on Mt.Sinai. Upon returning with Two Sacred Tablets of the Covenant, Moses summoned the Israelites and said to them: “Hear, O Israel, the laws and rules that I proclaim to you this day! Study them and observe them faithfully!” (See Deuteronomy 5.)
That’s what we’ve been trying to do ever since. And in order to study them and observe them, you’ve got to have books.