Sunday 28 February 2016

073) THE ALEPPO CODEX - The Mystery Surrounding the Most Important Manuscript in Jewish History:


Before Moshe passed away, he wrote thirteen Torah scrolls. He gave one to each of the twelve tribes and the thirteenth Torah was placed in the Sanctuary. Later, that same scroll was deposited in the Holy of Holies of the First Temple.

The purpose of this thirteenth scroll was to serve as a standard against which all other Torah scrolls were to be checked. Whenever a new Sefer Torah was written, it had to be checked against an authoritative Master Torah text, to ensure its accuracy, before it was allowed to be used. This was a form of ‘quality control’ built into our tradition to keep every word and letter of the Torah as authentic as possible.

There were times, however, when this thirteenth Torah was almost lost, such as during the reign of Achaz (578-562 b.c.e.) when there was an active campaign to destroy Torah scrolls. At that time the cohanim, or priests, hid this crucially valuable scroll in order to preserve it for future generations.

About a hundred years later it was discovered by King Yoshia (around 458 b.c.e.)[26] who, under threat of invasion, hid it again in a catacomb and it has never been seen since.

(The Jewish kings all had a special commandment to write their own Torah scrolls, which up to now, were checked against Moshe’s thirteenth Torah, and after their deaths, these highly accurate scrolls were kept with the Sanhedrin.)


During the Babylonian exile (423-353 b.c.e.) there was a profound decline in Torah study and it became impossible to find precise Torah scrolls. Ezra wrote a Torah that was to become the new Master Scroll.  He is said to have found three scrolls which were all considered to be standards, but they had slightly variant readings. To rectify the situation, it was decided to accept the readings of two of the three scrolls which matched each other, and that became the new standard. Ezra's Torah was used during the period of the Second Temple. 

During the persecutions that took place in the century following the destruction of the Second Temple, it became difficult to find exact copies of the Torah. That is why, during this period, there arose some slight discrepancies between versions of some verses as recorded in the Torah compared to those same verses as quoted in the Talmud.[1]


The next of the great baalei ha’mesora (traditionalists) was Aaron (Ben Moshe) Ben Asher, who prepared the next standard scroll, which later became known as the Aleppo Codex. This was the third Master Codex, and the text we follow today is largely based on that work.[2]

The story of the Aleppo Codex is most intriguing and not without its share of mystery.


As is well known, Torah texts do not have any vocalisation (nekudot or markings) around the letters, which sometimes makes their correct pronunciation and punctuation a matter of dispute. Also, the spelling of the words themselves can be unclear. It became very important to establish and endorse a standard text that had absolute consensus. Tiberius had become a centre for Torah textual experts, grammarians and scribes. For centuries they gathered all the texts and scrolls they could find and worked on formulating and authorising the most accurate Torah text in existence at that time.

The Aleppo text was originally written by the famous scribe Shlomo Ben Buya’a, but was painstakingly over many years corrected and endorsed by Rabbi Aaron Ben Asher[4] in 920 C.E.

This codex was complete in that it comprised all twenty-four books of Tanach and, interestingly, this Codex was written with vocalisation and cantillation marks (which is halachically permitted for a codex but not for a Torah scroll used for public reading in a synagogue).


Surprisingly this master codex was transferred from Tiberias to the Karaite community of Jerusalem at the beginning of the 11th century.[5] The Codex was, however, was made accessible to all Jews, Karaite and mainstream rabbinical Jews, to peruse at will. (This appears to have been one of the conditions of its transfer from Rabbinite to Karaite possession).


In 1099, during the First Crusade, the Karaite synagogue was attacked, and the Codex was stolen but not damaged because it was known to be a priceless document. It was soon ransomed by the Jews of Cairo (Fostat) who paid a tremendous price for its return to Jewish hands.

Rambam (1135-1204) was at that time in Cairo and he was able to view it and endorse it as authoritative. He writes that he consulted this very text and considered it to be the most accurate and authoritative Torah text against which all other texts could be proofread. Rambam wrote; “This was used as the standard text for the correction of Torah scrolls. Everyone relied on it as it had been corrected by Ben Asher himself. And I have relied on it for the Torah scroll that I wrote.”[3]


It remained in Cairo for about three hundred years when a descendant of Rambam took it to Aleppo (in what is today northern Syria). Aleppo became its protective home for the next five hundred years. It was lovingly sheltered in an iron safe (with two locks and two key custodians), and it assumed the title Keter Aram Tzova (The Crown of Aleppo)[6]

According to tradition the safe was placed at the entrance to a cave, said to be the cave of Elijah the Prophet, where he had stayed while in exile.
During this time the Codex took on legendary and supernatural dimensions, with the Jews of Aleppo being extremely protective of it, believing that they would remain safe in Aleppo as long as their Codex remained intact. 
In more recent times the Syrian rabbis refused to allow people access to the Codex and would not allow anyone to photograph it either.


In 1948, with the Establishment of the State of Israel and the rise of Arab nationalism, the Aleppo Synagogue was attacked and burned during an anti-Israel uprising.

It is at this point, sadly, that the accounts as to what exactly happened to the Codex begin to vary, depending on the interest groups. Some say parts of the Codex were burned in the fire. Others report that it was not a large fire and that parts of the Codex were in fact looted. Still, others say it was hidden in secret locations in order to protect it, and that the story that it had been completely destroyed in the fire was simply a decoy. 

A few years later, in 1958, Israeli President Yitzchak Ben-Zvi (1884-1963)[7] arranged for the Codex to be smuggled to nearby Turkey (in a washing machine), and soon thereafter it was taken to Jerusalem. It was placed at the Ben-Zvi Institute[8] for safe keeping. 

Unfortunately, after being safe for a thousand years, a third of the Codex (about 200 sections) was now found to be missing, including the majority of the Five Books of the Chumash.

Speculation was rife with conspiracy theories abounding. Many accuse the European Zionists of discrimination towards the Jews from Arab countries. Stories of them confiscating ancient manuscripts from Yemenite Jews, for example, are backed up with letters from Yemenite rabbis to the Israeli government, protesting such actions. The Jews who had immigrated to Israel from Aleppo actually took legal action against the State of Israel for what they said was ‘stealing the Codex’ from them. The result of which was an agreement that they would share some form of joint ownership of the document, although it would remain at the Ben-Zvi Institute. 

It has been established that numerous other ancient documents went missing from the same institute under mysterious circumstances, and some contend that the missing sections were stolen from the institute by a member of staff. It is also clear that the Codex was not preserved correctly at the institute, but was simply placed in ‘an ordinary office cabinet’, and that ‘sections of the manuscript that had been legible only a few years before could no longer be read.’[9] During this time the institute refused to allow the Codex to be displayed or photographed.

Research author Matti Friedman writes; ‘After surviving a thousand turbulent years, it was betrayed in our own time by our own people, those charged with guarding it.’[10]

Two missing sections have already turned up, one in 1982 and the other in 2007. Many believe that members of the Aleppo Jewish community tore off sections of the Codex when it was ‘burned’ in the fire,[11]and still have them privately hidden away.

Today, what’s left of the Codex, has a permanent safe home at the Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum, in Jerusalem.[12]

The search continues, for more missing sections of this most important and historically valuable Torah document.

Ezra Dabach, one of the last key holders of the Aleppo Codex



In some editions of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, it is written that the Ha’azinu Song[13] must have seventy lines, and that there must be an open space in every sentence so that every line is divided into two. Fortunately, this section is still existent in the Aleppo Codex today, so we can compare it to Rambam’s description to see whether it matches.

Surprisingly the Codex does not have seventy lines but sixty-seven instead. This seems to refute the notion that the Aleppo Codex is the same Codex that Rambam used and referred to.

However, on examining older and therefore more accurate manuscripts of Rambam, the number of lines in the section is not seventy but indeed sixty-seven (and the words at the beginning of each line also correspond to the same words as stipulated by Rambam)!

[Incidentally, this also happens to be in accordance with Yemenite tradition which specifies sixty-seven lines, as opposed to most other common versions which do have seventy lines.]

Ha'azinu Song in the Aleppo Codex with 67 lines (Note the vocalisations)

Thus it appears quite probable that Rambam did indeed refer to the Aleppo Codex as is generally believed.

(An interesting question for further study would be why the later versions of Mishneh Torah ‘changed’ the number from sixty-seven to seventy?)


Some Rishonim, however, disagree with Rambam’s endorsement of the Aleppo Codex and did not ascribe any particular or exclusive authority to this Codex. They held that any other acceptable versions that were widely used and relied upon over time, were just as authoritative.[14]

Practically, according to halacha, we may read from any Torah based on an acceptable tradition and recite the blessings when called up to read from them.[15] The reason is because we no longer have the earlier (and therefore more authoritative) Codex of Ezra to refer back to.

Even Rambam’s son, Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam, agreed with this ruling. In fact, amazingly, according to Rambam himself, one may even recite a blessing on being called up to a Sefer Torah that is already designated as invalid.

(This ruling can be found in Rambam’s responsum to the rabbis of Narvona. Some say, however, that this was a forgery written by the inhabitants of Narvona themselves.)[16]


It seems as though systems of vocalisation (the markings under, above and in the middle of the Hebrew letters) were only formulated around the eighth century. 

There were three primary schools of vocalisation; One in Babylonia, and another in southern Israel[17] – both these schools placed the markings above the letters. This method of vocalisation, however, was no longer in popular usage after the eleventh century.

The third school was in Tiberius which gave rise to the common system of vocalisation that we use today.

Ibn Ezra writes that; ‘The sages of Tiberias are the most accurate of all. From them came all our mesoras (traditions) and vocalisation.’[18]


The scribes were called sofrim or ‘counters’ because they counted every letter, word and sentence. Our Torah scrolls of today have 304 805 letters.[19] 

However, there are other traditions, such as Ben Asher, who put the number at 400 945.

Another tradition recorded in Midrash Talpiot, puts the number is 310 674. 

According to a further tradition, the number is 600 000 corresponding to the souls that left Egypt.[20]

According to Ashkenazi and Sefardi rites, the word ‘vayehi’ is used in one location as opposed to the Yemenite rite, where the word reads ‘vayiheyu’.[21] 

Also in another place, the word ‘dakah’ is spelt with a ‘hey’, whereas in Yemenite traditions it is spelt with an ‘alef’.[22] Interestingly, the Yemenite scrolls are considered most accurate and are closer to the Aleppo Codex which Rambam referred to.[23]


The common Hebrew script that we use today is known as Ashurit. But there was another script which was used in ancient Israel, known as ‘Old Hebrew’. There are different views regarding exactly which scripts were used for which texts, and when exactly they were used
Some say that although ‘Old Hebrew’ script was used in ancient times, the original Torah scrolls, as well as the Ten Commandments, were given in Ashurit. This would mean that our scrolls today resemble the original scrolls.

Others say that Ashurit script was forgotten during the Babylonian exile and that ‘Old Hebrew’ was used until Ezra restored the Ashurit script.

A third view is that the original Torah, as well as the Ten Commandments, were given in ‘Old Hebrew’ and that Ezra was the first to introduce the Ashurit script.

A forth view is that the old script was used for study purposes, but the script for Torah scrolls that were to be read from in public was written in Ashurit.[24]


A Torah scroll with one letter missing or extra is invalid. The scribe has to copy from an existing text and not from memory. He has to annunciate the word before writing it. If a mistake is found in a scroll, one has a period of thirty days grace before the mistake is either corrected or the scroll placed in a geniza, a repository for unused holy books. If more than three mistakes are found in a Torah scroll, it is not sufficient to just correct those three errors, but the entire scroll would have to be thoroughly examined.[25]

[1]These  discrepancies are slight in relation to the Chumash, but are more pronounced in relation to the rest of Tanach. Note: According to some accounts these three scrolls were found by Ezra himself and he wrote his Torah based on the majority of the three. (Torah Sheleima vol. 19 p. 254 n.19)
[2] See Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s Handbook of Jewish Thought 1979, p. 121 – 139.

[3] Laws of Sefer Torah, ch. 8. Hal. 4
[4] It is generally accepted that Ben Asher formulated the accepted vocalisation as well pronunciations and other technicalities, and is believed to have authored Dikdukei HaTaamim (Details of Cantillation marks).
[5] The Karaites were Jewish literalists who disregarded the Oral Tradition.  The fact that this Codex was entrusted to them as opposed to mainstream Rabbinic Jews, shows just how influential they were at that time. See here.
[6] The Jews referred to Aleppo as Aram Tsova.
[7] Yitzchak Ben-Zvi, a keen historian, was Israel’s second and longest serving president.
[8] A research facility established by President Yitzchak Ben-Zvi, with a special interest in Jews from Sefardic and Arab backgrounds.
[9] See The Tragedy of the Aleppo Codex, by Yuval Elbashan (Haaretz Oct 05, 2012).
[10] See The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible, by Matt Friedman. Algonquin Books.

[11] Laboratory tests show no signs of burning.
[12] See The Aleppo Codex by Machon Ben-Zvi, or Ben-Zvi Institute, to view the actual Codex.
[13] Devarim 32
[14] See Teshuvot Rashba 232 (on Ramban), and see Meiri to Kiddushin 30a
[15] See Peninei Halacha, ibid. P 78
[16] See Peninei Halacha ibid. P. 78, footnote 2.
[17] In the school of southern Israel, surviving manuscripts show the segol and tzere, the kametz and patach, are all used interchangeably, suggesting a pronunciation similar to modern Israeli Hebrew.
[18] From his work, Tsahot.
[19] See Rabbi Reuven Margolies, HaMikra VeHamesorah 12, p.41
[20] See Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s Handbook of Jewish Thought 1979, p. 135
It should be pointed out that there are different systems of counting Hebrew letters because sometimes two letters can together form on a single letter. The large number of 600 000 is most likely allegoric.
[21] Gen 9, 29 See Peninei Halacha, Likuttim 1, Hilchot Sefer Torah, p. 76
[22] Devarim 23,2
[23] See Peninei Halacha, ibid. P. 77
[24] Ibid. P. 139
[25] See Peninei Halacha, Likuttin 1, Hilchot Sefer Torah, p.75
[26] See Writing the Torah by R. Aryeh Kaplan: "It is thus written, "Chilkiah the Kohen-priest found the book of God's Torah, [written] in Moses' hand" (2 Chronicles 34:14). King Yoshia used this as an occasion to rededicate the people to the observance of the Torah. When Jerusalem was in danger of invasion, King Yoshia hid the Ark containing the original Torah and the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. It was concealed in a catacomb that had been prepared by King Solomon when he had first built the Temple. It is still there today."    Note that the dates for Yoshia are alternately given as c. 640–609 bce.

UPDATE: (1 Jan 2017)


I was always bothered why the Master Copy of Ben Asher was placed in the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 11th Century. I was astounded to discover that there is much debate over whether or not Ben Asher may, in fact, have been a Karaite himself.

It appears as if, from Cairo Geniza fragments, the ben Asher family may have been Karaites for a number of generations. This may have been why they were so preoccupied with the preservation of accurate texts.

Rav Saadia Gaon, known for his fierce debates with the Karaites, referred rather critically to a 'Ben Asher', but no one connected him to the famed Ben Asher of the later to be known Aleppo Codex - until the relatively recently discoveries in the Cairo Geniza.

On the other hand, Rambam (who also debated - but more amicably - with the Karaites) was known to have had quite good relations with the Karaite community, and we know that he endorsed Ben Asher's Torah.

A quote from Aharon ben Asher's Sefer Dikdukei haTe'amim reads: "The prophets...complete the Torah, are as the Torah, and we decide Law from them as we do from the Torah."

This sentence may previously have been overlooked as an innocuous statement, but with apparent evidence pointing in another direction, it may support the notion that he may have been a Karaite, as they certainly do 'decide law from the Torah'.

This is not an entirely compelling argument as the Rabbinites also base their Law on the Torah, although with more latitude. But it does make for a fascinating study to think that our (third) Master Copy, after Moshe and Ezra, came from Aharon ben Asher who may have been a Karaite!


Crown of Aleppo: The Mystery of the Oldest Hebrew Bible Codex, by Hayim Tawil, Bernard Schneider.


See: Was Rashi's Torah Scroll Flawed? by Rabbi Dr Shnayer Leiman.

1 comment:

  1. The community is privileged to have in its midst a talented, modern day Rabbi and true historian, with a thirst for such in-depth and unusual knowledge coupled with an ability to unearth time honoured facts and present them in simplistic chronological terms . Keep digging and shining Rabbi Michal.