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August 19, 2010 By:
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Considering the importance of the Aleppo Codex as a religious text, it's remarkable to realize how many Jews know little about it. Granted, its origins and fate are shrouded in a certain amount of mystery, which may explain why this central and resonant version of the Hebrew Bible doesn't loom as large in the general consciousness of Jews.

That problem, if it was ever perceived as such by the public, has now been rectified by the appearance of Crown of Aleppo by Hayim Tawil and Bernard Schneider, which has been published by Philadelphia's own Jewish Publication Society. The book also accomplishes another neat little trick: Though it retells the Aleppo saga with erudition and clarity, it does not dissipate completely the pleasurable, enigmatic aura that clings to the story and that's alluded to on a regular basis throughout the book.

The authors make an interesting team when it comes to tackling this particular subject. Tawil earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University, and is professor of Hebrew language and literature at Yeshiva University in New York. He's published a number of articles in comparative Semitic lexicography, and is the author of An Akkadia Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew. Schneider is a practicing attorney who also has a long-standing interest in the Bible. The publisher tells us that he represented the United States at the International Bible Contest in Jerusalem in 1983 and 1985.

So what exactly is this ancient and prized version of the Bible the pair make such a scholarly fuss about? It's the earliest known codex, or handwritten manuscript volume, of the Hebrew Bible. Completed in the 10th century, it was the rather complex handiwork of Tiberian scholars Shlomo ben Buya'a and Aharon ben Asher, "both scions of prominent scribal families," who were known as Masoretes (thus, "the crown" is also considered the most exact Masoretic text of the Bible, "complete with instructions for reading and singing the text").

The two scholars worked for years copying the entire Bible from parchment scrolls.

Over the centuries, the codex changed ownership and followed a fairly torturous path until it was delivered to a comparatively safe home in the Great Synagogue in Aleppo, Syria, a major city that boasted a longtime Jewish community.

The crown arrived there around 1478 and rested fairly comfortably. But in 1947, a particularly vicious pogrom broke out; the synagogue was torched, and the crown was thought to be destroyed. As it turned out, a considerable portion of the manuscript somehow survived.

Once the authorial duo start relaying what happened from this point forward, their book really takes off. The surviving pages of the codex were smuggled from the synagogue and held, it's believed, somewhere in the city. A decade later, they were brought secretly to Israel, via Turkey, and now reside in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem's Israel Museum. The man who secured what remained of the crown was Murad (Mordechai) Faham; his rescue mission often resembles the plot of a modern thriller.

Crown of Aleppo pretty much splits in half -- first part scholarship, second part the faster-paced story of the crown's adventures post-pogrom. But saying that does not mean that the scholarship on display here is dry. For those who enjoy the story of biblical literature and its vicissitudes, this tale is as spellbinding in its detail, page by page, as what happened to the Dead Sea Scrolls once they were extracted from the caves in Qumran.

If any prospective readers need conceiving, all they have to do is open to the first of the illustrations at the center of the book. This is a map that shows the 1,000-year journey of the crown: its beginnings in Tiberias; its 50-year stay in Jerusalem; the 300 years that it spent in Cairo, Egypt; its transfer in 1478 to Aleppo, where it remained until 1957; its year in Iskenderun, Turkey; and then its final voyage back to Jerusalem and the Shrine of the Book.

No wonder the authors liken this dramatic chronicle of triumph and tragedy to the story of the Jews themselves.

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