Crown of Aleppo

The Mystery of the Oldest Bible Codex

By H. Tawil & B. Schneider

The Jewish Publication Society, 2110, 199 pages


Millions kiss the Torah scroll as it is taken around the synagogue during services, but do not know the history of the Torah text, why it is written in a scroll and not a book, why no vowels are allowed in the scroll, and are there scrolls that have some words with different spellings. This short well-written book answers many of these questions and dramatically tells the fascinating story of the composition of the earliest currently-existing copy of the Hebrew Bible, a volume composed as a book, called a codex, and not a scroll, in the ninth century.


The Torah was copied by hand and, because of human nature and despite careful examinations, errors crept into the text, mostly spelling differences. These small differences were noted and during the first millennium decisions had to be made which scrolls contain the correct wording and which had mistakes. A group of people called Masorites, a word meaning “traditionalists,” worked on the Torah texts to determine the traditional or, more precisely, the correct wording.


The Masorites were biblical scholars and scribes who are generally thought to have lived in Israel between about the seventh and the early twelfth century. Masorites studied the wording and spelling of scriptural words and determined the correct Torah text. They also created vowel signs to facilitate the reading of the Torah and show how it should be read, vocalization signs to demonstrate how each term should be pronounced, and accentuation markings indicating how the text should be parsed and chanted. The Masorites also wrote thousands of notations concerning the proper spelling of biblical words, how frequently such spellings occurred and other characteristics of the text. Unfortunately, not all the Masorites agreed and their notations differ.


The most famous and most respected Masorite was Aharon ben Moshe ben Asher of the tenth century. He lived and worked in Tiberias in Israel. The city flourished until the arrival of the Crusaders in the early twelfth century, when it was destroyed.


Ben Asher is considered the creator of the Masoretic notes to the most authentic version of the Torah. Maimonides saw his codex – a codex is a book, in contrast to a scroll – and stated that it is the correct text of the Bible. Jewry accepted Maimonides’ decision and the Ben Asher codex became the accepted version of the Torah. Other Torah manuscripts were compared with it to determine whether they were correct.


The manuscript was taken from Tiberias to Aleppo in Syria; therefore people named it the Aleppo Codex. Since the Jews of Aleppo called their city Aram Tzova, and since they considered the codex the “crown” of their city – crown is keter in Hebrew – they also called the Ben Asher codex Keter Aram Tzova. The Keter was placed in a box in the Aleppo synagogue for safekeeping.


Tragically, in 1947, because of the tensions leading up to the reestablishment of the State of Israel, which was founded in 1948, the Syrian government encouraged its citizens to destroy Jewish holy sites. The synagogue that housed the treasured Keter was burned and only parts of the codex were saved from destruction. The first and last parts of the Bible, as well as individual pages from the middle, including virtually all of the Pentateuch, were lost.


Scientists who examined the remains of the codex are convinced that the codex was not damaged by the fire. Thus it is possible that some people found the codex after the synagogue was destroyed and stole parts of it either to sell the fragments, because they felt that possession of parts of the codex would bring them luck, or for some other nefarious or foolish reason.


Tawil and Schneider describe the history of the codex from the time of its composition until now and tell many interesting additional facts in their book, such as the following. Was the scribe Shlomo ben Buya’a, who wrote the consonants in the Crown, and Aharon ben Asher, who added the Masoretic notes, Karaites and not rabbinically-minded Jews? What is the weird story of the involvement of the famous self-aggrandizing forger Abraham Firkovich, what are some of his adventures, and how was he involved with the Crown? How did the Aleppo community fail to preserve the codex properly during the more than 400 years (1478-1957) that it was in their possession and how did this negligence damage the book? Why was a famous Bible scholar mistakenly convinced that the Aleppo codex was not the one approved by Maimonides? Why did some misguided person change Maimonides’ writing about the codex? How did Murad Faham rescue the codex while putting his life in danger by the Syrian government? How did the leaders of the Aleppo community persecute Faham, including instituting legal proceedings against him? What are the curious superstitions that surround the codex?

All in all, although the book is small, it contains a wealth of information that people kissing and otherwise extolling the Torah should know.