Crown of Aleppo: The Mystery of the Oldest Hebrew Bible Codex

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He died in In the official version of the story, the one supported by the academics of the Ben-Zvi Institute and by Faham and his descendants, the cheese merchant was following the instructions of the two chief rabbis of Aleppo when he gave the manuscript to the state. What actually happened, as the transcripts of the trial show, is that the two chief rabbis of Aleppo instructed Faham to take the codex to Israel and entrust it not to the state but to the senior Aleppo rabbi in Israel, a scholar named Isaac Dayan.

They never intended for it to leave the community. Under pressure from state representatives, Faham disobeyed them, and that is how the community lost control of its most important possession. My book did not include copies of documents, and this allowed some to suggest I was fabricating this conclusion. I have thus included here a page from the transcript of a court hearing on March 1, , at which the two rabbis make clear what happened. One of the central and controversial questions in this story is where the Aleppo Jews who sent the manuscript to Israel intended for it to end up.

For those still in doubt, this document should clarify the matter. This January, the Israeli reporter Yifat Erlich published an investigation in the newspapers Maariv and Makor Rishon picking up where mine left off.

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She focused on Benayahu, the former director of the Ben-Zvi Institute. Faced with another reporter sniffing around the skeleton in its closet, the institute granted her access to more files than had been available to me—but gave her nothing directly related to Benayahu.

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This list is what both Erlich and I were looking for; if it still exists, however, it has yet to be made public. The fight at the institute, she found, reached not only the president but also the prime minister, Golda Meir, and the attorney general. After he was forced out, she reported, he returned to the institute without permission; when the new administrators changed the locks he broke in, and eventually a guard had to be posted to bar his entry.

Continue reading: No reply. That meant there was no way of knowing what, precisely, the institute had, or once had, and what was missing. Like me, Erlich turned up no smoking gun in the case of the codex—there is no evidence linking Benayahu to that disappearance. But because the world of rare Hebrew books is small and dealers and collectors know each other, this fact is interesting but not incriminating.

But neither did Erlich find evidence for any significant absence of pages from the codex before it reached the Ben-Zvi Institute and its director at the end of January Only afterwards was the absence of pages noted. But it is not mentioned in any documents—not mentioned, that is, before the manuscript reached the institute. The first to record the absence was Benayahu. The agency official held it for more than two weeks in January before turning it over to the institute. If they were already gone, the Ben-Zvi Institute is innocent.

If, on the other hand, they were there when Shragai had the codex, the Ben-Zvi Institute is responsible for their disappearance. Shragai, however, left no written testimony, or at least none that I or the other Aleppo Codex detectives have been able to find. This testimony—which I believe almost certainly exists somewhere—is one of the holy grails of the codex mystery. According to Sutton, Shragai told him that when he had the codex it was whole or nearly whole.

The pages, Shragai said, went missing after he last saw the manuscript—they went missing, that is, at the Ben-Zvi Institute. Although I know Rafi well and have found him to be entirely trustworthy and his memory reliable, I chose not to include this information in my book because I did not have a recording of this conversation or written notes made at the time. Ovadia was at home the night the codex was brought to his father in Ovadia said that he had seen the manuscript—and it was whole except for a small number of pages.

Nearly all of the Torah, he said, was present and accounted for.

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This matched the testimony given to Rafi Sutton by the elder Shragai years before. Kassin taped the conversation. Erlich included this new piece of the puzzle in her newspaper investigation, putting the onus for the disappearance more firmly on the Ben-Zvi Institute. The institute, for its part, has been unable to come up with any indication that the pages were missing when the manuscript arrived.

This being the case, its strategy seems to obfuscate and lie low until the current wave of interest and suspicion dissipates. This approach, which reporters are used to encountering from politicians and military officials, is even less edifying when practiced by academic historians. A conference on the codex planned jointly by the Ben-Zvi Institute, Hebrew University, and the Israel Museum was canceled abruptly and unilaterally by the institute earlier this year, to the surprise of many of those involved, with the explanation that there was nothing new and substantial worth discussing.

I noted that the two leading scholars of the codex Prof. Rafael Zer of Hebrew University wanted to hold the conference and objected to its cancellation, and I asked for the names of the codex scholars who supposedly thought otherwise. I am doubtful that these scholars exist and believe the conference was canceled to save the institute further attention and embarrassment. The professor did not reply. But the family did not contact me further at the time and has not since. When Erlich approached them for a response, however, she was greeted with a vehement reaction—the family having presumably realized by this time the threat not only to their reputation but, at least potentially, to their collection.

Erlich taped the unpleasant conversation that ensued. Pressure on Erlich, her editors, and her publisher to withhold the article did not succeed, and it came out on Jan. It is a collection of nonsense infused with malignance, jealousy, and pathetic conspiracy theories. I asked if the institute denied the theft of its books and the suspicions regarding the Aleppo Codex, and if not, why it did not initiate a transparent investigation into the matter—the institute is not, after all, a private business, but a scholarly body funded by the public to document and preserve the heritage of the Jews of the East.

Silvera showed me two receipts from the Ben-Zvi Institute for a valuable Bible manuscript donated by his father to the institute in One was signed by President Ben-Zvi himself, and the other by Benayahu. He wondered if I might help him locate the manuscript. I took the documents back to Jerusalem and found that the manuscript had vanished. The Ben-Zvi Institute is a state agency, receiving its budget from the public coffers and thus must answer to the comptroller.

The institute then came up with what I believe it imagined to be a canny legal ploy: Because an administrative re-organization was carried out in , attaching the institute to a new body known as Yad Ben-Zvi, their lawyers claimed that the institute after was no longer the same institute as the one before. While it might have the same name, that is, it bore no responsibility for anything that its institutional predecessor might or might not have done.

The comptroller accepted this absurd explanation and refused to investigate further. If the Ben-Zvi Institute after is not the one that existed before , then the current incarnation of the institute not only has no legal liability for its missing manuscripts—it also has no claim to the pride of its collection, the Aleppo Codex. In May of this year, I was invited to speak at an Aleppo synagogue in Flatbush.

The earliest written evidence of the appearance of the codex among the Jews comes from the eighth century, but most likely it was in use some time before that. However, biblical manuscripts in codex form only became plentiful in the tenth century, and some of these have survived to this day. The codex has several conspicuous advantages over the scroll: the pages are written on both sides, thus economizing on expensive materials.

More importantly, it is possible to leaf through them quickly and go from the beginning of a book to its end, whereas doing the same thing in a scroll takes a long time.

The Aleppo Codex

According to the Halakha Jewish religious law , a Bible in codex form is not acceptable for public reading in the synagogue. For that purpose scrolls continued to be used, and it was forbidden to add vocalization and cantillation marks to them. The new books were therefore used for study and to preserve the reading tradition. However, vocalization and cantillation marks were added to them, indicating the manner in which they should be read.

Masoretic annotations were also included, the purpose of which was to preserve the precise biblical text. Photographs: From the full Scroll of Isaiah — Shamosh, p. The Aleppo Codex is composed of fascicles of ten folios. The faces of the parchment differ from one another in appearance and color; therefore all the folios in each fascicle are arranged so that in each spread of two pages a flesh side will face a flesh side, or a hair side will face a hair side.

In that way, uniformity of appearance is preserved in each spread of pages. The Aleppo Codex is written with three columns per page, except for the wisdom books Job, Proverbs, and Psalms , which are written in two columns per page, because of their characteristic poetical structure. The number of lines per column is fixed: there are twenty-eight lines in every column.

Before the writing, the lines and columns were etched into the surface of the parchment with a knife. To trace the lines, it was customary to make tiny holes in the margins of the page, and the craftsman who traced the lines extended straight lines from hole to hole. The letters were written beneath the guideline. That is to say the letters hang, as it were, from the etched line. The scribe who wrote the Bible took care to begin each line at the right margin of each column.

It is more difficult to justify the left margin of each column. The scribe of the Aleppo Codex did not expand the letters at the end of the lines. However, he occasionally bunched together the last letters of a line, so that they would not extend far beyond the margin. The most prominent means for justifying lines was by filling them with graphic forms similar to a small resh or a truncated aleph. In the lines before the Haazinu Give Ear poem Deut. Empty columns separate the Pentateuch from the Prophets, and the Prophets from the Writings.

The transition between these sections takes place on the same page, but not in the same column. At the end of the Pentateuch, the scribe wrote very short lines, containing one or two words, in order to complete the Pentateuch at the end of the column.

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Three empty lines separate the books of the prophets, including the twelve latter prophets. Two empty lines separate the books of the Writings as well as each of the five books that comprise Psalms. The sums of the verses in each book were written on the empty lines between them. Photographs or links to photographs: Fillers in the Aleppo Codex — Sefunot 19, after p. IX and the large photograph.

Crown of Aleppo: The Mystery of the Oldest Hebrew Bible Codex

The end of the Pentateuch in the Aleppo Codex Sefunot 19, p. Fillers before the Haazinu Song — Deut. IV, at the beginning of the book. Page from the wisdom books — written in two columns — Shamosh, pl.

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VIII at the beginning of the book. Bibliography: M. The ornamented Bibles fall into several categories. The earliest group includes Eastern Bibles that were written in Eretz-Israel, Syria, Egypt and Babylonia from the ninth to the thirteenth century. The earliest dated Hebrew manuscript is that of the Prophets from Cairo. According to the colophon the dedication by the scribe at the end of the manuscript , it was written by the Masorete Moshe Ben Asher in Some scholars have challenged the antiquity of the manuscript and its attribution to Moshe Ben Asher.

However, everyone agrees that it is an old and important Eastern manuscript. The decorations on this manuscript include several pages with geometric and floral patterns at the beginning and end of the book. Some of the outlines of the forms consist of a micrographic text, the contents of which are the great Masora attributed to the Ben Asher family. The use of micrographic texts as outlines of decorative motifs is found only in Hebrew manuscripts.

This practice began in the East and later passed to the West. There are no ornaments or decorations in the parts of the Aleppo Codex which are presently in our possession. A seven-branched candelabrum appears in the center, surrounded by incense pans, bowls, goblets, the jar of manna, the Golden Altar and the Ark of the Covenant. The tendency to regard the book of the Bible as a substitute for the destroyed Temple is evident here. In Ashkenazi Bibles, there are no decorative pages, and drawings of the vessels of the Tabernacle are few. Instead, there are illustrations of the text in panels of the initial words of a book and occasionally miniatures.

The drawings are similar in style to those found in Latin manuscripts of southern Germany, but human figures are distorted by inserting faces of animals or birds or by hiding the faces. Photographs or links to photographs: Ornaments in various forms. It is possible to make use of the collection, Mareh Maqom — Shamosh, p.

XI at the beginning of the book. XIII at the beginning of the book. XIV at the beginning of the book. It is still a good idea to look for something colorful — such as from the facsimile of MS Leningrad. Such examination is done in various areas: spelling, vocalization, cantillation marks, accents and the like.

Comparison of the manuscripts reveals a long series of differences in each of these areas. In itself that is not sufficient, for the existence of a variety of methods still does not privilege one of them over another. How can manuscripts be evaluated to determine which is the most reliable and accurate? Two tests may be made: an internal one and an external one. The internal one is the test of consistency of the manuscript itself. Sometimes there are variants in the manuscript which, with a high degree of certainty, can be said to be mere errors, such as the dropping of a vowel or cantillation mark, or the combination of cantillation marks in a manner impossible according to the rules of cantillation, as a result of careless copying.

The Masoretic annotations are very important in this respect. One may check whether the Masoretic annotations were written properly, and whether the text of the Bible in the manuscript is consistent with the contents of the Masoretic annotations written in it. Moreover, comparative study of the Masoretic apparatus in the various manuscripts shows that the annotations in various manuscripts are usually consistent with each other and lead toward a certain version of the Bible. The degree of accuracy of each of the manuscripts must, therefore, be examined not only with relation to the Masoretic commentary found in it but also in relation to all of the Masoretic comments found in old manuscripts.

In order to reach a general conclusion about the quality of a manuscript, hundreds, even thousands of verifications of the type described here in general terms must be made. Here are the conclusions of two outstanding scholars of the Aleppo Codex: Professor Israel Yevin: This manuscript is vocalized and the cantillation marks are inserted in the most precise and meticulous manner, and it preserves the purity of all the ancient instructions regarding accentuation, which were obscured or disappeared from later manuscripts.

In any event, in these respects, it is the most accurate of the Tiberian manuscripts of the Bible, of which I have examined the photocopies. Rabbi Mordecai Breuer states: Anyone who examines the Aleppo Codex and looks closely into it, both generally and in its details, is astonished by the ability of its vocalizer and Masorete to produce something accurate, without flaw or error, with perfection almost beyond human ability. He was the only one among all the scribes, vocalizers, Masoretes, and proofreaders who managed to write an entire manuscript of the Bible without deviating from the rules and instructions of the Masora.

Introduction to the Horev edition of the Bible, Hebrew. A few numbers will demonstrate this evaluation. In the Cairo manuscript of the Prophets, there are about errors of that kind. However, in the Aleppo Codex, there are two places in the Prophets where there is no doubt that the scribe erred in this matter.

The external test of a manuscript is its genealogy and status among the Masoretes. In this respect as well, the Aleppo Codex stands far above all the other manuscripts of the Bible. We shall present two examples from two early codices that contain the entire Bible. The Masorete of the Sassoon MS , from the tenth century, cites a Masoretic comment and mentions its source: And we found them like the work of the great scholar Aharon Ben Moshe Ben Asher and his deeds in the codex called Altaj. Thus we find that as early as the tenth century, the name of the great scholar Aharon Ben Asher was well known, and his special manuscript of the Bible was already famous and known as the Crown.

Photographs of the Keter Qatan. There is one in Shamosh, pl. Photographs of the polyglots — Entsiqlopedia miqrait, vol. V, cols. Joshua and Judges, Ramat Gan, , pp. The edition of the Bible Project — Ezekiel — title page. Miqraot Gedolot Haketer — the exterior binding page. In a fierce controversy arose in ultra-Orthodox circles in Jerusalem and Bnei-Braq regarding the proper way to write scrolls of the prophets.

One party advocated writing them in accordance with the Aleppo Codex, whereas the other party opposed this for various reasons, the main one being that there was a long-standing tradition regarding the writing of the divisions, and it was improper to deviate from it and follow the Aleppo Codex.

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This controversy was waged in Haredi religious courts, in large posters in the streets, and mainly in detailed tracts published by both sides.