The world’s oldest and most authoritative copy of the Hebrew Bible reposed for more than half a millennium in a synagogue in Aleppo, Syria, before it was desecrated in riots that followed the United Nations vote in 1947 calling for a Jewish state and an Arab state in the British mandate of Palestine. Known as the Aleppo Codex—or the Crown of Aleppo or simply the Crown—it was the work of scribes called Masoretes in Tiberias, Israel, on the Sea of Galilee in about 930 C.E. The Crown contained not only the holy words but also cantillation marks indicating how they should be chanted, other indications of how words should be pronounced and many footnotes (masora), large and small, commenting on textual issues.
From Tiberias, the Crown went to Jerusalem. Then it went to a synagogue in Fustat, outside of Cairo. It was here that the great Jewish exegete Moshe ben Maimon (better known by his Greek name Maimonides) relied on it in composing his Mishneh Torah, thereby firmly establishing the preeminent authority of the Crown.
Sometime in the second half of the 15th century, the Crown appeared in Aleppo. It is not clear how it got here, but here it acquired its name: the Crown of Aleppo (and its Hebrew name: Keter Aram Tzova).
In 2008 I wrote a BAR articlea about the Crown—recounting its history, the riots that damaged and burned part of it and how it was rescued and taken to Israel, where it is now kept in the Shrine of the Book of the Israel Museum. But only 295 pages out of an original 490 pages are here. Where are the nearly 200 pages that are missing? All of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers are missing; only the last 11 pages of Deuteronomy are there. Also missing are a few pages from the Prophets and the last books of the Writings. What happened to them? Were they burned—or stolen? If the latter, were they taken before or after the Crown left Syria? If after, were they stolen on the way to Israel, perhaps in Turkey? Or were they stolen after the Crown arrived in Israel?
In 2012 investigative journalist Matti Friedman wrote a best-selling book about the Crown1 that created an international splash. I met with Friedman several times as he was writing his book. My impression is that he did a first-rate, in-depth investigation. He explored the possibility that the Crown had not lost its missing pages in Syria (or in Turkey) but after it had arrived in Israel. In 2014 he wrote a post bringing his investigation up-to-date. At about this time, another Israeli reporter, Yifat Erlich, also filed an investigative report.
Is it possible that a substantial number of the missing pages of the Crown are floating around somewhere in Israel? It’s very unlikely. As Friedman (and Erlich) concede, they have “turned up no smoking gun.” Hard evidence is missing. The contention is that if the Pentateuch and other pages were already missing before the document landed in Israel, this would surely have been noticed and commented on in the decade between the riots and the time it arrived in Israel; inasmuch as it does not appear to have been noticed, the missing pages of the Crown must have been stolen in Israel.
When the Crown arrived in Israel a decade after the riots in Syria, it was given to the head of the Jewish Agency’s immigration department, Shlomo Zalman Shragai. He held it for more than two weeks. He would surely have noticed that four books of the 061 062 Pentateuch were missing, so the argument goes, but here too there is no written record of Shragai’s having noticed the missing pages. So the Crown must have arrived in Israel with the now-missing pages—and they were stolen thereafter, according to Friedman. Shragai has since died, but Friedman believes a document testifying to the Crown’s arrival in Israel intact does exist; it “almost certainly exists somewhere.”
There is, however, what Friedman calls “a second hand account.” In connection with a TV documentary, Shragai told interviewer Rafi Sutton in 1993 that when the Crown was delivered to him 35 years earlier it was whole except for a small number of pages. That was also the impression of Shragai’s son Ovadiah who was home the night of the interview. The memory of a child of ten, 50 years after the event, however, is questionable to say the least.
If indeed Shragai (who became a member of the board of trustees of the Crown) knew that pages of the Crown were lost in Israel and didn’t tell anyone, he himself would be a partner to this crime.
Yet his silence speaks volumes; the pages were evidently missing when Shragai first saw the Crown.
One more step: The Crown was also examined by President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi when it first entered the country. If indeed the Crown reached him containing most of the Pentateuch pages, he would surely have noticed when he later examined the Crown that these pages had disappeared. In fact, Ben-Zvi made great efforts to find the missing pages, activating Israeli diplomats and intelligence agents all over the world. Did he do all this knowing that most of these pages disappeared under his own possession? Hardly!
In 1989 Sutton also interviewed a leading Aleppo rabbi named Yitzhak Chehebar who had moved to Buenos Aires. Rabbi Chehebar had seen the Crown in Aleppo in 1952, five years after the riots and six years before it was smuggled to Israel. Here is the conversation:
Rabbi Chehebar: It was missing a few pages that perhaps fell to the ground and were burned, but not to this extent, not hundreds of pages.
Sutton: Missing are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and half the Book of Deuteronomy.
Rabbi Chehebar: I saw that it was missing a few pages. Not that many pages.
Sutton: You mean individual pages?
Rabbi Chehebar: Individual pages. Not even dozens were missing.2
It seems to me that in this testimony, Sutton is trying to put words in Rabbi Chehebar’s mouth. I am reinforced in the belief that this testimony is unreliable by a written account given by Rabbi Chehebar before 1960 (probably written in 1953 when the Crown was still in Aleppo) that is preserved in the archives of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. It is titled “Details on the Tanakh manuscript known as the Aleppo Codex, as written from my memory.” He states, “Thus because of sins, all those books were lost in the riots, and none of them remained except one ancient one [i.e., the Crown], and we did not know how it survived the destruction, but pages were missing from it in different parts of the Tanakh [the Bible], and it was missing nearly one quarter.” [Emphasis supplied]
In my opinion, this testimony, which probably goes back to 1953, is far stronger than Rabbi Chehebar’s statement decades later to a television interviewer who is trying to guide his testimony.
I am reminded of something Professor Joshua Blau, who was president of the Hebrew Language Academy, told me. He is now in his 90s, but his mind is still sharp and clear: “At our age our memory improves: We even remember things that did not happen.”
Two other matters animate those who, like Friedman and Erlich, believe the missing pages of the 070 Crown lie hidden somewhere in Israel (or the United States).
The first involves the question of who owns the Crown. The opposing claimants are the State of Israel and the Jewish community of Aleppo. The dispute was bitter and involved a lengthy trial in a Jerusalem rabbinical court that was finally settled by an agreement between the parties in which the Crown was entrusted to Jerusalem’s Ben-Zvi Institute. A board of trustees was appointed to supervise it, including many representatives of the Aleppo community in Israel. The dispute was painful to everyone, and those involved in it have no inclination to revisit it.
The second matter is even more embarrassing and involves Meir Benayahu, a former director of the Ben-Zvi Institute who owned a large collection of rare Hebrew books. Benayahu had been charged with the theft of a number of books that had vanished from the Institute’s collections. He resigned in 1970 amid a legal battle for control of the Institute and died in 2009. No one wants to talk about this episode—which, however, only arouses the suspicions of Friedman and Erlich.
From the reluctance of the parties to revisit these matters, Friedman and Erlich draw conclusions about the missing pages of the Crown, speculating that the missing pages are buried somewhere by some nefarious characters in Israel. To my mind, it is unfounded. It is a pure guess unsupported by any hard evidence.
I don’t believe that a suitcase containing hundreds of pages from the Crown exists somewhere in the world. The majority of the lost pages disappeared in Aleppo after the riots. True, individual pages of the Crown may yet turn up. But the generation that was active 67 years ago is gone. Maybe one of them gave something to the next generation. But the chance of our finding anything new decreases year by year.
The world’s oldest and most authoritative copy of the Hebrew Bible reposed for more than half a millennium in a synagogue in Aleppo, Syria, before it was desecrated in riots that followed the United Nations vote in 1947 calling for a Jewish state and an Arab state in the British mandate of Palestine. Known as the Aleppo Codex—or the Crown of Aleppo or simply the Crown—it was the work of scribes called Masoretes in Tiberias, Israel, on the Sea of Galilee in about 930 C.E. The Crown contained not only the holy words but also cantillation marks indicating how […]