Perception Book Review 002–The Aleppo Codex

Nonfiction - 200s - December 11
Pesky Library / / CC BY-NC-ND

I just concluded one of the most compelling and attention grabbing reads than I’ve had in quite some time. As I was preparing for my series on the Bible, I happened across this wonderful book written by Matti Freedman entitled “The Aleppo Codex—the True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible.” As I pored over the many sources of information regarding the Bible and its fascinating history, I was made aware of this mysterious Bible of all Bibles called the Aleppo Codex. Of course I was able to quickly get some basic information as to what the Aleppo Codex was, but I was dissatisfied with simply a general definition which Wikipedia and various websites handily provided. I’d like to think that the Holy Spirit addressed my curiosity by fortuitously bringing me face-to-face with this amazing book—I mean I was helping my wife take care of some business at our local library and I had absolutely no intentions of looking for any book on the codex at the time. I happened to look on a bookshelf and there it was. At first I was doubtful that I’d even have time to read this book having such a long list of books already slated to be read in my Kindle. I determined that I would make a modest effort to read at least a portion of the book before I was forced to return it to the library.

I was about a week into having the book on my magazine table, having not touched it since bringing it home. As I passed by the table I picked up the book and decided to read just the introduction. That was a most fortuitous mistake indeed. I immediately became obsessed with the book which kept my attention from introduction to the final closing paragraph. In spite of my jammed packed schedule I was able to polish off this book in less than a couple weeks which for me is blazingly fast.

Quite simply: Mr. Freedman takes his readers on what feels like a 1940s-1950s cinematic black and white mystery. Truly the story of the Aleppo Codex is nothing short of a mystery. The story starts in Tiberias in the 10th century when the codex was meticulously penned by  Rabbi Shlomo known as Ben-Buya’a, described as a swift scribe. Shlomo worked directly under the supervision of renowned scholor and Jewish sage Aaron Ben-Asher. If you ever have a moment of time and your curiosity is peeked, please go to youtube and pull up a video or two that shows how a Torah scroll is drafted…the level of work and dedication is monumental if you ask me. Thus I have nothing but awe for these men who made it their life’s work to replicate and preserve the Sacred Writings. Scribal errors were not and even today are not tolerated. A misprint by a scribe, if it can not be physically corrected, will result in the scrapping of the scroll or codex and starting all over. It is a painstaking effort that requires intense concentration. It is said that before each word the scribe pens, the scribe will utter it aloud so as to ensure that he is acutely aware of what is to be written on the parchment.

This particular codex was produced for the sole purpose of being a reference guide whereby other codices and scrolls would emerge. Quite simply, the Aleppo Codex is believed to be the most accurate manuscript of the sacred Hebrew canon that we have in existence today and thus its value to Judaism and Christianity is immeasurable.

From Tiberius the codex made its way to Aleppo Syria where it was kept within a safe in a Jewish Synogogue for centuries. It was overseen by a lineage of Jewish overseers throughout these centuries, rarely ever emerging out from its double locked safe to be viewed, read, and studied by anyone. Through the centuries, the vast majority of requests to study this text were denied. Thus its existence was known only by a privileged few in the scholarly realm.

When the United Nations voted to allow Israel to become a nation in 1947, riots erupted in Aleppo. The synagogue where the Crown (the nickname for the Aleppo Codex) was kept was ransacked and burned. The Crown itself was believed to have been pulled from its safe and the pages strewn in a heap on the floor of the ransacked synagogue. Efforts were made by the overseers of the synagogue to salvage the Codex and it is at this point where the great mystery of the Crown starts to take flight.

Ultimately the Crown makes its way to the newly founded State of Israel where it was and remains to this day housed permanently at the Ben-Zvi Institute, “a government-funded academic body named after the man who was given the manuscript upon its arrival in Israel–Itzhak Ben-Zvi, ethnographer, historian, and Israel’s president between 1952 and 1963.” (Freeman). After it’s receipt at the Institute, it was quickly learned that about a 1/3 of the codex pages were missing and the remaining pages appeared to have been burned on the edges (believed as a result of the ransacking of the Aleppo Synagogue). Many scholars accepted the incompleteness of the Crown as a misfortunate happenstance of the Syrian riots of 1947. But author Matti Freeman questioned this dismissive story upon learning that missing pages of the Crown had shown up in odd places around the world, owned by interesting yet secretive people.

The remainder of the book tracks Mr. Freedman’s search for the missing portions of the Crown as well as obtaining answers as to who was responsible for desecrating this of Bibles. Freedman finds himself in a world of intrigue, lies, mistrust, and to some extent danger. Given the length of time that has passed since the Aleppo riots, many of the witnesses to the Aleppo’s demise and current state have died; those few remaining presented themselves as hostile witnesses to Freedman as he would seek their assistance in arriving at the answers to why the Crown was devoid of so many pages. His ultimate conclusions about the Crown’s current state of being and its history suggests that those who were entrusted with protecting and transporting the Crown to Israel betrayed that trust and took liberties to secure a piece of history for themselves with the hope of receiving great wealth and personal blessings.

It is a story that is filled with many characters and at times it was difficult to keep track of who was who in the zoo. However, Freedman seemed to understand that and he made it a common practice throughout his book to provide the reader with gentle reminders of who these individuals were and the roll they played in the Crown’s story. Freedman’s style is that of a classic novel-writer with a hard and gritty news reporter chaser…indeed. I enjoyed every bit of this book, from beginning to end. Freedman did not presume his readers to be Biblical scholars and thus he caringly spent several pages in educating the reader about the development of the sacred texts and how the Aleppo Codex came into being. That said, Freedman cares enough about his readers that he takes you on this most murky journey but never leaves the reader behind to fend for his or herself. He is protective of the reader and that I applaud.

If you have time in your busy schedule, I would highly recommend that you read this book. It will be well worth your time. How did my reading of this book help me spiritually: I gained an even greater appreciation for the greatness, the historicity, the ordering and protection of the Word of Yehovah. There is no doubt that the Bible is the Word of the Most High, written by devout men who He, Yehovah, selected and inspired with His precious Holy Spirit, to write. As a result of the toil, the turmoil, and the lives that have been expended so that we may have in our hands these sacred writings, it is mandatory that we not squander this gift–the Holy Bible.

The Aleppo Codex–In Pursuit of One of the World’s Most Coveted, Sacred, and Mysterious Books–Matti Freedman. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013.


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