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The enduring mystery of the Aleppo Codex

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What happened to 190 pages of one of the most accurate versions of the Old Testament?

It’s a mystery which probably has Dan Brown kicking himself for not knowing about it. It’s a story which has all the elements of a best-selling book or blockbuster movie, and it happens to be true.

At its center is the Aleppo Codex, also known as the Crown of Aleppo, one of the oldest and most accurate versions of the Old Testament. Since it is believed to be an authoritative version of the Hebrew Bible, it is quite possibly the most sacred manuscript known to the Jews, and to Christians as well.

According to Dr. Adolfo Roitman, the head curator of the Shrine of the Book Museum in Jerusalem, where the Codex now resides, all current versions of the Old Testament stem, “in one way or another, from this ancient manuscript.”

But the Codex is significant not only for what it contains, but also for what it doesn’t. Some 190 pages of priceless text – around 40% of the total - are missing. These include four out of five books of the Pentateuch - the first section of books in the Bible also called the Five Books of Moses - as well as five books from the last section - Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel and Ezra.

The Codex was written in the town of Tiberias, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, in or around 930 CE, and then moved to Jerusalem, from where it was stolen when the Crusaders sacked the city in 1099.

The Codex was ransomed by the Jews of Cairo, and brought to that city.

In the 14th century it found its way to Aleppo, Syria, where for hundreds of years it was kept in the synagogue.

The turning point, and the real start of the mystery, came in November 1947, when a United Nations resolution laid the groundwork for the establishment of the State of Israel. Anti-Jewish riots erupted in Syria, and the Aleppo Synagogue was burned down.

The Codex however was smuggled out, kept in a safe place until it arrived in Israel in 1958, and was presented to then-president Yitzhak Ben Zvi. It became the property of the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, a government-funded research center.

The Codex remained at the institute until it was moved to the Israel Museum in the mid-1980's, where parts are presented to the public in the Shrine of the Book, alongside another significant and not dissimilar item - the Dead Sea Scrolls.

It’s a justly famous exhibit, but perhaps is overshadowed by the question of what happened to the missing pages. The search for the answer has sparked debate and energized scholars, authors, and amateur biblical sleuths.

The pages were initially thought to have been destroyed when the Aleppo synagogue was set alight, or perhaps looted by Syrians.

But journalist Matti Friedman, author of a book on the subject, has a different explanation. "Judging from the evidence that I uncovered, the pages were lost in Israel, that's the most likely scenario," he says.

Professor Eyal Ginio, director of the Ben Zvi Institute, disagrees. He thinks the pages were lost during the rioting in Syria.

"If parts of the Codex were lost after 1947 and were sold or taken for a private collection, the pages would have surfaced,” he says.

Instead, only two segments from the missing pages have so far surfaced, and in both cases those who had them “claimed they were found by their ancestors on the floor of the Synagogue."

Ginio who only took up his position several months ago, is referring to two leaves which were returned to the Israel Museum on two different occasions – a full page in 1982, and a fragment in 2007.

Courtesy of Israel Museum

But despite this evidence Friedman is not convinced. He also doesn’t rule out the possibility that the Ben Zvi institute may have had had something to do with the disappearance of the pages. In an article, he noted that members of the Institute have resisted any investigation into the matter, while failing to produce any evidence to dispel the suspicions.

"If you look at the story of the Codex you find out that many manuscripts were missing at that time from Ben Zvi institute and they were missing during the time the Codex was there," he says.

So far as Professor Ginio is concerned, these accusation are based on rumor only. When asked about the allegations by Yom Tov Assis, the recently-deceased former director of the Ben Zvi institute, that some manuscripts were missing during the time the codex was there, he says Assis devoted years to trying to find the lost pages - and failed. He’s also emphatic about Friedman's demand for a public investigation into the disappearance.

"I don't have anything to hide. If a formal investigation is conducted I'll be happy to assist," he says sharply.

The question of the Codex ownership is also a subject of dispute.

Filmmaker Avi Dabach, who hopes to make a documentary about the Codex, believes the manuscript belongs to the Jewish community which was forced out of Syria.

"In the 1960s the Aleppo-Jewish community sued the people who brought the Codex to Israel… The Israeli Authorities decided to confiscate this item and then, from a position of strength, force on the community an arrangement," he states.

For many years members of the Aleppo Jewish community came to the Shrine of the Book in the Israel Museum to see the Codex and pray in front of it. For them, the significance of the Codex goes beyond religion. They regard it as something that held their community together for many years in a Muslim dominated country.

Dabach and his crew have opened an online fundraising campaign to finance their movie, and hope they can continue the investigation Friedman started.

Uri Shapira is an i24news television reporter

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