Matti Friedman gives a fascinating account of the history, and recent partial theft, of one of the oldest and most valuable books in the world.
The Aleppo Codex, a bound book of approximately 500 parchment pages, was compiled in Tiberias around the year 930 C.E., making it the oldest known copy of the complete Bible. It was moved to Jerusalem, stolen by crusaders in 1099, ransomed by the Jews of Cairo, and studied by the philosopher Maimonides, who declared it the most accurate version of the holy text. It was later taken to Aleppo, Syria, and guarded for six centuries. There it became known as the â€œCrown of Aleppo.â€
In 1947, in a riot that followed the United Nations vote on the partition of Palestine, the codex disappeared, surfacing 10 years later in mysterious circumstances in the new state of Israel. The codex is currently held in the Israel Museum, in the same building as the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is controlled not by the museum, however, but by a prestigious academic body, the Ben-Zvi Institute, founded by Israelâ€™s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Somewhere along the way in the mid-20th century, 200 priceless pagesâ€”around 40 percent of the totalâ€”went missing. These include the most important pages: the Torah, or Five Books of Moses.
There are two mysteries linked to the codex. The first: How did the book move to Israel from a grotto in Aleppoâ€™s Great Synagogue and effectively become the property of the new state? And the second: How did its missing pages vanish, and where might they be now? …
The official version of the story, propagated by the academics in Israel who control the manuscript, claimed the pages vanished in Aleppo around the time of the 1947 riot. But we know now that the manuscript was seen whole as late as 1952, five years later. The first description of any significant damage to the codex dates, strikingly, only to 1958â€”after the manuscript reached the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem.
At around the same time, my investigation found, dozens of valuable books and manuscripts vanished from the library of the same institute. When I approached former officials at the institute with evidence of the other missing books, several went on record saying the man responsible for their disappearance was the instituteâ€™s director at the time, Meir Benayahu, a scholar who throughout a long and illustrious career studied, collected, bought, and sold rare Hebrew books. He left his post amid a legal battle over control of the institute in 1970.
Benayahu, who died in 2009, came from a powerful political family with roots in Iraq; he was the son of a Sephardic chief rabbi, Yitzhak Nissim, and brother of a senior Likud cabinet minister, Moshe Nissim. (As was common in those years, Benayahu adopted a more modern and Israeli-sounding last name.) This scandal has long been known in Israelâ€™s small and insular academic world but was never made public. Legal proceedings were avoided at the time thanks to the direct intervention of Israelâ€™s president, Zalman Shazar. Police were never summoned, no charges were filed, and no books were returned. Benayahuâ€™s family denies any wrongdoing and says the accusations against him are a smear campaign aimed at covering up thefts by other people; they have asked, rightly, why no one went to the police at the time. Today Benayahuâ€™s family owns a collection of Hebrew texts that is one of the worldâ€™s largest in private hands.
Whatever precisely happened at the Ben-Zvi Institute, the long-buried affair of the instituteâ€™s vanished booksâ€”whether it is connected or not to the disappearance of the codex pagesâ€”is arguably the worst corruption scandal in the history of the Israeli academy.
The Aleppo Codex web-site.