The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible
Matti Friedman’s The Aleppo Codex is not, by his own admission, the book he set out to write. What began as a glimmering of interest evolved quickly into a web of mystery, intrigue, and unanswered questions as Friedman mined the story behind the legendary “Crown of Aleppo”—the oldest authoritative manuscript of the canonized Hebrew Bible, written in the tenth century by a famous scribe, used by the legendary Maimonides while writing the Mishneh Torah, and protected for centuries in the ancient synagogue of Syria’s largest Jewish community. When the Aleppo community began to disperse in the 1940s and ‘50s, after the State of Israel’s founding, the Codex found itself in transit for the first time in thousands of years, leaving its burnt-down sanctuary and traversing the border to Israel. It is here that the story hiccups: Faced with the half-told story of a controversial trial, rumors of missing pages, and hints of political machinations, Friedman uncovers more questions than answers at every turn, adding to his conviction that the book that was once a community’s greatest pride has been ruined by a “conspiracy of silence,” a dearth of reliable information, and intentional ambiguity. Friedman shines as a magnificent and thoughtful storyteller, shifting between time and place with facility, bringing the story of the Codex until 1948 to life and weaving it skillfully with the present and recent past. With Friedman’s crusade at its center, The Aleppo Codex might be an unintentional thriller but it is a great one nonetheless, introducing us to compelling, sometimes shifty characters, and drawing us into the sad story of a relic that was destroyed by the humans entrusted with its care. Thoroughly — even obsessively — researched, Friedman’s book brings to light a wealth of information never made public before. It may not solve the mystery, but it comes pretty close.
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1. At the heart of The Aleppo Codex is a trial over ownership of the codex—but also over who owns Jewish history. Did the State of Israel have a legitimate claim to the manuscript? Should anyone or any group own historical treasures? Can they?
2. The Aleppo Codex makes mention of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the desert fortress at Masada as potent national symbols. What did the codex symbolize for the new Jewish state? And what role in general did myths and symbols play in the founding of Israel? How is this related to why Israel’s government, and particularly the president, wanted the codex so badly?
3. Why are the Dead Sea Scrolls famous while the Aleppo Codex has been largely forgotten?
4. What can we learn today from the Jews of Arab countries—from their centuries of existence in the lands of Islam, and from their communities' bitter end?
5. One of the historical figures who makes a cameo appearance in The Aleppo Codex is Moses Maimonides, the great physician and philosopher who, perhaps more than any other person, embodied Jewish life under Islam. What importance does Maimonides have for Jewish history?
6. What does it mean that Jews are called the "people of the book" and how does the history of the codex fit into that description?
7. Why is the codex also referred to as the Crown? What purpose did it serve for Jews in the Diaspora?
8. The codex provides the instructions for how to read the Hebrew Bible. Jews believe that there is information in Biblical text that is beyond our understanding. Why is it so important that we not lose even a tiny vowel sign, one that prolongs the syllable “ah” into “aah,” for example?
9. For millennia, Jews have sanctified sacred books and the act of writing and reading them. How will the age of the e-reader affect those traditions?