Mat­ti Fried­man is a reporter in Jerusalem for the Times of Israel, and author of The Alep­po Codex. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Although it fell, in ret­ro­spect, at the mid-point between the launch of the Kin­dle and the Kin­dle 2, I don’t think I had more than a vague notion of what a Kin­dle was on the day in the sum­mer of 2008 when I first descend­ed into a dark room at Israel’s nation­al muse­um in Jerusalem and, stand­ing in front of a dim­ly lit dis­play case, encoun­tered its exact opposite.

I spent much of the next four years writ­ing the sto­ry of the object I found in the muse­um, a man­u­script known as the Alep­po Codex – a mil­len­ni­um-old bun­dle of ani­mal skins that is the old­est and most accu­rate copy of the entire Hebrew Bible. In these years I was not cut off entire­ly from the march of tech­nol­o­gy. I acquired an iPod, and learned to send e‑mail from my cell­phone. But I nev­er pur­chased a Kin­dle or any of its cousins, nor did I ful­ly under­stand what they augured.

The Alep­po Codex is a book, one of the most impor­tant on earth. I wrote a book about this book. These things seemed clear to me, but when my dead­line passed and I final­ly looked up to find myself star­ing into the dead elec­tron­ic eye of the Kin­dle Fire, I saw that the mean­ing of book” had been altered and that I had just spent these years of rev­o­lu­tion engrossed in a mir­ror image of the present.

To pre­pare the Alep­po Codex, tan­ners scrubbed, stretched and cut ani­mal hides into folios that were stitched togeth­er by crafts­men. Some­one scored a grid of lines onto the pages with a sharp instru­ment, and a scribe, Shlo­mo Ben-Buya’a, from the town of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, used iron gall ink to write the Bible’s more than 300,000 Hebrew words one by one. Its com­ple­tion around 930 A.D. after years of work rep­re­sent­ed the final con­den­sa­tion of the Hebrew Bible from an ancient oral tra­di­tion to a cod­i­fied text in black ink on parch­ment – a book. The codex crowned cen­turies of schol­ar­ship and was meant to be the per­fect ver­sion of the twen­ty-four books that made up the Bible, a kind of phys­i­cal incar­na­tion of the heav­en­ly text in a sin­gle man­u­script. For Jews, every let­ter and vow­el sound in the Hebrew text is cru­cial – accord­ing to one tra­di­tion, the entire Torah is one long ver­sion of God’s name, which is anoth­er way of say­ing you do not want to get any­thing wrong. The codex sanc­ti­fied, even fetishized, the act of read­ing: above and below the let­ters were tiny hooks, lines and cir­cles denot­ing vow­els, punc­tu­a­tion and the pre­cise notes to which the words were to be chant­ed in syn­a­gogue. It was an object of near­ly unimag­in­able val­ue to the peo­ple who revered it.

Aleppo-HighRes2-Neviim4b-Kings2An elec­tron­ic book exists in an infi­nite num­ber of copies; there is no orig­i­nal. The Alep­po Codex, on the oth­er hand, exist­ed only in its orig­i­nal five-hun­dred-page man­u­script. There were no copies at all, and for this rea­son its phys­i­cal safe­ty was always para­mount. In 1099, it was held in a Jerusalem syn­a­gogue when the First Cru­sade arrived under Duke God­frey of Bouil­lon and Ray­mond, Count of Toulouse. The cru­saders sacked the city, mas­sa­cred its inhab­i­tants, and seized prop­er­ty. Accord­ing to a Mus­lim his­to­ri­an, they burned a syn­a­gogue with Jews inside, but his­tor­i­cal records also inform us that the Chris­tians saved hun­dreds of Jew­ish books to hold for ran­som. The Jews’ weak­ness in this regard was well known, and in some of the cor­re­spon­dences of the time it seems their con­cern for the stolen books was so great that it rivaled their con­cern for human cap­tives. The books, each one painstak­ing­ly copied, like the codex, by hand, con­tained price­less and some­times irre­place­able infor­ma­tion. After Jerusalem fell, the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Fus­tat, next to Cairo, raised mon­ey and sent 123 dinars with an emis­sary and instruc­tions to redeem the Scrolls of the Torah and to [attend to] the ran­som­ing of the peo­ple of God, who are in the cap­tiv­i­ty of the King­dom of Evil, may God destroy it.” The books, in that sen­tence, came first.

Then came Novem­ber 29th of that year, when the Unit­ed Nations vot­ed to par­ti­tion Pales­tine into two states, one for Arabs and one for Jews. The next day, a mob riot­ed in Alep­po. The riot­ers burned Jew­ish homes and stores. They burned the syn­a­gogue. The codex disappeared.

The Alep­po Codex was devoured by fire in the riots that erupt­ed against the Jews of Alep­po sev­er­al weeks ago,” wrote a heart­bro­ken Bible schol­ar in the Israeli dai­ly Haaretz a few weeks lat­er, in an arti­cle best described as an obit­u­ary for what he called this beloved rel­ic of the wis­dom of the Mid­dle Ages.” The codex wasn’t lost, it lat­er turned out, but this was the mean­ing of a sin­gle book with no copies: the knowl­edge inside could be lost for­ev­er. Here, then, was a book – a sin­gle, phys­i­cal book – that meant everything.

Ear­ly this year, with my own book squared away, I attend­ed a sem­i­nar with a wun­derkind web design­er who, as part of a Pow­er­Point pre­sen­ta­tion on the 21st-cen­tu­ry media, showed us a pic­ture of a cloud against a clear blue sky. The book does not exist,” he declared. Peo­ple nod­ded. The book, he said, was in a the­o­ret­i­cal cloud some­where, and all that exist­ed now were the Kin­dles and iPads and Nooks and the oth­er gate­ways to the cloud.” The book had been a step on the evo­lu­tion­ary lad­der from those ancient sto­ries told aloud to infor­ma­tion beamed invis­i­bly around the world in an instant, avail­able any­where and present nowhere at all.

My own book, thank­ful­ly, would still be a phys­i­cal object print­ed, bound and placed on shelves. I sup­pose I’m too old – thir­ty-four – not to care about that. But it was no longer incon­ceiv­able that this would not be the case, that a book would have no pages of its own, no cov­er, that it would be noth­ing that could ever be kept in a safe, dis­mem­bered, kept as a lucky charm, cov­et­ed, pur­sued or stolen as the Alep­po Codex was.

If this great Bron­tosaurus of a man­u­script, in its glo­ri­ous, incon­ve­nient phys­i­cal­i­ty, in the extreme and occa­sion­al­ly dark impuls­es it has elicit­ed from men, has a role in this new world of clouds, per­haps it is to remind us, dis­tract­ed as we are by the metal­lic gleam of gad­gets, that the infor­ma­tion inside a book can be the most impor­tant thing we pos­sess: our pow­er source, the guar­an­tor of the sur­vival of our human com­mu­ni­ty. The library is, as Umber­to Eco wrote in The Name of the Rose, the scene of a cen­turies-old mur­mur­ing” among pages: a trea­sure of secrets emanat­ed by many minds, sur­viv­ing the death of those who had pro­duced them or been their con­vey­ors.” Whether knowl­edge is encap­su­lat­ed some­how in dis­em­bod­ied elec­trons or writ­ten on the skins of 10th-cen­tu­ry Galilean live­stock, the codex remains in its dark room in Jerusalem to remind us that this has not changed.

Vis­it Mat­ti Fried­man’s offi­cial web­site here and read more about the Alep­po Codex here.