Aleppo Codex

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Closeup of Aleppo Codex, Joshua 1:1
Closeup of Aleppo Codex, Joshua 1:1
Page from Aleppo Codex, Deuteronomy
Page from Aleppo Codex, Deuteronomy

The Aleppo Codex (כֶּתֶר אֲרָם צוֹבָא Keter Aram Soba, kɛːθɛːʀ ʔɐ̆rɔːm sˤoːvɔːʔ) is a medieval bound manuscript of the Hebrew Bible. The codex was written in the 10th century CE.[1]

It is considered the most authoritative document in the masorah ("transmission"), the tradition by which the Hebrew Scriptures have been preserved from generation to generation.[2] Surviving examples of responsa literature show that the Aleppo Codex was consulted by far-flung Jewish scholars throughout the Middle Ages, and modern studies have shown it to be the most accurate representation of Masoretic principles in any extant manuscript, containing very few errors among the millions of orthographic details that make up the Masoretic text. Thus, the Aleppo Codex is seen as the most authoritative source document for both the original biblical text and its vocalization (cantillation).



The codex was purchased by the Karaite Jewish community of Jerusalem about a hundred years after it was written.[3] During the First Crusade, the synagogue was plundered and the codex was transferred to Egypt, whose Jews paid a high price for its ransom.[1] It was preserved at the Rabbanite synagogue in Cairo, where it was consulted by Maimonides, who described it as a text trusted by all Jewish scholars. In 1375, one of Maimonides' descendants brought it to Aleppo, Syria, leading to its present name.[1] .

The Codex remained in Syria for five hundred years. In 1947 Muslim rioters, enraged by the UN decision to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, burned down the synagogue where it was kept.[1] The Codex disappeared, and re-emerged in 1958, when it was smuggled into Israel by Syrian Jew Murad Faham, and presented to the president of the state, Itzhak Ben-Zvi. On arrival, it was found that parts of the codex had been lost. The Aleppo Codex was entrusted to the Ben-Zvi Institute and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.


Photograph of missing page[4]
Photograph of missing page[4]

The Karaite Jewish community of Jerusalem received the book from Israel ben Simha of Basra sometime between 1040 and 1050.[5] It was cared for by the brothers Hizkiyahu and Joshya, Karaite religious leaders who eventually moved to Fustat in 1050. The codex, however, stayed in Jerusalem until the latter part of that century.[5] After the fall of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, the codex and other holy works were held ransom (along with Jewish survivors) by the Crusaders.[6][7] The Aleppo Codex website cites two letters in the Cairo Geniza that describe how the inhabitants of Ashqelon borrowed money from Egypt to pay for the books.[7] These Judeo-Arabic letters were discovered by noted Jewish historian S.D. Goitein in 1952.[8] The Letter of the Karaite elders of Ascalon, the most descriptive of the two, states that the money borrowed from Alexandria was used to “buy back two hundred and thirty Bible codices, a hundred other volumes, and eight Torah Scrolls."[9] The documents were transported to Egypt via a caravan led and funded by the prominent Alexandrian official Abu’l-Fadl Sahl b. Yūsha’ b. Sha‘yā who was in Ascalon for his wedding in early 1100.[10] Judeo-Arabic inscriptions on the first page of the Codex mention the book was then "transferred to the Jerusalemite synagogue in Fustat."[6] The Aleppo codex website reveals how the book exchanged hands. It was "transferred[...]according to the law of redemption from imprisonment [in which it had fallen] in Jerusalem, the Holy City, may it be rebuilt and reestablished, to the congregation in Egypt of Knisat Yerushalayim, may it be built and established in the life of Israel. Blessed be he who preserves it and cursed be he who steals it, and cursed be he who sells it, and cursed be he who pawns it. It may not be sold and it may not be defiled forever.[7]

The Israeli writer Amnon Shamosh wrote an account of how it was brought to Israel in his "Ha-Keter: Sippuro shel Keter Aram Soba" (The Crown: The Story of the Aleppo Codex), published in 1987. The codex was entrusted to the Ben-Zvi Institute and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Attempts to recover its missing parts continue to this day.[11]

Later, after the university denied him access to the codex, Rabbi Mordechai Breuer began his own reconstruction of the Masoretic text on the basis of other well-known ancient manuscripts. His results matched the Aleppo Codex almost exactly. Thus today, Breuer's version is used authoritatively for the reconstruction of the missing portions of the Aleppo Codex. The Keter Yerushalayim (כתר ירושלים, "Jerusalem Crown") is a modern version of the Tanakh, based on the Aleppo Codex and the work of Breuer, which is the official version of the Bible of the State of Israel.

In Aleppo

The Aleppo community guarded it zealously for some six hundred years: it was kept, together with three other Biblical manuscripts, in a special cupboard (later, an iron safe) in a basement chapel of the synagogue supposed to have been the cave of Elijah. It was regarded as the community's most sacred possession: people in trouble would pray before it, and oaths were taken by it. The community received queries from Jews around the world, who asked that various textual details be checked, correspondence which is preserved in the responsa literature, and which allows for the reconstruction of certain details in the parts that are missing today.

However, the community limited direct observation of the manuscript by outsiders, especially by scholars in modern times. Paul Kahle, when revising the text of the Biblia Hebraica in the 1920s, tried and failed to obtain a photographic copy. This forced him to use the Leningrad Codex instead for the third edition, which appeared in 1937.

The only modern scholar allowed to compare it with a standard printed Hebrew Bible and take notes on the differences was Umberto Cassuto. This secrecy made it impossible to confirm the authenticity of the Codex, and indeed Cassuto doubted that it was Maimonides' codex, though he agreed that it was 10th century.

During the riots against Jews and Jewish property in Aleppo in December 1947, the community's ancient synagogue was burned and the Codex was damaged, so that no more than 294 of the original 487 pages survived.[12] In particular, only the last few pages of the Torah are extant.

The missing leaves are a subject of fierce controversy. The Jews of Aleppo claim that they were burned. However, scholarly analysis has shown no evidence of fire having reached the codex itself (the dark marks on the pages are due to fungus). Some scholars instead accuse members of the Jewish community of having torn off the missing leaves and keeping them privately hidden. Two "missing" leaves have turned up, one in 1982 and the other in 2007, leaving open the possibility that even more may have survived the riots in 1947.

The community of Damascus possessed a counterpart of the Aleppo Codex, known as the "Damascus Keter", also written in Israel in the tenth century, which is now kept at the Jewish National and University Library and numbered ms. Heb 5702. It is available online here. (This should not be confused with another Damascus Keter, of medieval Spanish origin.)

In Israel

Exterior view of the Shrine of the Book
Exterior view of the Shrine of the Book
In January 1958, the Aleppo Codex was brought back to Jerusalem, by the influence of then Israeli President, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, where it remains in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum. This finally gave scholars the chance to examine it and consider the claims that it is indeed the manuscript referred to by Maimonides. The work of Moshe Goshen-Gottstein on the few surviving pages of the Torah seems to have confirmed these claims beyond reasonable doubt. Goshen-Gottstein suggested (in the introduction to his facsimile reprint of the codex) that not only is it the oldest known Tanakh in one volume, it was the first time ever that a complete Tanakh had been produced by one or two people as a unified entity in a consistent style.

The Aleppo Codex is the source for several modern editions of the Hebrew Bible, including the two editions of Mordechai Breuer and "The Jerusalem Crown" (printed in Jerusalem in 2000, with a text based on Breuer's work and a newly-designed typeface based on the calligraphy of the Codex and based on its page-layout). The latter edition is used when the President of Israel is sworn into office.

Authoritative text

The consonants in the codex were copied by the scribe Shlomo ben Buya'a in Israel circa 920. The text was then verified, vocalized, and provided with Masoretic notes by Aaron ben Asher. Ben-Asher was the last and most prominent member of the Ben-Asher dynasty of grammarians from Tiberias, which shaped the most accurate version of the Masorah and, therefore, the Hebrew Bible.

The Leningrad Codex, which dates to approximately the same time as the Aleppo codex, has been claimed to be a product of the Ben-Asher scriptorium. However, its own colophon says only that it was corrected from manuscripts written by Ben-Asher; there is no evidence that Ben-Asher himself ever saw it.

The Aleppo Codex was the manuscript used by Maimonides when he set down the exact rules for writing scrolls of the Torah, Hilkhot Sefer Torah ("the Laws of the Torah Scroll") in his Mishneh Torah.[7] This halachic ruling gave the Aleppo Codex what is for Jews the seal of supreme textual authority, even though Maimonides only quoted it for paragraphing and other details of formatting, and not for the text itself (see discussion). "The codex which we used in these works is the codex known in Egypt, which includes 24 books, which was in Jerusalem," he wrote. Rabbi David ibn abi Zimra testifies to this being the same codex as that later transferred to Aleppo.


When the Aleppo Codex was complete (until 1947), it followed the Tiberian textual tradition in the order of its books, similar to the Leningrad Codex, and which also matches the later tradition of Sephardic biblical manuscripts. Torah and Nebi'im appear in the same order found in most printed Hebrew bibles, but the order for the books for Ketubim differs markedly. In the Aleppo Codex, the order of Ketubim is: Chronicles, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah.

The current text is missing almost the entire Torah (Genesis through most of Deuteronomy). It begins with the last word of Deuteronomy 28:17 (ומשארתך, "and your kneading trough"). After that, the books of Nebi'im appear in their traditional order (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets). The Ketubim follow as above, but currently end at the last leaf with בנות ציון in Song of Songs 3:11 ("daughters of Zion..."). Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, and Ezra-Nehemiah are missing.

Modern editions

Several complete or partial editions of the Tanakh based on the Aleppo Codex have been published over the past three decades in Israel, some of them under the academic auspices of Israeli universities. These editions incorporate reconstructions of the missing parts of the codex based on the methodology of Mordechai Breuer or similar systems, and by taking into account all available historical testimony about the contents of the codex.

Complete Tanakh: These are complete editions of the Tanakh, usually in one volume (but sometimes also sold in three volumes). They do not include the masoretic notes of the Aleppo Codex.

  1. Mossad Harav Kuk edition, Mordechai Breuer, ed. Torah (1977); Nebi'im (1979); Ketubim (1982); full Tanakh in one volume 1989. This was the first edition to include a reconstruction of the letters, vowels, and cantillation marks in the missing parts of the Aleppo codex.
  2. Horev publishers, Jerusalem, 1996-98. Mordechai Breuer, ed. This was the first edition to incorporate newly discovered information on the parashah divisions of the Aleppo Codex for Nebi'im and Ketubim. The text of the Horev Tanakh has been reprinted in several forms with various commentaries by the same publisher.[13]
  3. Jerusalem Crown: The Bible of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2000. Edited according to the method of Mordechai Breuer under the supervision of Yosef Ofer, with additional proofreading and refinements since the Horev edition.[13]
  4. Jerusalem Simanim Institute, Feldheim Publishers, 2004 (published in one-volume and three-volume editions).[13][14]

Complete online Tanakh:

  • Mechon Mamre provides an online edition of the Tanakh according to the Aleppo Codex and other Tiberian manuscripts close to it, basing its reconstruction of the text on the methods of the Rav Mordechai Breuer (but claims to differ from the Rav Breuer's texts as published in some fine details). The text is offered in four formats: (a) Masoretic letter-text, (b) "full" letter-text (unrelated to masoretic spelling), (c) masoretic text with vowels (niqqud), and (d) masoretic text with vowels and cantillation signs. See external links below.

Partial editions:

  • Hebrew University Bible Project (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel). Includes the masoretic notes of the Aleppo Codex.
  • Mikraot Gedolot Haketer, Bar-Ilan University (1992-present). A multi-volume critical edition of the Mikraot Gedolot, nine volumes published to date including Genesis (2 vols.), Exodus (2 vols.), Joshua & Judges (1 vol.), Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Psalms (2 vols.). Includes the masoretic notes of the Aleppo Codex and a new commentary on them. Differs from the Breuer reconstruction and presentation for some masoretic details.

See also


  • 1. Fragment of ancient parchment given to Jewish scholars
  • 2. M. H. Goshen-Gottstein, "The Aleppo Codex and the Rise of the Massoretic Bible Text" The Biblical Archaeologist 42.3 (Summer 1979), pp. 145-163.
  • 3. M. Nehmad, Keter Aram Tzova, Aleppo 1933; Fragment of ancient parchment given to Jewish scholars
  • 4. Photo taken in 1910 by Joseph Segall and published in Travels through Northern Syria (London, 1910), p. 99. Reprinted and analyzed in Moshe H. Goshen-Gottstein, "A Recovered Part of the Aleppo Codex," Textus 5 (1966):53-59 (Plate I)Missing page
  • 5. Olszowy-Schlanger, Judith. Karaite marriage documents from the Cairo Geniza: legal tradition and community life in mediaeval Egypt and Palestine. Etudes sur le judaïsme médiéval, t. 20. Leiden: Brill, 1998 (ISBN 9004108866), pg. 148
  • 6. Olszowy: pp. 54-55 and footnote #86
  • 7. The Vicissitudes of the Aleppo Codex – See 4.4 The Crusades and the Ransoming of Books. Retrieved on 2008–03–04.
  • 8. Kedar, Benjamin Z. "The Jerusalem Massacre of July 1099 in the Western Historiography of the Crusades." in The Crusades (Vol. 3). ed. Benjamin Z. Kedar and Jonathan S.C. Riley-Smith. Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2004 (ISBN 075464099X), pg. 59
  • 9. Goitein, S.D. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza. Vol. V: The Individual: Portrait of a Mediterranean Personality of the High Middle Ages as Reflected in the Cairo Geniza. University of California Press, 1988 (ISBN 0520056477), pg. 376
  • 10. Goitein: pp. 375–376 and footnote #81 on pg. 612
  • 11. "Ben-Zvi Institute calls for return of Aleppo Codex fragments", Haaretz, December 3, 2007.
  • 12. One more piece of famed ancient Bible comes to Jerusalem
  • 13. In this edition, the masoretic text and symbols were encoded and graphic layout was enabled by the computer program Taj, developed by Daniel Weissman.
  • 14. "After consultation... with the greatest Torah scholars and grammarians, the biblical text in this edition was chosen to conform with the Aleppo Codex which as is well known was corrected by Ben-Asher... Where this manuscript is not extant we have relied on the Leningrad Codex... Similarly the open and closed sections that are missing in the Aleppo Codex have been completed according to the biblical list compiled by Rabbi Shalom Shachna Yelin that were published in the Jubilee volume for Rabbi Breuer... (translated from the Hebrew on p. 12 of the introduction).

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