We’ve passed Memorial Day and most Americans are restlessly planning the summer months. In this tight economy, millions will be staying close to home and perhaps catching up on some good reading. We want to help! ReadTheSpirit specializes in finding and recommending great books, films and TV—especially gems that you might not discover on your own. Throughout June, we’ll be sharing a series of reviews like this one, all headlined “Great Summer Reading.” Stay tuned!
ReadTheSpirit Review of “Crown of Aleppo”
By Hayim Tawil and Bernard Schneider
Our first selection for Great Summer Reading is this 200-page, illustrated book from the Jewish Publication Society that we think will fascinate Jews—and non-Jews as well. Illustrated with dozens of photos that bring this dramatic and mysterious history to life, “Crown of Aleppo” is a survival story about one of the world’s most valuable Bibles.
This particular Bible was created more than 1,000 years ago and is widely believed to be the oldest Hebrew Bible in book form in the world. This particular Bible is called “Crown of Aleppo,” because it was famous for centuries as a prized possession of the Jewish community in Aleppo, Syria. In the Medieval era, scholars from many parts of the world traveled to consult this book, which is often called the “Aleppo Codex,” these days. The word “codex” is Latin for “book,” a volume of bound pages as opposed to a scroll.
First, “Crown of Aleppo” is a dramatic story of cliff-hanger incidents as the priceless Bible nearly was lost in a tragic pogrom against Aleppo’s Jewish community in late 1947. Families, businesses and the Great Synagogue all were targets of these deadly attacks. One report indicates the synagogue burned so intensely because it was assaulted by men spraying benzene, rather than water, on the flames. The graceful outdoor pulpit in the Summer Courtyard of the synagogue in the photo at right, today, was destroyed. The blaze was so intense that it roared around the metal safe designed to protect the most valuable manuscripts. As news of the attacks spread around the world, most people assumed that the Crown was gone.
Miraculously, it seems, most of the Crown was saved. Hundreds of pages somehow survived the fire and were plucked from the debris. Many pages are gone. Some missing pages turned up later. The new book gives us various perspectives on what might have happened, including a number of first-hand accounts of what unfolded right after the fire. Here’s one of them, a man describing what he found as the blaze cooled:
“How did they open the safe? … They turned the vault over, with the door facing down. There were three layers of tin on the back side of the safe. They cut through layer after layer in the hope of finding silver, but they found only a manuscript, a Bible codex. … I saw that the manuscript was damaged by fire. I saw pages that were scattered on the ground and damaged by fire. I could have taken all the parts that remained but my hands were trembling from fear and from the outrage I had seen. We thought they would come back and slaughter us all.”
In addition to the high drama, the book explains why the Crown was such a milestone in Hebrew Bible scholarship. Among other things, it is the earliest codex with a complex series of markings to show how the Hebrew should be pronounced and chanted. The famous Jewish teacher Maimonides may have personally studied this volume—but you’ll have to read “Crown of Aleppo” to find out if that claim is true.
The cross-over interest among non-Jewish readers is pretty obvious. This new book not only shares a gripping story of survival and preservation, but it also explains a lot about how our modern Bibles were preserved through the millennia.
Care to read more?
- Look through existing pages of the Crown of Aleppo: Surviving pages are reproduced online in an easy-to-use multimedia format. The original pages have been photographed at high resolution and viewers can zoom in on passages.
- Wikipedia offers an overview: If you read both Wikipedia’s entry and the new JPS book, you’ll find that some details differ, but the Wikipedia account is a helpful overview of the history and the complex challenges of preserving the Crown through the centuries.
We welcome your Emails! Email [email protected]. We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, Huffington Post, YouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday-morning “Planner” newsletter you may enjoy.
(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)