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Short definition The Aleppo Codex is an old manuscript of the Bible, reflecting the Masora very exactly, written by the renowned Masorete, Aharon Ben Asher.


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Introduction

The Bible and its Transmission - Scrolls, Manuscripts, Printings

The Masoretes

The Aleppo Codex

The Vicissitudes of the Aleppo Codex

The Aleppo Codex Today


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4.1 The City of Tiberias

4.2 The Writing of the Aleppo Codex: the Scribe, the Masorete, and the Date of the Writing

4.3 The Aleppo Codex in Jerusalem – Karaites and Rabbinical Jews

4.4 The Crusades and the Ransoming of Books

4.5 Maimonides and the Aleppo Codex

4.6 The Jewish Community of Aleppo

4.7 When and How did the Codex Reach Aleppo?

4.8 Maimonides’ Library and his Descendants

4.9 The Synagogue of Aleppo

4.10 The Damage to the Aleppo Codex


תמונות ושרטוטים אצל שמוש, עמ' 34, 37-36 (יש) תמונות ושרטוטים אצל שמוש, עמ' 34, 37-36 (יש) תמונות ושרטוטים אצל שמוש, עמ' 34, 37-36 (יש)

The Vicissitudes of the Aleppo Codex


4.1 The City of Tiberias

Tiberias lies on the western coast of the Sea of Galilee. It was built by Herod Antipas in the early first century CE and was named after Herod’s friend and patron, the Roman emperor Tiberius. The city was built on the model of a Greek polis, with well-developed governmental institutions. During the Mishnaic and Talmudic period, Tiberias was one of the most important cities in Eretz-Israel, famous because of its location on the fresh water Sea of Galilee, because of its hot medicinal springs, as well as for the outstanding Sages and the many synagogues that were there. For many generations, Tiberias was an important spiritual and religious center. From 235 CE on, it was the dwelling place of the Nasi (president, the chief official Jewish religious leader) and the site of the Sanhedrin, the highest religious court. In time, Tiberias became the center of the Jewish community in Eretz-Israel, and the Jerusalem Talmud was completed there in the fourth century CE. When the pilgrimage to Jerusalem was prohibited by the Byzantine rulers, Tiberias became one of the centers to which Jews from the Diaspora made pilgrimages. During the Middle Ages, Tiberias was the most important Jewish city in Eretz-Israel and the Diaspora, and its importance exceeded even that of the holy city of Jerusalem.

Tiberias was the capital of the Muslim regime in northern Eretz-Israel, and the most important economic center in the country. Its main commercial ties were with Syria to the north and with Baghdad and Persia to the east. Agricultural exports from Eretz-Israel in the tenth century included olive oil, raisins, and carobs, as well as cotton and textiles, and Tiberias was known for the manufacture of textiles and mats. The Jewish market in Tiberias was large and varied, and it was known for its low prices. Tiberias flourished until the arrival of the Crusaders in the twelfth century. The city was destroyed during the Crusader wars and remained in ruins until it was rebuilt in the sixteenth century.

One of the most important projects connected with the name of the city of Tiberias was the creation of vocalization and cantillation marks and the preservation of the text of the Bible by means of the Masoretic commentaries. Rabbi Avraham Ibn ‘Ezra wrote in his book, Tsahut (Correctness) that “the Sages of Tiberias are the main ones, for from them came the Masoretes, and we received vocalization from them.” We learn from an Arab historian that Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon, who is regarded as the first Hebrew grammarian, spent time in Tiberias and learned the reading and linguistic traditions from one of its Sages. We also know the names of some of the scholars of the language and the Masora who lived and worked in Tiberias: Rabbi Pinhas, the head of the Yeshiva, Ahayahu Hacohen Hehaver, and others. The most famous scholar of the Masora who lived in Tiberias was Aharon Ben Asher, who lived in the tenth century. The treatise, Diqduqei hate’amim (Precisions of Cantillation Marks) is attributed to him, and the heading at the beginning of the book states that Rabbi Aharon Ben Asher was “from the place Ma’azia, which is called Tiberias, which is on the West of the Sea of Galilee.” In 895, Aharon’s father, Moshe Ben Asher, wrote “a codex of the Bible … in the town of Ma’azia Tiberias the famous city,” as attested by the inscription placed at the end of a manuscript that was found in Cairo. However, Rabbi Aharon himself was the one who revised, vocalized, added cantillation marks, and transmitted the most important Bible manuscript, the Aleppo Codex.

Bibliography: Photographs: Translator suggests including some picturesque photographs of Tiberias. Nehemiah Allony, “Tiberias in the Middle Ages,” Hebrew Linguistics in Tiberias, Jerusalem, 1995, pp. 9-31 (Hebrew). Simha Assaf and L. Meir (eds.), “Tiberias,” The Book of the Settlement, vol. 2, from the Conquest of the Land by the Arabs until the Crusades, Jerusalem, 1944, pp. 0-14 (Hebrew).

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4.2 The Writing of the Aleppo Codex: the Scribe, the Masorete, and the Date of the Writing

The name of the scribe who wrote the text of the Aleppo Codex is Shlomo Ben Boya’a, and the well-known Masorete Aharon Ben Asher added the vowels, the cantillation marks, and the Masoretic commentary. This information emerges from the dedication of the Aleppo Codex, which was written at the end of the manuscript about a hundred years after its completion, when it was dedicated to the Karaite community of Jerusalem. This is what it says: This is the complete codex of the twenty-four books, written by our teacher and rabbi Shlomo known as Ben Boya’a, the swift scribe, and the spirit of the Lord guided him, and it was vocalized and transmitted with great meticulousness by the great scholar and wise sage, the lord of scribes and the father of sages, the chief of scholars, swift in his deeds, whose understanding of the work was unique in his generation, master Rabbi Aharon the son of master Rabbi Asher, may his soul be bound in life with the prophets and pious and righteous. The expert Masorete, Aharon Ben Asher, receives a long list of praises here. His collaborator in the work was the scribe of the manuscript, Shlomo Ben Boya’a, and most likely the scribe’s work was mainly technical: the copying of the letters in a fine hand. He apparently did this work for the vocalizer and Masorete, Aharon Ben Asher.

The exact date of the writing of the Aleppo Codex is unknown, because the manuscript does not contain a colophon (the scribe’s afterword, containing details about his identity and the time and place of the writing). Nevertheless, the approximate date of the writing of the Aleppo Codex can be determined indirectly: the scribe of the codex, Shlomo Ben Boya’a, also wrote a manuscript of the Pentateuch, which is found today in Saint Petersburg (MS Russian National Library Evr II B17). The inscriptions at the end of this manuscript show that it was written in 929, which is thus the approximate time of the writing of the Aleppo Codex. Comparison of the handwriting of the two manuscripts shows that, indeed, the same man wrote them both, which corroborates and confirms what was written in the dedication of the Aleppo Codex. It has been conjectured by Mordecai Glatzer that the Keter was the personal property of the Masorete, which he kept for many years, painstakingly correcting it and adding Masoretic commentary, changing plen? spelling to defective spelling and vice versa according to the directives of the Masora.

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4.3 The Aleppo Codex in Jerusalem – Karaites and Rabbinical Jews

The long and detailed dedicatory inscription, which was in the last part of the Aleppo Codex, the inscription from which the names of the scribe and Masorete are known, shows that it was dedicated to the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem. It states that Yisrael Ben Simha of Basra dedicated the Aleppo Codex to the Karaite community of Jerusalem and placed it under the guardianship of two Karaite leaders, Yoshiahu and Yehezqiyahu. The codex was used for public readings and for study on three occasions: Passover, Pentecost, and the holiday of Tabernacles. Aside from that, arrangements were made so that every believing Jew, Karaite or Rabbinical, could examine the codex in order to resolve questions related to the text of the Bible in accordance with it, questions such as plen? or defective spelling, or open and closed portions.

The dedication does not explain under what circumstances the Aleppo Codex passed from the possession of Aharon Ben Asher, of Tiberias, to Yisrael Ben Simha of Basra. From documents found in the Cairo Geniza, we know that Hezeqaya the Nasi was alive in 1064. Hence, it is possible that the Aleppo Codex was in Tiberias for more than a hundred years – in the possession of Aharon Ben Asher and perhaps of his heirs or disciples – and then one of the wealthy Karaites of Babylonia purchased it and dedicated it to the Karaite community of Jerusalem. Perhaps the possibility given to rabbinical Jews to examine the Keter was a condition made by the Sages of Tiberias when they sold it.

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4.4 The Crusades and the Ransoming of Books

The Keter arrived in Jerusalem in the mid-eleventh century and served there both Karaites and rabbinical Jews as an authorized source for the text of the Bible. At the end of that very century, it was stolen from Jerusalem and exiled to Egypt. This apparently happened in 1099, when the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem. The conquerors did not damage the Keter, because they knew that they could get a high ransom for it from other Jewish communities. Letters were discovered in the Cairo Geniza dealing with manuscripts, which were ransomed from the Crusaders in Ashkelon with the assistance of the Jews of Egypt, and it is possible that the Aleppo Codex was among these books. In any event, the Keter was redeemed from its captors and reached the rabbinical synagogue in Fustat. This is the stage at which the Karaites lost possession of the Aleppo Codex, and since then it has been in the hands of rabbinic Jews.

Among the inscriptions that were on the Aleppo Codex there was one inscription half in Arabic and half in Hebrew. This inscription was on the first page of the codex, and it relates the ransoming of the Keter and its dedication to the synagogue in Old Cairo known as “Knisat Yerushalayim”, because its founders and members had come from Jerusalem. The inscription describes the stage at which the Keter reached Egypt, and here is a translation of it: Transferred [to the possession of the synagogue of the Jerusalemites] 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. The declaration that ownership of the book was transferred according to the law of redemption from the captivity, into which it had fallen in Jerusalem, is important, because it justifies violating the prohibition against selling it, which is stated specifically in the earlier dedicatory inscriptions, written by the Karaites in Jerusalem.

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4.5 Maimonides and the Aleppo Codex

Maimonides wrote about the Aleppo Codex in his authoritative Halakhic work, the Mishneh Torah (the Laws of the Torah Scroll, ch. 8, Halakha 4): And the book that we relied upon in these matters is the well-known book in Egypt, which contains twenty-four books, which was in Jerusalem some years ago, to revise the books from it, and everyone relied on it, since it was revised by Ben Asher, and he worked meticulously on it for many years and revised it many times, as they copied, and I have relied on it in the Torah Scroll that I wrote according to the Halakha. Here Maimonides is telling about a complete manuscript of the Bible (twenty-four books), which was revised by Ben Asher over and over again for many years. Maimonides prefers this Bible to all the other Torah Scrolls and manuscripts, and to various Masoretic lists, and he decrees as Halakha that Torah scrolls should be written according to this manuscript. Because of the great authority of Maimonides, within a few generations all Jewish communities accepted his ruling, and all the Torah scrolls of all the Jewish ethnic groups are written according to his instructions, which are based on the codex revised by Ben Asher. However, can we be sure that the codex in question is the Aleppo Codex?

The community of Aleppo had a tradition that the Bible in its possession was the one to which Maimonides referred. This tradition is documented from the fifteenth century by the words of Sa’adia Ben David Ha’adani, who visited Aleppo and saw the Keter there. Apparently, it would be easy to confirm or refute that tradition: we have only to compare the part of the Pentateuch that is in the Aleppo Codex to the long list of details in Maimonides’ work and to see whether the two sources agree in every instance. However, this is not so simple. As mentioned above, most of the pages of the Pentateuch from the Aleppo Codex were lost about fifty years ago, and only ten pages remain of that part. These contain only seven chapters. One person who examined the Aleppo Codex when it was still intact was of the opinion that it was not the book that Maimonides depended on. This was Professor Moshe David (Umberto) Cassuto, who examined the Keter in 1943 and expressed his opinion several times, without explanation, until he died in 1951. In 1946, Cassuto published the Book of Jonah as an example of the Bible that he intended to publish, and he writes the following in the beginning: According to prevalent opinion, the manuscript upon which Maimonides relied was the Keter of Aharon Ben Moshe Ben Asher, which was preserved in the city of Aleppo.

However, following careful examination of this Keter by Cassuto, who traveled to Aleppo for that purpose in 1944, it was clear to him that this opinion is not correct. On the face of it, there is nothing to do but accept this negative conclusion. Nevertheless, Moshe Goshen-Gottstein managed to overturn it a short time after the Aleppo Codex reached Israel. Goshen figured out what had brought Cassuto to that negative conclusion. The key to the solution of the mystery lies in Maimonides’ words on the Give Ear song (Deut. 32). This is what is written in the common editions of the Mishneh Torah: The Give Ear song, in the middle of every single line there is a space in the form of a closed portion, and thus every line is divided in two, and they write them in seventy lines. The Give Ear song is among the isolated pages from the end of the Pentateuch, which remain in the Aleppo Codex. Upon examining it, one notes a unique phenomenon in the form of its writing: three lines are very long, and each one contains text that is usually written in two lines. Hence, the number of lines is sixty-seven and not seventy. This would appear to be irrefutable proof that the Aleppo Codex is not the manuscript of which Maimonides speaks, because Maimonides does not simply give the total number of lines in the poem, but he states which word should begin each line, and which word begins the second part of each line, and all his specifications are consistent with writing it in seventy lines. However, comprehensive examination of manuscripts of the Mishneh Torah revealed a surprising finding: old and reliable manuscripts of the Mishneh Torah do not mention seventy lines, but rather sixty-seven! Moreover, the list of the words at the beginning of the lines is in exact accordance with the Aleppo Codex. Additionally, the Torah scrolls of the Yemenite community are written according to a tradition of sixty-seven lines, following Maimonides’ original opinion. The writing of the Give Ear song in sixty-seven lines is not known in any Bible codex prior to the time of Maimonides. This is, therefore, decisive proof that the Aleppo Codex was indeed the book that Maimonides depended on.

How, then, did the printed versions of Maimonides’ words, according to which the poem is to be written in seventy lines, come into being? The background for this development is apparently the difficulty encountered by Jewish communities in writing such long lines in the Give Ear song. It cannot be done, unless the poem is written in a very broad column, and large spaces are left between the two members of the rest of the lines. Further, this tradition of writing was not accepted in most communities, and it therefore encountered resistance. To solve the problem, somebody emended the words of Maimonides to make them suit the common scribal tradition, which is also an ancient tradition, documented in Masekhet sofrim (The Treatise of Scribes), ch. 12, from the Geonic period. Goshen’s principal conclusions were confirmed many years after they were expressed, when the notes that Cassuto had taken for himself when he examined the Aleppo Codex were made available for research. The main reason for Cassuto’s conclusion was indeed connected to the Give Ear song. Thus, the Aleppo Codex is indeed the book upon which Maimonides relied, and the ancient tradition regarding its lineage is confirmed (‘Ofer, 1989, pp 325-330).

Bibliography: M. Goshen-Gottstein, “The Authenticity of the Aleppo Codex,” Studies in the Aleppo Codex, Publications of the Hebrew University Bible Project I, Jerusalem, 1960, pp. 10-37 (Hebrew). J. S. Penkower, "Maimonides and the Aleppo Codex," Textus 9 (1981), pp. 39-128. Yosef Ofer, ““The Aleppo Codex in the Light of the Notes made by M. D. Cassuto,” Sefunot 68, 4 (19), 1989, pp. 325-330 (Hebrew).

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4.6 The Jewish Community of Aleppo

The Jewish community in the city of Aleppo (which the Jews called Tsova or Aram Tsova) was ancient and solid, strong and rich in money and spirit. Maimonides praised the community in his letter to the rabbis of Lunel and emphasizes that it was the only place in Eretz-Israel or Syria where there was Torah study worthy of the name. Maimonides’ closest disciple, Yosef Ben Yehudah Even Shim’on, to whom Maimonides dedicated his philosophical work, The Guide of the Perplexed, went to live in Aleppo and established a House of Study there, where he taught Torah.

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4.7 When and How did the Codex Reach Aleppo?

Maimonides examined the Aleppo Codex while it was in Egypt at the end of the twelfth century. The first evidence of the presence of the Keter in Aleppo dates from the fifteenth century, and there is no clear information about the intervening years or about the transfer of the codex from Egypt to Syria. Some scholars have surmised that the Codex was brought to Aleppo at the end of the fourteenth century. It is known that in 1375, Rabbi David Ben Yehoshu’a, the grandson of Maimonides’ great-grandson, left Egypt and traveled through Eretz-Israel to Syria, and that he lived in Damascus and Aleppo. Rabbi David took many manuscripts with him, among them Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishnah, written by his own hand, and it is possible that he also transferred the Keter to Aleppo.

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4.8 Maimonides’ Library and his Descendants

בית הכנסת הקדמון בארם צובה, היה למעשה מכלול של חדרי תפילה ולימוד וביניהם חצר פתוחה. היו בו גם כמה וכמה "היכלות", שהם חדרים קטנים ששימשו לשמירת ספרי קודש וחפצי קודש. לפי אגדה שהילכה בחלב, יואב בן צרויה שר צבאו של דוד המלך שכבש את ארם צובה הוא שבנה את בית הכנסת עוד לפני שנבנה בית המקדש הראשון. מסורת אחרת, נפוצה יותר, מייחסת את בניית בית הכנסת לימי הבית השני. חוקרים שבדקו את בית הכנסת סבורים שראשית בניינו בתקופה הביזנטית, ולא לפני המאה החמישית. הנה תיאור של בית הכנסת, מפי הרב יעקב זאב, יהודי אשכנזי מתושבי ירושלים, שנסע לארם צובה והתגורר בה כשנה באמצע המאה התשע עשרה: "הבית הכנסת המפוארה, אשר כל התרים את הארץ אורים שלא נמצא כמותה, כה תארה: הכניסה היא מצד צפון, ופניהם לדרום לצד ארץ ישראל. ומימין הכניסה בית הכנסת גדולה, וכוין (=וחלונות) פתיחין לה לפרדס נאה, עץ עושה פרי, ובריכה של מים להשקות את הגן. ומצד שמאל אכסדרא גדולה מרוצף באבנים שישא ומרמרא (=סוגי שיש), ובאמצע יש בימה לחזן הכנסת ולקרות התורה בימים אשר מתפללים שמה, אך כאשר ירד הגשם מתכנשים (=נאספים) לבתי כנסיות. ויש עוד בית כנסת לצד מזרח העולם" "וצד דרום של בתי כנסיות והאכסדרה, יש בו בסך הכול שבעה היכלות... בבית הכנסת השמאלי בכותל דרום יש מערה אחת, ושם לפנים נכנסין למטה מעט והוא כמו חדר קטן. ויש להם בקבלה איש מפי איש אשר נגלה שם אליהו הנביא ז"ל. [...] ובכניסת המערה יש ארגז אחד, אשר מונחים בו כתרה של תורה, וכך קוראים בשם כתר, וזה ענינם: יש שלשה חומשים כתובים על קלף, ואחד מהם כתוב בו גם התרגום על כל פסוק ופסוק, והכתב שלו נפלא, והשני כתב פשוט יותר,וכולם נכתבים בציצים ופרחים במיני צבעונים מוזהבים בפתיחתן וסופן ובין כל ספר ומגילה [...] ויש עוד כתוב כנ"ל תנ"ך שלם, וזה העיקר". גם הרב יצחק שחייבר תיאר את מקומו של כתר ארם צובה בבית הכנסת: "בשנים האחרונות ייחדו לו ארגז גדול מברזל והניחוהו שמה עם שאר כתבי יד של התנ"כים האחרים שהיו נמצאים שמה למשמרת. לארגז הזה היו שני מפתחות. לא היו נמסרים ביחד לגבאי אחד, אף שהיה הנאמן הגדול ביותר, רק היו נמסרים לשני אמידים וחשובים, שלא יפתח הארגז הנ"ל אלא בנוכחות שניהם יחד ותחת השגחת ועד הקהלה. את הארגז שמו במערת אליהו הנביא בבית הכנסת הגדול על מצבת אבן גדולה, וכל העם מקדישים ומעריצים את מקום מושבו".

ביבליוגרפיה אלכסנדר דותן (לוצקי), "לתולדות בית הכנסת הקדמון בחלב", ספונות א, תשי"ז, עמ' כה-סז. הרב יעקב זאב, "תיאור קהילת ארם צובה וסביבותיה בתחילת שנות ה' ת"ר", צפונות יד, טבת תשנ"ב, עמ' פב-פח.

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4.9 The Synagogue of Aleppo

The old synagogue of Aleppo is in fact a complex of prayer and study rooms, clustered around an open courtyard. It contained several “heikhalot” (halls, lit. “palaces”), which were small rooms used to store sacred books and objects. According to a legend that was current in Aleppo, Yoav Ben Tsruya, the commander of King David’s army, who conquered Aleppo, was the one who built the synagogue, even before the first Temple was built. Another, more widespread tradition dates the construction of the synagogue to Second Temple times. Scholars who examined the synagogue believe that its construction was begun during the Byzantine period, not before the fifth century.

Here is a description of the synagogue by Rabbi Ya’aqov Zeev, an Ashkenazi Jew from Jerusalem who went to live in Aleppo for about a year in the mid-nineteenth century: The splendid synagogue, of which everyone who tours the country says that there is none like it, here is its description: the entrance is from the north side, and its faces south to Eretz-Israel. To the right of the entrance is a great assembly hall and the windows give on a beautiful orchard of fruit trees, and there is a pool of water to irrigate the garden. To the left is a large courtyard paved with stones of Marmora marble, and in the middle there is a platform for the cantor of the synagogue to read the Torah on days when they pray there, but when rain falls, they gather in assembly rooms. And there is another assembly room to the east. And on the south side are assembly rooms and courtyards, and there are a total of seven halls … in the left assembly hall in the southern wall there is a cave, and within it one descends slightly and it is like a small room. They have an oral tradition that Elijah the Prophet of blessed memory was exiled there … At the entrance to the cave there is a chest, in which the Crown of the Torah is placed, for they called it a Crown, and this is the matter: there are three Pentateuchs written on parchment, and one of them is also written with the translation of every single verse, and the writing of it is marvelous, and the second is written more simply, and all of them are written with decorations and flowers and kinds of gilded tulips on their opening pages and at the end, and between every book and scroll … and there is also written likewise an entire Bible, and that is the main thing.

Rabbi Yitshaq Schaiber also described the place where the Aleppo Codex was kept in the synagogue: In recent years they made a special chest for it out of iron and placed it there with other manuscripts of the Bible which were kept there. The chest has two keys. They are not given together to a single warden, not even the most faithful. They only were given to two wealthy and distinguished men, so that the aforementioned chest is not opened except in the presence of both of them together, under the supervision of the board of directors of the congregation. They placed the chest in the cave of Elijah the Prophet in the great synagogue on a large stone pedestal, and the entire community sanctifies and venerates its dwelling place.

Bibliography: Alexander Dothan (Lutzky), “On the History of the Old Synagogue of Aleppo,” Sefunot 1, 1957, pp. 25-67 (Hebrew). Rabbi Ya’aqov Zeev, “Description of the Community of Aleppo and its Surroundings in the Early 1840s,” Tsefunot 14, Tevet 1992, pp. 82-88 (Hebrew).

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4.10 The Damage to the Aleppo Codex

From extensive testimony about the riot in the Aleppo synagogue on Monday 18 Kislev (December 2, 1947), it is clear that the rioters broke into the iron chest in which the Aleppo Codex was kept and threw it on the floor. Laboratory examination of the Keter shows no signs of burning. Therefore, it must be assumed that the pages were torn out; either intentionally or as a result of the book’s being thrown on the floor. The bulk of the missing part of the Aleppo Codex comes from the beginning of the book; however isolated pages are also missing here and there from the middle. Some pages of the Keter were torn, so that only part of the page remains. The pages containing the Masora and the grammar of the Masora, which were at the beginning and end of the Aleppo Codex, have been lost, as have been the inscriptions that provided information on the writing of the codex, its dedication, and its redemption from enemies. Most of the pages of the Five Books of Moses have been lost (except for the eleven final pages of Deuteronomy); the last books of the Writings have been lost, and some pages from the Prophets are missing.

It is not known with certainty who first saw the Aleppo Codex after it was damaged, and who was the first one who rescued and concealed it. It apparently passed from hand to hand for ten years, in order to hide it from the authorities and prevent further damage.

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