Everyday Religion and a 1,000-Year-Old Book


A page of Deuteronomy from the Aleppo Codex//Wikipedia

New York Times Magazine has a fascinating piece on the Aleppo Codex.

The Codex is described as “the oldest, most complete, most accurate text of the Hebrew Bible.””  Which is, of course, almost right but inaccurate in several ways.  Firstly, while it was the oldest surviving copy of the full Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), it has been missing most of the actual Torah (the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses) since riots in Aleppo immediately in response to Israel’s 1947 recognition by the UN.   The Leningrad Codex is actually much more complete, though a few decades younger (and it was actually checked against the Aleppo Codex).  The Dead Sea Scrolls are obviously about a 1,000 years older than both codices, and contain fragments from multiple copies of every book from the Tanakh, with the exception of  Esther.  The Dead Sea Scrolls lack the vowels of the Masoretic Text, the Codex Cairensis is a mostly complete Masoretic manuscript of the Prophets (Nevi’im–one of the three division of the TaNaKh, along with the Law [Torah] and Writings [Ketuvim]) which was written more than 100 years before the Aleppo Codex.

So it is neither the oldest, nor the most complete, but what about most accurate?  We have no idea.  That’s not the kind of claim a journalist (or scholar) can really back up very easily, though besides age there are some standard rules, like older, majority, geographically widespread, shorter, and more difficult readings are preferred.  But none of those rules can be applied uncritical and age alone cannot prove that is this the most accurate version of 24 separate books recorded between ca. 1400 BCE (Moses on Sinai) and 70 CE (the Destruction of the Second Temple).  What they should have written is that the Aleppo Codex is “the most authoritative” manuscript of the Tanakh.  It is the text consulted by scholars from all over the Jewish world throughout the Middle Ages. It is also the first copy of all of the Tanakh bound together, the decisive statement of what is canon, and what is merely inspired (Ben Sira, for instance, which was important for centuries, by the 10th century fell on the wrong side of this line).  Wikipedia, more nuanced than the Times’ Magazine, calls it “the most accurate representation of Masoretic principles in any extant manuscript, containing very few errors among the roughly 2.7 million orthographic details[3] that make up the Masoretic Text“.

(It feels appropriate to point that the Straight Dope’s “Who Wrote the Bible?” Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 provides a decent, short, online  introduction to the historico-critical history of the books of the Tanakh and New Testament.  This is what’s called called “higher criticism“.  For a more detailed introduction to higher criticism of the Torah, I can recommend Elliot Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible?, which is special in part because it offers a verse by verse estimation of who is responsible for every single line of the Torah.  The Aleppo Codex, on the other hand, is particularly important “lower criticism“, which is interested in the small differences between different manuscripts of the same text).

A destroyed Aleppo Synagogue after the 1947 anti-Semiitic riots

A destroyed Aleppo synagogue after the 1947 anti-Semiitic riots//Wikipedia

The point of the NYT Magazine article is, essentially, that the missing parts of the Codex weren’t lost in the riots of 1947–instead, they were separated from the main text after the Codex’s arrival in Israel in 1957.  You should read the article, I’ll stop sharing spoilers (though one last spoiler: the article is a little dryly written). What I’d actually like to comment on is how the article is written: everything is considered “religion” and nothing is called “superstition” or “synchreticism” or something else along those lines.

In Aleppo, Syria, where the codex was safeguarded for six centuries, it was believed to possess magical properties. It was said that women who looked upon it would become pregnant, that those who held the keys to its safe were blessed, that anyone who stole or sold the codex was cursed and that a terrible plague would wipe out the Jewish community if it were removed from their synagogue. At the tops of some of the pages, the Aleppo elders inscribed a warning to would-be thieves: “Sacred to Yahweh, not to be sold or defiled.” And elsewhere: “Cursed be he who steals it, and cursed be he who sells it.” Among some parties, those fears persist even today.

And later:

Yitzhak Ben-Zvi became Israel’s second president in 1952. Shortly after, he obtained a rabbinical ruling from the chief rabbi of Israel effectively annulling all curses connected to the codex and intensifying pressure on the Aleppo Jews to send it to Jerusalem.

In regards to a novel about the Codex:

Shamosh said: “I tried to explain to him that it was all fictional, but I couldn’t get through to him. Safra said to me: ‘I don’t want to provoke the evil eye. This thing is going to bring about my death in terrible circumstances.’ ”

An elderly man recalling his bar mitzvah in 1945:

“They gathered us, 15 children, stood us in a line, a few meters from the safe, and opened it with two keys,” he said. “Many of us were gripped by a powerful trembling, because since we were babies, we’d been taught that a plague would kill whoever didn’t relate to the book with suitable respect.”

My absolute favorite part is, suspecting that people in the Syrian Jewish diaspora might have some of the missing Torah pages, Israeli bureaucrats:

Closeup of Joshua 1:1 from the Aleppo Codex//Wikipedia

obtained a special judicial ruling from the chief rabbi of Israel reinstating the curses associated with the codex, only now they worked the other way: against anyone who was secretly holding on to it… [However], “The members of the community explained to me that, with all due respect to the chief rabbi and the power of his ruling, the faith of the Jews of Aleppo in the power of the codex is greater by far, and they believe that even a tiny fragment from it bestows great strength of health and well-being upon them.”

One wonders if such respect and non-judgemental lack of commentary would be extended to similar practices in other religious communities (and not just “minor” ones–I mean Pentacostals in LA, Mormons in Utah, Muslims in India, Buddhists in Burma, every religions in Africa, etc. etc.).  In many places, journalists and a discouragingly high proportion of scholars would be reluctant to classify equivalent practices as legitimate, and would seek  to use some sort of distancing language like “heterodox” or “superstitious”.  These are of course not actually “heterodox” practices (in this case, they’re both perfectly orthodox and perfectly Orthodox) and the word “superstition” artificially tries to separate “the real, rational, written religion” from “a oral, emotional, popular, inauthentic tradition”.  Winnifred Fallers Sullivan in The Impossibility of Religion Freedom refers to the same dichotomy as “small-p protestant” and “small-c catholic”, and while those terms are useful for giving a flavor of one of the main historical power relationships behind the distinction, they’re really horribly confusing terms (She says something along the lines of, “Of course, some Catholic traditions are protestant and some Protestant traditions are catholic”).  The “evil eye” mentioned above could also potentially be annoying glossed “synchreticism”, another term I hate, and about which I recently had a long, drunken debate with a colleague (a post on that to come, likely).  Instead, as always, I defer to Robert Orsi and call this “everyday religion” (or what some other call “lived religion” or, worst of all, “popular religion”).  While I wish there was a little more in the article on some of the power dynamics at play here (like between the lay and rabbinic members of Syrian community, and the Sephardi Rabbinate’s removal and reinstatement of the manuscript’s curse), I hope that other scholars and journalists use this as a model for providing respectful description of what religious people actually believe and do.


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