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Q&A Wednesday: The Best Crown in Town? Finding the Aleppo Codex in Fustat, with Neriah Klein

T-S Misc. 24.137.3
T-S Misc. 24.137.3 P2 (recto): A scribal note at the end of the book states that it was checked against the Taj.
Author: 
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Neriah Klein
Wed 27 Apr 2022

Neriah, what are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on several projects at the moment. I have a position at the Hebrew University Bible Project (HUBP), where I’m preparing the apparatus of textual variations found in Medieval Hebrew manuscripts of the book of Joshua. I’m also working with Prof. Yosef Ofer on the manuscript Sassoon 1053, making an edition of the Masora magna of the manuscript, as well as working on a book based on my PhD on Chronicles, and an article about leprosy in Leviticus.

You recently published an article bringing together possible references to the Aleppo Codex in Cairo Genizah fragments. For those who don’t know much about the Aleppo Codex, can you tell us briefly about its significance?

First, the Aleppo Codex is probably the most ancient (formerly-)complete, dateable manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, and obviously the most famous today. We know it dates to the first half of the 10th century, when it was written by an excellent scribe, Solomon ben Buya’a, and vocalised by the renowned Masorete Aharon ben Asher. His reputation for accuracy can be seen in its agreement with the Masora. When we check the text of the Torah in the Aleppo Codex, for example, it differs from the Masora in only 3 places. In contrast, other exemplary codices have 20, 25 or more, and the famous Leningrad Codex has around 120 such differences. The Aleppo Codex is therefore regarded as the best representative of the masoretic text of Ben Asher, and this and other reasons led it to be used, for example, as the base text for the HUBP edition of the Hebrew Bible.

The Aleppo Codex is now in the Israel Museum, and prior to this it was in Aleppo. What do we know about the history of the Aleppo Codex before it came to Aleppo?

The manuscript was written in Tiberias, and after that it went to Jerusalem. It then moved to Fustat, in Egypt, probably due to the Crusader conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. There was a note at the beginning of the manuscript (on a page which has now been lost but was previously copied), stating that it was ransomed from its captors. We know that Jewish captives and looted books were sold by the Crusaders to the Jews in nearby cities like Ashkelon, with financing from Fustat, and scholars assume that the Aleppo Codex was among this number. The manuscript remained in Fustat from the 12th century until around 1375 when a great-grandson of Maimonides moved to Aleppo, and it’s believed the manuscript moved there with him. 

Can you tell us about some of the references to its time in Fustat?

The Aleppo Codex was kept at the Synagogue of the Jerusalemites (now known as the Ben Ezra Synagogue), where it was known as the ‘Taj’ – the crown. The ‘Taj’ is listed on an inventory list of the Synagogue from 1186 (Bodl., MS heb. F. 56/49). At this time, it was the only Bible manuscript known as the ‘Taj’ (though later on this became a common term to apply to other biblical manuscripts). It was used to check and copy Torah scrolls and biblical codices, and we have references in the Genizah fragments about that. Judah ben Aaron, a teacher from Alexandria, asks his friend, Me’ir ben Yakin, in Fustat to check a particular word in the Taj in Deuteronomy (T-S 13J21.25 and T-S 16.287). So, they were using it to check spellings, and proofread scrolls, etc.

Do you think access to it was limited? Did someone wanting to consult it need special permission?

I can’t say for sure, as I didn’t see any information about this in the Genizah fragments, but certainly in Aleppo it was very difficult for anyone to get permission to see it, and it was not even used to check their own Torah scrolls. In Fustat, this doesn’t seem to have been the case. It seems to have been more available to the public. People could sit with it to compare an entire book or scroll. Maimonides sat with it to write his own Torah scroll, at least to check the parashot (divisions). Of course, he was the Head of the Jews in Egypt and not the average man on the street! The friend contacted by the man in Alexandria was a cantor of the synagogue, so he again is someone in a position to have access to it. I can’t say whether others would have gained access to the Taj as easily.

Do we know how it was kept in the synagogue in Fustat? Was it in a box or on a shelf?

We don’t know. It wasn’t the only fine codex in circulation in Fustat. In 1954, S.D. Goitein published a letter that describes ‘the brother of the Taj’, which could not be replaced for even 100 dinars (Bodl., MS heb. c. 28/23). It seems to refer to another biblical manuscript that has a similar (albeit lesser) status to the Taj, and is similarly valued. This is a reference to a different manuscript, but it tells us something about the status of the Taj at this time as well, so it’s interesting.

What other pieces of evidence do we have?

There are the endings of two biblical books – Leviticus and Numbers – and they contain notes saying that they were checked against the Taj (St. Petersburg Evr. II B 1533; T-S Misc. 24.137.3). So that’s more evidence for how the manuscript was used in Fustat as a scribal resource. Joseph Rosh ha-Seder, a scribe known to Genizah scholars for his messy book lists and notes, says in one fragment that he hopes to write a Torah scroll according to the Taj (T-S K6.170). He also made a list of books that everyone should have, and one on the list is a ‘Torah Taj’ (T-S K3.1). I’m not sure what this is, but it may be what he mentioned wanting to do himself: a Torah copied from (or checked against) the Taj.

The Medieval Must-Have!

It’s been the ideal biblical manuscript for a thousand years.

Are the details in these fragments merely interesting trivia about the life of this manuscript or does it mean something more for Masora studies?

We have a lot of sources about the Aleppo Codex from the 15th and 16th centuries onward, but the Genizah fragments tell us what Jews were doing with it in the centuries before this, what they called it and how they treated it, and more. Yet, for ‘real’ Masora studies the importance may be only collateral.

If the Aleppo Codex – the Taj – is used to copy and correct and check biblical manuscripts in Fustat for many years, does that mean that the Bible fragments in the Genizah should provide particularly fine copies of Masoretic manuscripts, with such a good source text to hand?

Yes, I believe so, and we should be able to find them. The problem is that many correctors did not check all the layers of the text. There’s the consonantal text, the vowels, the accents, and the gaʿayot. In the two endings of chumashim that refer to the Taj, there are slight differences in the gaʿayot, even though the scribes claim that they checked it against the Taj. A copy is only as accurate as the copyist.

Where do you see the future for Masora studies? What’s next for research on the Bible?

A basic need in Masoretic studies is a database of at least the main Masoretic manuscripts, as well as scientific editions of important manuscripts (like Sassoon 1053) that have never been published. At present, Masoretic scholars consult manuscripts separately and perhaps keep their own private lists, but a comprehensive database with the Masoretic notes and all their variations would be so useful.

Thanks for your time, Neriah!

Dr. Neriah Klein is Head of the Text and Masora sections of the Hebrew University Bible Project.

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I hadn't yet seen Neriah's work. Thanks for this!

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