Called “the Crown” (Keter), the Aleppo Codex was the apex of the work of the Masoretic scribes who preserved the Hebrew Scriptures after the scattering of the Jews following the first and second Roman-Jewish Wars (AD 70 and 135) and particularly after the widespread devastation resulting from the rise of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries AD.
The Masoretes worked from about the 6th to the 10th centuries, in Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, as well as in Jerusalem and in Babylon.
The Masoretes were exceedingly cautious about preserving the text, which they considered to be the very Word of God in every letter.
They first determined the correct Hebrew text. It is known from the Dead Sea Scrolls that there were some Hebrew texts in the two centuries before Christ that were not exactly like the text preserved by the Masoretes. But these are in the minority in the Dead Sea caves. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls “are virtually identical to the Masoretic Text” (VanderKam and Flint, The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2004, p. 105).
Having determined what they considered to be the correct Hebrew text, the Masoretes then preserved it in perfect detail. They counted every word and every letter and were ultra-meticulous in writing the scrolls.
They also created a system of vocalization marks to preserve aspects of the Hebrew text that had previously been transmitted orally. The Masoretes produced a system of vowel or vocalization marks. (The Hebrew manuscripts found in the Dead Sea caves, for example, are mostly consonantal.) They also produced a system of cantillation marks that describe the accenting of words and the melody or chanting style for public reading. These indicate which words should be read together, where to put the main stress and secondary stress, when to lift one’s voice or to lower, and when “to linger for an additional split second for syllables that are in danger of being swallowed” (M.H. Goshen-Gottstein, “The Aleppo Codex and the Rise of the Massoretic Bible Text,” The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 42, No. 3, Summer 1979).
The Masoretic apparatus (called the Masorah) consists of thousands of annotations that describe the spelling and sound of every word in the Hebrew Bible. There were three Masoretic annotation systems: Tiberian, Palestinian, and Babylonian, but the Tiberian prevailed.
It was the Masoretic Hebrew text that was put into print in the 15th and 16th centuries and that became the foundation for the Bibles that went to the ends of the earth during the great missionary movement. The most important printed Hebrew Bible was the Ben Hayim or the Bomberg. “[T]he famous massoretic scholar Ginsburg has argued that it was a good representation of the Ben Asher text” (“The 1524 Second Rabbinic Bible: Mikraot Gedolot” Bible Manuscript Society).
“The earliest printed editions of the Hebrew Bible derive from the last quarter of the 15th century and the first quarter of the 16th century. The oldest Masoretic codices stem from the end of the 9th century and the beginning of the 10th. A comparison of the two shows that no textual developments took place during the intervening 600 years. A single standardized recension enjoyed an absolute monopoly and was transmitted by the scribes with amazing fidelity. Not one of the medieval Hebrew manuscripts and none of the thousands of fragments preserved in the Cairo Geniza (synagogue storeroom) contains departures of any real significance from the received text” (“The Christian Canon,” Encyclopedia Britannica).
One reason why the Masoretes were so careful was that they believed that they no longer correctly understood the Scriptures and they needed to meticulously transmit the text so that one day they could regain the correct meaning.
“The text must be perfect because an imperfect text loses information vital to the book’s divine message. It is not just that we must know exactly what the words mean, Jewish tradition tells us, because WE DO NOT AND CANNOT KNOW EXACTLY WHAT THEY MEAN; PERHAPS WE DID ONCE; AND PERHAPS WE WILL AGAIN ONE DAY, but for now the information must be preserved even if it is beyond our understanding. A tiny vowel sign, one that makes only a minute difference in how a word is pronounced—prolonging the syllable ah, for example, into aah—might be sheltering precious and secret information” (Matti Friedman, The Aleppo Codex).
This is a pathetic admission, and it is the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s dire warning.
“Behold, the LORD’S hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear. … Therefore is judgment far from us, neither doth justice overtake us: we wait for light, but behold obscurity; for brightness, but we walk in darkness. We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes: we stumble at noonday as in the night; we are in desolate places as dead men. We roar all like bears, and mourn sore like doves: we look for judgment, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far off from us. For our transgressions are multiplied before thee, and our sins testify against us: for our transgressions are with us; and as for our iniquities, we know them; In transgressing and lying against the LORD, and departing away from our God, speaking oppression and revolt, conceiving and uttering from the heart words of falsehood” (Isa. 59:1-2, 9-13).
The prophet Amos added, “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD: And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the LORD, and shall not find it” (Am. 8:11-12).
The Aleppo Codex is called “The Crown” because it is considered the most perfect edition of the Masoretic Hebrew text. “It is the only manuscript of the entire massoretic Bible in which the correspondence between text and massoretic notation is practically perfect” (M.H. Goshen-Gottstein).
The Codex was written in exquisite letters, lines, and columns by Shlomo Ben Boya’a, and the Masorah was added by the most famous Masoretic scholar, Aaron Ben Asher, son of Moshe Ben Asher. They were the apex of a family of Masorete scholars that labored for five or six generations. The Codex was completed in about AD 930 in Tiberias. The following information is from an inscription that was written in the Codex when it was purchased a century later by the Karaites:
“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.”
A Karaite Jew bought the Codex in about 1050 and transferred it to the Karaite community in Jerusalem. The Karaites accept only the authority of the Hebrew Bible and reject Talmudic tradition. The Codex was taken out of its storage place three times a year and displayed to the public. It was also made available for examination by scholars wanting to resolve questions relating to the Hebrew text.
In 1099, the Catholic knights of the First Crusade captured Jerusalem, killed and enslaved many Jews, and stole Hebrew writings for ransom. The Ben Asher Codex was redeemed by wealthy Jews living in Egypt and kept in a synagogue in Fustat, near Cairo. It was borrowed by Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon (Maimonides or Rambam) (1138-1204) and proclaimed by him to be the most accurate text. In his Mishneh Torah, a famous rabbinical commentary, he says, “In these matters we relied upon the codex, now in Egypt, which contains the twenty-four books of Scripture and which had been in Jerusalem for several years. It was used as the standard text in the correction of books. Everybody used to accept it as authoritative, for Ben Asher went over it most exactly for many years and corrected it many times. I relied upon it in the Torah scroll that I wrote according to Jewish Law.”
In the 14th century, the Codex was moved to Aleppo, Syria, probably by Rabbi David Ben Yehoshu’a, a great-great-great-grandson of Maimonides. It was kept in the Central Synagogue, which had existed since the 5th century, though sometimes damaged by Muslim invaders. The Codex was kept in an iron chest in a cave that was traditionally called the Cave of Elijah. There were two keys to the chest so that two trusted members of the synagogue were required to be present to remove the Codex.
As time passed, the Codex was treated more like a magic talisman. People would pray before it in search of good fortune. “Over the years, it came to be venerated less as a source of wisdom than as a precious possession of great age and worth, like a jewel or an ornament. … The Jews of Aleppo swore oaths on the Crown, lit candles in its grotto, and prayed there for the welfare of the sick” (Friedman, The Aleppo Codex).
Eventually the Aleppo Jewish community severely restricted access to the Codex even for the purpose of preparing Hebrew Bibles. God gave the Scriptures to Israel to be a light to the nations (De. 4:5-6), but they shut up the light. This did not begin with the synagogue at Aleppo. When God commanded the prophet Jonah to preach to Nineveh in the 9th century BC, he tried to flee, instead, to Spain, not wanting the Assyrians to have an opportunity to repent. Jonah finally went to Nineveh after God got his attention by means of a whale’s belly, but after the Ninevites repented, the prophet got angry at God for blessing them. The Jews despised their Samaritan neighbors so much that they had no dealings with them. As the Samaritan woman in Sychar, under the shadow of Mt. Gerizim, told Jesus, “How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans” (Joh. 4:9).
The Aleppo rabbis wouldn’t even allow the Codex to be photographed, except for a couple of pages. Paul Kahle was refused access to the Aleppo Codex in the 1930s, and he turned to the Leningrad Codex instead, which is an inferior text. In this way, subsequent editions of Kittel’s Biblia Hebraica were corrupted and this moved modern Bible versions away from the pure Hebrew text. “The history of internal disharmony among manuscripts started then and there. By various counts, the consonantal text of the Leningrad Codex—wrongly proclaimed to this day as practically identical with Aaron ben Asher’s codex—has been shown to be about the furthest removed from that subtradition” (M.H. Goshen-Gottstein, “The Aleppo Codex and the Rise of the Massoretic Bible Text,” The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 42, No. 3, Summer 1979).
No thanks to the Aleppo rabbis, or any other rabbis, the lion of the Hebrew Scripture has long been loosed from its cage. This happened in the 16th century when the Masoretic Hebrew Bible was printed by Gentile printers and published to the ends of the earth by Gentile churches.
Even before the coming of Jesus, the Hebrew Scriptures were becoming buried beneath rabbinical tradition. Jesus fulfilled Messianic Scripture in every detail, but He was rejected because He did not fit rabbinical tradition. He said to the Pharisees, “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? … Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:3-9).
The law of Moses was made into a system of works religion, whereas it was intended by God to be a schoolmaster to lead sinners to Christ by showing them their lost condition and pointing them to Christ by types and prophecies.
“Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:19-24).
“Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:24-26).
Paul, who was trained by that great rabbi Gamaliel, described what had happened. “But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone; As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed” (Romans 9:31-33).
As time passed, layer upon layer of tradition was added by various rabbis, and this mass of tradition was formulated into the Talmud, which remains the chief authority of rabbinical Judaism to this day.
Rabbinical Judaism is also leavened with occultic mysticism called Kabbalah. Consider The Guide of the Perplexed by Maimonides, the most revered ancient rabbi. This very popular and influential book is an unfathomable work of philosophy that buries the Scripture under mountains of allegorical mysticism. To Maimonides, God is unknowable. He cannot be described in language. He has not revealed Himself, has not spoken through prophets. To Maimonides, the Bible is a riddle that can be fathomed only by those who can delve beyond its literal meaning to plumb the depths of the secrets hidden therein. Maimonides’ God is more like the Hindu Brahman than the Jehovah God of Scripture. This is Rabbinical, Talmudic, Kabbalah Judaism.
Having lost the meaning of the Hebrew Bible because of willful blindness, many Jews have made the biblical scrolls themselves into objects of superstitious veneration. Following is a description of the use of the Hebrew scrolls in the synagogues. “On top of the scroll there is often a silver crown: the Jews dress their book up like a king and stand up in respect when it is taken from the ark, just as they would if a dignitary entered the room.” There is nothing wrong with standing in respect of God’s Word, but the problem is that they rejected their King 2,000 years ago, when “He came unto his own, and his own received him not” (John 1:11). The Scripture itself is not king; it points to the King.
When the United Nations voted in favor of the partitioning of Palestine into Jewish and Palestinian states in December 1947, Muslims went on a rampage and burned the synagogue. At least part of the Codex was rescued by the Jews and hidden. It was smuggled out of Syria to Israel in 1958, ten years after Israel won the War of Independence, and today it is housed in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The book on display consists of one sheet of the original (if not a facsimile of a sheet) attached to a dummy book. The original is kept in a vault elsewhere in the building. “Access requires three different keys, a magnetic card, and a secret code” (Friedman).
About one-third of the Aleppo Codex is missing (196 of the original 491 original pages). The missing parts include most of the Pentateuch (except the last part of Deuteronomy beginning with 28:16), three pages from Kings (2 Ki. 14:21 - 18:13), three pages from Jeremiah (Jer. 29:9 - 31:34), three pages from the Minor Prophets (Am. 8:13 to Mic. 5:1, including the books of Obadiah and Jonah), four pages from the end of the Minor Prophets (end of Zep. to Zec. 9:17, including Haggai), two pages from Psalms (Ps. 15:1 - 25:1), 36 pages from the Writings (Song 3:11 - 6:14, and the entire books of Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah).
The Aleppo Codex in the hands of the modern state of Israel begins with Deuteronomy 28:16, with the warning of the curses that would come upon Israel if she turned from God’s Word.
“Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field. Cursed shall be thy basket and thy store. Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep. Cursed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and cursed shalt thou be when thou goest out. The LORD shall send upon thee cursing, vexation, and rebuke, in all that thou settest thine hand unto for to do, until thou be destroyed, and until thou perish quickly; because of the wickedness of thy doings, whereby thou hast forsaken me. The LORD shall make the pestilence cleave unto thee, until he have consumed thee from off the land, whither thou goest to possess it” (De. 28:16-21).
It is Deuteronomy 28 that gives the entire history of Israel since the Babylonian Captivity.
“And thou shalt become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword, among all nations whither the LORD shall lead thee. … And ye shall be left few in number, whereas ye were as the stars of heaven for multitude; because thou wouldest not obey the voice of the LORD thy God. And it shall come to pass, that as the LORD rejoiced over you to do you good, and to multiply you; so the LORD will rejoice over you to destroy you, and to bring you to nought; and ye shall be plucked from off the land whither thou goest to possess it. And the LORD shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other; and there thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even wood and stone. And among these nations shalt thou find no ease, neither shall the sole of thy foot have rest: but the LORD shall give thee there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind: And thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of thy life” (De. 28:37, 62-66).
Deuteronomy 28 even describes the desertification of the land, which formerly was a paradise. “And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron. The LORD shall make the rain of thy land powder and dust: from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed” (De. 28:23-24).
The fulfillment of this amazing prophecy is why Israel is largely arid and semi-arid today, whereas it is described as a paradise in the time of Moses. This is why the famous American author Mark Twain could describe the land as follows in 1867: “Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are unpicturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent. ... It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land. Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies. ... Palestine is desolate and unlovely” (The Innocents Abroad).
The fact that Israel’s Crown begins today with Deuteronomy 28, we find to be fascinating and instructive. It is as if God is saying, “Israel has broken and despised my law, and I have removed it from their most revered copy. Now their revered book begins with my curses upon the nation and my promises of restoration.” Deuteronomy 28 contains Moses’ prophecy of what would happen to Israel if she turned from God’s Word, but Deuteronomy 30 prophesies the return and conversion of Israel, in God’s great mercy, which will be fulfilled in the imminent future.
“And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt call them to mind among all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath driven thee, And shalt return unto the LORD thy God, and shalt obey his voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul; That then the LORD thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath scattered thee. If any of thine be driven out unto the outmost parts of heaven, from thence will the LORD thy God gather thee, and from thence will he fetch thee: And the LORD thy God will bring thee into the land which thy fathers possessed, and thou shalt possess it; and he will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers. And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live” (De. 30:1-6).
This is a prophecy of the present return only in small part. Only the part about the return to “the land which thy fathers possessed” is fulfilled so far. The main focus of the prophecy is a great event that will happen in the future, probably the near future. It is Israel’s national conversion and the establishment of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31). It points to the time when the hearts of the people of Israel will be circumcised to love Jehovah God and to obey His voice. That is not true today, but it is coming.
(In The Aleppo Codex: In Pursuit of One of the World’s Most Coveted, Sacred, and Mysterious Books (2013), journalist Matti Friedman describes his effort to find the answer to the mystery of how the pages were lost and where they are. He gives some evidence that the Codex was largely intact after the burning of the synagogue. This would mean that the pages were not destroyed or stolen by Muslims. It would mean that Jews were involved. At this time, no definitive conclusion can be made.)
Following are links to three online facsimiles of the Aleppo Codex -
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