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Thoughts on Codex Sassoon 1053

This week’s exciting news in the world of Judaica was the report of the purchase of the oldest known, nearly complete, manuscript codex of the Hebrew Bible for a record-breaking sum of over $38 million. This successful bid was made by 93-year-old corporate attorney and former ambassador to Romania in the Clinton administration, Alfred H. Moses, on behalf of the American Friends of ANU – Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv.  This manuscript, which includes all of the 24 books of the Tanach, dates, according to both paleographical evidence and carbon dating, to somewhere between the end of the 9th century and the early 10th century.  That makes it about one hundred years older than the Leningrad Codex, a complete Bible text, which dates to 1008 and this manuscript is approximately the same age as the famous Aleppo Codex. This Bible is missing onlythe first 12 pages of Genesis as well as a number of other pages that are damaged and partially missing, but otherwise it is a nearly complete Bible.  While the Aleppo Codex is a much more beautiful and accurate edition and had been intact for centuries, after a riot in Aleppo inDecember of 1947, about 40 percent of it, including most of the text of the Torah, disappeared and what remainseventually was smuggled out of Syria to Israel.  Some suspect that the missing pages may still be in private hands and may eventually turn up, while others believe they may have been destroyed in the riot following the passage of the UN’s Partition Plan for Palestine.  Thestory of the Aleppo Codex is rather frustrating because it could have been removed from Aleppo years earlier to safety, but its guardians wouldn’t hear of it and were so zealous in “protecting” it, they did not even allow scholars to photograph its pages. What we know of it was thanks to careful notes taken by Professor Umberto Cassutto from Hebrew University who was granted limited access to its text in 1943.


One problem with many of these early manuscripts is that their price has gotten so high that only wealthy individuals have been able to purchase them for their private collections and often have not allowed others access to them or made access very difficult and limited. This Sassoon Codex whose early history is known, was hidden away for some 600 years and did not turn up again until David Solomon Sassoon purchased it in 1929 for a mere £ 350.  It remained in the hands of Sassoon family members until 1978 when it was sold to the British Rail Pension Fund.  It was auctioned again through Sotheby’s in 1989 for £ 2,035,000 to a dealer who sold it to investor Jacqui Safra who owned it until now.  Fortunately for scholars who wish to examine and study this text, it is now going to the former Diaspora Museum, now known as the Museum of the Jewish People, in Tel Aviv, where it will be possible for biblical scholars to access it to the extent that the Museum makes it available for study.


A codex is a manuscript bound in the familiar form of a book rather than written on a scroll as many ancient manuscripts appear.  The text of the Bible is written in three columns on each page, the same as the Aleppo Codex.  While there is some distinction in being the oldest extant, nearly-complete copy of the entire Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, one wonders what precisely scholars will be able to learn from it.  Jewish tradition has been very careful and precise in preserving the text of scripture.  If you have ever been in the synagogue when the Torah reader comes upon an error, you know that the reading is stopped, the text examined, and generally put aside as another scroll is taken out in its stead.  That Torah scroll with the error has its belt placed around the outside and is not read again until a scribe, a sofer, has looked at it and corrected the error where possible or replaced a section of parchment with a correct text.  I would not expect someone to find any major variation in this text that would distinguish it from every other edition of the Bible. There will be no new biblical stories found or additional chapters or verses in this text.  In fact, I recently saw someone mention that a photocopy of the text has existed for some 60 years, so scholars pretty much know what’s in it.


As we know from our Torah scrolls, the Bible was originally written solely with the consonantal text, no vowels, punctuation marks, or cantillation symbols appear in the Torah or in other biblical manuscripts prior to the works of the Masoretes who apparently came on the scene somewhere between the 6th and 8th centuries.  These scholars, based on long-standing tradition, created a system to indicate vowel sounds and added the vowels to the consonants.  While Hebrew, like Arabic, is often written purely in consonants and readers have to add the vocalization based on the context, there is considerable room for ambiguity.  There is often more than one way to read an unpointed text. In modern Hebrew, one finds, an occasional vowel thrown into the text of a newspaper or novel when a passage can be understood in more than one way. Modern Hebrew uses vowels primarily for beginners’ texts, poetry, and, usually, in Bible texts.  By adding the vowels based on previous oral tradition, the Masoretes fixed the reading permanently.  They also added cantillation marks, tropes, which not only tell us how to chant a passage, but also provide punctuation, indicating pauses in the text.  Sof pasuk is the equivalent of a period and etnachta, a comma, and other notes indicate other types of pauses and punctuation.  Question marks and exclamation points are not to be found except in the works of commentators who occasionally indicate that a sentence we might have read as a statement is to be read as a question.


As with the other early Codices mentioned, the Sassoon Codex contains various Masoretic notes referred to by scholars as the Masorah Parva and the Masorah Magna.  The Masorah Parva refers to tiny notes in the columns next to the text indicating variations in spelling and providing information about how many times the variant spelling appears in the Tanach.  The Masorah Magna appears above or below the text and provides greaterdetail on these variations and where they appear.  The main concern is that sometimes words are spelled with the letters vav or yud indicating a vowel, this is the full spelling and other times the vav or yud is omitted and the vowel sound is indicated purely by the added dots and dashes, k’tiv chaser. It doesn’t change the reading, but it does change the spelling. There are a number of other places in the Bible where the Masoretes indicate a different tradition of reading a passage from the way a text is written. Two classic cases come to mind where the written text speaks of haemorrhoids or of sexual activity and the Masoretesinstruct the reader to use what was considered a more “decent” term. All of these variations appear in the notes and certain scribes were known as particularly accurate in including this information from the Masoretes and thus maintaining a very accurate text.  Many scholars believethat the Aleppo Codex is the most accurate and authoritative text and may, in fact, have been a manuscript that Maimonides had seen and considered the most accurate text when he was writing the section in his law code about the writing of Torahs and the texts of mezuzahs and tefillin by scribes.


By contrast, it has been noted by a number of scholars of the Masorah that the Sassoon Codex is ”unusually sloppy, frequently forgetting punctuation, diacritical marks, and vowels.  He (the scribe) also errs in his consonantalspelling on dozens of occasions.”  All that is very disappointing to learn, but does not detract from the historic importance of this codex and the fact that it will benot only in Jewish hands that will respect its sacred nature, but will be placed on display in Israel in a museum where it will be properly preserved, displayed, and, as appropriate, made available for scholarly research. I suspect that while its external qualities may be questionable, there may indeed be much more to learn from this sacred object that is not immediately apparent to those of us who simply read the text rather than study the artifact on which it is written.  For this reason, we celebrate this new acquisition of this biblical text by the Museum of the Jewish People and you may well wish to take a look for yourself the next time you are in Tel Aviv.

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