JERUSALEM – A quest is under way on four continents to find the missing pages of one of the world's most important holy texts, the 1,000-year-old Hebrew Bible known as the Crown of Aleppo.
Crusaders held it for ransom, fire almost destroyed it and it was reputedly smuggled across Mideast borders hidden in a washing machine. But in 1958, when it finally reached Israel, 196 pages were missing — about 40 percent of the total — and for some Old Testament scholars they have become a kind of holy grail.
Researchers representing the manuscript's custodian in Jerusalem now say they have leads on some of the missing pages and are nearer their goal of making the manuscript whole again.
The Crown, known in English as the Aleppo Codex, may not be as famous as the Dead Sea Scrolls. But to many scholars it is even more important, because it is considered the definitive edition of the Bible for Jewry worldwide.
The key to finding the pages is thought to lie with the insular diaspora of Jews originating in Aleppo, Syria, where the manuscript resided in a synagogue's iron chest for centuries.
A turning point in its history came three days after the U.N. passed the 1947 resolution to grant Israel statehood, provoking a Syrian mob to burn down the synagogue. Aleppo's Jews rescued the Codex, but in the ensuing years the 10,000-strong community was uprooted and scattered around the world.
Scholars believe that Aleppo Jews still hold many of the missing pages, while others have fallen into the hands of antiquities dealers. Two fragments have already surfaced: a full page in 1982, and a smaller piece last year that had been carried for decades by a Brooklyn man, Sam Sabbagh, as a good-luck charm. Persistent rumors tell of more waiting to be found.
When the Codex reached Israel 50 years ago it was presented to Izhak Ben-Zvi, the country's president and a scholar of Jewish communities in the Islamic world. Although the manuscript is housed at the Israel Museum with the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Ben-Zvi Institute founded by the late president remains its legal custodian and is behind the new search.
Past efforts, including some by Israeli diplomats and Mossad secret service agents, came up against a wall of silence in the Aleppo community. The new search has recruited a small group of Aleppo Jews, better able to win the community's trust, and has yielded information on the whereabouts of specific pieces and on the people who are holding them, said Zvi Zameret, the Ben-Zvi Institute's director.
"Only someone who believes that this manuscript is one of the foundation stones of the people of Israel, someone whose goal is not to get rich — only such a person can make progress," he said.
He divulged few details lest he compromise the effort. He would say only that the search is being carried out in North, South and Central America, Israel and England, and that success appeared within reach.
"If there is a possibility, as the rumors say, that there are not only small fragments but also entire sections, that is extremely exciting," said Adolfo Roitman, the Israel Museum curator in charge of the manuscript. "We're missing entire books — most of the five Books of Moses, except for a few pages, and we have no Book of Esther, no Book of Daniel."
He, like most other scholars involved, has met people who know of people who supposedly have pages. But the leads invariably end with people who refuse to talk.
Each page is priceless, but money wouldn't be an issue for most Aleppo Jews because anyone trafficking in such holy relics could be banished by the community, Roitman said. Some of the Crown's pages bear an inscription warning that it "may not be sold."
Some people might be superstitious about the fragments they hold, or believe they are rightfully the property of Aleppo Jews, not of scholars. Others might simply have no idea of the value of what they own.
The Codex, on 491 parchment pages about 12 inches by 10 inches, was transcribed sometime around 930 A.D. by Shlomo Ben Boya'a, a scribe in Tiberias on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. It was edited by a renowned scholar of the time, Aaron Ben-Asher. Its completion marked the end of a centuries-long process that created the final text of the Hebrew Bible.
It belonged to a Jewish community in Jerusalem until it was seized by the Crusaders who captured and sacked the city in 1099. Ransomed, it made its way to Cairo, where it was used by the 12th-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who declared it the most accurate copy of the Old Testament.
The manuscript doesn't contain passages missing from other versions. Instead, its accuracy is a matter of details like vowel signs and single letters that would only slightly alter pronunciation. But Judaism sanctifies each tiny calligraphic flourish in the Bible as a way of ensuring that communities around the world use precisely the same version of the divine book. That's why the Codex is considered by some to be the most important Jewish text in existence, and why the missing pieces are so coveted.
"The bottom line is that the whole process of putting together the text of the Bible ended with the Codex," said Rafael Zer of the Hebrew University Bible Project in Jerusalem, which is using the Codex to create what is meant to be the authoritative text of the Old Testament but can't properly complete it without the missing pages.
Not enough has been done to find them, laments Hayim Tawil of New York's Yeshiva University, the author of a forthcoming book on the Crown. "For Jews and for Western civilization this manuscript is equivalent to the Magna Carta," he said.
How the Codex reached Aleppo in northern Syria is unclear. Some scholars believe it was brought by a descendant of Maimonides in the late 1300s.
There it was guarded as the Jews' most prized possession and talisman. But on Dec. 2, 1947, the mob burned the synagogue. In the ensuing years, Aleppo Jews would describe rushing to snatch pages from the flames. The missing ones have not been seen since, with two exceptions.
One page from the Book of Chronicles survived in the New York apartment of an Aleppo woman and was handed over by her relatives in 1982. Another fragment recounting the Exodus story of the 10 plagues survived in the wallet of Sabbagh, another Aleppo exile in New York, who laminated it and kept it as a good luck charm. Last year, following Sabbagh's death, his family brought the fragment to join the rest of the manuscript in Jerusalem.
One of the men who rescued pages from the synagogue was Mourad Faham, who sneaked into the building disguised as a Bedouin and found the bulk of the manuscript on the floor, according to his grandson, Jack Dweck.
A decade later he strapped the manuscript under his robe and crossed the border into Turkey, Dweck said. From there it was wrapped in towels and, according to most versions of the story, bundled into a washing machine to be shipped to Israel.
Dweck, a businessman who lives in New York, home to one of the biggest communities of Aleppo Jews, says he has heard the rumors among his fellow Jews and believes the missing parts exist.
"My guess is that there's a bigger piece somewhere else, waiting to be found," he said.