That in Aleppo Once
Crown of Aleppo: The Mystery of the Oldest Hebrew Bible Codex
by Hayim Tawil and Bernard Schneider
Jewish Publication Society, 199 pp., $40
Sometime in the 10th century, in Tiberias, Aharon ben Asher and Shlomo ben Buya'a sat down to produce an annotated copy of the Hebrew Bible. Ben Buya'a was responsible for the lettering, while Ben Asher, whose father, Moshe, was also a great master of the textual tradition, or Masorete (from the Hebrew mesorah, meaning tradition), added the notes. These notes are what made the so-called "Aleppo Codex" (a codex is an ancient book rather than a scroll), or, in Hebrew, Keter Aram Tsova (Crown of Aleppo) the most authoritative Hebrew Bible of the Middle Ages. In fact, ben Asher and ben Buya'a's text didn't reach Aleppo until the 15th century, and the question of how it got there is one of the several historical mysteries discussed in Hayim Tawil and Bernard Schneider's new book.
In the Middle Ages, pretty much all Jews believed that the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, had been dictated by God to Moses. But just as important as its reception was the issue of the Torah's transmission. The troubling reality in ancient and medieval times was that Torah scrolls were not uniform, neither in letters, nor in divisions of sections or vocalization of words. This was a religious predicament, but it was also a scholarly challenge, for the only solution was to investigate scribal traditions, compare the best biblical manuscripts and Torah scrolls, and make informed critical judgments about which readings made the most sense.
This is where the Masoretes came in. By creating a system of marginal signs and notes they enabled the text—and the proper way to read it—to be passed on in as perfect a fashion as possible. To be sure, there had been a concern with biblical accuracy before this—the Talmud says that the soferim (scribes) were known as such because they "count" (in Hebrew, soferim) the letters of the Torah—but it is not until the 8th century that we find systematic treatments of the text, vocalization, and cantillation of the Torah. The codex, basically a book, was simply the best form in which to record masoretic notes, since the scribe can write on both sides of the page and his reader needn't roll and unroll to find his place. Indeed, Jewish law, which allows only the unvocalized, unpunctuated, and unglossed letters of the Bible to appear in a Torah scroll, almost makes it necessary.