Romance and mystery of 1,000 year old Hebrew Bible

Romance and mystery of 1,000 year old Hebrew Bible

For the JC Feb 2023

“This book is magnetic. It has a power, it draws you in across the room, it resonates.”

Sharon Liberman Mintz speaks with knowledge and affection of arguably the single most important piece of Judaica to come up for sale this century. Unseen in public for more than 40 years, the 792-page Codex Sassoon — the oldest nearly complete version of the Hebrew Bible — will go on sale at Sotheby’s in New York on May 16. It is expected to fetch between $35 and $50 million.

Ms Mintz, the senior consultant for Judaica for Sotheby’s since 1995, was in London at the beginning of the 1,000-year-old Codex’s “world tour” — going on display in Dallas, Los Angeles and Tel Aviv, before the New York auction. And for a rapt crowd in the auction house’s London galleries, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the Codex up close, and listen to Ms Mintz explain the history of this extraordinary object.

It’s not just Jews and collectors who want to see the Codex Sassoon: as Ms Mintz explained, she flew in to London, accompanied by Sotheby’s security, but the Codex, as with all such precious objects, required a carnet, or travelling passport, in order to clear customs. “And the head of customs at Heathrow asked to see it. I showed her the pictures, but she said, no, I want to see it for myself”.

It was an unusual but not unexpected request. Who could resist the opportunity to see such an item, written in the Middle East in the ninth century, which disappeared for hundreds of years before resurfacing in 1929?

This is romance and mystery, but most of all it is the first almost complete version (in book form) of the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, and is identical in format to what we use today. Rabbi Daniel Epstein, of Western Marble Arch Synagogue. asked to see the poem, The Song of the Sea, which appears in Exodus, traditionally printed in “brickwork form” with its lines running back and forth across the column. And there is the familiar layout in the Codex Sassoon, resonating across the centuries. What is really striking about seeing the Hebrew in the Codex is how clear and sharp it is, written in vegetable inks, and easily legible to the modern reader, unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Between the fragments found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the writing of the Codex Sassoon, there was a time span of 700 years known as “the silent period” in which there was no standard written form of the Hebrew Bible. “This Codex standardises and stabilises everything, and totally revolutionised the ability to study and read and understand the Bible”, says Ms Mintz.

The Codex, she says, “was written either in the land of Israel or in Syria. There were communities of scribe-scholars in Tiberias and Jerusalem, and they were studying the Bible carefully and writing the notes [which appear] at the top and the bottom of the pages”. The notes indicate the correct spelling and pronunciation of the text, which shows vowels and musical notation.

Carbon dating shows that it was written, in the late ninth or early 10th century, over a period of one to two years by one single scribe. His hand is clear on every page. A second scholar added supplementary notes, sometimes over-writing the notation of the original scribe. And over the centuries there are tiny repairs to some of the pages, minute stitches in the parchment, lovingly sewn.

If it wasn’t written in the land of Israel, Ms Mintz says, “it could have been written in Syria”. This is because “at one point it ends up in a synagogue in north-east Syria”. Palestine was then part of Greater Syria.

The Codex contains several references to various owners after it was first written — and it was likely to have been commissioned by a private individual. In fact, deep in the middle of the volume is an undated deed recording its sale by Khalaf ben Abraham, assumed to be a businessman active in Palestine and Syria, to Isaac ben Ezekiel al-Attar — al-Attar means perfumier. The deed appears in the middle of the book, explains Sharon Mintz, probably because end pages tended to drop out and become lost. Ben-Ezekiel was a wealthy merchant and bequeathed the Codex to his two sons.

In or around the 13th century, the Codex reached an unnamed synagogue in a north-eastern Syrian city called Makisin — “which nobody has ever heard of”. Makisin changed its name to Markada, but researchers have found nothing to show a strongly identified Jewish community in the area, certainly not a Jewish community wealthy enough to hold title to such a valuable book.

Makisin was destroyed, perhaps by the Mongols in the 13th century or by Tamerlane’s troops in 1400. And the Codex, according to a notation in the final pages, was entrusted into the care of a community member, Salama bin Abi al-Fakhr, charged with its safekeeping until the Makisin synagogue should be rebuilt.

This, of course, never happened and then, says Sharon Mintz, “the trail goes cold for 500 years”. And suddenly — in 1929 — the Codex resurfaced, offered for sale in Frankfurt, Germany, to a leading scholar called Aron Freimann, chief librarian of the Judaica division of the city’s state library.

Frustratingly, Freimann’s papers did not survive the war. He left Frankfurt for America in 1938, but it is not known who offered the Codex to him. In any event, Freimann perhaps decided he could not afford it and wrote, instead, to his good friend, the Bombay-born David Solomon Sassoon, who had become a prodigious and renowned collector of Jewish manuscripts and incunabula.

Sassoon, by that time based in London, bought the Codex for £350. He wasn’t just “a passionate collector, of Hebrew manuscripts”, but also a scholar. He had it rebound and numbered the pages, affixing inside a bookplate asserting his ownership — and thus giving it the name by which it is known today.

Sassoon died in Islington in 1942, and though much of his collection went to his heirs, eventually they began to sell items in order to meet UK tax obligations. In 1978, the British Rail Pension Fund purchased it for $320,000 — and sold it for $3.19 million in 1989.

The film producer Jacqui (Jacob) Safra, thought his uncle would bid for the Codex Sassoon and so pulled out of the British Rail sale. Instead it was bought by a private investor. But so keen was Safra to acquire the Codex that he offered the investor, identified by the Washington Post as Yecheskel Toporowitch, a further $1 million on top of what he had already paid. Toporowitch agreed.

Now Safra has owned the Codex Sassoon since 1989. Sharon Mintz says: “He enjoyed it, he studied it, he has allowed scholars to study it—this touches him deeply and he’s looking forward to sharing it and finding a new caretaker”.

It’s her hope that whoever buys the Codex, whether institution or private collector, the public will somehow still have access to this extraordinary survivor — a thousand year old book which is the link between the ancient oral tradition and the modern Hebrew Bible which we know today.

  • 23 February, 2023