Jerusalem Crown: The Bible of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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An Achievement, an Artwork, and an Adventure

Feb 13, 2005 (Updated Sep 14, 2008)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:An extraordinary production with a fascinating backstory.

Cons:Not quite as readable as the Koren or other editions.

The Bottom Line: This edition is very important and attractive, but its usefulness to most ordinary readers is limited.


The JERUSALEM CROWN Hebrew Bible is a magnificent edition simply at face value. But it turns out that the story behind this edition is every bit as interesting as the resulting book.

Before I go any further, I must tell you that the purchase price of the standard edition of JERUSALEM CROWN is considerably more affordable than the $140 (for the deluxe edition) that E-pinions has posted. I got my copy for about $50, imported from Israel. A big city Judaica bookstore probably has it on the shelf for a little less. Despite the English title, the entire volume, cover-to-cover, is in Hebrew. Although there is an American website for the publisher, I advise you to look at the Israeli website, which includes many pdf facsimiles: www.jerusalemt-crown.co.il/website_en/index.asp .

The manuscript called the Aleppo Codex was always considered to be the most authoritative copy of the Hebrew Bible, partly because it was alleged to have been personally proofread, and the vowel points and cantillation marks added by Aaron ben Moshe ben Asher, the great tenth century grammarian and Massorete. According to an inscription that was on the last page of the codex, the manuscript was worked up in Tiberias, and after Aaron ben Asher's death it was purchased and sent to the leaders of the Karaite community in Jerusalem (arriving there in the middle of the eleventh century), but was snatched and taken to Egypt - whether by Moslems or by Crusaders is unclear - where it was ransomed to the Jewish community in Cairo. The other reason for this manuscript's authority now comes into play: Around the year 1070 the great rabbi, Maimonides, then living in Cairo, wrote that he regarded the codex as the most reliable Bible to be found and often consulted it in order to correct his own copies.

Sometime in the fourteenth century the codex was taken to the great synagogue of Aleppo, Syria, where its fame earned it the title of "Keter Aram Tzova" - the Crown of Aleppo (Aram Tzova being the Hebrew name for Aleppo, derived from a Biblical reference to someplace in Syria in Second Samuel chapter 10). The Jewish community in Aleppo was quite possessive about the codex and would not permit it to be photographed, although they frequently allowed scholars to examine the codex and make notes. Sometime around 1880 some European visitor managed to sneak the volume out of the synagogue and into the sunlight long enough to take a few surreptitious photographs of the open book; the synagogue authorities were very upset and thereafter were much less disposed to allowing strangers to touch the Codex.

In December 1947 the United Nations voted to establish the Jewish State, and two days later pogroms were staged throughout Syria. In Aleppo all the synagogues were looted and burned, and it was feared that the Codex was destroyed. But ten years later the Israeli government revealed that a portion of the Codex, about two-thirds, had survived and been smuggled into Israel where the government would keep it safe.

Naturally, there were questions about this relic. Was it really the Aleppo Codex? It matched every description and measurement of the manuscript which had been in Aleppo for the previous five centuries, including that contraband photo. It came with a cover letter from the remaining leadership of the Jewish congregation in Aleppo. Was it the manuscript consulted by "the second Moses", Maimonides? It conformed to every citation and description written by Maimonides, even those in writings still unpublished. Had it really been pointed and corrected by Aaron ben Asher? That could never be proven, but the writing was appropriate to that time and place, and this manuscript conformed to every massoretic specification, even the ones ignored by the Leningrad Codex.

This was not all. Some years after that, a Syrian Jewish refugee in New York died, leaving a precious keepsake: a single page of the Codex, supposedly rescued during the 1947 pogrom, which was sent to the Israeli government. Around 1987, an old house in Jerusalem, once the home of Victorian-era Rabbi Sholom Shachne Yellin, was slated for demolition and it was found that the attic was filled with crumbling old papers - among them an old printed Bible filled with handwritten marginalia. The tattered volume was on the verge of being "retired" as befits deteriorating holy books, when someone identified it as the Bible in which Rabbi Yellin had marked up all the differences he found in the Aleppo Codex. A fifteenth century printed Hebrew Bible - one of the first printed - was found in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, with a note that it had been corrected according to the Aleppo Codex. And so on. Since these collections of notes were correct for the surviving portion of the Codex, they were considered trustworthy for reconstructing the missing portions. This topic is covered is somewhat better detail at http://aleppocodex.org/links/9.html, which also lists the gaps in the surviving codex.

Using all of this material, it was decided to embark on a very ambitious project to publish the Aleppo Codex. A photo-facsimile of the surviving pages of the Codex was published around 1982, at a price of more than a thousand dollars a copy. At the same time, efforts were being made to work up a printed Bible based on the Codex; the surviving portion was easy enough to transcribe, the missing portion would be reconstructed by taking the text of the Leningrad Codex and modifying it according to the notes made over the centuries.

Rabbi Mordechai Breuer worked up a very nice edition for the Mossad Harav Kook press in 1989. Printed in an ordinary Hebrew typeface in a single column across the page, with the keri in the side margin beside the line with the ketib, both of them with vowels and accents. There was an appendix listing differences between the Aleppo and Leningrad text, covering several pages but possibly only a dozen or so differences that would be significant to a translator (and an appendix of some photos of the original Codex). However, that edition did not fully reflect the layout of the Aleppo Codex, which was usually three columns on a page of prose, two columns on a page of poetry. So this edition, the Jerusalem Crown, was undertaken.

The three column format of the manuscript is duplicated here. A new typeface, worked up by master Hebrew print designer, Zvi Narkiss, reproduces with improved clarity the calligraphy of the Codex. The editors scrupulously adhered to the Codex for its surviving portions, and carefully used Breuer's text for the missing portions. A complete Hebrew Bible has, roughly, three million "characters" -- letters (including special letters), vowels, and cantillation marks (also called accents, and used only in the Bible) -- and until this particular edition was undertaken, there was no computerized typesetting capable of handling such a complex job.

The whole was proofread by five different Bible scholars, and then compared by computer with the printed text (based on the Leningrad Codex) used by the Jewish Publication Society of America for its recent edition, which revealed some typos that even five proof readings had missed (this fact should prepare us for the reality that the original Codex - not to mention whatever manuscript it was copied from and whatever manuscript that copy was made from and so forth, done without computers by two or three humans, is capable of having its own errors no matter how conscientious and dedicated those humans were). At the same time, some errors that had long been perpetuated in previous printed editions were discovered and corrected.

The overall effect is extremely attractive. The finished page has the appearance of an elegant manuscript Bible (the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website has some pages in its archive that include a photo from the Codex and the printed edition together, showing uncanny similarity; . . .
http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/MFAArchive/2000_2009/2001/12/The%20Aleppo%20Codex%20and%20The%20Crown%20of%20Jerusalem ). . .

Chapter and verse numbers, as invented in the late middle ages, have been inserted in the margins by each column, using Hebrew letters instead of common numerals. Perhaps the only drawback - but I think it's important - is that the ketib and keri are very difficult to use; the ketib, fully pointed, is in the heart of the text, distinguished only by a tiny hollow triangle which closely resembles some obscure accent, and the keri, also fully pointed, sits at the bottom of the column, without any indication of what verse it relates to. (In the original Codex, the keri was in the side margin, right next to the relevant line, a style which was used in the Breuer edition.) Some columns have more than one such pair, with the two or three keri words side-by-side at the foot of the column, undoubtedly difficult to read on the run.

At the end of the volume, the Ten Commandments, from Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, appear in columns, one with the accents for private reading and the other with the accents for public reading (in many other editions, and the original codices, the Ten Commandments only appear once, in the proper places, but with two sets of accents simultaneously, one above the letters and the other below, with confusing effect), a list of the variants in the Leningrad Codex and other major editions, the blessing chanted for the Haftaro - the Ashkenaz, Sefardic and Yemenite versions (but not the blessing for the Torah), and tables of the weekly and holiday readings for all three traditions (and finding the Yemenite list elsewhere is not easy). Incidentally, the Jerusalem Crown ends -as do most printed Hebrew Bibles - with Second Chronicles, even though the Aleppo Codex itself used a different sequence that ended with Nehemiah (as does the Breuer edition).

Shortly after this elegant edition was published, in various formats including some very expensive deluxe editions, the same publisher (the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) put out a paperback companion volume, half English and half Hebrew (with illustrations and a map). This volume describes the history of the Codex and of the work that went into this edition, and it's fascinating and highly informative. (In 2005 the Jewish Publication Society has announced a forthcoming book about the Aleppo Codex, possibly an English translation of Amnon Shamosh 1987 book on the codex, but now it appears this project has been shelved). Very recently the Hebrew University has also issued a volume of the massoretic notes from the Codex - it is my opinion that this is of use or interest to only a very small number of scholars.
Although this edition is not quite as attractive and readable as the Koren edition (see http://www.epinions.com/content_172521393796 ), nor as informative as the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (see http://www.epinions.com/content_152810720900 ), if you are a collector of important or beautiful Bibles, you will want this.

---
A subsequent article, very helpful and authoritative, appears in the Biblical Archaeology Review for Sept-Oct 2008, which provides details on the history, before and after the riot, of the codex and mentions conflicting accounts of how much survived the fire (raising the possibility that more of the codex may someday be identified);
http://www.bib-arch.org/bar/article.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=34&Issue=5&ArticleID=8.

[Having mentioned the massoretic notes as the reason for the Aleppo Codex's superiority over the Leningrad Codex, I must explain that nearly all the massoretic features involved related to the layout of the text - for example, the "brickwork" spacing on some poetic passages, the hemistichal style used on others, sometimes individual letters that were larger or smaller than normal, etc. - virtually none of those differences between the two codices would have any effect on the meaning of the words (and the same pretty much applies to the differences between any two editions of the Hebrew Bible). It must be kept in mind that, besides preserving the text, the Massoretes's work also include preserving errors and anomalies that occurred in the manuscripts they used as their authorities; this means counter-intuitive and irregular spellings, accents, and the like. But before anyone brags that this edition is perfect, I want to emphasize that not only are errors in the original manuscript still possible but also errors in reading the manuscript. Prof. Aron Dotan, in his English-language introduction to his 2001 revised edition of Biblia Hebraica Leningradensia, his transcript of the Leningrad Codex, points out that old parchments develop dark spots and the like that can confuse and puzzle editors. Even corrections by ancient copyists can be misread because of imperfect erasures (on parchment, erasures are done by scraping away with a knife) or corrections that are blurry. Oddly enough, photoreproductions sometimes make these puzzles even worse; leading edge photographic technology can actually undo attempts at erasure. Although the Aleppo Codex has the best reputation, perhaps deservedly, it is not infallible, so where it differs from other editions, such as the Koren or Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia or Ben-Chayyim, it must not be assumed that the Aleppo is always right and the other(s) always wrong.]


Recommend this product? Yes

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