For one week only, the ANU Museum in Tel Aviv is displaying living history. A book, written over 1,100 years ago; passed on for generations; lost and now resurfaced. A mystery as to its exact author. No one knows exactly where it was written. This codex (a codex is handwritten on parchment, before the advent of printing on paper or vellum) is one of the world’s great historical treasures. It is the oldest, most complete Hebrew Bible to date, a bridge between the fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls dating from the First Century BC and other Hebrew writings dating to the Middle Ages. This Bible, known as Sassoon Codex 1053 predates the handwritten Medieval illuminated manuscripts by over a century. And it is coming up for auction at Sotheby’s in May. The codex is expected to break all records and sell for upwards of $50 million. The history behind this magnificent book is a story in itself.
Some time in the late 9th century, probably in Tiberias, a small city on the Western shore of the Galilee, an unknown sofer (scribe) copied the entire Jewish Bible over a period of years by hand on sheepskin parchment. It was most likely transcribed at the time of the great rabbis who wrote the Biblical commentaries of the Talmud. Much of the oral tradition was beginning to be codified in writing during this period. The Sassoon Codex Tanach contains all 24 books of the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings. Christians uphold these books as the Old Testament. Muslims believe the Torah and Psalms were divinely inspired. So this manuscript marks a foundation to Western civilization. The writing is a little bit messy in places in some of the vowels and spelling. But the writing style of the Hebrew only adds to the mystique of this 792 page manuscript.
Historically, Torah and Haftarah scrolls were written completely without vowels or punctuation: all of the pronunciations and chants were passed on exclusively through oral tradition. The Codex Sassoon was written in the Masoretic text. In the early Middle Ages, mostly in Tiberias, the great sages of old, rabbis and scribes known as Masoretes created a body of notes that standardized the Hebrew text of the Scriptures. Vowels were added along with punctuation marks and trope or chant marks, called nickadot (jots and tiddles). The root of the Hebrew word ‘masor’ means to transmit. These notes were added to ensure correct transmission of the traditional oral text and to eliminate any possible human error in copying the Scriptures. The Masora, all the nickadot, are of utmost importance as they instruct the reader exactly how a word is pronounced, thus ensuring the correct meaning. The punctuation ensures the correct grammar, and cantillation marks indicate how the text is chanted, also ensuring correct punctuation (when to pause at the end of a phrase; specific words requiring emphasis; where to stop at the end of a sentence or paragraph).
The earliest Hebrew manuscripts found are the Dead Sea Scrolls dating to the First Century BC. They are very incomplete, missing entire books of Scripture. Most of the scrolls are fragments that needed to be pieced together. After a silence of almost 900 years, the Sassoon Codex is a bridge to the ‘modern’ era. It has been carbon dated to the late 800s AD. There are notes of ownership written at the back of the text and a deed of sale written in Aramaic Hebrew was discovered in the middle of the Bible. From this, as well as carbon dating, historians can site its provenance. What is known is that the manuscript traveled throughout the Middle East. Most likely written in the Galilee, Israel, only the wealthiest could have afforded its commission. Eventually it made its way to Damascus, Syria, where the codex was owned by a Khalef ben Avraham. It was sold to Yitzhak ben Yehezki’el Al Attar who, in turn, bequeathed it to his sons, Yezki’el and Maimon ben Attar. Along the way, a leather cover was added and the manuscript was bound in a book. In the 13th century the manuscript found its place in the great synagogue in Makisin (present-day Markada),Syria. Before the synagogue was destroyed by Mongol hordes in the 14th century, the codex was given to a Muslim man named Salama ibn Abi al-Fahkr, for safekeeping, with the promise to return it after the house of worship was rebuilt.The synagogue was never rebuilt. History of the book remained silent for the next several centuries. It was as if the book had completely vanished!
600 years later the leather-bound book resurfaced in Iraq. In 1929, the manuscript was sold to David Suleiman Sassoon (1880-1942), son of a wealthy Iraqi international merchant. Sassoon was born in Bombay, but moved with his mother to London after his father died. Educated in London, and inheriting his father’s business and wealth, his greatest mission in life was to find and collect Judaica and historical Hebrew texts, much of which he bought in Baghdad, Israel, and Persia. Eventually, he would hold the world’s most impressive private collection. Each item received a number, catalogued in the order in which they were added to the collection. One of these included Sassoon Codex 1053, named for its sequential number. It was bought for £350 in 1929 in Baghdad. This copy of the Old Testament is older than the earliest Hebrew Bible now come to light, the Leningrad Codex, written in the 10th century. Sassoon 1053 was possibly written at the same time as the famous Aleppo Codex, but the latter is very incomplete, missing almost 200 pages. Scholars have been aware of the existence of Sassoon’s holding and importance since the 1960s.
David Sassoon passed his extensive collection on to his children. In order to pay his estate’s British tax obligations, many of the tomes were sent to auction or were sold privately between the 1970s and the 1990s. Today most remain in private collections, universities and libraries. His son, Rabbi Solomon David Sassoon, sold Codex 1053 to the British Rail Pension Fund, who, in turn, put it up for auction at Sotheby’s in 1989. The precious manuscript was bought by a dealer for £2,035,000, who turned around and sold it to a Swiss investor, Jacob (Jacqui) Eli Safra, heir to the Lebanese-Swiss Safra banking family. Codex Sassoon 1053 then became known as Safra JUD002. Safra had the original leather cover completely rebound to keep the integrity of the parchment pages intact.
Mr. Safra allowed Biblical scholar, Prof. Yosef Ofer of Bar Ilan University to study the codex at his home in Geneva as guards stood outside the room. The leather-bound manuscript measures 12” X 14” and is 6” thick, weighing 25.5 pounds. The script on each page is divided into three columns. The Scriptures start with Genesis 9:26, as the first few pages of the folio are missing. To decipher the Masora requires a considerable amount of knowledge for full understanding of all the notes, which Professor Dr.Ofer has. Only a select few people have been able to study the notes found in the margins of texts from the Medieval period. This particular manuscript is incredible! The Hebrew writing is clear and dark, although a bit sloppy in places, without vowels or trope marks. The latter, the nickadot, have been added in a lighter pen at the bottom and top of the Hebrew letters. Notes on grammar, punctuation and inflection are written between the margins and at the top and bottom of the pages are more extensive handwritten notations.
Tickets were free, so the minute I heard about this, I made my reservation. The museum is dedicated to telling the story of Jewish history through archaeological findings, art, writings, artifacts and oral tradition. The Bible on display is encased in a large glass vitrine, and spotlighted so the writing is crisp and clear. Much larger than I originally expected, it is truly amazing that I was able to read these pages. The letters are crisp and clear, but lacking the beautiful ornamentation or ‘crowns’ found at the top of certain letters. The text is quite plain, different from a Torah scroll. Although the edges of the parchment seemed worn and discolored, it was as if this was written recently. Absolutely incredible that something this old could be so well preserved! The margin notes were indecipherable to me, and the notes penned at the top and bottom of each page were tiny and without vowels..
Sharon Mintz, Senior Judaica Specialist at Sotheby’s states that this evolutionary history of the written Tanach “radiates power.” It is one of the most significant books as it documents the foundations of Western society and history. Before Codex Sassoon 1053 is auctioned in New York on 16 May, 2023, it will be on display for one week only in March and April in London, Tel Aviv, Dallas and Los Angeles.