Why do we read the Torah the way we do? By that I mean, why is it that we read each week from a parchment scroll that contains only the consonants of the text, and why do we do so by chanting the words in a particular melody? In this system we have two traditions, a written and an oral. I’m not referring to here to the written and oral Torah, per se, although they are analogous. The phrase “written Torah” refers to the content of the Torah while the “oral Torah” refers to rabbinic literature in general and the Talmud in particular. We understand that this latter tradition was originally passed down orally from generation to generation until it too was committed to writing.
In the case of the reading from the Torah scroll, we have the written text alongside a system of vocalization. This reading tradition seems also to have been passed down orally, like rabbinic literature, and was also eventually written down by a group of scribes called the masoretes, named after the Hebrew word for tradition. The masoretes recorded the oral reading tradition by placing the now familiar vowels to indicate how a word should be vocalized and the trope marks to show how a sentence should be parsed.
The texts created by the masoretes were critical to ensuring a uniform understanding of the Biblical text. These vocalized and punctuated Bibles were cherished by their communities and used by them to make sure they had the proper text of the Torah and were reading it correctly.
In modern times, the books that have come down to us, particularly the Leningrad Codex and the Aleppo Codex, have been used by scholars to create critical editions of the Bible. In general, the process involves taking the oldest complete single version of a text and then adding notes with variant readings at the bottom. For example, the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, the critical edition of the Bible, is based on the Leningrad Codex, the oldest complete Masoretic Text. The Jewish Publication Society Bible and the Conservative movement’s Etz Hayim Humash used in our synagogues is also based on this text.
The Leningrad and Aleppo Codices are so highly regarded in part because they are held in public institutions where scholars have access to them. But there is another text which carbon dating has shown to be older than both and is nearly complete, called Codex Sassoon. Unlike the other two, it has been in private hands for nearly a century and is coming up for auction at Sotheby’s this spring. It is estimated to fetch $30 – $50 million and may break the record for most expensive book ever sold, currently held by the $43.2 million paid for a copy of the U.S. Constitution.
Whatever the ultimate price, I do hope the codex ends up at a library or scholarly institution so that it can be studied. Unfortunately, we have precious few Hebrew manuscripts from the six hundred years before Codex Sassoon was written. Perhaps the book will help scholars unlock some secrets about Jewish history from the time period. A book that was the prized possession of a local Jewish community in the 13th century should be available to the global Jewish community in the 21st.