History was made this week as the oldest nearly complete Hebrew Bible sold for $38.1 million, becoming the most expensive book in history. The most expensive document ever sold was a copy of the US Constitution for $43.2 million in 2021. Still, the sale of the Codex Sassoon was a monumental moment in the history of Jewish, and Biblical, literature.
A few months ago, when I wrote about Codex Sassoon, I hoped that the book, which has been in private hands for nearly a century, would be bought by a library or scholarly institution so that the whole world could have access to such a treasure. Fortunately, that is indeed what has happened. The codex was bought by former US ambassador to Romania Alfred Moses, who then donated it to ANU: The Museum of the Jewish People.
The museum in Tel Aviv plans to display the work prominently in its permanent collection for all to see. I hope they will also make such an important work available to scholars. While viewing high resolution scans of the codex is an amazing opportunity, there is no substitute for examining the text in person.
Some of details of Codex Sassoon are fascinating. It was the precious possession of the Jewish community of Makisin, the present-day town of Merkada in northwest Syria. We know virtually nothing about the historic Jewish presence in that village except for a mention of it in the travels of an Italian Catholic priest who converted to Judaism in the 12th century.
This man, named Obadiah, is interesting in his own right. His life and writing is known to us only through texts that were preserved in the Cairo Geniza. He wrote a memoir as well as the oldest surviving notation of Jewish music, all of which can be viewed at website dedicated to his life that has collected digital copies of all of the documents pertaining to him from all over the world.
It’s possible that Obadiah viewed Codex Sassoon on his visit. Members of the community placed a curse at the top of several pages, declaring that the work was dedicated to the synagogue and anyone who removed it without permission would come to a bad end. These words served as a “Property of … Return to …” stamp that a modern library would use.
At some point, the synagogue in Makisin was destroyed and the codex was handed over to individuals to keep it secure until the structure could be rebuilt. Sadly, the synagogue was never restored, and so the Bible remained in private hands until it was sold to the collector David Solomon Sassoon in 1929. Whom he bought it from is not recorded, but it was delivered to him from somewhere in Turkey.
Another feature of the codex is an early deed of sale included in the middle of the book itself so that it wouldn’t get lost. Most of the time when a book loses some of its leaves, they will either be in the front or the back, and indeed, with Codex Sassoon, the few missing chapters are in the Book of Genesis.
Codex Sassoon is described as perhaps older than the Aleppo Codex, considered to be the best version of the Masoretic text of the Bible. However, Codex Sassoon, in its marginal notes on the text, actually refers to the Aleppo Codex by its Arabic name, Al-Taj, “the Crown” (it’s called Keter Aram Tzova, the Crown of Aleppo” in Hebrew). How could this be?
The answer lies in the way these Bibles were produced. Often, a Torah scribe would write the consonants of the text first. Then another scholar would add the vowels and trope, and finally a third scholar might be responsible for including both the short and long notes in the margins of the work. It is possible that Codex Sassoon was prepared first, but later, by the time the masorete composing the notes started his work, the Aleppo Codex had already been completed and he had consulted it so as to improve his own project.
There is so much wrapped into Codex Sassoon: the origin, authority, and significance of the Biblical text; the history of book making; the culture and travels of the Jews. It is most fitting for the text to reside in a museum dedicated to the Jewish people so that we can continue to learn from it and perhaps one day solve some of its mysteries.