Tuesday, July 01, 2014

The Aleppo Codex, the Ezekiel Plates, and The Treatise of the Vessels

MATTI FRIEDMAN: The Continuing Mysteries of the Aleppo Codex. Developments in the saga of the missing perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible, whose future is still unknown (Tablet Magazine).
I am not sure I expected the story of the long-forgotten Aleppo Codex, the perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible, to occupy me for very long after the publication of my book on the subject in 2012. I thought I would soon be on to other things, which is the way journalism tends to work. But, as sometimes happens, the story has taken on a life of its own: a cover-up energized by the fallout from my book; the rejuvenated activities of a small group of codex loyalists ranging in age from 36 (me) to 82 (former Mossad case officer Rafi Sutton); and a recent edict issued against me by a prominent rabbi in New York. In short, the story of the Aleppo Codex is alive today as it has not been in many decades, and I believe an update on developments over the past two years is warranted for those who find themselves fascinated by the strange and ongoing saga of one of the most important manuscripts on earth.

I kept track of reviews etc. of Friedman's book and you can find the posts starting here and follow the links. The continuation of the story remains very interesting and this in particular caught my eye and made me think of another matter:
The second mystery, that of the missing pages, was long famous among a small number of people—Bible professors, Aleppo exiles, and a few others. The official version of the story, propagated by the academics in Israel who control the manuscript, claimed the pages vanished in Aleppo around the time of the 1947 riot. But we know now that the manuscript was seen whole as late as 1952, five years later. The first description of any significant damage to the codex dates, strikingly, only to 1958—after the manuscript reached the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem.

At around the same time, my investigation found, dozens of valuable books and manuscripts vanished from the library of the same institute. When I approached former officials at the institute with evidence of the other missing books, several went on record saying the man responsible for their disappearance was the institute’s director at the time, Meir Benayahu, a scholar who throughout a long and illustrious career studied, collected, bought, and sold rare Hebrew books. He left his post amid a legal battle over control of the institute in 1970.

Benayahu, who died in 2009, came from a powerful political family with roots in Iraq; he was the son of a Sephardic chief rabbi, Yitzhak Nissim, and brother of a senior Likud cabinet minister, Moshe Nissim. (As was common in those years, Benayahu adopted a more modern and Israeli-sounding last name.) This scandal has long been known in Israel’s small and insular academic world but was never made public. Legal proceedings were avoided at the time thanks to the direct intervention of Israel’s president, Zalman Shazar. Police were never summoned, no charges were filed, and no books were returned. Benayahu’s family denies any wrongdoing and says the accusations against him are a smear campaign aimed at covering up thefts by other people; they have asked, rightly, why no one went to the police at the time. Today Benayahu’s family owns a collection of Hebrew texts that is one of the world’s largest in private hands.

Whatever precisely happened at the Ben-Zvi Institute, the long-buried affair of the institute’s vanished books—whether it is connected or not to the disappearance of the codex pages—is arguably the worst corruption scandal in the history of the Israeli academy. Among the figures who have gone on record saying Benayahu was responsible for the institute’s missing books are Zvi Zameret, the institute’s longtime administrative director and subsequently one of the top officials in Israel’s Education Ministry; Joseph Hacker, professor emeritus at Hebrew University and a former deputy director of the institute; and the late Yom-Tov Assis, the professor who headed the Ben-Zvi Institute at the time of my own investigation.

Are the missing codex pages linked to the broader disappearance of books from the Ben-Zvi Institute? The scholars of the Ben-Zvi Institute have resisted any investigation while failing to produce any evidence to dispel the suspicion.
The so-called Ezekiel Plates, a series of many stone tablets with most of the text of Ezekiel engraved on them, are also held in the Ben-Zvi Institute. I noted and discussed a Jerusalem Post article on them three years ago in my post Ezekiel plates—and a legend of the Temple treasures. The article did not seem to realize that the set had originally included two more tablets on which was inscribed the concluding verse and a half of Ezekiel and then a version of The Treatise of the Vessels, a legendary account in Hebrew of the hiding of the Ark of the Covenant and other Temple treasures just before the Babylonian destruction of the Temple. I published the first complete English translation of this work in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures last year, and the text got some attention in the media and even led the Daily Mail to call me "a modern-day Indiana Jones."

Be that as it may, the interesting thing in this context is that the stone plates containing The Treatise of the Vessels are no longer with the Ezekiel Plates. I learned this in e-mail correspondence in February of 2008 with Michael Glatzer, the Academic Secretary of the Institute, who kindly checked the Ezekiel Plates housed there. The Jerusalem Post article linked to above gives the following background on the Ezekiel Plates:
In this case, the tiles were supposedly found over 100 years ago when visitors to the traditional tomb of Ezekiel in the small Iraqi town of Kfar al-Kafil, located about 50 miles south of Baghdad, noticed a stone tile had fallen off the inside of the burial chamber. Oddly, its back side contained an ancient lettering which had been deliberately hidden, facing the wall. Other tiles were removed and similar inscriptions were found on their back sides as well.

The entire set of Ezekiel plates were then taken to Lebanon, where decades later a Christian Arab widow, on the advice of her priest, wanted to place them in Jewish hands before she moved to France. She sold them for a mere two pounds sterling to businessman David Hacohen in 1947.

He smuggled the plates into Israel in 1953, and they were eventually acquired by Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second president and a noted historian, who considered them a valuable national treasure.

After Ben-Zvi’s death, the Ezekiel plates became the property of the Institute in Jerusalem set up in his honor, which had them in storage until Zwebner convinced his wife’s parents, Max and Lombi Landau, to sponsor their public display.
The Ezekiel Plates were acquired by Ben-Zvi sometime after 1953 and became the property of the Institute after his death in 1963. The article does not say where they were housed during those ten years. At some undetermined point the plates containing The Treatise of the Vessels were separated from the Ezekiel Plates and vanished. As far as I could determine the missing plates were last seen by Jean Starcky, who photographed one of them in Beirut "a good number of years" before J. T. Milik published the photo in 1959. Now Friedman reports that sometime between 1952 and 1958 a large chunk of the Aleppo Codex also vanished, and around the same time "dozens of valuable books and manuscripts" also disappeared from the Institute. The timing is striking. Is the stone version of The Treatise of the Vessels one of these manuscripts? I don't know and I certainly am not making any assumptions or accusations. The plates could have been separated and lost before they came to the Ben-Zvi Institute. But still, the possibility of a connection between the missing stone plates and the other missing manuscripts is intriguing and potentially worth following up.

Another notable point is that journalist Owen Jarus has called into question the connection of the Ezekiel Plates with the Tomb of Ezekiel in Iraq and has indicated he has evidence that they were produced about a century ago in Syria.

It seems that we have not yet exhausted the mysteries surrounding the Aleppo Codex, the Ezekiel Plates, and The Treatise of the Vessels.