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World’s Oldest Bible Gains UNESCO Recognition After Six Decades

TEL AVIV – Six decades after it was smuggled into Israel from Syria, the Aleppo Codex – believed to be the oldest and most authoritative copy of the Hebrew Bible in existence – has been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a unique treasure, Haaretz reported.

The codex, also known as the Crown of Aleppo, will be included in UNESCO’s International Memory of the World Register and is on permanent display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Written in Tiberias, Israel around 930 C.E., the history of the codex has been riddled with contradictory information and half-truths. The original copy included 500 pages, but 200 have disappeared since it arrived in Israel.

The codex has been described as “the most perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible” and “the perfect edition of God’s words.”

Two other items in Israel are already listed in the Memory of the World Registry, which contains some 300 cultural treasures from all over the world that are considered contributions to human development.

The Israel Museum’s Rothschild Miscellany, a collection of illustrated manuscripts from the 15th century, and the Pages of Testimony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Authority – a project that has documented the names and stories of Holocaust victims since the 1950s – are the other Israeli items on the registry.

The millennia-plus history of the codex is replete with intrigue. It survived pogroms and, after being smuggled into Egypt in the late 12th century, ended up in the hands of Maimonides, who used it to write the Mishneh Torah, Judaism’s authoritative code of religious law.

In the 14th century, it ended up in Aleppo, Syria, where for hundreds of years it was kept in an iron safe with two locks in a dark cave under the city’s great synagogue. Members of the local Jewish community traditionally prayed before it to ward off the evil eye. Only on rare occasions did elders of the community agree to open the safe, but a superstition dictated that the Crown of Aleppo could never be removed from the safe lest some harm befall the community.

One of the few people who did manage to see it was Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, later Israel’s second president, when he visited Aleppo in the 1930s. In 1947, pogroms against Jews erupted in Syria as the result of the UN partition plan for Palestine.  The Aleppo synagogue in which the manuscript was safeguarded was torched and most people believed that the manuscript had been destroyed in the fire.

In 1957, a local Jewish leader requested that the manuscript be taken to former members of the Aleppo community now living in Israel. However, the manuscript ended up at the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem.

Today, the Crown of Aleppo is kept in a safe at the Israel Museum, protected by three locks, a secret code, and a magnetic card.

Another item from Israel, 7,200 pages authored by Isaac Newton on the subjects of theology and alchemy that are kept at Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem, was also listed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register this week.

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