The mystery of the Cairo codex: on the trail of an ancient manuscript.

Author:Epstein, Nadine
Position:Cover story



In 1978, J. Zel Lurie, a veteran reporter and the founding editor of Hadassah Magazine, traveled to Cairo on a TWA Airlines junket promoting direct daily flights to Egypt from JFK. It was an exhilarating time: Egypt and Israel had recently signed the Camp David Accords, forging a historic peace, and Lurie was there to see what was left of the country's once-vibrant Jewish community. The few remaining Jews showed their visitor a dozen or more synagogues, most of which had stood empty since the departure 20 years earlier of most of their brethren.

While in Cairo, Lurie was contacted by a representative of an ancient Jewish sect known as the Karaites. The Karaites had lived in the city for more than a millennium, and their numbers, too, had dwindled. The man asked Lurie to photograph a few pages of an old manuscript at a synagogue he had not yet visited and to deliver the photographs to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Lie had heard I was going on to Israel," says Lurie, then in his 60s and now a sharp 102-year-old living in Delray Beach, Florida. Lurie, who had gotten his start in journalism at pre-state Jerusalem's Palestine Post, agreed.

And so, camera in hand, he found himself at the Moussa al Dar'i synagogue, an imposing domed edifice on Sebil el Khazindar Street in Abbasiyah, a relatively new section of Cairo. "I climbed a narrow stairway to the Karaite sanctuary, which was like a mosque," he recounts. "It only had a few seats in the back." Rugs were spread out over the floor for prostrating worshippers. There, Lurie met Ferag Menashe, the man who had contacted him. He was the shamash--the sexton--of the synagogue, and he led Lurie into a small room next to the altar. In it stood a five-foot-tall wooden cabinet, its shelves laden with manuscripts.

The shamash was interested in one manuscript in particular. "Its cover was broken up and it needed repair," Lurie recalls. Its 567 pages were made of gazelle-hide parchment that measured 16 by 15 inches, and most were inscribed with three columns of gracefully handwritten Hebrew. Menashe showed Lurie the manuscript's illuminated pages. These were decorated with meticulous micrography: delicate lines of tiny Hebrew letters spelling out biblical phrases that formed complex geometric patterns, interlaced with color and overlaid with gold leaf. Menashe told Lurie they had never been photographed in color, and held them up to the camera one by one. Though not a sentimental man, Lurie was moved by their beauty. He counted 13 carpet pages, a term used for illuminated pages. The shamash told him there had been one more, but it had been stolen.

These pages belonged to the legendary Cairo Codex--originally known as the Codex of the Prophets. Until that day, Lurie had never heard of the manuscript, which had been in the possession of Karaites in Cairo for nearly 1,000 years. Decades later, the pages would become an obsession, but by that time, it would be too late. The illuminated pages--and the entire manuscript--had vanished.

The history of the Cairo Codex is deeply entwined with that of the Karaites. In the century after the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 CE and the Second Temple was destroyed, Judaism was in flux, and the influence of rabbis on practice and interpretation grew. In Baghdad, a group of Jews re belled against the rabbis' authority. They would eventually become known as Karaites, which comes from kara, "to read" in Hebrew. Karaites did not subscribe to the rabbinical interpretations of scripture--that are the foundation of modern Judaism: They were the original originalists, striving for the meaning that would have been understood by the ancient Israelites. They followed a pre-rabbinic calendar of holidays and had very different rules about what is kosher and how to observe Shabbat.

Karaites considered themselves the true Jews and considered "Rabbanite" Judaism to be a Roman-influenced corruption, while rabbinical authorities generally viewed Karaites as heretics. Despite their standing, the Karaites played a significant role in the evolution of Jewish scripture. Very few scrolls containing the Hebrew Bible, known as the Tanakh in Hebrew, survived the destruction of the Second Temple. From the 8th to 10th centuries, anti-Rabbanite scribes in Tiberius, then the center of learning in Palestine, copied the surviving scrolls, preserving what is called the Masoretic scripture--the vowels, punctuation and cantillation markings needed to vocalize and chant the text, as well as notes in the margins about such details as spelling. The scribes took advantage of new technology, composing their Bibles on animal skins cut into pages and forming them into manuscript books. These were called codices, and each took years to create. The skins had to be prepped and trimmed, pages ruled, text written, markings inserted, notes added, illuminations made. Even a team working together could produce only a few in a lifetime.

One family of scribes was especially revered for its codices--in particular, the last of the line, Aaron ben Mosheben Asher. His version of the Jewish text would become the model for scribes in the following centuries, painstakingly scrutinized by scholars--even today--who consider it the key to a deeper understanding of how the Bible, religion and language evolved over time.

The manuscript that Lurie saw in the cabinet in the Karaite synagogue in Cairo was called the Codex of the Prophets because it contained the section of the Bible that includes narratives of the prophets, from Joshua to Malachi. And according to the first and most important of its colophons--statements at the end of codices providing information about who wrote and commissioned them, and to whom they were given--it was commissioned by a rich Karaite and written in 894 CE by Moshe ben Asher, Aaron's father, making it the earliest known Hebrew manuscript.

The Codex was given to the Karaites in Jerusalem to keep in their synagogue but was seized by the Crusaders when they plundered Jerusalem in 1099. Additional colophons, added at later dates, continued the dramatic story. A wealthy Cairo Karaite, David Ben Yaphet, paid a vast sum to ransom it from the Crusaders, then gave it to the Karaite community in Old Cairo. Under their care, the Codex survived centuries of Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk, Ottoman, French and British rule. It was an object of reverence read from and admired on the Sabbath and on special occasions such as the new moon, festivals and fasts.

The colophons also contained warnings. "This book is consecrated to the Lord of Israel in the Synagogue of Cairo," one reads. "Cursed is he who sells it and cursed is he who buys it and cursed is he who would change its holiness and cursed is he who would pawn it." Another reads: "Nobody shall be permitted to bring it out of the synagogue except if it is done--may God prevent it--by compulsion. One shall return it at the time of tranquility. Whoever changes this condition and this holiness shall be cursed by the Lord and all curses shall come upon him." The Karaites took these admonitions very seriously. For hundreds of years, the Cairo Codex and many other ancient and medieval biblical manuscripts sat in the vaults of Cairo's Karaite and rabbinical synagogues. But in the 19th century, modern Western biblical scholars and collectors began scouring the world for manuscripts, and Cairo was usually one of their first stops. Among the most sought after were those linked to the Asher family, which could be used as sources on which to base new editions of the Bible.

The Cairo Codex, kept at the Rav Simcha Synagogue in the Karaite quarter, was a beacon. The famous Palestinian Jewish traveler Jacob Saphir, English bibliophile Elkan Nathan Adler and Rabbi Pesach Finfer from Lithuania all examined the Codex, which Adler...

To continue reading