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תנ״ך | A Tale of Two Codexes: The Aleppo and Leningrad Codex

Given that more than 50% of the Siddur is comprised of text from the תנ׳׳ך (TaNaKh) any project that seeks to rigorously attribute its sources depends on a critical, digital edition of the Masoretic text of the Hebrew bible. And such is the case for our Open Siddur Project. The entire history of the transmission of such a profoundly important sourcetext illustrates the degree to which we rely on each others most positive intentions to advance our love of the Torah through sharing — regardless of sect, creed, scholarly or theological inspiration. Moving ahead we are supported by each others gifts and by the preserved legacy of our cultural inheritance.

The oldest complete manuscript of the TaNaKh is the Leningrad Codex (circa 1008 CE) prepared by the school of Aharon Ben Moshe Ben Asher. The grand project of Masoretes during the first millenia was preparing the text of the TaNaKh with their received tradition (masorah) of its annunciation and vocalization. Since these important oral traditions are not transcribed within Torah scrolls, the Masoretes preserved these traditions by writing out the complete text of the TaNaKh with vowels (nikkud) and cantillation marks (trope). The Tiberian system for marking vowels in the Leningrad Codex is the same system used in Hebrew today.

According to modern scholars, Aharon ben Moshe ben Asher followed the Karaite rather than the Rabbinic tradition of Judaism. This may help explain why Aharon ben Asher’s contemporary, Rav Saadia Gaon (892-942 CE) preferred the codexes of another Masoretic school — that of Ben-Naphtali. However, only the codexes of the Ben-Asher school survived, and ultimately, the codexes of the Ben-Asher school were approved by Maimonides (1135-1204 CE). In his Yad ha-Ḥazakah, Maimonides writes:

All relied on it, since it was corrected by Ben-Asher and was worked on and analyzed by him for many years, and was proofread many times in accordance with the masorah, and I based myself on this manuscript in the Sefer Torah that I wrote”.

This approval is all the more astounding considering Maimonides outstanding objections and disputations with the Karaites of his day.

In the 1830s, Abraham ben Samuel Firkovich, a manuscript collector and ḥakham of the Crimean Karaite Jewish community, visited Constantinople, Jerusalem, and the Cairo Genizah in Egypt. During these travels he received possession of the Leningrad Codex, which was taken to Odessa in 1838 and later transferred to the Imperial Library in St. Petersburg. Used as the sourcetext for the Biblia Hebraica in 1937 and the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia in 1977, the Leningrad Codex was digitized in the 1980s as a collaborative scholarly project organized by the Presbyterian Westminster Theological Seminary‘s J. Alan Groves Center for Advanced Biblical Research.

This text began as an electronic transcription by Richard Whitaker (Princeton Seminary, New Jersey) and H. van Parunak (then at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) of the 1983 printed edition of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS). It was continued with the cooperation of Robert Kraft (University of Pennsylvania) and Emmanuel Tov (Hebrew University, Jerusalem), and completed by Prof. Alan Groves. The transcription was called the Michigan-Claremont-Westminster Electronic Hebrew Bible and was archived at the Oxford Text Archive (OTA) in 1987. It has been variously known as the “CCAT” or “eBHS” text. Since that time, the text has been modified in many hundreds of places to conform to the photo-facsimile of the Leningrad Codex, Firkovich B19A, residing at the Russian National Library, St. Petersburg; hence the change of name. The Groves Center has continued to scrutinize and correct this electronic text as a part of its continuing work of building morphology and syntax databases of the Hebrew Bible, since correct linguistic analysis requires an accurate text.

The Groves Center decided to share the digital Westminster Leningrad Codex without restriction — a prescient and important decision made prior to the popularization of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Their altruistic decision continues to enable many innovative projects based on the text and study of the TaNaKh. The source of the Westminster Leningrad Codex that we are using for the Open Siddur Project were derived from sources shared by Christopher Kimball at tanach.us. The Internet Sacred Text Archive provides links to the full Westminster Leningrad Codex (with transliteration), here.

This text is derived from the Westminster Leningrad Codex (WLC) of the Westminster Hebrew Institute. Thanks to Christopher V. Kimball, who graciously made the source files for this freely available. This version is based on the October 20th, 2006 WLC release.

The tragic story of the oldest but unfortunately incomplete Aleppo Codex (circa 10th Century CE) — the codex upon which the Leningrad Codex was first based and corrected against — provides a cautious lesson in contrast. Similar to the Leningrad Codex, the Aleppo Codex was also preserved by Karaite Jews. It was then stolen by Crusaders, ransomed, and later transferred to the Syrian Aleppo community where it was hidden for six centuries and zealously guarded. While the Leningrad Codex was copied and shared at the onset of the Age of Photography, the opportunity to copy and thereby preserve the Aleppo Codex was lost.

…the [Aleppo Jewish] community limited direct observation of the manuscript by outsiders, especially by scholars in modern times. Paul Kahle, when revising the text of the Biblia Hebraica in the 1920s, tried and failed to obtain a photographic copy. This forced him to use the Leningrad Codex instead for the third edition, which appeared in 1937.

In the immediate aftermath of a deadly riot against Jews and Jewish property in Aleppo in December 1947, much of the five books — the Torah section of the Aleppo Codex — disappeared.

Today, at the onset of the Digital Age, we must preserve the heritage of our culture’s creative inspiration by digitizing our collective work in open standard formats, and sharing the work so its transmission can easily be mirrored and redistributed without difficulty. The Open Siddur Project is committed to preserving the legacy of our diverse communities’ creative inspirations and calls upon all those who love the Torah and earnest spiritual practice to serve their intentions through sharing their intellectual resources.

If you represent an educational institution with copies of work in the public domain, please share digital images or digital transcriptions of this work with public domain declarations such as the Creative Commons Zero Public Domain declaration. For the preservation of our living tradition, the many surviving historic manuscripts witnessing variations of tefillot found in the Siddur, including the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, Dead Sea Scroll fragments, Jewish apocryphal and pseudepigraphal text, Cairo Genizah fragments, and the various girsot of the Talmud, need to be made available, freely for redistribution.

See citation in Ben Asher’s Creed p. 39, by Aaron Dotan, Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1977, “Yad ha-Ḥazakah, Hilkhot Sefer Torah, 8:4″
About the Westminster Leningrad Codex,” article at The Groves Center, accessed 2010-11-26
License notes from the Internet Sacred Text Archive’s “Index for the Tanach“, accessed 2010-11-26.
Aleppo Codex,” article in wikipedia, accessed 2010-11-26.

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