Columnist, anticipating 100th birthday, seeks codex publication

By J. Zel Lurie

J. Zel Lurie

J. Zel Lurie

DELRAY BEACH, Florida — In six months I will mark the end of my first century. I have been searching for a way to celebrate my hundredth birthday that will give the world something worthwhile after I am gone.

A year ago I wrote on these pages that the Cairo codex, with its 13 full-page illustrations called carpet pages, has been hidden from the public in the basement of the Israel National Library in Jerusalem.

I decided to liberate the Cairo codex from the shackles of fear that have kept it hidden.

The Cairo codex is one of three attributed to the Ben Asher Karaite scribes who lived near Tiberias and Cairo in the 10th to 12th centuries. Named after the cities in which they were found by Western scholars in the 19th century they are the Leningrad, Aleppo and Cairo codexes.

The Cairo codex is the oldest. It was written and illustrated by Moses Ben Asher. It took him 25 years, he wrote at the end. Many of the unique carpet pages are written in micrography. Lines made up of tiny Hebrew letters spelling Biblical verses.

The Karaites are almost as old as the rabbis who wrote the oral law. The Karaites say that it is neither oral nor law.

The Karaites were the preservers of the masorah, the text of the Bible. The words we read today are he same as those in the Cairo and Aleppo codexes, which were vocalized by Moses Ben Asher’s son Aharon.

The Leningrad codex was acquired in Cairo by a Karaite collector from Crimea, Abraham Firkovich, about the time that Abraham Lincoln was fighting to preserve the union. Firkovich was a leader of the Karaite nationalists who denied that they were Jews and thus acquired civil rights denied to Jews.

Firkovich’s vast collection was inherited by the Soviets and is housed at the Russian national library. The Russians have published a facsimile edition of the Leningrad codex which Amazon is selling for $960. Firkovich had also acquired one of the carpet pages of the Cairo codex which they use for the cover of the Leningrad codex.

The Russian facsimile edition of their codex, which uses a carpet page from the Cairo codex as a cover, gave me an idea. I would subsidize a facsimile edition of the Cairo codex, with the remaining 13 carpet pages in all their magnificent color and gold leaf.

I wrote to Aviad Skollman, curator of Hebrew manuscripts at the Israel National Library, whom I had identified a year ago as the custodian of the codex, and to Neria Haroeh, president of the Karaite community in Israel, who were the owners of the codex.

I wrote that 40 years ago the sexton of the Karaite synagogue in Cairo had asked me to photograph the carpet pages and give the slides to the Hebrew University. The sexton did not tell me that many years before the Hebrew University had hired a professional photographer to take pictures of all 565 pages of the codex and that these pictures were used in a facsimile edition published in Jerusalem in 1971 but for reasons unknown the carpet pages were not reproduced in this facsimile edition.

Neither Skollman nor Haroeh replied to my email offering them money. So I went to see them on my visit to my family in Israel last month.

I found Skollman to be a pleasant outgoing young man who is trying his best to educate the Israeli public with the material he has. He has gathered together a dozen odd ancient Hebrew manuscripts and calls them Keter Damesek, the Crown of Damascus, emulating the Aleppo Jews who called their codex Keter Aleppo.
He has published eleven 2×6 cards with excerpts from the ancient manuscripts. None of them begin to compare with the Cairo codex, which is lying in his basement and which he is forbidden to mention by its owners, the Karaite community in Israel.

And that is a shame.

I asked him to get a copy of the 1971 facsimile edition to confirm my guess that it did not contain the carpet pages. He went to the archive and was back in a jiffy. I marveled at the efficiency of their modern retrieval system as I recalled waiting for the arrival of a requested book in the reading room of the Fifth Avenue library in Manhattan.

Skollman riffed through the pages twice. Much to his surprise there were no carpet pages.

I told Skollman that Moment magazine was planning to mark my hundredth birthday in December with the first publication of the photo of the codex that I took in 1974 together with an interview. I would relate that the sexton told me that the 14th carpet page was stolen by a Russian.

I asked Skollman whether he would release to Moment the photos taken by the Hebrew University 70 years ago. He looked surprised and shook his head.

My interview with Neria Haroeh, president of the Karaite community in Israel was as unpleasant as the interview with Skollman was pleasant.

Haroeh proved to be a young and bitter man of 30. “I was not born in Cairo and neither was my father,” he said, but he is doing his best to hold the families that originated in Cairo together. They are fast assimilating into Israel society.

As for the Cairo codex, it is still in Cairo, he asserted, and any publication to the contrary would harm the Karaites. The American Karaite who had informed me that he had seen the codex in the basement of the national library was “stupid.”

None of my arguments that his fears were groundless, that he owed it to the world to publish Moshe Ben Asher’s fabulous contribution to Jewish art, would budge him.

So I will have to look elsewhere to celebrate the beginning of my second century in December.

*
Luria is a freelance journalist based in Delray Beach, Florida. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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  1. […] to many, the Cairo Codex had 13 illuminated pages. Mr. Moussa says that the difference in the Codex art in these photos resulted from […]


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