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A $50 Million Bible & True Value

It is the “Earliest Most Complete Hebrew Bible,” and it is expected to fetch $30-50 million dollars at auction. I am talking about the Codex Sassoon, which is on display at Sotheby’s until the auction next Wednesday. (Please spell my name correctly on the card if you buy it for me…)

A codex is the historical ancestor of the modern book. Instead of being composed of sheets of paper, it is made up of sheets of papyrus, animal skin or other materials. The term is most often used for ancient manuscript books with handwritten contents. The Codex Sassoon consists of the two dozen books of the Hebrew Bible, 792 pages made from several hundred sheepskins. It dates to around the year 900, and it is nearly complete, missing only 15 chapters out of the 929 in Tanach. There are other codices out there including the famous Aleppo Codex, which is arguably more accurate, but it is also far less complete.

Where does the Codex Sassoon come from?

Notes on the manuscript attest to its past. A man named Khalaf ben Abraham gave it to Isaac ben Ezekiel al-Attar, who gave it to his sons Ezekiel and Maimon. It later migrated to the town of Makisin in northeast Syria, where it was dedicated to a synagogue in the 13th century. Sometime in the following decades, the synagogue was destroyed, and the codex was entrusted to Salama ibn Abi al-Fakhr until the synagogue would be rebuilt. It never was.

Its whereabouts for the next 500 years remain uncertain until it resurfaced in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1929 and was purchased by David Solomon Sassoon, a Bombay-born son of an Iraqi Jewish business magnate who possessed a massive collection of Jewish books and manuscripts.

Sassoon’s estate was broken up after he died and the codex was sold by Sotheby’s in Zurich in 1978 to the British Rail Pension Fund for around $320,000. The pension fund did quite well when it flipped the Codex Sassoon eleven years later. It was auctioned off for $3.19 million and then purchased immediately afterward by Jacqui Safra, a banker and art collector, for $4.2 million. He is now ready to sell the codex once again.

As I stood in line on Tuesday waiting to get a closeup look at the Codex Sassoon (and take the requisite pictures), I started wondering, “What’s the big deal?” The codex is a like a big, old Chumash. It might be important, but we have all this information already. Our Biblical textual tradition is solid, and it won’t change now if something different might be found in the pages of the codex. Aren’t there more important causes on which to spend $50,000,000? That kind of money could go a long way in supporting Jewish education. Why is the Codex Sassoon so important?

There are some good reasons why the Codex elicits such enthusiasm and will fetch a high price. We cherish the Torah and value Jewish learning and knowledge. The Codex Sassoon is a big – 25 pounds big – cornerstone of Jewish learning. Call it a crown jewel in our literature, and crown jewels are expensive.

“Codex Sassoon is a transformative witness to how the Hebrew Bible has influenced the pillars of civilization – art, culture, law, politics – for centuries.” This quote is from Sharon Mintz, Senior Judaica Specialist, Books and Manuscripts at Sotheby’s. While it is her “business” to tout the importance of such items, there is something exhilarating and empowering in seeing our tradition reflected back at us in a work that is 1,200 years old. There is talk that the final sale price of the codex will exceed the record $42.3 million paid for a copy of the U.S. Constitution. That would be nachas! We always invoke Jewish continuity. Well, here is Jewish continuity in the flesh! (Or sheepskin…)

Another value-added aspect of the Codex Sassoon is the fact that we have it at all. It was missing for 500 years, and then it came back. There is no better story of survival than the story of the Jewish people. The reappearance of the codex after centuries is a tangible example not to count the Jews or Judaism out. It’s more than continuity. It’s the possibility of miraculous rebirth and a case study in never giving up.

The Codex Sassoon is pretty cool. It was worth waiting in line to see a piece of our history that exemplifies Jewish learning, tradition, influence, and survival. I still can’t wrap my head around the price tag. Maybe if the purchaser donates the Codex Sassoon to a Jewish institution or the State of Israel or makes a simultaneous donation of similar magnitude to Jewish life. The codex is great and interesting, but it’s not real. It’s a tangible relic of the Jewish past, but it takes real-liveJews to make Judaism come alive.

Today, I attended the funeral of my great-uncle, Fred Goldschmidt, z”l. He passed away on his 95th birthday and lived a full life of piety, family, devotion, and community. He was the youngest of four siblings – my grandfather being the oldest. The family fled Germany, marking the end of 200 years of the family’s presence in their small village near Frankfort. Uncle Freddy was just ten years old, and the Nazi rise and Kirstallnacht left an indelible mark on his life. He was deprived of a Jewish education, so he became chairman of a day school. He saw synagogues burned, so he became a Shul president and a daily worshipper. He experienced family disruption, so he built a growing, loving family who carry on his values.

The Codex Sassoon contains the teachings of our faith. We need to be the ones who live those teachings and values. The words on the page need to come to life. Viewing the Codex Sassoon or even buying it is an experience. Living purposeful Jewish lives is a true legacy.

The Codex Sassoon is worth $30-50 million. Living Jewish values is priceless.

About the Author
Rabbi Elie Weinstock is Senior Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach in Long Island and serves as President of the New York Board of Rabbis. A believer in a Judaism that is accessible to all, he prefers "Just Judaism" to any denominational label.