Jaime Kardontchik

Palestine, the Jews, the Talmud and the Aleppo Codex

The Jews occupied a unique geographic position in the Middle East: they lived in a strategic place, the transit point between three continents, a coveted place for all the large imperial powers of the time. They had a unique philosophy: the Jews worshiped one and only one God, declared this God to be invisible and, on top of it, proclaimed that there were no other gods. This only brought on them the ire of all the imperial powers of the time, like the Greeks and the Romans, who worshiped a variety of multiple idols. And they had a unique history: “Remember that we were slaves in Egypt”, parents told to their children during the Passover meal, from time immemorial. This is central to the Jewish ethos. What other people would include in their primordial mythos that they descended from slaves? This did not sit well with the great powers of that era, for which slavery was a very profitable endeavor, vital for their economy. All this – unique geographic position, unique philosophy, and unique history – put the Jews at odds with their surroundings. The result was that they lost their territorial center through frequent wars and became dispersed. Most historians set the origin of this dispersion (the Jewish Diaspora) in the years 66-73 CE, during the Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire, that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem. However, the true catastrophic event for the Jewish people was their last revolt against the Roman Empire, in years 132-136 CE, known as the Bar Kokhba Revolt, for the name of their leader. In this last rebellion, 985 villages in Judea were destroyed and around 580,000 Jews perished. [1]

Judea under Bar Kochba rule (132-136 CE). (courtesy of the author)

After the Jewish rebellion in Judea was crushed, the Romans barred the remaining Jews from living in Jerusalem, and merged the Roman provinces of Syria and Judea, under one unified province, renamed “Syria Palaestina”. The origin of the name “Palaestina” is unclear: some identify it with an ancient people that used to live in times past in the coastal area, the Philistines. Having just eliminated the Jews of Judea physically, it seems that the Romans decided to eliminate also the name Judea from the maps. Since then, the name “Palestine” stuck in all the Western literature as the land (or former land) of the Jews.

After the destruction of Judea in the 2nd century CE, the center of Jewish life in Palestine moved from the mountainous region of Judea to the Galilee, what is now northern Israel. In the course of several centuries the Jews in Galilee created two monumental works that shaped for centuries the life of the Jews in the Diaspora: the Jerusalem Talmud and the Aleppo Codex.

The “Jerusalem Talmud” was originally written by rabbinic sages in Tiberias, a town by the Sea of Galilee, in the 4th century (a century later, a second version of the Talmud, known as the “Babylonian Talmud”, was written by the Jewish center in Babylon, today Iraq). The importance of the Talmud cannot be understated: with the Jewish State gone and Jews living under foreign occupation in Palestine, or in foreign lands in the diaspora, the rabbinic sages pondered the question of how to preserve Jewish life in such conditions. The answer was the Talmud: an encyclopedic compilation of myriads of examples and teachings covering all the subjects of Jewish life, from Jewish customs, to religious and civil affairs. The Talmud became for centuries the main source of Jewish survival in the Diaspora: Jews in the Diaspora followed the Talmud for guidance in everything related to earthly and spiritual affairs.

The following figure shows a page of the “Jerusalem Talmud” found in the geniza of the Ben Ezrah synagogue in Fustat, Egypt. (Remember the name “Fustat”: we will find it again when talking about the “Aleppo Codex”).

A page of the “Jerusalem Talmud”, found in the “geniza” (storage room) of Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, Egypt.
(source: )

The Aleppo Codex – a special text of the Bible– was written in Tiberias around 930 CE. It became the most authoritative version of the Hebrew Bible, followed by the Jews in the Diaspora.

Written Hebrew only uses the consonants: vowels are not printed. If you check the archeological remains of ancient Hebrew texts written two thousand years ago in the Land of Israel, you will not find vowels in these texts. No one needed them, because Jews lived then in Israel, Hebrew was quite natural to them, and it was clear to all how to read and pronounce the words in the sacred texts, even if no vowels were indicated in them. If you check the Sacred Scrolls of the Bible today in any synagogue over the world, there are no vowels either written in the text. So how come, Jews so far apart in time and space, today in New York, in Buenos Aires, in London, in Moscow and in Jerusalem, preserved for 2,000 years the phonetics of the Hebrew language and manage to read and pronounce the words in the Bible with such uniformity during the long centuries of dispersion in the Diaspora?

The answer can be found in Tiberias, the city at the shores of the Sea of Galilea. The Jewish sages in Tiberias came to the help of their brethren in the Diaspora: they meticulously added the vowels to all the words in a copy of the Bible, and not only vowels but also diacritical marks so people would know how to pronounce each word with the correct stressed syllable, and thus, the Aleppo Codex was born.

The following two figures show the difference between a standard Bible text you can find today in a synagogue and the biblical text as it appears in the “Aleppo Codex”:

text in a standard scroll of the Bible. (courtesy of the author)

Notice in the figure above that, for example, the last word in the text (fourth row, to the right) is the word “Israel” in Hebrew. Notice the absence of vowels, or any marks above and below the word “Israel” or any other word in the text.

To the right is shown a paragraph of the Aleppo Codex. To the left, the word “Israel” that appears in the paragraph is reproduced and magnified. (courtesy of the author)

Notice that, in the Aleppo Codex text, the vowels in the word “Israel” were added below the letters. In addition to the vowels, the Aleppo Codex includes diacritical marks for the correct pronunciation of the words.

The Aleppo Codex, due to circumstances described below, was not kept in Tiberias for long. It circulated between the Jewish communities in the Middle East. The following figure shows this history of its itinerary [2[).

The travel history of the Aleppo Codex (early dates are approximate) (map from:, arrows and text to the right added by the author)

The movement from Tiberias to Jerusalem in year 1030, may be related to a major earthquake along the Jordan Valley, in 1033, which might have damaged Tiberias. The movement from Jerusalem to Egypt was related to historic events in the region: The book had been caught by the Christian Crusaders, during their military expeditions in 1095-1291, and was redeemed by the Jewish community in Egypt by paying a ransom. Fustat, the city in Egypt where the Aleppo Codex was moved to after it was retrieved from the Crusaders, had an important Jewish community: The Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides (1138-1204) lived in Fustat.

The book was later moved from Fustat to Aleppo, in Syria, in year 1375. The movement of the “Aleppo Codex” from Fustat to Aleppo, may be related to the deterioration of the conditions of Jews (and Christians Copts) in Egypt during the rule of the Mamelukes. It is known that severe persecution and attacks against non-Muslims happened in 1354, close to the date when the “Aleppo Codex” was moved out of Egypt.

The Jewish community in Aleppo had the book for almost 600 years (hence, its name “Aleppo Codex”), until the pogrom in 1947, when the synagogue where it was kept was burnt. During the exodus of the Jews from Syria, following the pogroms in Aleppo (1947) and Damascus (1949), the book disappeared and, somehow, found its way to the recently born state of Israel, and it is now kept in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

The “Aleppo Codex”, presently kept in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem (courtesy of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem)


[1] These numerical figures were provided by the Roman historian Cassius Dio (born 150, died 235 CE), in his History of Rome, 69.14.1-2, cited in:

[2] Travelogue of the Aleppo Codex


Geniza”: storage area in a Jewish synagogue designated for the storage of worn-out Hebrew-language books and papers on religious topics, prior to proper cemetery burial.

The “Cairo Geniza” is a collection of some 400,000 Jewish manuscript fragments that were kept in the geniza of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, Egypt. These manuscripts span the entire period of Middle-Eastern, North African, and Spanish Jewish history between the 6th and 19th centuries CE, and comprise the largest and most diverse collection of medieval manuscripts in the world.

The above is an excerpt of a new chapter (“Lesson 4”) in my book “The root of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the path to peace” (February 2024 edition). The edition has also two chapters dedicated to the present Hamas-Israel war (“Lessons 8 and 9”). The book can be downloaded for free at:

(The book is also available in a Spanish edition, and it is also available at Amazon)

About the Author
Jaime Kardontchik has a PhD in Physics from the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology. He lives in the Silicon Valley, California.
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