Last Sunday, I visited Sotheby’s to see an exhibition with a difference.
In Sotheby’s luxurious galleries, there were the usual impressive works of art, scheduled for future sale, from artists as varied as Kandinsky and Munch to Lucien Freud and Anish Kapoor. Among this glittering array, tucked away in one of the smaller galleries there was a single volume — the Sassoon codex — the oldest and most complete Hebrew version of the Bible in existence.
It is intended that it will be sold later in the year by auction in New York. The guide price is $50 million which, if achieved, will be the highest price ever paid for a written document in any language — just pipping Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, the Codex Leicester, which was bought by Bill Gates for $30.8million, and the copy of the US Constitution bought by Citadel founder Ken Griffin for $43.2 million.
If you were narrating the history of the Jewish people in 100 objects this artifact would come close to the top of the list. It is named after its most notable private owner, David Salman Sassoon, who acquired it for the princely sum of £350 in 1929. Carbon testing of the document along with calligraphic and other examinations all point to a date towards the end of the ninth century and the beginning of the tenth century CE. The Codex was written in Syria or Israel.
The Jews in these countries, alongside almost 90% of world Jewry, lived under Muslim rule.
The books of the Bible were first written on scrolls of parchment rather like the Torah scrolls from which we read in Shul every Shabbat – except that they were written in a completely different alphabet from the one that we use today. Though scrolls were an advance on previous methods of recording information, such as tablets of wax or stone, they had their drawbacks; one of which being that they did not permit random access. Only sequential access was possible.
Anyone tasked with moving from one place in a Sefer Torah to another and having to roll the scroll can testify to the difficulties incurred in doing so. The Codex, a bundle of stacked hand written sheets, bound on one side, overcame this difficulty and was therefore a huge technological advance, compared by some to the invention of printing.
Nevertheless, the Codex was not popular among Jews, possibly because it was associated with the spread of Christianity whose followers used codices to promote the spread of the gospels. Possibly as a result, after the Dead Sea Scrolls, we have a period of roughly seven hundred years for which we can find no signs of Hebrew writing. This period of darkness was ended by the Sassoon Codex, which was followed fairly shortly by several other Codices; the Leningrad Codex, the Aleppo Codex and the Codex Cairensis to name but a few. Soon the Codex came to be the preferred way of writing holy books.
The Sassoon Codex is remarkable in another way as it shows the development of the Masorah-the notes added to the holy text by the masoretes; Scribes and scholars living in various places in Israel and Iraq but principally in the town of Tiberias. These were designed to elucidate how the Torah was to be read, punctuated, and pronounced. Now they are part and parcel of every printed version of the Hebrew Bible.
The history of the physical volume is almost as interesting as that of the text. The current owner Jacqui Safra is a member of the Safra family of Lebanese-Brazilian, Jewish bankers.
A previous owner was the British Rail Pension Fund. In the late 1970s when the Fund’s Trustees bought the Codex they were roundly criticised for investing funds, intended to provide for the retirement needs of railway workers and their dependents, in assets which were hardly mainstream investments. Yet the fact is that everyone who has owned the Codex has prospered.
David Sassoon, regarded as a geek by his banking cousins, put together a collection more valuable than their Bank, depleted as it was by the Chinese Revolution in 1949. Similarly the British Rail Pension Trustees achieved a profit on this investment unlikely to have been matched by their ventures in stocks and property.
The Codex will go under the hammer in May this year. We do not know who the buyer will be. We can only hope, however, that like the previous owners he/she will allow access to the Codex to be given to the general public and particularly to those members of it interested in the Bible and the history of Jewish heritage.