A Page from the Damascus Codex, Tenth Century
This is a page from a manuscript of a tenth-century Damascus Codex. This page shows three columns of text, in contrast to the two columns found in most manuscripts. The text is handwritten in square Sephardic font with punctuation (nikkud) and cantillation notes (ta’ami hamikra). The text also includes the Masorah, a set of notations added to the Bible to ensure its accurate textual transmission. This page is from Genesis 12:1-11 and contains God’s command to Abraham, “Lech Lecha.”
According to tradition, the Torah was originally given orally and only written down hundreds of years later. The oldest biblical manuscripts that have been found to date are the Dead Sea Scrolls from the second century CE. Biblical books were later written in manuscript books called a Keter or codex. The oldest codex that exists today (albeit with some of it missing) is the tenth-century Aleppo Codex, and it is on display at the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book.
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Damascus Codices - This is the oldest Keter (or codex) of the dozen Damascus Keters from the NLI collections. The Keters are a small group of very ancient manuscripts of the chumash (the first five books of the Bible). They are called the Damascus Keters because they were kept in the Damascus Jewish community; it is unclear, however, where they were written. David S. Sassoon, a notable of the Damascus Jewish community, bought this Codex in 1914, and the NLI purchased it from him in 1975. It is not a complete chumash, as it is missing the first few chapters of Genesis and part of a chapter of Exodus. The last page of Deuteronomy contains a note (not written by the scribe) marking the death of a woman, possibly the wife of the owner of the Codex.
The rescue of the Damascus Codices - Some of the Keters held in the National Library are connected to the amazing story of Judy Feld Carr, a Canadian Jewish woman who dedicated her life to saving Jews from Syria. She donated money from her private foundation in order to create, together with Israeli secret services, a network that freed Jews from Syrian prisons and smuggled them across the border. In addition to the thousands of Jews she is directly responsible for saving, she was able to smuggle many priceless Jewish artefacts from Syria, including one of the famous Damascus Keters (not the codex in this picture) that had been written in Italy in the twelfth century and kept by the Damascus Jewish community for 500 years. On hearing about this famous Keter, Feld Carr organised for it to be smuggled out in the coat of a Catholic friend who was visiting Damascus. The Keter is now kept for the Jewish people in the National Library of Israel.
Jewish Studies teachers can use this text when discussing the transmission of the Torah, especially in the lead up to Shavuot or Simchat Torah. It can also be shown when discussing the heroic story of Judy Feld Carr and her amazing efforts to save thousands of Syrian Jews and the Damascus Keter.
Bible teachers can use this when studying the Book of Genesis and the story of Abraham. It can also be used when discussing ancient biblical manuscripts.
What is this?
What language is it written in?
Do you recognise any of the words?
What is the main text, and which are the notes? How can you tell the difference?
Reading Between the Lines
Is this a single page or part of a larger text?
How do you know?
In what condition is this resource?
Based on its appearance, how old do you think this resource might be?
The page is from a Keter that is connected with the remarkable story of the rescue of Syrian Jews and of the ancient manuscript.
Listen to the interview with Judy Feld Carr. How did the Keter reach the National Library of Israel?
Compare this page of an ancient Torah manuscript to this photograph of a modern Pentateuch. What are some of the main differences?
The Damascus Codex is 1000 years old.
Do you know of any other items that are so ancient?
This chumash is a precious artefact for the entire Jewish people.
Do you have a Jewish book that is precious for your community or for you?
The Bible can be considered the world’s number one best-selling non-fiction book.
Create and advertisement or a video promoting the Bible using either art materials or online resources such as Canva.com.