Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Aleppo Codex as Talisman

A report in today's Haaretz illustrates why experts in scriptures' textual dimension (that is, scholars) frequently find veneration of its iconic dimension more than a little problematic:

An eight-centimeter-square piece of the 1087-year-old Aleppo Codex will be given to a representative of the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem on Thursday, following 18 years during which Israeli scholars tried to retrieve it from businessman Sam Sabbagh.

Sabbagh salvaged the fragment from a burning synagogue in Aleppo, Syria in 1947.

Inscribed on both sides, it is one of the lost fragments of the codex, a copy of the Bible written in 920 C.E. in Tiberias by the scribe Shlomo Ben Buya'a. The fragment Sabbagh had bears verses of Exodus chapter 8, including the words of Moses to Pharaoh: "Let my people go, that they may serve me..."

Sabbagh believed the small piece of parchment was his good luck charm for six decades. He was convinced that thanks to the parchment, which he kept with him always in a transparent plastic container, he had been saved from riots in his hometown of Aleppo during Israel's War of Independence, and he had managed to immigrate from Syria to the United States in 1968 and start a new life in Brooklyn and make a living. The charm was with him when he underwent complicated surgery.

Just two years ago, it completed its task, when Sabbagh passed away.

Of course, the scholars' interest is not just textual, since this fragment is very unlikely to influence anyone's interpretation of Exodus 8. The value to scholars in the codex's reunification derives from, among other things, the public reinforcement of the view that texts are best kept intact. This position serves the purposes of contextual interpretation of semantic meaning, of course, but it also concentrates the legitimacy conveyed by their iconic status in the one person or institution that owns them and can display them. Fragmentation of texts for talismanic purposes serves conversely to distribute more broadly their iconic prestige.

December 3, 2007: Now Haaretz reports that:

Scholars at Yad Ben-Zvi research institute in Jerusalem have called on Jews around the world who originally come from Aleppo, Syria and may possess fragments of the ancient Aleppo Codex to turn them over to Israel.

... "This is the No. 1 asset of the Jewish people," Dr. Zvi Zameret, head of Yad Ben-Zvi said, "and I believe the Jewish people would do a great deal to have it back."

This last quotation illustrates perfectly a typical conflict over iconic texts which pits the interests of a reified collective (in this case, "the Jewish people") represented by scholars against the interests of individuals (the Jews from Aleppo). For the collective, the iconic text serves purposes of legitimation ("the No. 1 asset of the Jewish people"). For individuals, a scrap of text provide a sense of prestige or empowerment (the "good luck charm" of the previous story).


September 27, 2008: The Associated Press picks up the story. Again, note the clear distinction and very different value judgments made on individual interests vis-a-vis the collective's interests:
Some people might be superstitious about the fragments they hold, or believe they are rightfully the property of Aleppo Jews, not of scholars. Others might simply have no idea of the value of what they own. ...

The manuscript doesn't contain passages missing from other versions. Instead, its accuracy is a matter of details like vowel signs and single letters that would only slightly alter pronunciation. But Judaism sanctifies each tiny calligraphic flourish in the Bible as a way of ensuring that communities around the world use precisely the same version of the divine book. That's why the Codex is considered by some to be the most important Jewish text in existence, and why the missing pieces are so coveted.

1 comment:

Meg said...

Dr. Watts,

I found this while talking to a friend. I thought it might contribute to your project in some form. The Bible and more specifically the New Testament has begun to be adapted into japanese comic book format.

-Meg