Codex Sassoon, oldest near-complete Hebrew Bible, in Israel for permanent display
Biblical round trip792 pages of sheepski

Codex Sassoon, oldest near-complete Hebrew Bible, in Israel for permanent display

Rare, 1,100-year-old manuscript travels in cockpit on historic El Al flight, will take up residence at Tel Aviv’s ANU Museum of the Jewish People after $38 million purchase in May

ANU Museum welcomes the Codex Sassoon to its new home on Oct. 5, 2023 (Photo courtesy of Peri Bindelglass)
ANU Museum welcomes the Codex Sassoon to its new home on Oct. 5, 2023 (Photo courtesy of Peri Bindelglass)

The Codex Sassoon, the world’s oldest nearly complete copy of the Hebrew Bible, arrived in Israel on last week and will be permanently displayed at the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv.

The book, written by a single Jewish scribe on 400 pages of parchment about 1,100 years ago, was purchased in May through the Sotheby auction house in New York for over $38 million, becoming among the most expensive books ever bought.

The buyer, Alfred H. Moses, an attorney and a former U.S. Ambassador to Romania, acquired the Codex Sassoon on behalf of the American Friends of ANU and gifted it to the ANU Museum of the Jewish People (formerly the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora). Before the public auction, speculation about where the book would end up led to anxiety that it might be sold to a private collector.

The seller, Swiss financier and collector Jacqui Safra, had owned the volume since 1989. The manuscript changed hands multiple times over the years, reemerging when Jewish book collector David Solomon Sassoon purchased it for £350 in 1929. It had last been exhibited in 1982 at the British Museum before being auctioned again through Sotheby’s in 1989 when it was sold to a dealer for £2,035,000 (about $2.5 million), who sold it to Safra, a member of the prominent Safra banking family, that same year.

The Masoretic codex comprises all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, handwritten roughly 1,100 years ago on 792 pages of sheepskin and missing only about eight pages. It includes vowels and cantillation marks that indicate how to read it properly. Its writing and layout recall those of Torah scrolls read in synagogue.

On Oct. 5, the ancient manuscript arrived in Israel from New York on a historic El Al flight where the carefully packed book was placed in the cockpit for travel, considered the safest place on the plane.

Upon landing, El Al pilot Captain Amos Aldaag removed the codex from the secure cell and carried it to the tarmac, where a delegation including Avigdor Kahalani, a decorated Israeli veteran of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and a former lawmaker, and singer Shuli Rand, as well as museum staff, their families, and other guests, welcomed the manuscript back to Israel.

ANU chairperson Irina Nevzlin said the Codex Sassoon, as the oldest bible in the world, offers a basis for remembering that Jews are one people.

“These are days of renewal, of a new year, of Simchat Torah,” said Nevzlin. “These are also very complex and challenging days in Israel and throughout the world, and we are all looking for what unites us rather than what divides us; we all want to hold and touch something eternal, which has existed for thousands of years, which tells the story of our people.”

The codex was at the center of a farewell event on Oct. 3 at Sotheby’s New York headquarters where the auction house’s experts cautiously prepared it for travel. According to a report in the New York Jewish Week, the Codex Sassoon was wrapped in layers of Tyvek, a breathable, synthetic material often used in packaging and construction.

The book was then placed inside a specialty cardboard box, wrapped in more layers of Tyvek, and nestled inside a suitcase for its journey to Tel Aviv.

Senior Judaica specialist at Sotheby’s, Sharon Liberman Mintz, also the consultant on the record-breaking sale to Moses, told the New York Jewish Week that saying farewell to the Codex Sassoon was “a little bittersweet.”

“But it’s found such a wonderful new home and I’m really excited about it. There are millions of people who are excited on the Israel side, there is tremendous enthusiasm for this book to be available to the public at the ANU museum,” she said. “It was a total triumph for the codex to go to such a great place.”

Shulamith Bahat, CEO of ANU-America, who traveled on the flight with the Codex Sassoon told the New York Jewish Week that its new permanent residence “is the right place for it to be — in Israel and at the Museum of the Jewish People.

“This book is the crown of the Jewish story and we are telling the entire story of the Jewish people,” Bahat said.

She added of the codex: “It does something to people that is beyond, in my opinion, comprehension. Every Jew is connected to it and every person in the world is connected to it.”

“The Hebrew Bible is the most influential book in history and constitutes the bedrock of Western civilization,” Moses said in May at the Sotheby’s auction.

“It was my mission, realizing the historic significance of Codex Sassoon, to see that it resides in a place with global access for all people,” added Moses, who chairs ANU’s honorary board. PJC

JTA contributed to this report

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