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Exclusive Book & Movie Reviews: The Oldest Tanakh The Leningrad Codex: A Facsimile Edition, General editor, David Noel Freedman, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1,067 pages

by Curt Leviant

Let us say on the outset that the Leningrad Codex is one of the most important Hebrew documents extant, with ramifications and influence that is immeasurable. It is -- along with the other famous biblical codex, the Aleppo Codex -- one of the sources for biblical tradition, for the study of Hebrew Scriptures, and for providing an accurate text for the reading and writing of the Torah and the other books of the Bible.

The Leningrad Codex is the oldest complete manuscript of the Tanakh, the 39 books of the Bible. Written in Cairo on parchment in the year 1009 (the date appears on the manuscript), it is inextricably bound up with the Aleppo Codex, which is about a century older but undated. Moreover, the Aleppo Codex, housed for many years in the Aleppo Synagogue in Syria, was badly damaged in a fire during anti-Jewish riots in Syria in 1947, and so it is incomplete. The Aleppo Codex, now safely stored at the National Hebrew Library in Jerusalem, along with the Leningrad Codex, set the standard for the correct text of the Tanakh, including its vocalization and the musical accents (trop or te'amim) that accompany every word. Although the spelling of a word may be consistent in Hebrew, in the absence of vocalization (more commonly called the vowel "dots"), there can be variations as to how the letters are pronounced. Take the letters s, f, r, for example, which can variously be read as sefer, sapar (nouns), siper, safar, saper (verbs). The Leningrad Codex is a fully vocalized biblical text, assuring correct pronunciation of each word. Moreover, it contains all the accent marks (te'amim) above and below the letters. These accent marks almost miraculously serve three disparate functions: a) they are notes for cantillation of the word; b) they show the part of the word that should be stressed or accented; c) they serve as marks for phrasing and punctuation. It should be noted that the handwritten Torah scroll has only the letters of the words and no vowels points or other marks, for no vocalization of the text or trop are permitted on the Torah parchment. Hence, the importance of a fully vocalized manuscript like the Leningrad Codex, which follows a tradition that goes back nearly 2,000 years to Tiberias, in the land of Israel. By virtue of its existence, then, this Codex is the guide for all future handwritten Torahs and printed editions of the Bible. This magnificent facsimile edition, photographed with great care and skill, contains more than a 1,000 pages. The 491 folio pages (each folio has two sides) have for the most part three columns of beautiful, clear script. The Codex pages measure 11 x 13 inches and the book is 2-1/2 inches thick. In addition to the full biblical text, the Leningrad Codex also contains poems, a work on grammar, and 16 glorious full-color pages of illustrations called "carpet pages." Predominantly gold with touches of blue, brown, red and orange, these carpet pages (so-called because of their resemblance to oriental carpets) are superb examples of medieval Jewish art, fusing geometric and floral designs with Hebrew letters and micrography (a uniquely Jewish art form where tiny Hebrew letters form a pictorial pattern and provide a text and have a pedagogic goal) to produce a stunning visual effect. The Leningrad Codex is part of the Abraham Firkovich collection at the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), where it has been for more than 130 years. Firkovich was a Jewish businessman, a devoted Karaite (Jews who follow only the Bible and reject oral or Talmudic tradition), an inveterate traveler and collector of Hebrew manuscripts. The Codex was acquired by Firkovich (who offered no details in his letters or in his autobiography as to where he got it) and then sold it to the then St. Petersburg Imperial Library. It has been known for years that this important Codex was in the great library in Leningrad, which also houses hundreds of other priceless Jewish manuscripts. In 1990, under Gorbachov's glasnost, and after much delicate negotiations (including giving the library photographic equipment and a fax machine), the library permitted foreign photographers to come and photograph this rare document for the first time. Interestingly enough, this superb publishing venture, several years in the making, has been lovingly and meticulously realized (both as a gem of book production and as a fine work of scholarship) not by a Jewish publisher but by Eerdmans, who specializes in Christian texts and has also previously issued scholarly works of Jewish interest.

We can only applaud Eerdmans and the editors and photographers who labored at this task for bringing this spiritual treasure into public access. Individuals, libraries, synagogues and other cultural and religious institutions will no doubt take advantage of the existence of this unique tome and make it available for study and perusal.

Sources: Na'amat Magazine. Reprinted with permission.