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Article: Majesty, Sanctity, Reverence

כתר תורה

Majesty, Sanctity, Reverence

Yoel Finkelman

The Mossad is more famous for its efforts in espionage than in manuscript preservation. Still, in the course of the 1990s, as part of a larger operation to help Syrian Jews escape from increasingly hostile conditions, the Mossad assisted in the smuggling of nine exquisite handwritten medieval Bibles, referred to as Crowns. As over 2,000 years of active Syrian Jewish life were coming to a sad and tragic end, Damascus Jews, such as Chief Rabbi Avraham Hamra (1943–2021), supported by Jewish activists such as Judy Feld-Carr (b. 1938), risked their lives to ensure that these manuscripts — the community’s spiritual heritage — would escape along with the refugees.

Damascus synagogues collected majestic manuscripts of the Bible not primarily to read or study but to symbolize the stature of the community. The books were kept in special locked arks to be removed only on the most special of occasions. Community members attributed to these manuscripts the sanctity associated with any holy book as well as symbolic and even talismanic qualities. Their very presence, they believed, protected the synagogue, its members, and the broader Jewish community.

None of the manuscripts, however, were written in Syria. One of the Crowns, which had come to the National Library decades prior to the Mossad operation and represents a particularly important witness to an exact text of the Masoretic Bible, was written in the Land of Israel as early as the tenth century. Others, originating in the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, came from Spain, Italy, and even Ashkenazi lands. The Crowns symbolize not only Damascus Jewry but also the intimate connection between world Jewry, the handwritten word, and sacred scripture.

Each of the manuscripts contains biblical texts as well as beautiful micrographic designs drawn in the margins using the letters of the ancient Masoretic notes — shorthand notes written in the early Middle Ages fixing the most precise text of the Bible. Some contain other commentaries, such as that of the great medieval commentators Rashi or Radak. Most contain elaborate decorations, such as colorful geometric designs or even images of dragons surrounding the text.

In the summer of 2020, an Israeli court designated nine Crowns as a trust, held at the National Library under the custodianship of representatives of the Syrian Jewish community, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi, and the National Library.