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October 11: Jews of Aleppo

Lawrence Bush
October 10, 2016
A massive earthquake, one of the most destructive in history, struck Aleppo in northern Syria on this date in 1138, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths in a region already suffering through ongoing wars between Christian Crusader and Muslim forces. Aleppo had one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities; Jewish tradition dates it to the reign of King David, over 2,000 years prior to the earthquake, with the Book of Samuel counting it as part of that Jewish kingdom. The Talmud contains rulings that some of the agricultural laws that pertain only to the land of Israel apply to the Syrian region as well. Under Muslim rule starting in the 7th Century CE, the Aleppo Jewish community was self-governing, with religious freedom and a separate court system ruled by local rabbis to handle internal disputes, and dhimmi status, which entitled them to protection and obligated them to pay a special tax, wear particular clothes or emblems, and provide a certain number of soldiers. The Aleppo Codex, a Hebrew manuscript of the Torah created in the 10th century, was preserved and revered as a healing object for some 600 years in the Central Synagogue of Aleppo (which was constructed in the 5th century on a site identified as the cave where the Prophet Elijah lived; the synagogue was not destroyed in the earthquake). The Aleppo Jewish community was revitalized by the influx of Sephardic Jewish refugees from Spain in the 16th century. In the 20th century, most of the city’s 10,000 Jews moved either to the U.S. before World War II or to Israel after 1947. “Tradition states that Maimonides consulted the Aleppo Codex when he set down the exact rules for writing Torah scrolls. Recent research indicates that it is possible that Maimonides sanctified and codified everything he found in the Aleppo Codex.” --Sarina Roffé

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.