Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

The mystery of the Cairo Codex

 

Nadine Epstein

J. Zel Lurie, reporter and founding editor of Hadassah Magazine.

A few years ago, my friend J. Zel Lurie, a Delray Beach resident and founding editor of Hadassah magazine, decided he wanted to do something special to mark his 100th birthday. He decided to publish the illuminated pages of an ancient manuscript he had photographed in 1978 in Cairo at the synagogue of a Jewish sect known as the Karaites.

The manuscript was the legendary Cairo Codex, originally known as the Codex of the Prophets, which had been in possession of the Karaites-a group that rebelled against Jewish rabbinical authority in the years following the Roman sacking of Jerusalem and the Second Temple-for nearly 1,000 years. Lurie, then in his 60s, was transfixed by the Codex, with its 554 gazelle-hide parchment pages inscribed with three columns of gracefully handwritten Hebrew. He was especially taken with its 13 illuminated pages, decorated with meticulous micrography-delicate lines of tiny Hebrew letters that formed complex geometric patterns, interlaced with color and gold leaf. Though not a sentimental man, Lurie was moved by their beauty.

The Codex had a storied past told in part by its colophons-statements at the end of codices explaining their origins. According to its first colophon, it was commissioned by a Karaite, written by a Karaite scribe in 894 CE and given to the Karaites in Jerusalem to keep in their synagogue. But after it was seized by the Crusaders when they plundered Jerusalem in 1099, a wealthy Cairo Karaite paid a vast sum to ransom it and gave it to the Karaite community in Old Cairo, where both the Karaites and their Codex survived centuries of Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk, Ottoman, French and British rule. The colophons also contained a warning: "Nobody shall be permitted to bring it out of the synagogue except if it is done-may God prevent it-by compulsion. One shall return it at the time of tranquility. Whoever changes this condition and this holiness shall be cursed by the Lord and all curses shall come upon him."

The era of the Karaites in Egypt began to come to an end with the anti-Zionist riots that occurred when the State of Israel was established in 1948. By the time Lurie visited in 1978, only a few dozen Karaites remained in Cairo; they, too, would soon depart-largely for Israel, but also to Europe and the United States. The last left in the mid-1980s, around which time the Cairo Codex vanished. Lurie hadn't noticed this development-most people hadn't- until he visited the only American Karaite synagogue in Daley City, California in 2012. It was there that Lurie made up his mind to have the illuminated pages professionally photographed and printed in a book-and learned that the manuscript was missing.

The retired journalist decided to track the Cairo Codex down. Though he spoke with many Karaites during his search-who all told him the Codex was most likely in Egypt-Lurie was convinced they weren't telling the truth. Just one, a physician and scholar who died in 2014, told Lurie a different story: The Codex had been smuggled out of Cairo to Israel, and was being kept in a climate-controlled sub-basement room in the National Library.

In May 2014, Lurie, then 100, flew to Israel to pursue this theory. Despite statements implying otherwise from a Karaite leader and a National Library curator, Lurie came away certain that the Codex was, in fact, at the library. But no one would admit it. By this time, Lurie's sight and hearing were failing, and he could no longer keep searching. And so I traveled to Israel last fall to follow up on Lurie's hunch. Despite denials from both the library and the official Karaite community, I was able to confirm that it is indeed in Israel-and, in fact, in the library. At the same time, it was revealed that the manuscript, which shares much in common the famed Aleppo Codex-now ensconced at the Shrine of the Book in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem-has not been seriously restored. In the process, I received warnings that the Codex was better left unfound. Some of these warnings included the concern that its reappearance could spark a diplomatic crisis between Israel and Egypt, which I determined to be highly unlikely. A more likely reason for the secrecy was that the disclosure of its location could spark ownership tensions between the library and Israel's Karaite community, most of whom immigrated from Egypt.

Today, Lurie is 102, and he still hopes to publish a book with new color reproductions of the illuminated pages. Israel's National Library has not, however, yet made the codex accessible. Lurie wants the Codex to be shared with the world and believes it is a tragedy that a high-quality edition of the entire Codex is not available online. "It is," he says, "time to liberate the Cairo Codex from the shackles of fear that have kept it hidden."

To read the full story about this fascinating manuscript, its importance and how it was found, download The Mystery of the Cairo Codex, a free e-book with photographs at momentmag.com/ momentmag.com/cairo-codex-ebook.

 

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