AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Monday, 27 March 2017

THE ALEPPO CODEX investigative book by Matti Friedman

I like it, I like it very much!

The Aleppo Codex could be read as a thriller. It could also be read as a history of the Jewish people, or as a meditation on history and myth. This great book comes closer to containing everything than any book I’ve read in a long, long time.”
Jonathan Safran Foer

Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realised that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.
~ UMBERTO ECO, The Name of the Rose 
Matti Friedman’s true-life detective story traces how this precious manuscript was smuggled from its hiding place in Syria into the newly founded state of Israel—and how and why many of its most sacred and valuable pages went missing. It’s a tale that involves secret agents, pious clergymen, obsessive antiquities collectors, and highly placed national figures who, as it turns out, would do anything to get their hands on an ancient book. What it reveals are uncomfortable truths about greed, state cover-ups, and the fascinating role of historical treasures in creating a national identity.

Friedman has unearthed documents kept secret for fifty years, interviewed key players from around the world, and followed the trail of the missing pages up to the present, including the charged four-year court battle to determine the codex’s rightful owners. Friedman also takes us back in time, revealing the once vibrant Jewish communities in Islamic lands. Epic in its sweep, The Aleppo Codex features a fascinating cast of characters—all of whom claim the codex as their own.
In an age when physical books matter less and less, here is a thrilling story about a book that meant everything. This true-life detective story unveils the journey of a sacred text - the tenth-century annotated bible known as the Aleppo Codex - from its hiding place in a Syrian synagogue to the newly founded state of Israel. Based on Matti Friedman's independent research, documents kept secret for fifty years, and personal interviews with key players, the book proposes a new theory of what happened when the codex left Aleppo, Syria, in the late 1940s and eventually surfaced in Jerusalem, mysteriously incomplete.

The codex provides vital keys to reading biblical texts. By recounting its history, Friedman explores the once vibrant Jewish communities in Islamic lands and follows the thread into the present, uncovering difficult truths about how the manuscript was taken to Israel and how its most important pages went missing. Along the way, he raises critical questions about who owns historical treasures and the role of myth and legend in the creation of a nation.

Matti Friedman’s first book, The Aleppo Codex, won the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize, the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal, the Canadian Jewish Book Award, and other honors. It was published in Israel, Australia, Holland, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Russia, and South Korea.
Matti’s reporting has taken him from Israel to Lebanon, Morocco, Moscow, and the Caucasus, and his writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. He is a former Associated Press correspondent and a regular contributor to Tablet Magazine. Two essays he wrote about media coverage of Israel after the 2014 Gaza war, for Tablet and The Atlantic, triggered intense discussion and have been shared together on Facebook more than 100,000 times. He was born in Toronto and lives in Jerusalem.

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Matti Friedman talks about his book, his experience in writing it, and...


Developments in the saga of the missing perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible, whose future is still unknown

Tablet - June 30, 2014

I am not sure I expected the story of the long-forgotten Aleppo Codex, the perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible, to occupy me for very long after the publication of my book on the subject in 2012. I thought I would soon be on to other things, which is the way journalism tends to work. But, as sometimes happens, the story has taken on a life of its own: a cover-up energized by the fallout from my book; the rejuvenated activities of a small group of codex loyalists ranging in age from 36 (me) to 82 (former Mossad case officer Rafi Sutton); and a recent edict issued against me by a prominent rabbi in New York. In short, the story of the Aleppo Codex is alive today as it has not been in many decades, and I believe an update on developments over the past two years is warranted for those who find themselves fascinated by the strange and ongoing saga of one of the most important manuscripts on earth.
The Aleppo Codex
First, for readers unfamiliar with the story, a brief summary of the background.
The Aleppo Codex, a bound book of approximately 500 parchment pages, was compiled in Tiberias around the year 930 C.E., making it the oldest known copy of the complete Bible. It was moved to Jerusalem, stolen by crusaders in 1099, ransomed by the Jews of Cairo, and studied by the philosopher Maimonides, who declared it the most accurate version of the holy text. It was later taken to Aleppo, Syria, and guarded for six centuries. There it became known as the “Crown of Aleppo.”
In 1947, in a riot that followed the United Nations vote on the partition of Palestine, the codex disappeared, surfacing 10 years later in mysterious circumstances in the new state of Israel. The codex is currently held in the Israel Museum, in the same building as the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is controlled not by the museum, however, but by a prestigious academic body, the Ben-Zvi Institute, founded by Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Somewhere along the way in the mid-20th century, 200 priceless pages—around 40 percent of the total—went missing . These include the most important pages: the Torah, or Five Books of Moses.
There are two mysteries linked to the codex. The first: How did the book move to Israel from a grotto in Aleppo’s Great Synagogue and effectively become the property of the new state? And the second: How did its missing pages vanish, and where might they be now?
On the subject of the first mystery, the official version of the story accepted for five decades claimed that the manuscript had been ceded willingly to the state of Israel by the Jews of Aleppo. My investigation showed this was not the case. In fact, the manuscript was taken by the state in a complex maneuver involving Israeli agents who intercepted the manuscript after it was smuggled from Syria into Turkey concealed in a washing machine. After its arrival in Israel, the manuscript became the subject of a court battle between the Jews of Aleppo and Israeli officials. The trial embarrassed figures in the government and was never made public. The proceedings were made subject to a publication ban imposed in 1958 and never revoked; I published the transcripts for the first time 54 years later.
The second mystery, that of the missing pages, was long famous among a small number of people—Bible professors, Aleppo exiles, and a few others. The official version of the story, propagated by the academics in Israel who control the manuscript, claimed the pages vanished in Aleppo around the time of the 1947 riot. But we know now that the manuscript was seen whole as late as 1952, five years later. The first description of any significant damage to the codex dates, strikingly, only to 1958—after the manuscript reached the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem.
At around the same time, my investigation found, dozens of valuable books and manuscripts vanished from the library of the same institute. When I approached former officials at the institute with evidence of the other missing books, several went on record saying the man responsible for their disappearance was the institute’s director at the time, Meir Benayahu, a scholar who throughout a long and illustrious career studied, collected, bought, and sold rare Hebrew books. He left his post amid a legal battle over control of the institute in 1970.
Benayahu, who died in 2009, came from a powerful political family with roots in Iraq; he was the son of a Sephardic chief rabbi, Yitzhak Nissim, and brother of a senior Likud cabinet minister, Moshe Nissim. (As was common in those years, Benayahu adopted a more modern and Israeli-sounding last name.) This scandal has long been known in Israel’s small and insular academic world but was never made public. Legal proceedings were avoided at the time thanks to the direct intervention of Israel’s president, Zalman Shazar. Police were never summoned, no charges were filed, and no books were returned. Benayahu’s family denies any wrongdoing and says the accusations against him are a smear campaign aimed at covering up thefts by other people; they have asked, rightly, why no one went to the police at the time. Today Benayahu’s family owns a collection of Hebrew texts that is one of the world’s largest in private hands.
Whatever precisely happened at the Ben-Zvi Institute, the long-buried affair of the institute’s vanished books—whether it is connected or not to the disappearance of the codex pages—is arguably the worst corruption scandal in the history of the Israeli academy. Among the figures who have gone on record saying Benayahu was responsible for the institute’s missing books are Zvi Zameret, the institute’s longtime administrative director and subsequently one of the top officials in Israel’s Education Ministry; Joseph Hacker, professor emeritus at Hebrew University and a former deputy director of the institute; and the late Yom-Tov Assis, the professor who headed the Ben-Zvi Institute at the time of my own investigation.
Are the missing codex pages linked to the broader disappearance of books from the Ben-Zvi Institute? The scholars of the Ben-Zvi Institute have resisted any investigation while failing to produce any evidence to dispel the suspicion.
The Cheese Merchant
At the center of the codex’s story is the Jewish community of Aleppo, Syria. No Jews are left in Aleppo today , but the Syrian exile community rooted in that city remains one of the most successful and tightly knit in the Jewish world. The community’s largest outpost is located in Brooklyn, N.Y., with others in nearby Deal, N.J., and scattered throughout Central and South America. Nowhere was the emotional response to the publication of the story as strong as among the descendants of the Aleppo Jews. Not long after publication, I was informed by contacts in the community that what had been intended as a small book club meeting at a private home in Deal had drawn around 70 people and become quite heated. At around the same time, emails circulated warning people not to read my book because it defamed certain prominent members of the Syrian community.
The most important of the figures in question is Murad Faham, an Aleppo cheese merchant who risked his life to smuggle the codex out of Syria into Turkey and then to Israel in 1957. Upon arrival, he turned the manuscript over to representatives of the state of Israel. (Faham lived most of the rest of his life in the community’s hub in Flatbush, where he was well known for his role in the codex’s travels. He died in 1982.) In the official version of the story, the one supported by the academics of the Ben-Zvi Institute and by Faham and his descendants, the cheese merchant was following the instructions of the two chief rabbis of Aleppo when he gave the manuscript to the state. When the Ben-Zvi Institute—which is affiliated with Hebrew University, perhaps Israel’s most important institution of higher learning—published an official history of the codex in 1985, the scholars chose not to contradict this version of events even though they knew it to be fictitious.
What actually happened, as the transcripts of the trial show, is that the two chief rabbis of Aleppo instructed Faham to take the codex to Israel and entrust it not to the state but to the senior Aleppo rabbi in Israel, a scholar named Isaac Dayan. They never intended for it to leave the community. Under pressure from state representatives, Faham disobeyed them, and that is how the community lost control of its most important possession.
My book did not include copies of documents, and this allowed some to suggest I was fabricating this conclusion. I have thus included here a page from the transcript of a court hearing on March 1, 1960, at which the two rabbis make clear what happened.
“We believe the Crown of the Torah is dedicated to, and belongs to, the Aleppo community, and that should not be changed at all. We gave an object to a man who betrayed his mission,” one of the two chief rabbis, Moshe Tawil, told the court. “If Rabbi Dayan had not been in Israel, we would not have sent the Crown under any circumstances.”
“We gave the Crown to Mr. Faham to give it to Rabbi Isaac Dayan,” testified the second rabbi, Salim Zaafrani. “We did not tell him to give it to someone else at all, and he did not have permission to do so. … It is the property of the Aleppo community, and not of the state of Israel.”
One of the central and controversial questions in this story is where the Aleppo Jews who sent the manuscript to Israel intended for it to end up. For those still in doubt, this document should clarify the matter.
The Director
This January, the Israeli reporter Yifat Erlich published an investigation in the newspapers Maariv and Makor Rishon picking up where mine left off. She focused on Benayahu, the former director of the Ben-Zvi Institute. Faced with another reporter sniffing around the skeleton in its closet, the institute granted her access to more files than had been available to me—but gave her nothing directly related to Benayahu. The institute said it was not required by law to disclose “internal memoranda” or anything that could constitute an invasion of privacy. This was the institute’s decision even though its own director had gone on record in the daily Yediot Ahronot in May 2012 in response to another reporter’s questions about my book, confirming what he euphemistically referred to as a “serious disagreement between the Ben-Zvi Institute and an employee who left in 1970 related to the absence of manuscripts and books.” (Even in this admission the institute could not be entirely honest; the “employee,” Benayahu, was in fact the institute’s founding director and sole administrator at the time.)
According to Joseph Hacker, one of the academics who agreed to detail the charges against the former director in interviews with me and later with Erlich, a list was compiled after the director’s departure of books he was known to have taken. This list is what both Erlich and I were looking for; if it still exists, however, it has yet to be made public. Hacker told Erlich that he consulted one rare manuscript in the Ben-Zvi Institute’s library in the 1960s and then returned a few years later to be informed by Benayahu that the same manuscript was in fact his own property and was no longer available for research. “It was obvious that the border between the institute’s property and the director’s property was blurry,” Hacker said.
Erlich uncovered significant information in Israel’s state archive (where the Ben-Zvi Institute could not restrict her access) and elsewhere that allowed her to publish more details of the corruption scandal that rocked the institute around 1970. The fight at the institute, she found, reached not only the president but also the prime minister, Golda Meir, and the attorney general. Benayahu, the reporter’s documents showed, had responded to his removal with the astonishing legal claim that the Ben-Zvi Institute, a public institution, was owned privately by him—that is, that the institute’s collection was in fact his own. After he was forced out, she reported, he returned to the institute without permission; when the new administrators changed the locks he broke in, and eventually a guard had to be posted to bar his entry.
An audit by the state comptroller, the official Israeli government watchdog, from September 1970, found that the Ben-Zvi Institute library held around 8,000 books and 1,992 manuscripts—but that only half of them had been cataloged under Benayahu’s care. That meant there was no way of knowing what, precisely, the institute had, or once had, and what was missing.
Like me, Erlich turned up no smoking gun in the case of the codex—there is no evidence linking Benayahu to that disappearance. (A dealer in rare books who appears to have been selling codex pages on the black market in Jerusalem in the mid-1980s, and who died mysteriously in a hotel room a short time later, was an acquaintance of Benayahu’s and met with the former director a short time before his death. But because the world of rare Hebrew books is small and dealers and collectors know each other, this fact is interesting but not incriminating.) But neither did Erlich find evidence for any significant absence of pages from the codex before it reached the Ben-Zvi Institute and its director at the end of January 1958. Only afterwards was the absence of 200 pages noted.
The disappearance of the Torah section of the codex is impossible to miss, and it is hard to imagine that damage of this kind to the world’s most important Bible would not be mentioned by any of the literate Jews who handled the manuscript in the decade between the Aleppo riot and the manuscript’s arrival in Israel. But it is not mentioned in any documents—not mentioned, that is, before the manuscript reached the institute. The first to record the absence was Benayahu.
Erlich’s article added one particularly important new detail for sleuths on the trail of the codex. When the manuscript reached Israel, it was first given to the head of the Jewish Agency’s immigration department, Shlomo Zalman Shragai. The agency official held it for more than two weeks in January 1958 before turning it over to the institute. Shragai’s testimony is thus crucial—an educated man, he would surely have noticed if the pages were there or not. If they were already gone, the Ben-Zvi Institute is innocent. If, on the other hand, they were there when Shragai had the codex, the Ben-Zvi Institute is responsible for their disappearance.
Shragai, however, left no written testimony, or at least none that I or the other Aleppo Codex detectives have been able to find. This testimony—which I believe almost certainly exists somewhere—is one of the holy grails of the codex mystery.
A second-hand account of Shragai’s testimony does exist, however. It was collected in 1993, shortly before Shragai’s death, by Rafi Sutton, the former Mossad man who led a codex investigation for a TV documentary that aired in Israel. According to Sutton, Shragai told him that when he had the codex it was whole or nearly whole. The pages, Shragai said, went missing after he last saw the manuscript—they went missing, that is, at the Ben-Zvi Institute.
Although I know Rafi well and have found him to be entirely trustworthy and his memory reliable, I chose not to include this information in my book because I did not have a recording of this conversation or written notes made at the time. But after the publication of my book, Ezra Kassin, the unofficial chairman of the informal group I have come to think of as the “Aleppo Codex Underground,” located Shragai’s elderly son Ovadia. Ovadia was at home the night the codex was brought to his father in 1958. Ovadia said that he had seen the manuscript—and it was whole except for a small number of pages. Nearly all of the Torah, he said, was present and accounted for. This matched the testimony given to Rafi Sutton by the elder Shragai years before. Kassin taped the conversation.
Erlich included this new piece of the puzzle in her newspaper investigation, putting the onus for the disappearance more firmly on the Ben-Zvi Institute. The institute, for its part, has been unable to come up with any indication that the pages were missing when the manuscript arrived. This being the case, its strategy seems to obfuscate and lie low until the current wave of interest and suspicion dissipates. (This approach, which reporters are used to encountering from politicians and military officials, is even less edifying when practiced by academic historians.)
A conference on the codex planned jointly by the Ben-Zvi Institute, Hebrew University, and the Israel Museum was canceled abruptly and unilaterally by the institute earlier this year, to the surprise of many of those involved, with the explanation that there was nothing new and substantial worth discussing. When I asked the institute’s current director, Prof. Meir Bar-Asher, about the odd cancellation in a list of questions I submitted to him this month, he said the institute had consulted with “scholars” who did not think there was any new information on the codex that warranted a conference. I noted that the two leading scholars of the codex (Prof. Yosef Ofer of Bar-Ilan University and Dr. Rafael Zer of Hebrew University) wanted to hold the conference and objected to its cancellation, and I asked for the names of the codex scholars who supposedly thought otherwise. (I am doubtful that these scholars exist and believe the conference was canceled to save the institute further attention and embarrassment.) The professor did not reply.
When I contacted Benayahu’s family for a response before the publication of my book, I received a long letter defending him, which I duly quoted. But the family did not contact me further at the time and has not since. When Erlich approached them for a response, however, she was greeted with a vehement reaction—the family having presumably realized by this time the threat not only to their reputation but, at least potentially, to their collection.
Arriving at a meeting with the family, Erlich told me, she found herself confronted not only by Chanan Benayahu, the director’s son, who currently controls the collection, but also by Moshe Nissim, the director’s brother and a former finance minister who now heads a large law firm; by another prominent lawyer present at the family’s request; and by a PR professional engaged by the family. Erlich taped the unpleasant conversation that ensued. Pressure on Erlich, her editors, and her publisher to withhold the article did not succeed, and it came out on Jan. 17 of this year. “Erlich’s conclusions have no relation to the facts,” read the family’s response included in the article. “The ‘investigation’ includes cheap gossip, fabrications, fictions, and libel. It is a collection of nonsense infused with malignance, jealousy, and pathetic conspiracy theories.” The response goes on to attack Erlich for basing her conclusions on anonymous sources; in fact her important sources were named, as were mine, and even the Ben-Zvi Institute itself has grudgingly confirmed the affair.
The scholars and historians of the Ben-Zvi Institute, for their part, gave Erlich a typically evasive response that avoided addressing the theft but noted, tellingly, that their collection had been run well “for the last 40 years”—that is, since Benayahu’s departure. They justified their refusal to make all documents about the matter public by pointing to clauses in Israel’s Freedom of Information Act.
In a response to my questions this month, the current director, Bar-Asher, asserted that the institute “is not concealing a thing.” When I noted that the institute in fact admits it is concealing documents and wondered if it planned to change this policy, he did not reply. I asked if the institute denied the theft of its books and the suspicions regarding the Aleppo Codex, and if not, why it did not initiate a transparent investigation into the matter—the institute is not, after all, a private business, but a scholarly body funded by the public to document and preserve the heritage of the Jews of the East. The professor did not reply.
The Silvera Manuscript
In 2010, while in New York to conduct research for my book, I met a man named Maurice Silvera in an Aleppo synagogue a few paces from Central Park. Silvera showed me two receipts from the Ben-Zvi Institute for a valuable Bible manuscript donated by his father to the institute in 1961. One was signed by President Ben-Zvi himself, and the other by Benayahu. He wondered if I might help him locate the manuscript.
I took the documents back to Jerusalem and found that the manuscript had vanished. Confronted with the receipts, the official responsible for administration of the institute for nearly 30 years, Zvi Zameret, went on record naming Benayahu and attributing the disappearance of “dozens” of manuscripts to him. It was the two receipts, and Zameret’s forthright admission, that allowed me to make public the existence of this affair for the first time.
After I informed the Silveras, the family engaged an Israeli law firm and asked the institute to explain the disappearance of the family’s manuscript. When the scholars of the institute decided that the demands of academic integrity did not require them to be helpful and instead delayed, the family’s lawyers contacted the state comptroller. (The Ben-Zvi Institute is a state agency, receiving its budget from the public coffers and thus must answer to the comptroller.)
The institute then came up with what I believe it imagined to be a canny legal ploy: Because an administrative re-organization was carried out in 1969, attaching the institute to a new body known as Yad Ben-Zvi, their lawyers claimed that the institute after 1969 was no longer the same institute as the one before. While it might have the same name, that is, it bore no responsibility for anything that its institutional predecessor might or might not have done. Furthermore, the scholars had looked around for the Silvera manuscript and hadn’t found it. The comptroller accepted this absurd explanation and refused to investigate further. The Silvera family’s lawyer, Yaron Gaver, described this to me at the time as a “continuation of the scandalous behavior of government agencies in this case.”
“There is no logical explanation given here for the disappearance of a treasure of historical significance to the Jewish people,” Gaver said.
The institute’s scholars and lawyers may or may not realize how disappointing their legal explanation will seem to any who resent the transformation of the public heritage into private property. But they do not, I believe, realize what their position would mean should a challenge ever be mounted in court to the institute’s control of the codex, which arrived there in 1958. If the Ben-Zvi Institute after 1969 is not the one that existed before 1969, then the current incarnation of the institute not only has no legal liability for its missing manuscripts—it also has no claim to the pride of its collection, the Aleppo Codex.
‘The Deadly Arrow of His Tongue’
In May of this year, I was invited to speak at an Aleppo synagogue in Flatbush. Despite the energetic discussion of my book in the community, it was the first time I have been invited by the community in America to speak in the two years since the book’s publication. Some in the Aleppo community are acutely sensitive to the details of this story, which is understandable: Figures who, for most readers, are merely characters in a book are, for some members of the community, intimate acquaintances or relatives. And not everyone has been happy about the publication of this story by an outsider.
Resistance to the invitation quickly became clear to the organizers after the date had been set, but the synagogue refused to cancel the talk. According to my contacts in the community, the most potent backlash was coming from Benayahu’s family, rather than from Aleppo Jews: While the Benayhu family is of Iraqi, rather than Syrian, origin, it retains significant influence in the Sephardic world both in Israel and abroad thanks in part to the enduring reputation of Yitzhak Nissim, the former Israeli Sephardic chief rabbi, who was Benayahu’s father.
Not long before I arrived, a religious leader in New York’s Sephardic community, Shimon Alouf, issued a strongly worded legal opinion excoriating my book and forbidding attendance at the lecture. (Alouf heads an Egyptian synagogue in Brooklyn.) This ruling, the rabbi wrote, was his decision “according to halacha” (underline in the original), which he made after having read my book. According to the ruling, which consists of four pages of dense and flowery Hebrew with numerous biblical and Talmudic references, I had maliciously libeled a righteous man—he meant, but did not name, Benayahu—after his death. It was not enough for community members “not to hear him,” he wrote, referring to me, “but everything should be done to prevent him from visiting this city and shooting therein the deadly arrow of his tongue.” (The latter turn of phrase is from Jeremiah 9:8.)
Unlike journalistic articles, religious rulings of this kind apparently do not require full disclosure: Alouf did not make it clear to readers that he has personal ties to the Benayahu family, and neither, it appears, did he think anyone else would figure it out. In January 2012, the same rabbi provided an enthusiastic written endorsement for a prayer book edited by Chanan Benayahu, the son of the former director and the person currently in charge of the family’s book collection. In his published endorsement, the rabbi describes Chanan Benayahu as “yedidi, izi, ve-chavivi,” a hard-to-translate triple synonym in Hebrew for a warm and personal variant of the word “friend.”
I asked both the rabbi and the Benayahu family in writing if the family had engineered the religious ruling; neither responded. The talk at the synagogue drew a decent and interested crowd.
The Future of the Codex
Ezra Kassin, a resident of the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon and an Israeli of Aleppo extraction, is the person most deeply involved in the ongoing efforts to move ahead with an investigation of the codex story. Kassin hopes for an official state inquiry with power of subpoena, and for this purpose he has arranged several meetings with members of Knesset at which I and other members of the Aleppo Codex Underground have been present. No one has proven particularly eager to help so far, though one lawmaker—David Rotem of the Yisrael Beitenu party—was caught by the local equivalent of C-SPAN reading the Hebrew edition of my book in the Knesset. (I admittedly do not seem to have his full attention; Rotem is simultaneously checking his cellphone.)
Kassin has a plan for the future of the manuscript, for which he hopes to win backing from the Aleppo community.
Ownership of the codex, he believes, should revert in some form to the Aleppo Jews. The current legal arrangement from 1962 granting control to the Ben-Zvi Institute could be dissolved in court on two grounds. Firstly, based on the institute’s new claim to have been founded only in 1969, more than a decade after the codex arrived there; and secondly, based on documents that Kassin, I, and others have on our computers showing that the original legal arrangement was based on a false version of events. I have published one such document here, and there are many others.
According to Kassin’s plan, a board of directors made up of leaders of the Aleppo community in Israel and abroad would become the codex’s guardians, assuming responsibility for the manuscript’s well-being; they would meet once a year. This board would also be in charge of investigating the affair of the missing pages—preferably through an official Israeli commission of inquiry, and if not, by private means. Rafi Sutton, the former Mossad man, has several people in mind, former agents who are not finding their retirement sufficiently interesting.
The codex, Kassin believes, should remain in Jerusalem, on the campus of the Israel Museum. It should not, however, remain in its current location in the basement of the Shrine of the Book, where it is overshadowed by the Qumran scrolls. Instead, a new home should be constructed next door for the perfect copy of the Bible. This home should be a precise replica of the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, where the codex was guarded for six centuries. This reconstructed building would serve not only as a monument to one of Jewry’s greatest lost communities, but also as a functioning synagogue. The damaged codex would be kept within the synagogue where it was always kept—in a small grotto named for Elijah the Prophet. One day, perhaps, the missing pages will join the others there.
“The Aleppo Codex was never meant to be a dead museum exhibit,” Kassin told me recently. “It must become, once again, the living heart of a living community—of the community of Aleppo, of course, but in a broader sense of the Jewish people and the world.”
Shrine of the Book (Israel)

Sunday, 26 March 2017

What Really Happened at Mount Sinai?

What Really Happened at Mount Sinai? (from
By pinpointing the duplications and discrepancies in the Biblical account of the giving of the law, Baruch Schwartz attempts to untangle these four strands (called J, E, P and D) and to reconstitute the original accounts of what occurred on Mount Sinai.
Booming thunder and bolts of lightning accompany Moses as he descends the cloud-covered Mount Sinai, bearing Most people know this cinematic version—à la Cecil B. de Mille—of the giving of the law on Sinai. The biblical version, however, is much less familiar, even to many devoted readers of the Hebrew Bible—perhaps because it is much  more difficult to follow.
The Bible presents the lawgiving not as a single dramatic event but as a lengthy process that begins on Sinai but does not end until 40 years later. Moses descends Sinai not once but eight times, and more and more laws keep coming all the time. Moses commits them to writing twice; God inscribes two sets of tablets. Moses conveys laws to the Israelites time and time again.
The complete story covers three and a half of the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah, a full 60 percent of the 187 chapters. It abounds in difficulties—at times appearing so disrupted and inconsistent, so contradictory and repetitive, that it is difficult to read as a continuous whole. 
The full story—what I call the canonical account—of the giving of the law begins with the Israelites’ arrival at the foot of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19). Whereas the preceding 68 chapters, from Genesis 1 to Exodus 18, have covered thousands of years, here the pace suddenly slows. Throughout the next 119 chapters (to Deuteronomy 34), only 40 years will elapse.
The Israelites have been led from Egypt to Mount Sinai by God himself, who appeared by day as a cloud and by night as a fire (Exodus 13:21). At God’s summons, Moses ascends the mountain, where he is instructed to offer a covenant to the Israelite people. In light of all he has done for them, God invites the Israelites to be his treasured people forevermore, as long as they agree to obey his commands. The Israelites immediately accept the offer, though they have not yet heard the terms (Exodus 19:1–8). Before presenting these, however, God informs Moses that he plans to hold a special audience with Moses, during which the people will be asked to “listen in” to ensure their belief in Moses’ prophecy. After some preparation, a sound-and-light presentation takes place. From the cloud-covered mountain, amidst thunder and lightning, the people overhear the voice of God saying the “Ten Words,” or Decalogue, to Moses.1 The Ten Words are not the laws themselves, but rather a sampling of divine pronouncements, offered so that the people may hear the divine voice speak to a prophet (Exodus 19:9–20:14).2
Stricken with terror, the people beg Moses to excuse them from listening any further to God’s voice and pledge to obey whatever Moses relays to them in God’s name. Moses agrees, assuring them that this is what he and God had in mind all along. Moses reenters the thick cloud covering the mountaintop while the people remain at a distance (Exodus 20:15–18), and the long-awaited giving of the law begins. One after another, the laws are conveyed to Moses in a long speech (Exodus 20:19–23:19), ending with words of promise and exhortation (Exodus 23:20–33). Nothing indicates how long this takes; presumably, if the Decalogue was pronounced in the morning, this private audience occupies the remainder of the day.
Moses descends and relays the laws to the people, again orally, and the people reaffirm their willingness to comply—this time knowing full well what they are agreeing to. That night Moses, at his own initiative, sets down the laws in writing. The next morning the covenant is ratified through sacrificial rituals and the public reading of the covenant document (Exodus 24:1–8).
Moses is then told to ascend the mountain once more, this time to receive the monumental evidence of the encounter at Sinai, namely, the two stone tablets written by God (Exodus 24:12). But when he arrives, he learns that he will first receive lengthy instructions for the construction and dedication of the divine abode (the Tabernacle) and for the consecration of the priests and their vestments (Exodus 25:1–31:17). He remains on the mountain for 40 days. One of the first things he is told is that the Tabernacle will serve as a place where God will meet him to impart his laws, so that he can transmit them to the Israelites (Exodus 25:22).
Meanwhile, the people have made the golden calf (Exodus 32:1–6). Thus, when the meeting ends and Moses receives the tablets and is ready to descend, God must first give him the bad news that the Israelites have strayed from the path of faithfulness and that he has resolved to destroy them. Moses delays his descent long enough to beseech God to forbear, then descends, breaks the tablets, destroys the calf and takes other measures to deal with the crisis (Exodus 32:7–33:23). Apparently he has abandoned the Tabernacle project for the time being. Instead, at God’s command, he makes a new set of tablets and climbs the mountain once more to have them inscribed (Exodus 34:1–4). Again, more awaits Moses on the mountaintop than he had expected. This time, before God inscribes the tablets, he gives Moses a passing glimpse of his presence and another small body of laws (Exodus 34:5–26).
Moses remains on the mountain another 40 days, and God eventually writes the new set of tablets (Exodus 34:27– 28). When Moses comes back to the camp (Exodus 34:29–35), the Israelites greet him with fear because his face reflects the awesome radiance of God.  Returning to the camp, Moses convenes the people and conveys to them the instructions for building the Tabernacle and fashioning the sacred articles and vestments (Exodus 35:1–20). The remainder of the year is spent on this project (Exodus 35:21–40:16), and the Tabernacle is erected as the second year of their journey begins (Exodus 40:17–33). God’s fiery majesty enters the Tabernacle, and Moses is summoned to begin to receive the laws, which God conveys to him there (Exodus 40:34-Leviticus 1:1).
This new method of lawgiving, in which Moses receives the laws in a series of audiences with God in the Tabernacle and conveys them orally to the people, goes on for several weeks until the Israelites leave Sinai on the 20th of the next month (Leviticus 1:2–Numbers 10:11). After the decree of 40 years’ wandering in the wilderness is announced (Numbers 14:26–35), the process continues intermittently for the duration of the wandering. Only when the Exodus generation has died off and the second generation of Israelites arrives at the edge of Canaan does the Torah inform us that the lawgiving has ended (Numbers 36:13).
Yet this is not the end of the process at all. Two months before the end of the 40th year, Moses convenes the Israelites to deliver a series of orations (Deuteronomy 1:1–5), which consists primarily of a new set of laws (Deuteronomy 12–26). He informs them that these laws were communicated to him by God at Mount Sinai after the Ten Words were pronounced (Deuteronomy 5:25–6:3 etc.). The delivery of these laws is also called a covenant, said to be in addition to the one made at the mountain (Deuteronomy 28:69).
Only then does the lawgiving truly conclude: Moses presides over a third and final covenant with Israel, calling on the people to swear allegiance to the laws he has just given them. He then commits to writing the whole text of his oration, referred to as “this torah,” or this teaching. He charges the Levites with the safekeeping of this document and its public reading every seven years. Then, his life’s mission accomplished, Moses dies (Deuteronomy 29–31, 34).
For all its detail, this lengthy narrative abounds in incongruities and other difficulties. Here are some of the main problems:
• In the first half of Exodus 19:9, God announces to Moses that the Sinai theophany will soon take place. The second half of the verse says that Moses next conveyed the people’s response to God. Response to what? Their positive response to the covenant proposal has already been conveyed (Exodus 19:8); no response to anything else has been solicited.
• Several verses (Exodus 19:12–13, 21–25) indicate that the Israelites are eager to burst forward and gaze directly on the theophany at Sinai. Extensive measures are necessary to prevent them from storming the mountain, since this would have fatal consequences. Other verses, though, give the opposite impression. The people are said to be taken by dread, and Moses has to bring them to the foot of the mountain and make them listen (Exodus 19:16–17). After God has spoken but ten sentences, they are so stricken by terror that they refuse to listen any further (Exodus 20:15– 17). Were the Israelites attracted irresistibly or repulsed with fear?
• The narrative emphasizes that the Sinai experience of the divine was only auditory. The cloud covered the mountaintop, so nothing was seen but thunderbolts. The entire purpose of the event was for the people to overhear God speaking with Moses. Deuteronomy reaffirms this: Fire and cloud were indeed present, but nothing divine was seen; only sound was experienced (Deuteronomy 4:9–12). So what is the reader to make of the story’s insistence that YHWH himself descended in full sight of the entire people (Exodus 19:11, 21)?
• After the Decalogue has been heard, Moses alone, at the people’s request, remains on the mountain for God to tell him the actual laws. When these have been delivered (Exodus 23:33), Moses is still on the mountaintop with God. Why, then, does God instruct Moses to “come up to the Lord” (Exodus 24:1)? Isn’t Moses already on the mountaintop with him? Indeed he is, which is why he does precisely the opposite: “Moses came down and told the people” (Exodus 24:3).
• Moses ascends the mountain (Exodus 24:18) to obtain the tablets that God has written (Exodus 24:12). When he arrives, however, he finds he has been summoned for an entirely different reason: to receive the Tabernacle instructions, about which he had not previously been notified. Moses is informed that he will receive something as a parting gesture—not the tablets, however, but something called an ’edut, or as usually translated, a “testimony” (Exodus 25:16).3
• God informs Moses that the tabernacle is to serve as the place from which he will convey “all that I have to command you for the Israelites” (Exodus 25:22). But haven’t all the commands been given and the covenant made and ratified? And when Moses ascends to have the second set of tables inscribed, why is he given yet another covenant and another small collection of laws (Exodus 34:10–26), almost all of which duplicate the laws given earlier?
• When Moses returns with the new tablets (Exodus 34:29–33), the Israelites are dismayed by his fearsome radiance. Yet this is Moses’ eighth descent from the mountain, following his eighth meeting with God. Why was the radiance not noticed earlier?
• At the end of his career (Deuteronomy 19–28), Moses reminds the Israelites that after the Decalogue was pronounced, he stayed alone with God on the mountaintop to receive the remaining laws. But the way Moses describes the event does not correspond to what appears in Exodus: He fails to mention that he then descended and proclaimed the laws to the people, wrote them down and ratified them. The widespread impression that the Deuteronomic law is a “repetition” of the law (as denoted by the name Deuteronomy, or “second law”) is nowhere implied in the text, and in fact is not the case.
• What is the relationship between the version of the laws Moses writes down at Sinai and the “book of the Torah” that he writes at the end of his career (Deuteronomy 31:9)? Is the reader to assume that by the time Moses died there were two written law books?

Why is the story so inconsistent and discontinuous? Why were the laws given in stages? Why not convey them all to the people at one time, either on the mountaintop or in the Tabernacle? Why do the laws given at these separate stages duplicate and contradict each other in hundreds of particulars? These and similar questions have plagued readers for thousands of years, and traditional commentators have done their best to suggest harmonizing answers to them. The source-critical theory of the composition of the Torah, also known as the documentary hypothesis, is a modern attempt to answer these questions.4 It begins by acknowledging that (1) the laws given on the mountaintop and conveyed immediately to the people as part of a covenant (Exodus 20:19–23:33), (2) the laws given to Moses as part of another covenant when he returns to have the new tablets inscribed (Exodus 34:11–26), (3) the laws conveyed to Moses in the Tabernacle over a 40-year period (Leviticus 1:1- Numbers 36:13), and (4) the laws given on the mountaintop but conveyed to the people only 40 years later (Deuteronomy 6:1–28:69) are four separate law codes. Each of these law codes is presented as the law code. In each case the narrative gives no intimation that some laws have preceded and more are to follow. Moreover, the law codes themselves are, for the most part, internally consistent, but they often duplicate and contradict each other.
Source criticism concludes from the existence of these four separate law codes, and four separate accounts of the lawgiving, that the canonical Torah, here as elsewhere, is made up of four independent documents that have been combined. Each account originally included one, and only one, story of how the laws were given to Moses, how they were transmitted to the people and how (and if) they were written down. And each included one, and only one, law code, the four codes differing not only in length and scope but also in the substance of the provisions.
The combination of the four documents resulted in the story described above, with all its difficulties. But the difficulties are a blessing in disguise, for they enable us, with painstaking labor, to separate the four strands from each other. The sudden shifts, doublets, contradictions and internal tensions act as signposts, alerting the reader that he may have left one document behind and shifted to another. And when some of the pieces begin to fit together with others that appear further on, we realize that the documents have not disappeared or been edited away but rather remain almost intact. The process of reconstituting the original narratives is remarkably easy: Follow each story line according to its narrative flow, and when it is disrupted, search for where it seems to resume; learn to recognize its presuppositions, its stylistic features and vocabulary; pay attention to each story’s uniqueness, and avoid imposing on one story the events told in another; assume, unless the evidence is clearly otherwise, that the four stories have been preserved virtually in their entirety.
When this is done, the same picture emerges in the story of the lawgiving as has emerged elsewhere in the Torah. In the material preceding Deuteronomy, three narrative strands can be detected (known as J, E and P); in Deuteronomy we hear a fourth (D), similar to one of the three preceding but not identical. [a
Let us see if we can divide the text into these sources. Three distinct stories (J, E and P) seem to have been intertwined in Exodus. One of these (P) continues into Leviticus and Numbers. When read separately (see sidebar to this article), this is what emerges:
The E, or Elohistic, narrative of the giving of the law might be titled “The Making, Breaking and Remaking of the Covenant.” It begins with God proposing a covenant and privileged status for the Israelites in return for loyalty and obedience (Exodus 19:3–6). The people’s initial willingness to accept blindly is followed by a confirmation of their enthusiasm after the terms of the covenant have been heard (Exodus 24:3). The laws and statutes, orally presented to them, are written down by Moses in a document called the “Book of the Covenant” (Exodus 24:4, 7). All this seems to occur in one day. The next morning, Moses obtains the covenant monument, the two stone tablets prepared by God. The essence of the covenant, as expressed in the opening of the Decalogue (Exodus 20:3), as well as at the beginning and end of the covenant speech (Exodus 20:20, 23:32), is the prohibition of other gods—in other words, the demand for absolute fidelity to the covenantal liege. The making of the calf is thus the archetypal act of covenantal disloyalty (Exodus 32:4). Moses’ reaction, the destruction of the covenant document (Exodus 32:19), indicates its nullification, creating the need either to reestablish it or abandon it for good. The new tablets, upon which God rewrites the Ten Words, provide the resolution (Exodus 34:1, 4, 28). With their presentation to Moses, the story ends (Exodus 34:28).
Several stylistic elements allow us to connect this version with other identifiably Elohistic passages in the Torah. For example, E never refers to Mount Sinai as such, but speaks of “the mountain” or “the mountain of God.” E’s version is characterized, as E is elsewhere, by distinctly prophetic features. Believability is a major concern for prophets. Why should anyone who is not present when the deity speaks to the prophet believe that he did? E’s solution: When the prophetic office is first established, God forces the people to hear God speak to the prophet. Further, when the covenant is jeopardized by the people’s infidelity, Moses reacts in classical prophetic manner, interceding on the people’s behalf to save them from God’s wrath (Exodus 32:11–13).5 In E’s view, the encounter with God on the mountain consists only of sound, as the mountain was covered in a thick cloud, and the reaction of the people was one of unmitigated terror. In E, Moses climbs up the mountain six times:
(1) to hear the covenant proposal,
(2) to convey the people’s acceptance and receive instructions for the verbal revelation,
(3) after the Decalogue, to receive the laws,
(4) to receive the first tablets, at which time he remains 40 days and 40 nights,
(5) to intercede on the people’s behalf, and
(6) to have the new tablets inscribed, again remaining 40 days and 40 nights. Of course, he also comes down six times.
The J, or Yahwistic, narrative could well be called “The Appearances of YHWH on Mount Sinai.” Here the Sinai events are essentially visual, primarily concerned with the question of who may behold the countenance of YHWH (“the Lord”) and under what conditions. Here the mountain is called Sinai.
The story is fragmentary. Its opening lines seem not to have been preserved. We enter at the point when preparations are ordered for a theophany on Mount Sinai. These preparations are entirely restrictive: The people must remain pure, launder their clothing and wait in anticipation for three days (Exodus 19:10–11). Above all, when the Lord arrives they must remain at a safe distance; violators will be executed (Exodus 19:12–13). The danger that the deity may surge forth and destroy those who come too close is so great that the Lord refuses to make his appearance until he is absolutely certain that his warnings have been received and heeded (Exodus 19:20–25).
The  theophany as described in J takes place all at once on the third day. The Lord comes down in the sight of all the people, but the different groups of participants, arranged in tiers, experience it in varying ways. The people are charged to stand back and watch; they witness fire, smoke and the trembling of the mountain, but they are not to attempt to gaze at YHWH. They may not even approach until the signal is given that it is safe to do so (Exodus 19:18, 20–21). Aaron, his sons (the priests) and the elders, collectively referred to as “the leaders” (Exodus 24:11),6 accompany Moses up the mountain, but only a certain distance, after which they stop and bow low from afar. From this vantage point they are vouchsafed a view of the God of Israel and are graciously spared death, which would normally result from such a vision. Only Moses continues on alone and comes near the Lord (Exodus 24:1–2, 9–11).
Here the fragmentary nature of J is apparent. In what remains of J, the story tells next of Moses’ lonely climb to the cleft of the rock, where God gives him a brief rear glimpse of himself, proclaims his name and attributes (Exodus 33:12–23, 34:2–3, 5–9), and makes a covenant, charging Moses with the religious laws contained in Exodus 34:10– 26. Did this actually occur at this point in the story? Perhaps—but it seems more likely that the story of Moses’ lone ascent to Sinai is part of another episode in J, one in which some terrible sin has been committed and the pressing need for atonement and forgiveness is the central theme (Exodus 32:25–29, 33:1–6). If this is true, then the Yahwist’s narrative actually tells of the theophany at Sinai and the giving of the law as two separate events. The Sinai theophany was probably an experience in its own right, in which the people as a whole participated, though in varying degrees.
The covenant at Sinai, in which the laws were given, was made later, as a mark of reconciliation in the wake of some crisis, the complete story of which has been lost.
In what has been preserved of the first part of this story, Moses climbs the mountain four times:
(1) to report the people’s words (whatever they may have been) to the Lord,(2) to warn the people to prepare for the theophany,
(3) to receive (on the day of the theophany) God’s instruction to warn the people again, and
(4) to view the Lord, along with Aaron, the priests and the elders. He also descends four times, each time carrying out the task assigned.
Despite the laconic nature of J’s story, enough is clear to connect it with other Yahwistic passages in the Torah. The tetragrammaton, YHWH, features prominently and is proclaimed by the Lord himself when the covenant is made. Like other J narratives in the Torah, the J passages here are characterized by bold anthropomorphism, with YHWH’s descent on the mountain (Exodus 19:20), the great danger of his bursting forth (Exodus 19:22), the explicit prohibition of gazing on him (Exodus 19:21), and the open references to his face, posterior and feet (Exodus 24:10, 33:23). As seems to be the case with other J stories, this narrative appears not to have survived in its entirety.
The P, or Priestly, narrative I would call “The Laws Given by God in His Earthly Abode.”7 In P the Israelites arrive at Sinai in the third month after the Exodus (Exodus 19:1). The fire cloud encasing the majesty of God takes up residence atop the mountain. Moses enters the cloud, and God gives him, at great length, the instructions for building and furnishing the Tabernacle, preparing the vestments and performing the investiture of the priesthood, and consecrating the altar (Exodus 24:18, 25:8–31:17). Though some of these matters involve permanent legislation, Moses is told that the actual lawgiving will commence only after the Tabernacle instructions are carried out (Exodus 25:22). Then, as promised, God concludes the session by presenting Moses with a testimony, to be deposited in the Tabernacle ark, and dismisses him. As Moses descends with the testimony (Exodus 34:29), the residual radiation of the divine reflection shines from his face, causing the people to flee. He explains the source of his fearsome radiance to Aaron and the tribal chiefs, who coax the people to return and face Moses. Moses transmits to them the words of God—with the understanding that thereafter he will cover his radiant face (Exodus 34:29–35).8
Moses assembles the people and reports to them, ordering them to supply the needed materials and build the Tabernacle (Exodus 35:1–19). Ten months after arriving at Sinai, the Israelites complete the portable abode for the deity, and Moses dutifully deposits the testimony in the magnificent ark (Exodus 40:20). At the beginning of the second year, as the fire cloud descends from Sinai, God takes up residence in the Tabernacle, filling the tent and finally shrinking into the divine throne room (Exodus 40:34–35). This visual arrival of God is thereafter repeated each time camp is struck and reversed each time the journey is to continue (Exodus 40:36–38; Numbers 9:15–23). God calls to Moses from within the tent (Leviticus 1:1), and the lawgiving process begins. The first laws to be imparted pertain to the methods of offering sacrifices (Leviticus 1–7), as the consecration of the priesthood and dedication of the Tabernacle (Leviticus 8–9) cannot take place until these laws have been elucidated. Then the rest of the law code is unfolded a section at a time by the voice speaking to Moses from within the tent. Most of the laws are given before the departure from Sinai (Leviticus 11–27), and the rest are conveyed periodically for the remainder of the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness—the better part of 40 years (most of Numbers 1–36, intermittently).
In P’s account the giving of the law depends on the prior establishment of the Tabernacle cult. Strictly speaking, Mount Sinai is not the place of lawgiving. The laws are given in the Tabernacle: Sinai is merely where the majesty of God rested before the lawgiving commenced and where the Tabernacle was first erected; it is not the holy mountain of God. God does not dwell on the mountain; the fire cloud comes from heaven, settles temporarily on the mountain and finally descends to earth.
There is no prophetic Moses as in E. Here Moses merely receives divine commands and conveys them to the people. He is not attributed with initiative, intercession or impulsiveness. P nowhere refers to these events or any part of them as a covenant; in P the covenant is the promise to the patriarchs (Genesis 17:4–8), not the giving of the law.9 No Decalogue or other such sample of divine law is proclaimed. The divine fire cloud and divine fire are part of a prolonged public theophany. The subsequent meetings between God and Moses also have their theophanic aspect, in the residual radiance of the divine presence beheld by the people each time Moses reports to them. Thus the private stage of the lawgiving ultimately involves the repeated, vicarious participation of the people.
P envisions not only intermittent meetings with God for receiving the laws but also regular assemblies of the entire Israelite people, at which Moses conveys laws to them. Furthermore, in P Moses is said to have received the laws and to have conveyed them orally to the people, but nowhere is he charged with writing them down, and nowhere is it related that he did so. P knows of no written Torah! In this account, Moses ascends Mount Sinai only once, to receive the Tabernacle instructions, and descends once, to carry them out. When the Tabernacle is ready, all further revelation takes place there.
The unique Priestly view of the connection between the giving of the law and the presence of God in the Tabernacle reflects the Priestly conception of the relationship between Israel and its God. Observance of the law is, after all, what will ensure the enduring presence of God among the Israelites, upon which their national existence depends.
What of D, the Deuteronomic version? There the account of these events (as everything else in Israel’s history) is contained in Moses’ farewell speech to the Israelites.
Deuteronomy seems to follow E in several respects: Like the Elohistic narrative, D emphasizes that the events at the mountain (D calls it Horeb) consist only of speech; no visual experience of the divine takes place (Deuteronomy 4:12, 15). Though E records thunderbolts and cloud cover (Exodus 19:16), and D recalls mostly fire (Deuteronomy 4:11, 5:4–5), both describe natural forces concealing the mountain, filling the people’s hearts with terror. The basic chain of events in D, then, is the same as in E, including the making of the golden calf (Deuteronomy 9:16), Moses’ prayer of intercession (Deuteronomy 9:26–29) and the receipt, smashing and replacement of the tablets (Deuteronomy 9:11, 17, 10:3–4). D also contains the prophetic motif, relating that after the Decalogue is proclaimed directly by God, the people beg Moses to receive the laws on their behalf so that they are not consumed by the terrible fire, and the Lord and Moses agree (Deuteronomy 5:19–28). Only two major points are changed. First, in D the laws communicated to Moses after the theophany are not given to the people until 40 years later, on the eve of entry to the land of Canaan. The covenant at Horeb included the Decalogue only; the only covenant made over a larger corpus of laws is made in the steppes of Moab, just before Moses dies (Deuteronomy 28:68). Second (and a result of the first), according to D, Moses writes down the Torah not at Horeb but rather just before he dies, depositing it with the Levites for posterity (Deuteronomy 31:24–26). It should be evident that these four accounts were not composed to complement or supplement each other. In fact, each account ignores the existence of the others. Even D, which is clearly parallel to E, does not pick up where E leaves off. Rather, it is a similar but competing account, contradicting E not only in its view of how Israel received the laws but also, and primarily, in the laws themselves, which differ in scope, in underlying viewpoint and in substance from the laws given in E. The same is true of the other accounts.
Source criticism theorizes that the separate documents were combined by redactors, scribes whose task was to create a single, continuous Torah from the ones already in existence.b] To imagine how the redactors worked, we should start by recognizing that they assumed all their sources to be “true.” As far as they were concerned, all the events took place, and all the laws were given by God. They treated the several existing documents as sacred literature, and they strove to combine them maximally, not selectively. Merging the several stories of the giving of the law into one was a major component of this endeavor. We do not know precisely how this took place, but we can at least describe it to some degree. The Priestly version seems to have served as the framework.10 The lengthy Tabernacle narrative of P is by far the longest story, and P contains the most extensive corpus of laws. It also provides precise dates (Exodus 19:1, 40:17; Numbers 1:1, 9:1, 10:11). Assuming that the other stories must somehow fit into and around P, the redactors proceeded to draw a series of logical conclusions. First, they reasoned, since both E and J tell of an awesome theophany at a mountain, they must be referring to the same event. Thus, they merged the E and J stories into one, combining the visual (J) with the auditory (E)—the descent of YHWH on the mountain (J) with the voice heard from the heavens (E).
Second, this event must have taken place as soon as the Israelites arrived at Sinai. This is only logical, since the Israelites got to work building the Tabernacle immediately after Moses informed them that God had ordered them to do so and since the Israelites left Sinai very soon after the Tabernacle was built. Thus, J’s story of the theophany, E’s story of the covenant and E’s law code, all merged into one, were inserted right at the beginning of the P framework, before P’s account of Moses ascending the mountain to receive the Tabernacle instructions. Third, since both P and E speak of Moses receiving some object from God on the mountain, it stood to reason that the two refer to the same object. Thus P’s testimony and E’s tablets must be one and the same.11 Fourth, since the testimony received according to P was placed in the ark and kept there for good, while the tablets in E were destroyed and replaced, the testimony of P must have been given twice. Thus, the Tabernacle story was made to straddle the account of the golden calf—the instructions and the first testimony being given before the calf was made, and the second testimony, followed by the prompt execution of the task, after forgiveness was granted. The result of this, of course, was that in the combined account, Moses first receives the Tabernacle instructions when he climbs the mountain to get the first set of tablets, but he only conveys them to the people when he returns with the second set.
It must have seemed obvious that the J account of Moses’ lone ascent to Sinai to receive a covenant of reconciliation corresponded to E’s account of his ascent to receive the second set of tablets. Thus the story of J’s covenant, as well as J’s brief law code, became part of the calf cycle; henceforth, J’s covenant took on the appearance of a “covenant renewal”—though it is never referred to that way.
Once the Tabernacle was built, the enormous body of P’s legislation, communicated to Moses in the Tabernacle over 40 years’ time, fit in perfectly. Of course, it now appeared to be supplementary to the legislation given at Sinai.
Finally, since D explicitly states that the Deuteronomic Torah was delivered by Moses at the end of his lifetime, the only possible place to position it was following the conclusion of the Priestly law code. Thus the impression was created that it amounted to a repetition of the law, though this too is never stated in the text. It further emerges that Moses wrote down a second law book in addition to the one he had written at Sinai.
We may never know when this extremely sophisticated literary process took place. Scholars differ on the origin and interrelationship of the separate documents.12 Many scholars suggest that they were combined into one around the time of the return from the Babylonian Exile (fifth century B.C.E.), when the imperial Persian authorities granted legal and religious autonomy to the Jews in Judea, allowing them—actually ordering them (Ezra 7:1–26)—to govern themselves according to their written teachings, perhaps requiring them to produce a single, authoritative version of their sacred law. Whatever the precise circumstances may be, the composition of the Torah represents the crowning achievement in the process of collating, canonizing and codifying the aggregate of tradition, religious and legal practice, and historical memory that the First Temple period produced. What traditional interpretation saw as a single Mosaic text, critical analysis views as a mosaic of texts. It is no less significant for this. In fact, some would argue, a collection consisting of four impressionistic paintings and one collage is actually a better record of an encounter with the ineffable than a single, one-dimensional photograph 13.
Untangling Three Accounts of the Giving of the Law:

a] J, or the Yahwistic source (in German, Jahwistic), is named for its assumption that the divine name, YHWH (often vocalized Yahweh), was known from the beginning of time (Genesis 4:26). E, or the Elohistic source, is so named because it insists that God was known as Elohim until the tetragrammaton was revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:15).
P, the Priestly source, is distinguished for its interest in the priesthood and in ritual law. D, the Deuteronomic source, makes up most of the Book of Deuteronomy. See Victor Hurowitz, “P—Understanding the Priestly Source,” BR 12:03; Moshe Weinfeld, “Deuteronomy’s Theological Revolution,” BR 12:01.
b] Although divided into the Five Books of Moses, the Torah is truly a continuous narrative, recounting the development of Israel and its introduction to God’s laws. The unity of the text is expressed in its Greek name, the Pentateuch, which originally meant not five books but rather a single book divided into five parts.
Dr. Baruch J. Schwartz, is currently teaching in the Department of Biblical Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A resident of Efrat, he has written and lectured extensively on the Priestly tradition and literature in the Torah and on the biblical accounts of the revelation at Sinai. He has also written on general topics concerning biblical religion and law, the Torah, classical prophetic literature and medieval biblical exegesis.
Note: This essay originally appeared under the same title in Bible Review (13.05, pp. 20-30, 46) in October 1997. It is reprinted here with permission of the author and permission of the Biblical Archaeology Society. Schwartz has long been engaged in the source-critical study of the Pentateuchal accounts of the giving of the law. The brief and popular essay reprinted here, one of his first to appear on the topic, reflects his thinking at the time in broad, general terms, avoiding too much detail. Schwartz’s subsequent work and scholarly publications show that on a few points in the analysis his opinion has evolved over the years.
Endnotes:1. On the Decalogue, see the articles collected in Ben-Zion Segal, ed., The Ten Commandments in History and  Tradition (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1987).
2. See Moshe Greenberg, “nsh in Exodus 20:30 and the Purpose of the Sinaitic Theophany,”Journal of Biblical Literature 79 (1960), pp. 273–276.
3. See Choong-Leow Seow, “The Designation of the Ark in Priestly Theology,” Hebrew Annual Review 8 (1984), pp. 185–198, and Menahem Haran, Temples and Temple-Service in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978; reprint, Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1985), pp. 142, 255, 272–273.
4. Source criticism of the Torah in general, and the documentary hypothesis in particular, has been central to biblical studies for over a hundred years. The classical English introductions are Joseph E. Carpenter and George Harford, The Composition of the Hexateuch (London: Longmans, Green, 1902); Samuel R. Driver, Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament, 9th ed. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark 1913), pp. 1–159; A.T. Chapman, An Introduction to the Pentateuch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911). One of the first works to present a synopsis of the separate sources in English is William Edward Addis, The Documents of the Hexateuch (London: Nutt; New York: Putnam, 1893–1898). For recent introductions see Richard E. Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1987), and Antony F. Campbell and Mark A. O’Brien, Sources of the Pentateuch(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), esp. chap. 1, pp. 1–20; see also Joseph Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch, Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1992). One recent critic of the source theory is Roger N. Whybray, The Making of the Pentateuch (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987).
5. See Yohanan Muffs, “His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition: A Study in Prophetic Intercession,”Conservative Judaism 33:3 (1978–1980), pp. 25–37.
6. The Hebrew word is ’asilim, usually translated “nobles.” It is used in this sense only here, so the exact meaning is uncertain; some would connect it with the root ’sl, “to set apart,” the “elect” of Israel, those chosen to participate in this theophany.
7. The following section is based on Baruch J. Schwartz, “The Priestly Account of the Theophany and Lawgiving at Sinai,” in Texts, Temples and Traditions—A Tribute to Menahem Haran, ed. Michael V. Fox et al. (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1996), pp. 103–134.
8. See Menahem Haran, “The Shining of Moses’ Face—A Case Study in Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Iconography,” in In the Shelter of Elyon: Essays on Ancient Palestinian Life and Literature in Honor of G.W. Ahlström, 4/30/13 - W. Boyd Barrick and John R. Spencer (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1984), pp. 159–173.
9. See Schwartz, “Priestly Account,” pp. 130–132.
10. Scholars have suggested numerous theories. My approach is close to that of Martin Noth as elucidated in “The ‘Priestly Writing’ and the Redaction of the Pentateuch,” which appeared in 1943. The English translation of this work appeared only in 1987 (in Martin Noth, The Chronicler’s History [Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987], pp. 107–147), so English-speaking scholars seem not to have consulted it, relying instead on Noth’s A History of Pentateuchal Traditions (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1972), pp. 8–19, 234–247.
11. Throughout P, the object presented to Moses is called the testimony, with no mention of the tablets (Exodus 16:34, 25:16, 21, 22, 26:33–34, 27:21, 30:6, 36, 40:20; Leviticus 16:13, 24:3; Numbers 17:19, 25), while E and D refer everywhere to tablets, never mentioning the testimony. Only in three places does the traditional text refer to the “two tablets of the testimony” (Exodus 31:18a, 32:15, 34:29), and all three occur at precisely the points where P has been merged with E. In my opinion, P originally contained a continuous passage that began as follows: “When he finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, he gave Moses the testimony.” In E’s narrative, immediately following Exodus 24:18b, E told of a similar event: “He then gave Moses two tablets, stone tablets which had been inscribed by the finger of God.” The redactor combined the two into one verse, Exodus 31:18. P originally continued immediately with “As Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the testimony in his hand”; the words “two tablets of the” have been added in this verse (Exodus 34:29) by the redactor. In E, however, after Moses learns of the calf (Exodus 32:7–14), the story originally continued: “Thereupon Moses turned and went down the mountain bearing the two tablets, tablets inscribed on both their surfaces.” Here (Exodus 32:15) the words “of the testimony” have been added by the redactor. Thus, in the three passages cited, the phrase “the two tablets of testimony” was created by the redactor, who identified P’s testimony with E’s tablets.
12. The classical work still available is Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel (in German) (Berlin: Reimer, 1878), English trans. by John Sutherland Black and Allan Menzies (Edinburgh: A & C Black, 1885; reprint, New York: Meridian, 1957). All subsequent scholarship uses Wellhausen as the starting point, accepting or rejecting various aspects of his construction; see Victor Hurowitz, “P—Understanding the Priestly Source,” BR12:03; Moshe Weinfeld, “Deuteronomy’s Theological Revolution,” BR 12:01; and the works cited in note 4 and their bibliographies.
13. For this insight I am indebted to Professor Yohanan Muffs.