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The Damascus Keters

The term "Keter" (crown, from the Arabic, taj) originally referred to one particular manuscript of the Hebrew Bible. This manuscript, written in the land of Israel in the 10th century, was prepared by the scribe Aharon ben Asher, who added vowel points. Maimonides himself declared it the most accurate text of the Masoretic tradition. It found its way to the Jewish community of Aleppo and is referred to simply as the Aleppo Codex. Over the years, the term Keter came to refer to any full text of the Hebrew Bible, or significant portion of it, bound as a codex (not a scroll) and including vowel points, cantillation marks, and Masoretic notes. Medieval handwritten manuscripts were considered extremely precise, the most authoritative documents from which to copy other texts.

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Damascus KeterClick to enlarge


Twelve of these Keters were held by the Damascus Jewish community in various synagogues throughout the city. The most ancient – indeed, one of the most ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible in the world – was apparently written in the Land of Israel in the tenth century, and it includes the five books of the Pentateuch. Eight other ones were written in Spain in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, and two others were likely written in France or Germany. Most likely, they came to Damascus over the course of centuries as Jews relocated after various persecutions and expulsions, such as the expulsion from Spain in 1492. The Jews of Damascus treated these manuscripts with tremendous respect. Two were stolen in the middle of the twentieth century, one of which was later purchased and gifted to the National Library of Israel, while the other was acquired by a private collector.
 
Nine other Keters arrived in Israel in the early 1990s after a secret operation that involved public institutions and private individuals in Israel, Damascus, and around the world. These were deposited in the National Library of Israel, where they are preserved to this day. One of these had been stored in the synagogue in the suburb of Jobar, a synagogue which had stood for nearly 1000 years in Damascus and which was recently destroyed by Syrian government forces during the current civil War.
 
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Damascus Keter


The National Library of Israel sees these nine Keters, like all items in the collection, as heritage objects that belong to the entire Jewish people. Hence, the Library would like to give formal legal validity to the attachment between these items and the Jewish people, and has asked the court to declare the Damascus Keters in the National Library as a public trust with the Library as trustee to care for them over the generations.