This is a page from a manuscript of a tenth-century Damascus Codex. This page shows three columns of text, in contrast to the two columns found in most manuscripts. The text is handwritten in square Sephardic font with punctuation (nikkud) and cantillation notes (ta’ami hamikra). The text also includes the Masorah, a set of notations added to the Bible to ensure its accurate textual transmission. This page is from Genesis 12:1-11 and contains God’s command to Abraham, “Lech Lecha.”
According to tradition, the Torah was originally given orally and only written down hundreds of years later. The oldest biblical manuscripts that have been found to date are the Dead Sea Scrolls from the second century CE. Biblical books were later written in manuscript books called a Keter or codex. The oldest codex that exists today (albeit with some of it missing) is the tenth-century Aleppo Codex, and it is on display at the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book.
Would You Like to Know More?
Damascus Codices - This is the oldest Keter (or codex) of the dozen Damascus Keters from the NLI collections. The Keters are a small group of very ancient manuscripts of the chumash (the first five books of the Bible). They are called the Damascus Keters because they were kept in the Damascus Jewish community; it is unclear, however, where they were written. David S. Sassoon, a notable of the Damascus Jewish community, bought this Codex in 1914, and the NLI purchased it from him in 1975. It is not a complete chumash, as it is missing the first few chapters of Genesis and part of a chapter of Exodus. The last page of Deuteronomy contains a note (not written by the scribe) marking the death of a woman, possibly the wife of the owner of the Codex.
The Rescue of the Damascus Codices - Some of the Keters held in the National Library are connected to the amazing story of Judy Feld Carr, a Canadian Jewish woman who dedicated her life to saving Jews from Syria. She donated money from her private foundation in order to create, together with Israeli secret services, a network that freed Jews from Syrian prisons and smuggled them across the border. In addition to the thousands of Jews she is directly responsible for saving, she was able to smuggle many priceless Jewish artefacts from Syria, including one of the famous Damascus Keters (not the codex in this picture) that had been written in Italy in the twelfth century and kept by the Damascus Jewish community for 500 years. On hearing about this famous Keter, Feld Carr organised for it to be smuggled out in the coat of a Catholic friend who was visiting Damascus. The Keter is now kept for the Jewish people in the National Library of Israel.