Sotheby’s hopes for a record sale of the Hebrew Bible

Jerusalem — One of the oldest surviving biblical manuscripts, the nearly complete 1,100-year-old Hebrew Bible could soon be yours for a cool $30 million.

The Codex Sassoon, a leather-bound handwritten parchment volume containing almost the entire Hebrew Bible, is due to be auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York in May. Its pending sale speaks to a still bull market for art, antiquities and ancient manuscripts, even in the face of a global bear economy.

Sotheby’s is fueling interest in hopes of tempting institutions and collectors. This put the price tag at a mind-boggling $30-50 million.

Tel Aviv’s ANU Museum of the Jewish People opened a week-long exhibition of the manuscript on Wednesday, as part of the artifact’s fast-paced world tour of the UK, Israel and US ahead of an expected sale on Wednesday.

“There are three ancient Hebrew Bibles from that period,” said Yosef Ofer, a professor of biblical studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University: the 10th-century Sassoon and Aleppo Codex and the early 11th-century Leningrad Codex.

Only the Dead Sea Scrolls and a few fragmentary early medieval texts are older, and “the complete Hebrew Bible is relatively rare,” he said.

Centuries before the creation of the Sassoon Code, Jewish scholars known as Masoretes began to codify oral traditions on how to correctly write, pronounce, punctuate, and sing the words of Judaism’s most sacred book. Unlike the Torah scrolls, where the Hebrew letters are devoid of vowels and punctuation marks, these manuscripts contained extensive annotations instructing readers on how to pronounce the words correctly.

It is not known exactly where and when Codex Sassoon was created. Sharon Lieberman Mintz, senior Jewish scholar at Sotheby’s, said radiocarbon dating of the parchment gave an estimated date of 880 to 960. The writing style of the codex suggests its originator was an unidentified early 10th-century scribe in Egypt or the Levant.

“This is similar to the emergence of the biblical text as we know it today,” Mintz said. “This is so important not only for Judaism, but for world culture.”

While it is certainly ancient and rare, scholars say that the Sassoon Codex does not match the lineage and quality of its contemporary, the Aleppo Codex.

“Any Masoretic scholar in their right mind would prefer the Aleppo Code to the Sassoon Code without regret or hesitation,” said Kim Phillips, a Bible expert at the Cambridge University Library. He said the quality of the copyist was “surprisingly sleazy” compared to his counterpart.

The Aleppo Codex, dated to about 930, was considered the gold standard of Masoretic Bibles for about 1000 years. In the margin of the Codex Sassoon there is a note by a later scholar who says that he compared its text with the Aleppo Codex, referring to the manuscript under the Arabic title a-Taj, “Crown”.

“The Aleppo Code is more accurate than the Sassoon Code, there is no doubt about that,” Ofer said. “But since it is missing (a third of its pages), in the parts that are missing, this manuscript is of great importance.” The 792 pages of the Codex Sassoon make up about 92% of the Hebrew Bible.

These venerable manuscripts were guarded and preserved by the Syrian Jewish communities for centuries until the 20th century. How the Codex Sassoon has survived the centuries is epic in itself.

A note on the manuscript testifies to its owners in past centuries: a man named Khalaf ben Avraham passed it on to Isaac ben Ezekiel al-Attar, who passed it on to his sons Ezekiel and Maimon.

It later migrated east to the city of Makisin in present-day northeastern Syria, where it was dedicated to a synagogue in the 13th century. Sometime in the following decades, the synagogue was destroyed and the codex was given to Salamah ibn Abi al-Fahr until the synagogue was rebuilt.

It was never rebuilt, but the book survived.

Its whereabouts for the next 500 years remain unknown until it surfaced in Frankfurt, Germany in 1929 and was bought by the legendary Hebrew manuscript collector whose name it still bears today.

David Solomon Sassoon was born in Bombay, the son of an Iraqi Jewish business magnate who filled his London home with a huge collection of Hebrew manuscripts.

“His capabilities were amazing both in terms of quantity and in terms of what he was able to find,” said Raquel Ukeles, head of collections at the National Library of Israel.

Sassoon traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa buying up old books, and by the time of his death in 1942, he had accumulated over 1,200 manuscripts.

Sassoon’s estate was divided after his death, and the codex was sold by Sotheby’s in Zurich in 1978 to the British Railway Pension Fund, which had begun investing in the art years earlier, for around $320,000.

The pension fund flipped Codex Sassoon 11 years later at 10 times the price of a hammer. Jacqui Safra, a banker and art collector, bought it in 1989 for $3.19 million and is now putting it up for auction.

If the price target is realized, Codex Sassoon could not only eclipse the most expensive Jewish document ever sold, the 2021 sale of Luzzatto Machzor, a 14th-century prayer book, for $8.3 million. It also could break the record for the most expensive historical document ever sold at public auction. The honor is currently given to a copy of the 1787 US Constitution, sold in 2021 for $43 million.

Yoel Finkelman, a former Jewish Studies Curator at the National Library of Israel, said prices for Jewish Studies manuscripts have skyrocketed in recent years, but Sotheby’s range is “another league.”

Few institutions and only a handful of ultra-wealthy collectors could afford such a price. However, there are precedents when museums join forces to purchase valuable manuscripts, or philanthropists donate their purchases to libraries and other organizations.

Ukeles said the National Library was able to acquire seven of Sassoon’s manuscripts when his collection was auctioned off in the 1970s, “but this one is gone. And so it is an opportunity for us to bring this great treasure home.”

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