Leningrad Codex

The Leningrad Codex is the oldest complete Hebrew bible still in existence today. While there are older codex's of Bibles still in existence (i.e. the Aleppo Codex), they are not the complete text of the Hebrew bible, containing all the books of the Bible. The Leningrad Codex is considered one of the best examples of the Masoretic text represented by the Ben-Asher family.
(Illustrated below are some pictures of the cover and the text of the Leningrad Codex)
When was the codex written?
The manuscript was written sometime around the year 1008 C.E.. It is generally accepted to have been written in Cairo.
Is the original manuscript still in existence?
Today the codex it is in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the Russian National Library, where it has been since the mid-1800's. When the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center and West Semitic Research photographed the Bible in 1990, the city was still called Leningrad, thus the name of the codex.
What is the Masoretic Text?
This manuscript belongs to a body of Hebrew biblical texts called the Masoretic texts. The Hebrew alphabet itself, which developed from the Phoenician alphabet, has no true vowels, so the oldest Hebrew biblical texts have only consonants.
Sometime during the Middle Ages a group of scholars called Masoretes became interested in preserving the pronunciation of the text. This lead to the development of a system for marking the vowels. They were concerned that the pronunciation of the words might be lost, since Hebrew was no longer a spoken language. Besides vowels, they also wanted a way of marking punctuation, accents, and the musical notes used when the biblical text was chanted in the synagogue.
The most popular system of signs was developed by the Ben Asher family, and it is their system that is preserved in the Leningrad Codex. If you look carefully at a page you can see that the consonants, or letters, have little marks above and below them. Some of the marks are called "vowel points," and some are called "accents." The accents both act as punctuation and as musical notation.
The Masoretes were also interested in copying the biblical text very carefully so that it would be preserved from generation to generation. The way they tried to ensure this was the use of notes in the margins. In the margins beside the biblical verses they put little letters as symbols.
These symbols told the scribe copying the text information about unusual forms or words that should not be changed. For instance, they might put a circle over a word that occurred nowhere else in the Bible. In the margin they would then put the letter "l" which told the scribe, "yes, this is a unique word, but it is not an error, so just copy it the way it is." The notes at the top or bottom of a page would usually give more information about the symbols in the side margins.
What books of the Bible does the Leningrad Codex contain?
The Codex includes all of the books in the Jewish Bible, or the Protestant Old Testament. The order of books in the Leningrad Bible is not quite the same as you will usually find in a modern Bible. First of all, the books is in the Jewish order, divided into three main parts: Instruction (Torah), Prophets (Nevi'im) and Writings (Ketuvim). In modern Jewish Bibles the order of the books is:
Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
The Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel (1&2), Kings (1&2) Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi).
The Writings: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, The Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles (1&2).
The Leningrad Codex contains all these books, plus extensive scholarly notes, and 16 illuminated decorative) pages. However, the order is a little bit different than what you would find in a modern Jewish Bible.
Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
The Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.
The Writings: Chronicles, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, The Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah.
Notice that the books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah are all one book in this manuscript, which, of course, they were originally. Notice, too, that the Twelve minor prophets make up one book. This is because at one time they were all copied together on one long scroll.
Why is the Leningrad Codex important?
The Leningrad Codex is used today as the basis for most modern printed editions of the Hebrew Bible, together with a few other incomplete Hebrew Bibles. This is because it is the oldest complete manuscript copied with the Masoretic system developed by the Ben Asher family.


Aaron ben Moses ben Asher (10th century) developed the Tiberian system for writing down vowel sounds in Hebrew. For over a thousand years he has been regarded by Jews of all streams around the world as having produced the most accurate version of the masoretic text. Since his day, both handwritten manuscripts of the Tanakh and printed versions strove to emulate his achievement and continue to do so.

He was descended from a long line of Masoretes, starting with someone called Asher, but nothing is known about them other than their names. His father, Moses ben Asher, is credited with writing the Cairo Codex of the Prophets (895CE); if authentic, it is among the oldest manuscripts containing a large proportion of the Hebrew Bible. Aaron ben Asher himself added vowelization and cantillation notes, and mesorah to the Aleppo Codex, correcting its letter-text according to the masorah.

Maimonides, by accepting the views of Ben-Asher (though only in regard to open and closed sections), helped establish and spread his authority. Referring to a Bible manuscript then in Egypt, he wrote: "All relied on it, since it was corrected by Ben-Asher and was worked on and analyzed by him for many years, and was proofread many times in accordance with the masorah, and I based myself on this manuscript in the Sefer Torah that I wrote". More recently, Umberto Cassuto used this manuscript as the basis of his edition of the Hebrew Bible.

Aaron ben Moses ben Asher was the first to take Hebrew grammar seriously. He was the first systematic Hebrew grammarian. His Sefer Dikdukei ha-Te'amim (Grammar of the Vocalizations) was an original collection of grammatical rules and masoretic information. Grammatical principles were not at that time considered worthy of independent study. The value of this work is that the grammatical rules presented by Ben-Asher reveal the linguistic background of vocalization for the first time. He had a tremendous influence on the world of Biblical grammar and scholarship.

Was Ben Asher a Karaite?

Most scholars conclude that Aaron ben Asher was indeed a Karaite Jew, though there is evidence against this view (see suggestions for further reading). One of the strongest pieces of evidence is that it would be astonishing if Maimonides had followed the authority of a Karaite, even in the matter of open and closed sections. Be that as it may, it is a fact that all Jews, including those who followed the rabbinic tradition, revered his expertise and accepted his masoretic system. If Aaron ben Asher was indeed a Karaite, it may be argued that he was the most influential Karaite in world history.

In his critiques of Karaites, Saadia Gaon mentioned a "Ben-Asher." Until recently, it never occurred to scholars to associate the "Ben-Asher" of Saadia's diatribe with the famous Aaron ben Asher of Tiberias. Recent research indicates, however, that it is probable that the subject of Saadia's attack was Aaron ben Moshe ben Asher.

Documents found in the Cairo Geniza also indicate that ben Asher was a Karaite.

See also: Tanakh, Karaite Judaism

Further reading

  • Aaron Dotan, "Was Aharon Ben Asher Indeed a Karaite?" (Hebrew), in Sid Z. Leiman, The Canon and Masorah of the Hebrew Bible: An Introductory Reader (New York: Ktav, 1974).
  • Aaron Dotan, "Ben Asher's Creed" (Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1977).

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