The Footsteps of a Thousand Years

On May 17th, 2023 Sotheby’s New York auctioned The Codex Sassoon. Acknowledged to be the oldest complete copy of the Hebrew Bible, it was written on sheepskin parchment more than a thousand years ago. Although the Dead Sea Scrolls are older, they are incomplete. The Codex Sassoon is a world treasure, on which all our culture rests. Last week it sold for 38.1 million dollars.

For a very brief period in its very long history (1940 – 1971), The Codex Sassoon belonged to the family who lived across the street from our house in Letchworth. It was the centrepiece of the David Sassoon Library.

David Solomon Sassoon was a prolific collector of Judaica and accumulated the world’s most significant private library of rare manuscripts. He travelled extensively in Yemen, Syria, China and the Himalayas in search of Hebrew bibles, scrolls and lithographs. The Codex Sassoon, as it is now known, was written by a single scribe in the Levant in 900 BCE. It found its way to a Syrian synagogue in the 13th century and, when the building was destroyed in the late 14th century, it was given to a member of the community to safeguard until such time as the synagogue was restored. It was never re-built and the manuscript disappeared for more than 500 years. It re-emerged in 1929 when David Sassoon bought it for £350 (£35,000 in today’s money).

He once described his holy books as more precious and dear to me than much fine gold. In 1940, to escape the Blitz, he moved his family and his library from Mayfair to Letchworth Garden City, where he purchased 15 Sollershott East. When David died, just two years later, his son, Solomon David Sassoon inherited his library.

Solomon was a rabbi and his interest lay not in acquiring more books but in studying the texts he already owned in order to develop his research and writing. He was generous in making his library available to other scholars and he published some of its manuscripts. Rabbi Solomon also ran an after-school Talmud Torah programme for local children. In Jewish Letchworth: A Microcosm of the Jewish Communal Experience, Yanky Fachler, who grew up at 37 Sollershott East, describes a unique community where orthodox and non-orthodox Jews coexisted harmoniously.

Shabbat was held every week at the Sassoon residence. Susan, who grew up at No. 14, had a Saturday job at the Sassoons, doing the necessary housework and preparation. She recalls the abundance of dishes prepared for the Shabbat meal and how generous the family was in sharing their food with her.

There was a regular stream of visitors to the house. Many came to seek advice from Rabbi Solomon; some came to view his library, including the Codex, which was housed in a fire and theft-proof strong room in an out-building. The family’s hospitality was legendary. Even the postman would be invited, each day, to sit down for a cup of tea. Sassoon was also a life-long philanthropist and people travelled great distances in search of his support for their charitable causes. According to Fachler, the Rabbi eventually bought a caravan which he parked in the garden and to which he retired when he wished to avoid visitors. The family was instructed to tell those who asked that he was in Scotland.

The pilgrimages continued long after the Sassoons left Letchworth in 1971. Until the pandemic of 2020, visitors would regularly arrive in taxis from the train station or in private minibuses from London. Salvatore and Alice, who bought the property in the 1990s, would discover strangers walking around the garden or peering through the window of their tool shed, the former strong-room that had housed Codex Sassoon. Alice shares not only a name with Rabbi Solomon’s wife, but, like Alice Beyla-Sassoon, she too is Dutch. For many years, Salvatore and Alice would invite the unannounced visitors into their home and offer them tea. Later however, they followed the Rabbi’s lead and laid low until the pilgrims had left the premises.

In 1964, Rabbi Sassoon of Letchworth was tipped to become the first-ever joint Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel (by virtue of his mother, who was Ashkenazi and his father who was Sephardi). He said he wasn’t interested and admitted to Yanky Fachler that he didn’t wish to be swallowed up in politics and bureaucracy.

Rabbi Solomon Sassoon is remembered by those who knew him as an enlightened thinker and a man of great generosity and integrity. He accepted everyone, regardless of their level of observance, and emphasized communal unity and family.

In 1971 Solomon and Alice moved to Jerusalem and the house was sold to Michael Markham, an artist and lecturer at Hitchin College. It was later purchased by a Soviet (now Belarus) company who converted the building into flats to accommodate senior management. One day the managers vanished and never returned. Today, the brick, Dutch-gabled house at 15 Sollershott East has been lovingly renovated and restored by Salvatore and Alice.

The Sassoon family estate was gradually broken up and sold to cover the astronomical cost of UK death duties. Codex Sassoon was auctioned by Sotheby’s Zurich in 1978 and bought by the British Rail Pension Fund. It was then briefly exhibited at the British Museum in 1982 before it came up for auction in 1989, again through Sotheby’s. Bought by a dealer for just over two million pounds, it was sold on to a Syrian-Lebanese-Swiss investor, Jacqui Safra from Geneva.

When Professor Yosef Ofer from Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv was writing a critical work about The Codex Sassoon, Safra gave him permission to spend four days in a room with the sacred manuscript. While he worked, guards stood watch outside the door.

It was Safra who returned The Codex Sassoon to the open market earlier this year.

I was pleased to learn last Wednesday that Codex Sassoon had been purchased, not by another wealthy private investor, but by Alfred H. Moses, on behalf of the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv where it is to be preserved for generations to come as the centrepiece and gem of the entire and extensive display and presence of the Jewish story.