Morocco, marvellous and mysterious

JRoots historian expert Raphy Garson tells us about Morocco in all of its Sefardi glory
By Raphy Garson

Our Sefardic world is rich and varied, each with its own unique set of customs, prayers, foods and traditions. The word Sefardim implies the Jews of Sefard, meaning Spain. But, we know that Jews lived in many other middle Eastern countries including Iran, Iraq & Syria.

Today, few Jews live in these countries which wonce housed thriving Jewish communites. We live in a aworld where Muslims and Jews generally don’t live side by side, with the exception of Israel. Our preconceived notions suggest that living in harmony is not feasible and the dwindling population of Jews in these countries is indicative of this. In the 1940s 100,000 Jews lived in Iraq. Today a mere 10 remain. One country however stands out in the Islamic world, as a beacon of light, which proves that Jews can live together in peace with Muslims – Morocco.

Some historians have indicated that a Jewish presence existed in Morocco beginning over 2,500 years ago. Invariably as is the norm with the Jewish exile, wherever Jews settle there are always times of challenges and difficulties. However on the whole, life for the Jews of Morocco was one of peace and harmony.

As the winds of anti-Semitism spread throughout Spain many of the persecuted fled for other lands and a great number made their way to Morocco. In the seventh century, Morocco had seen an influx of maltreated Jews from Spain. In the fifteenth century, the numbers swelled due to the immigrants from both Spain and Portugal. These "exiles" or m'egurashim, settled primarily on the Northern coast in the areas of Tangiers & Tetouan.

The Jews who were toshavim, or "residents", would not allow any mingling with these Sephardic outcasts. The toshavim remained Arab-speaking while the m'gorashim remained primarily speakers of Castilian Spanish.

This began to change in 1600s when the Sephardim gained "prestige". At that time parts of the Atlantic coast of Morocco were taken over by the Portuguese. The European roots of the "exiles" made them suddenly invaluable as diplomats between Arab rulers and Christian kings. As these Jews became the new cultural elite, the megurashim began to be accepted by the toshavim. It produced many prolific “Chachamim”, whose Sefarim and Torah insights enriched and continue to enrich our collective heritage. All the more astounding is to think of how much Torah learning could be achieved in places as remote as Tafilalt. A place few of heard of as it is tucked far away deep into the Atlas Mountains. Notwithstanding the challenges of the heat of Morocco, these places produced giants of Torah including the dynasties of the Abuchazerzas, Iben Denans, Pintos, Toledanos and many others.

The famed Ohr Hachayim Hakadosh, R' Chayim Ben Atar, was the Chief Rabbi of Saleh. He penned a classic and deep commentary on the Torah which is so widely learnt, that even the Chassidim have a tradition to study it weekly. In addition many other of the Great Rabbanim made their way to Morocco when fleeing Spain, including Maimonides (Rambam) and Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi (Rif).

It is incredible to note how many of the Chachamim were baalei mofet - men who produced wonders. So many stories of miracles are told and documented. R’Shmuel Elbaz once needed to travel abroad for the important mitzvah of collecting money. He arrived at the port and realised he was short of funds to pay for the fair. He begged the captain to take him on board explaining he was travelling for a noble cause. When he was refused he declared “Hashem you want me to fulfill this mitzvah, help me!".

He spread a mat on the floor of the port "chazerah" in Arabic, and began to study the zohar. A few moments later a huge wave engulfed him and the mat into the sea. He noticed the mat was floating and therefore continued to study. The crew could not believe their eyes. A small mat was floating and travelling alongside the boat. On the mat sat a Rabbi engulfed in the world of Kabbalah.

The Captain concerned for his life screamed down to the Rabbi to forgive him for not taking him. He could see he was a miracle worker and begged him to come onto the boat. Rav Shmuel refused and said Hashem will get me to my destination. The story spread across Morocco and R’Shmuel Elbaz became the AbbahChzerah - the "father of the Mat". His grandson was the Avir Yaakov who became the famous Baba Sali - R'Yisrael Abuhatzeira.

The Chachamim of Morocco were also revered by the Muslims and remnants of this respect can be seen to this day. Over 500 years ago R'Shlomo Bel Chense came from Palestine, crossing the desert and mountains for three months on a mule. Arriving as so many Rabbanim did to collect tzedakah donations to bring with him back to Israel. He ended up teaching the Jews in the Ourika Valley and died there. The name Bel Chense meaning snake in Arabic, refers to another miraculous story. Until recently Hananiyah Elfassie lived by the gravesite in a small home and looked after it. He was the only Jew left in the Atlas mountains. Now that he has passed away, a muslim lady tends the gravesite with reverence and often kisses the gravesite of the holy Tzaddik.

Another example of awe for the great Rabbis, was evident on a recent JRoots group when we attended a hillula (a day of festivity on the anniversary of the death of a great Tzaddik). On Lag Ba’omer, thousands make the pilgrimage to the gravesite of Harav Amram ben Diwan, buried in Ouazzane. During the day, the Governor of Morocco, complete with a whole entourage of ministers from the Parliament, make their way to the gravesite to show their respects and to partake in the lavish meal set up in a special marquee near the grave.

Born in Jerusalem, he soon moved to Hebron in 1743 and was sent to Morocco in order to collect donations for the Holy land from the Jewish community there. He took up residence in Ouazzane, where he taught the Talmud and had many disciples. After 10 years spent in Morocco, Rabbi Amram returned to Hebron and, according to legend, entered the Cave of the Patriarchs disguised as a Muslim because it was forbidden for Jews at the time. Someone recognized him and reported him to the Ottoman Pasha, who ordered his arrest. He was compelled to flee and returned to Morocco, where he was welcomed by the Jewish community of Fes. He is credited with many healing miracles and had at least one son, Rabbi Hayyim ben Diwan.

While touring Morocco with his son, he fell ill and died in Ouazzane in 1782. His burial place in Ouazzane became a pilgrimage site and is regularly visited, particularly by people who invoke him to heal their illness.

In the imperial capital of Rabat stands an imposing Mausoleum guarded at all times by elaborately dressed royal guards and fez-topped security personnel. It is the main tourist attraction of Rabat, as this multimillion dollar edifice is a masterpiece of modern Moroccan architecture, holding inside the grand tombs of past kings, including King Mohammed the fifth.

JRoots Journeys take the groups to this place. People ask me why a group of Jews would visit the gravesite of a non-Jewish King. The answer goes to the core of what it means to be a Jew. Hakaarat Hatov - gratitude.

In August 1941, the Vichy Government of France enacted laws that discriminated against Moroccan Jews. It set quotas on the number of Jewish doctors and lawyers, ejected students from French schools and forced many Jews living in the European quarters to move to the mellahs. King Mohammed told the Jewish leaders that in his opinion Vichy laws singling out the Jews were inconsistent with Moroccan law. He believed that Jews should be treated equally with Muslims. He emphasized that the property and lives of the Jews remained under his protection. Due to his strong stance, Vichy administrators did not implement the discriminatory laws. King Mohamed allegedly told the Nazis, “There are no Jewish citizens, there are no Muslims citizens, they are all Moroccans.”

Historians point out that had American troops not landed in North Africa in 1942, Moroccan Jewry — which numbered approximately 250,000 — may have also been sent to the death camps. Moroccan Concentration camps and over 100,000 Yellow Stars had already been prepared the Nazis.

Although some of the greatest Rabbis and Righteous Jewish women such as Sulika Hatchewll are buried in Morroco's cemeteries, Jewish life still exists!

Whilst some 3000 Jews live in Morocco today, a visit to the Em Habbanim school in Casablanca showcases a vibrant, albeit sadly in decline community. The school run by the wonderful Rabbi Sebag houses over 200 children. A visit to the school uplifts one’s sprits and touches the soul in a profoundly deep meaningful way. To imagine that in 2017, in an Islamic country there are Jewish children learning Aleph Beit and Torah is very special. Many of our groups are astounded to see young children of the age of 5-6 chanting chapters of Tanach by heart. Although this was always part of Moroccan Jewish Education, to see it alive and fresh today is humbling. Casablanca has a street with over 7 Synagogues, all of which have a functioning daily minyan.

Raphy Elmaleh is the only Jewish guide in Morocco and has dedicated over 20 years of his life to salvaging the remains of the ancient shuls and yeshivot. More importantly he recently got permission from the Government to create a Jewish Museum, showcasing 2000 years of Jewish culture and history. It is the only Jewish museum of its kind that exists in the Islamic world. Once again, as a clear indication of positive relationships with the Jewish community, the King made it known that Muslim Students need to learn about Jewish Heritage and the Holocaust. Over 7000 students now visit the museum annually.

JRoots has been leading groups to Morocco for many years. Each journey presents with an opportunity to rediscover the roots of Sefardic heritage and to visit the magnificent shuls and yeshivot, bustling shouks and ancient medinas, which is truly is indeed rare, to walk through an Islamic country and have the local residents greet you with Shalom! To join us on our next one please visit