Early Jews in the Maghreb
Since antiquity, Morocco has been at a crossroads of encounters for several civilizations, all have been there, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Vandals, and the Byzantines, each of these civilizations attempted to inflict a new language, religion, and a way of life on Morocco.
The Phoenicians, a trading people whose origins lie in present-day Lebanon, needed to expand their commercial network in the Mediterranean basin and push their fleet westwards. As early as 1250 BC, they began contact with the populations of North Africa, with a view to establishing themselves there. But, it is from the flight of princess Elissa in Eastern Maghreb (current Tunisia), that all changed. The latter, fighting for power in Tyre with her brother Pygmalion, had to flee after the assassination of her husband and founded Carthage (meaning in Phoenician, a ‘’new city’’) in 814 BC, a state that tried to establish its influence as far as Iberia (modern Spain).
The early Jewish migrants came with The Phoenicians, according to historical chronicles. The first traces of a Jewish presence (Maghrebi Jews (מַגּרֶבִּים or מַאגרֶבִּים, Maghrebim)) can be found in Carthage (today’s suburb of Tunis), a city founded by the Phoenicians in the seventh century BC. Four centuries later, this flourishing port city became a rival to Rome in terms of trade, wealth, and population.
From then on, Judaism was an integral part of the social and cultural fabric of the city, a group inseparable from the Christian or pagan community. This mosaic constituted the different components of the social pyramid of pre-Islamic society.
Thus, the traces of a Jewish presence on the Mediterranean coast of Africa go back to ancient times. It preceded the Arab conquest and the Islamization of Africa by at least nine centuries. Inscriptions to that effect have been duly discovered by archaeologists. Indeed, there have been Jews in Morocco for over 2,800 years, longer than there have been Arabs in the area. Even in the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis, there are traces of a synagogue.
Many legends date the Jewish presence in Morocco to a period before the destruction of the first Temple. There too, the proselytizing activities of the Jews would have been deployed, who would have converted the Berber tribes to Judaism before the Arab conquest.
When the Arabs conquered the Maghreb, they found there Amazigh/Berbers, Jews, and Judaized Amazigh/Berbers. Islam enabled Jews to retain their faith and practices, participate fully in the life of the city, and live in symbiosis with other communities.
However, this represented two major challenges for the Jews, on the one hand, there was a new authority to which they had to adapt, and on the other, the danger of assimilation against which they had to protect themselves.
Thus, Fez became one of the nerve centers of Islamic civilization and the cradle of Judaism. Over the years, the learned members of this community have oscillated between Morocco and Cordoba in Spain. Several poets and rabbis have allowed the influence of a new type of Judaism. In this sense, Haïm Zafrani specifies:
[“The rabbis of the Maghreb were the masters of Spanish Judaism and the founders of the Spanish school”.]
« Les rabbins du Maghreb aient été les maîtres du judaïsme espagnol et les fondateurs de l’école espagnole »
This tradition of exchanges between the Jewish communities of the two shores of the Mediterranean continued against all odds until the very eve of the Reconquista in 1492 and the expulsions of Jews from Spain: the rabbis Haïm Gaguin and Saadiah Ibn Danan, both of whom came from Fez to varying degrees, lived for many years in Spain before being surprised by the edict of expulsion.
For more than two thousand years, Jews and Muslims have lived together in Morocco and cooperated in the development of its cultural and artistic wealth. Indeed, before the advent of Islam, the autochtonous Amazigh/Berbers and Jews duly set up a common cultural scheme that is known today as: The Judeo/Amazigh Cultural Substratum.
The history of Morocco embodies an exceptional case of Jewish-Muslim conviviality. Jews and Muslims have been living side by side for centuries. There has been throughout their common long history great cultural permeability largely inherited from the emergence of a political dimension in the relations between Jews and Muslims, and more broadly the relations between the various communities and minorities in society.
Jews lived side by side with Muslims. This coexistence was facilitated by certain similarities between Muslim and Jewish cultures. Monotheistic, with prohibitions, both practicing the rule of circumcision, and the similarities between them are numerous.
The contacts between Jews and Muslims were frequent: the latter went to the Mellah to make purchases, sell their own products, borrow money, deliver shares of the harvest to their Jewish associates, use the services of seamstresses or have watches and jewelry repaired. Some Muslims even had shops in this neighborhood, including stalls with ovens, which relieved the Jews of maintaining the fire during the Shabbat.
In the city as in the country, Moroccan Jews lived in perfect harmony with their fellow citizens in a bi-communal environment that was shaped in a generally serene and peaceful manner for more than a millennium. And like any minority in human society, it happened that the weakest among them suffered the excesses of a wicked minority and benefited in return from the protective benefits of the majority. Collective and generalized exactions against Jews because of their faith rarely happened at the hands of religious zealots. In normal social relations, their total integration into Moroccan culture made them a stable component of it.
Community life in this bi-communal space had its charm and richness. It maintained in an implicit and spontaneous way a touch of humanism in the Moroccan cultural environment through the natural acceptance of diversity, expression of feeling affection towards the other, in spite of his difference, and the leniency towards the human being as such. These values were fully expressed in the festivities through the exchange of cakes, meals, and recipes, through visits between neighbors, business partners, or simple acquaintances, and through acts of support or compassion for one another in the context of a friendship in “otherness”. These transcendent human values were cultivated in diversity and were best expressed in the serenity of mutual recognition.
All this beauty of living together was lost with the departure of our Jewish compatriots. The divorce was sealed with the Six-Day War in 1967. The expulsion of the Palestinians from their land and the denominational exclusivity established by Zionism in occupied Palestine altered in Morocco, in an amalgam between Zionism and Judaism, a perception of the Jew built around ancestral values of cohabitation and conviviality.
This time-old coexistence and conviviality are explained by Robert Assaraf in the following terms:
‘’Le Maroc et ses communautés juives constituent un véritable cas d’école. Aucune autre communauté juive n’a, en effet, conservé un rapport aussi fort et aussi fructueux avec sa terre d’origine, un rapport d’autant plus intense qu’il ne recèle rien de conflictuel. Cette conception apaisée et sereine du passé, fondée sur le souvenir de la multiséculaire coexistence mutuelle entre musulmans et juifs, vaut aussi pour le présent et pour l’avenir. Loin d’être une quelconque nostalgie, l’identité marocaine est une certaine conception du monde.’’
[“Morocco and its Jewish communities are a real textbook case. No other Jewish community has maintained such a strong and fruitful relationship with its land of origin, a relationship that is all the more intense because it is free of conflict. This calm and serene conception of the past, based on the memory of the centuries-old mutual coexistence between Muslims and Jews, is also valid for the present and for the future. Far from being a nostalgia, the Moroccan identity is a certain conception of the world.”]
Moroccan Jewry has suffered a massive reduction in numbers since Morocco’s independence, from 300,000 individuals to 3,000 today. Yet the Moroccan-Jewish identity is still alive, through the thousands of Moroccan Jews present in Israel, France, Spain, Great Britain, Canada, the United States, and Latin America, where they have recreated specific institutions while successfully integrating into the surrounding society.
In this regard, Mehdi Boudra writes in Atlantic Council:
‘’Morocco has been a vibrant center of Jewish life for millennia—a history that the country still honors in its daily relationships and embrace of different religions and ways of life. Before the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Jewish population in Morocco reached almost three hundred thousand people. It was the biggest non-Ashkenazi community in the world and the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world.
Today, the Jewish community living in Morocco does not exceed three thousand members. However, the Moroccan Jewish community remains the largest in the Arab world. For example, in the coastal city of Casablanca, there are twenty active synagogues, seven kosher restaurants, five kosher butchers, and four Jewish schools.
Since 1997, the Foundation of Moroccan Jewish Heritage has preserved dozens of synagogues around Morocco and, in 1997, created the only Jewish museum in the Arab world, in Casablanca. With the full support of the Moroccan Monarchy, local Jewish communities have preserved more than 167 Jewish cemeteries and shrines throughout the Kingdom.
In 2020, in the port city of Essaouira, King Mohammed VI inaugurated Bayt Dakira (The House of Memory), a center dedicated to the historic Convivencia between Jews and Muslims in Morocco. Furthermore, to support the preservation of Moroccan Jewish cultural heritage, the king launched a conservation plan for the former Jewish quarters of several cities. This plan has included the rehabilitation and renovation of Jewish sites, as well as the restoration of Jewish names to the streets of the quarters.’’
Shabbat is a Jewish holiday celebrated on the seventh day of the week according to the Hebrew calendar, i.e. Saturday. The Jews, just as God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, must not only rest but also avoid all productive activities (turning on the light, driving, cooking, etc.).
The Shabbat begins on Friday evening at sunset and ends on Saturday night when the third star appears in the sky. All preparations for this celebration must be done the day before, including cooking:
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.’’ (Exodus 20:8-11).
It is interesting to note that both Islam and Judaism have established a weekly rest period: Friday for Muslims and the Sabbath on Saturday for Jews. One can also compare these days of rest with the other Abrahamic religion, Christianity, which establishes Sunday as a day of rest.
Friday (Jumu’a) is a very important day for Muslims. The root of the word Jumu’a means “to gather”. It was probably the first followers of Islam in Medina who, like the Jews and Christians, chose a particular day to celebrate the prayer together. All Muslims in the world are invited to gather at the mosque every Friday to perform the noon prayer together. Just before the prayer, they listen to the traditional sermon of the imam in which he develops many religious principles while offering them various advice. In Islam, Friday is considered a blessed day.
‘’O you who believe! When you hear the call to prayer on Friday hurry to call upon God and forsake all business transactions. That is far better for you, if you only knew!’’ (Qur’an, 62:9).
يَٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوٓا۟ إِذَا نُودِىَ لِلصَّلَوٰةِ مِن يَوْمِ ٱلْجُمُعَةِ فَٱسْعَوْا۟ إِلَىٰ ذِكْرِ ٱللَّهِ وَذَرُوا۟ ٱلْبَيْعَ ذَٰلِكُمْ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ إِن كُنتُمْ تَعْلَمُونَ
Thus, in the Mellah, the Jewish women prepare on Friday evening, the night before Shabbat, dishes such as dafina دفينة . These dishes were then taken to the Muslim baker, who had an oven and could therefore heat the dishes until Saturday noon. Indeed, it is prescribed to eat a hot meat dish on Saturday at noon, and the dafina has to cook for 15 hours according to tradition. This was only possible with the Muslim baker’s oven.
It is interesting to note that during the Shabbat, in the Mellah, all the shops, whether belonging to Jews or Muslims, are closed. In addition, markets are generally not held on Saturdays.
In the same spirit, during the daily breaking of the fast called the ftour فطور , at sunset during the month of Ramadan, it was common for Jews to distribute food to their Muslim friends and neighbors in need so that they could celebrate the holy month of Ramadan with dignity. This solidarity still exists today: some Jewish associations continue to distribute meals to Muslim families at the time of the breaking of the fast. These meals are typical culinary products of the month of Ramadan, such as dates, tea, lentils, and chickpeas.
The last day of the week of the Jewish Passover is marked by the ritual of breaking of the dietary prohibitions, often called Mimouna ميمونة among the Jews of the Maghreb. On this occasion, a festive dinner is organized. The fellahs (Arab and Amazigh peasants) from the surroundings come to sell the products which the Jews need for the celebration. Muslims are also invited to take part in the holiday. In the past, Jews also went out for family walks in the countryside and picnicked on the land or in the orchards of their Muslim friends. Such a visit was seen by the latter as part of a rite that brought good luck and good harvests since the word Mimouna/Mimoun means good luck in Moroccan Arabic. Thus, the Mimouna was the flagship inter-religious and inter-community event, a celebration of Jewish-Muslim cohabitation in Morocco.
The Muslim-Jewish commonality is explained by the Moroccan social scientist Simon Lévy in the following terms:
‘’D’une façon générale, le judaïsme marocain est concerné de deux manières. Il porte d’abord dans sa conscience le témoignage d’une heureuse cohabitation au Maroc avec l’Islam et l’Arabité et le souvenir de l’attitude courageuse et historique du Roi Mohamed V qui avait protégé les juifs marocains contre les décrets racistes de Vichy. D’autre part, les conflits récurrents entre Israël et les pays arabes ont occasionné des vagues d’émigration de juifs marocains soumettant la communauté juive à une certaine tension, mettant parfois à mal l’harmonie de sa coexistence paisible dans la société marocaine. En fait, les périodes d’émigration ont été vécues dans le déchirement et la frustration à la fois par la communauté juive et par la communauté musulmane du Maroc. C’était une phase difficile et même si elle n’a comporté ni menace, ni contrainte pour les juifs, elle s’est traduite, surtout après 1967, par un repli de la communauté israélite sur la vie quotidienne et dans une sorte de marginalité — paisible, certes — par rapport à la vie publique.’’
[‘’Generally speaking, Moroccan Judaism is concerned in two ways. First, it bears in its conscience the testimony of a happy cohabitation in Morocco with Islam and Arabism and the memory of the courageous and historic attitude of King Mohamed V who had protected Moroccan Jews against the racist decrees of Vichy. On the other hand, the recurrent conflicts between Israel and the Arab countries have caused waves of emigration of Moroccan Jews, subjecting the Jewish community to a certain amount of tension, sometimes undermining the harmony of its coexistence in Moroccan society. In fact, the periods of emigration have been experienced in heartbreak and frustration for both the Jewish and Muslim communities in Morocco. It was a difficult phase and even if it did not threat or constraint for the Jews, it resulted, especially after 1967, by a retreat of the Jewish community into everyday life and in a kind of marginality – peaceful, certainly – in relation to public life.’’]
The first chapter of the Qur’an begins with a praise al-Hamdu Li-Llâhi ‘’praise to God’’ الحمد لله just like all the blessings of rabbinic Judaism barukh attah adonai בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה‘ אֱ–לֹהֵינוּ, מֶלֶך הָעוֹלָם” praise you, God”. Further on, God is called the “Lord of the Peoples”, which is a semantic and conceptual reminder of the main Jewish blessing (“king of the universe:” Melech Ha’Olam You’re the king of the universe אתה מלך היקום.”אתה רק רוצה “יום קלי רובינסון).
Another expression present in the daily prayer of Muslims is Allahu akbar “God is great” الله أكبر which is a call to magnify God. This notion has an immediate semantic equivalent with the Hebrew Gaddel גָּדַל ‘’to magnify’’ made familiar by the numerous praises that appear in the kaddish recited during the obligatory prayers.
In the Maghreb, the Arabic language has affected the Hebrew religious terminology. The Jews of the Muslim world adopted the Arabic language and Arabic terminology was often used for Jewish realities even when a Hebrew term existed. The Torah could thus be referred to by the Arabic terms ash-Sharî’a (the law) الشريعة or al-Kitâb (the book) الكتاب. The chapters of the Torah were sometimes even referred to by the name given to the chapters of the Qur’an (sûra) السورة. The officiant could also be called the imam.
Fasting is a common requirement in Judaismֹ ṣôm צוֹם and Islam sawm صوم. In both religions, it is a form of penitence that helps one become more aware of the fate of the underprivileged. This ritual obligation is stipulated in both sacred texts, Torah and Koran. Fasting requires the deprivation of food and abstention from sexual relations and other sensual pleasures.
Islam and Judaism set the prohibition according to the calendar. For example, the Qur’ân requires fasting from dawn to dusk during Ramadan. The Torah imposes a fast from dusk to dawn on the tenth day of the seventh month according to the Hebrew calendar. This is called the fast of Kippur.