The Jewish saints of Sefrou
Despite its small size, Sefrou contributed enormously to Jewish culture in Morocco. The rabbis who were there were famous all over the country and even beyond Moroccan borders. Many rabbis settled there and taught, and their works concerned all the domains: the laws, the sacred texts, the Cabal, the songs and the praises, the moral, etc. The influence and the importance of this city within Moroccan Judaism made it central and that is one of the many reasons for which it was commonly called “Little Jerusalem.”
In the image of plural Morocco with its cities where Muslims, Jews, and Christians rubbed shoulders and coexisted in total peace, the city of Sefrou had hosted for centuries a community of Moroccans of Jewish faith. It was made up of Amazigh/Berber-speaking locals, Tafilat natives, Arabic-speaking Jews of Fassi origin (from Fez), and even descendants of the Spanish exiles of 1492, the Megorashim. This is the case of the El-Baz family.
For many generations, the Rabbi occupied a very important place in the life of the Jewish community. His extensive knowledge and scholarship directed him both in law, in his lifestyle, and attitudes to adopt. He became an adviser for personal problems, but also judges in conflicts between members of the community and practiced highly-recommended mediation between Jews as well Muslims and Jews or just Muslims. He, thus, helped to reconcile men, between a man and his wife, and even materially supported those in need. He was considered a sage of the city by all its inhabitants.
The Mamane family belonged to families linked to the expulsion of Jews from Spain, as well, the majority of whom are concentrated in Marrakech, Meknes, Fez, and Sefrou. The older generations considered the family Ben Mamane as the descendant of the “Great Eagle“, the guide of all Israel that descended from King David. Formerly, the members of this family were named Ben Maïmoni, then the name contracted in Ben Mamane, and it is only recently, that the word “Ben” disappeared, and they answered to the name of Mamane. This evolution is indeed confirmed by the testimonies of the oldest inhabitants of Safed and Tiberias, such as Rabbi Shlomo Ohana emissary of Israel in Morocco, sometime in the past.
Thus, from that time, until today, in the texts, the name Ben Mamane was kept in full. The addition of the particle “Ben” is considered an honor for families who lived in Spain, under Arab rule. “Ben” comes from the Arabic word “ibn”, like Ibn Ezra, Ibn Danan, Ibn Tsur. Over time, and with the influence of accents, the “alef” having disappeared and only ” Ben ” was preserved. Nowadays, some even write only the ending “noun”, followed by a dot above.
The Jews took the habit of adding “Ibn” in front of their surname, and even some Spanish sages as well as Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, Rav Shmuel Ibn Tivon, Rav Ibn Gavirol, and all those who like them mastered the Arabic language and Islamic jurisprudence. The famous Jewish philosopher and religious scholar Maimonides, known also as Ibn Maimoun, (1138-1204) of Muslim Spain, Andalusia, had a tremendous influence on the Jewish religious sages of Sefrou and Morocco.
Rav Rafael Abu, of blessed memory, who had great importance in Morocco, also by his creation of the school Ozar Hatorah wrote that during the last generations, the majority of families with large Rabbanims or respectable leaders, are from Morocco (such as Ben Shimon family, Ben Mamane family of Sefrou.)
Thus, the Mamane family, residing in Sefrou left an imprint on this city. From this family, come many rabbis and personalities of the Torah and Hebraic jurisprudence. From the 17th century until today, we find members of the Mamane family occupying important places, both materially and spiritually. They, thus, laid solid foundations for Jewish community life and its organization not only in this city but all over Morocco and beyond.
The fame of the rabbis of Sefrou, like Rabbi Moshe Elbaz, known as the « Master of the Grotto, » extends beyond the city and throughout Tafilalet and outside of Morocco. A holiday destination for the townspeople of Fez and Meknes, Sefrou is also a place of pilgrimage for this saint buried in the Jewish cemetery.
Elbaz, A name of Arabic origin meaning “the hawk“, belongs to a family of scholars and rabbis who have marked the Judeo-Moroccan history. Among others, we find Maimon Elbaz, rabbi in the seventeenth century, author of a cabalistic commentary of ritual prayers, Shmuel El-Baz rabbi in the seventeenth century, member of the Rabbinical Tribunal and author of Talmudic comments, and Amram El-Baz, rabbi-judge and codifier who lived in the eighteenth century.
It is within this family, which is of Spanish origin, according to some sources, that Rabbi Raphael Moshe El-Baz was born in 1823 in Sefrou. He was also the son and grandson of two rabbis and prolific authors: Rabbi Yehuda El-Baz and Rabbi Samuel El-Baz.
Early on, Rabbi Raphael Moshe El-Baz is then appointed rabbinical judge at the age of only 28 years. And at the time, he was already a prolific writer, dealing in his books with various fields, such as the writings of rabbinical jurisprudence, the precepts, laws, and commandments that govern the life of the individual according to the law of Moses.
For, in addition to being rabbi and judge, Rabbi Raphael Moshe Elbaz was also a lover of songs and poetry. He wrote several songs and didactic poems in dialectal Arabic (darija), in addition to many poems that entered into the liturgy tradition.
With Nissim Elbaz, Rabbi Raphael Moshe El-Baz is, also, considered one of the greatest Jewish poets who adopted the Arabic popular and semi-classical genre called Qassida, as Reeva Simon Spector, Michael Menachem Laskier, and Sara Reguer say in “The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times. ” [xiv] He is even described by the Library Hub Discover platform as one of the artists “most representative of Hebrew poetry in Morocco.”
During his 73 years, Rabbi Raphael Moshe Elbaz also wrote several books, including “Halakhah Le-Moshe” which is a collection of legal decisions, “Parashat Ha-kessef” which is a work of morality and proverb, “Arbah” on jurisprudence,”Chir Hadach” where he collected liturgical songs and poems or his famous “Beer Cheva” on science dealing with mathematics, astronomy and geography, as well as a book on the Moroccan Jewish community, entitled: “Kissé Hamelakhim.”
To illustrate the Rabbi’s investment in the texts of the sixteenth century, Sina Rauschenbach and Jonathan Schorsch recall, in “The Sephardic Atlantic: Colonial Histories and Postcolonial Perspectives“[xv], that Rabbi Raphael Moshe El-Baz wrote a comment on the sixteenth-century law code “Sefer ha-Taqqanot” (The Book of Ordinances) written by Rafael Berdugo (1747-1821) of Meknes.
Having left no heirs behind him, Rabbi Raphael Moshe El-Baz will leave no less than 19 manuscripts, which he considered “his children” to his nephew Rabbi Benyamine El-Baz. But some of these manuscripts will only be printed around the nineteenth century.
Rabbi Raphael Moshe El-Baz died in 1896 in Sefrou, his hometown, where he was buried in the Jewish cemetery of the city. His hiloula is celebrated during Lag Baomer, the Jewish festival of the rabbinic institution.
Kaf Lihoudi “The Cave of the Jew “
The ancient existence of the Jews in Sefrou is further demonstrated by the Wad Lihoudi “The River of the Jew” that goes through the city, and by a cave called Kaf Lihoudi, “the Cave of the Jew” which is on the southern flank of Jbel Binna and overlooks Sefrou. Every year, this cave, is on the part of the Jews of Sefrou and Fez, the object of a true naturalistic cult. The pilgrimage of this cave takes place at the same time as that of the sanctuary of the chief rabbi Hamou ben Diouane, in Ouezzane.
This cave is located at the foot of the Binna cliff, at about 800 m altitude. Of immemorial tradition it is claimed that the rabbis were buried there; on the other hand, the majority of common native people see it as the dwelling of a genius and some Muslim saints. This would indicate that there was a very old habitat or someplace of worship as old as the human dwelling in the area. This cave opens to the east and includes two long guts, all empty for centuries.[xvi]
The archaeological site of Binna was the subject of an important discovery, so in 1965, the two caves Kaf El Moumen and Kaf El Bagra which pierce this rocky spur have revealed the existence of a prehistoric vestiges and industry:
- Tools in flint and basalt;
- Paleontological remains such as bear teeth, Rhinoceros, and other extinct species; and
- Rock paintings that have unfortunately completely disappeared and can only be seen in the photograph.
“The tradition of “sanctity” comes from far away, before the arrival of Islam, from more or less “naturist” cults. In Sefrou, a town that is said to be older than Fez, there is a cave, Mul bhl, “That of the mountain”. A cult which seems to have been “adopted” by the Jews: “whoever cannot find Rebbi Amram in Ouazan, finds him in (the cave) of Mul bhl”… Substitute saint! Holy commodity! In the cave, there is nothing. No grave … Rebbi Abraham Mul Ness, in a cave of Azemmur, does not seem to have a surname, but it is “He (who) works miracles”… Others, closer in time, have more concrete stories. Some form “dynasties” and can be dated, such as the Abehsera, from Rebbi Yacaqob, buried in Cairo, to Rebbi Ishaq, whose grave is in Gurramah (Tafilalet) and, finally, Baba Salé, who died in Israel a few years ago. »
“Sefrou is almost entirely Jewish. Today its population is a little drowned by the people of the village and the Fasi, who came to do good business with the mountain people. But if, before going to the market, we stop at the suq, we find these same Jewish shops that have the talent to make an encyclopedia of goods in a cubic meter of space. »
Pascale Saisset wrote a text on Sefrou known as « Little Jerusalem » between October 1925 and January 1926, in memory of her grandfather Youssef Ben Illouz who was born in the Mellah of Meknes.
Then she goes on to describe meticulously the scenes of the suq with Berber people dressed in burnous garments, the arguments, the haggling proper to Moroccan clients :[xxi]
“At the edge of the suq, before entering the full sun of the street, and crossing this line so extraordinarily clear between shadow and light, we hesitate to blend in with the human flow that comes, more and more hurried, and brings us, with the rough grazing of burnous, the clattering of daggers, the clattering of sticks on the ground, the flight of silver dust, the gutturals thrown down your throat, the invective, the imprecations, the insults cut with wild laughter, the ambiguous smiles of these disturbing faces – because they are unknown – and all the violent, acrid, unbearable, deadly and delicious flavour of the human beast, which one only becomes aware of in the body to the body of love or in the crowd. »
And, then, talks about the various merchandises in the display: grains, coal and Arab singers performing in cafés :[xxii]
“Facing the game of jostling, here we are at the grain market, the coal market, the salt market, the coarse grey salt from the mountainsides. It is the same in its coarseness to these villagers whose souls, barely freed from the material, must also be all in indecisive greyness, in impurities, and in limpid reflections.
Suddenly, amidst the tumult, a child’s voice was heard singing. The strident timbre, high-pitched like that of most Moorish singers, had I don’t know what purity and desperate passion. Escape from the crowd and we found the singer crouching in a tiny Moorish café on the first floor of a house festooned with vast arcades where the shade was cool as in a temple…”.
The description of Pascale Saisset of the people of the countryside (bled) who descended to the suq of Sefrou could reflect more the vision of a “Western Jew” as she defines herself, unaccustomed to frequent “burnous rough” (burnous rugeux) in the mercantile tumult of the suq, ” disturbing faces because unknown, ” (faces inquiétantes parce qu’inconnues) she says, however.
The Jews of Sefrou, more numerous at that time than the Amazighs/Berbers and the Arabs, rubbed shoulders daily in the commercial relations and certainly did not have, in their great majority, this worried vision of the men of the countryside.
Jews and Muslims had complex relationships that were difficult for even well-informed travelers to seize; mistrust was sometimes great between Jews and Muslims but at the same time they were often very close, living in harmony in “this earthly paradise” (paradis terrestre) and doing business together.
Pascale says she heard many of her friends say they were “milk brothers” (frères de lait) with a Muslim or a Jew: the Muslim mother confided to her Jewish neighbor, when she was away for a while she left her child of few months with a Jewish neighbor and at the time of the feeding, the Jewish mother fed in turn or at the same time, her child and that of her neighbor. Another day, it was the opposite.
You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu
[xiv] Cf. Reeva Simon Spector, Michael Menachem Laskier, and Sara Reguer say in “The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times ” (Columbia University Press, 2003)
[xv] Cf. Sina Rauschenbach and Jonathan Schorsch, “The Sephardic Atlantic: Colonial Histories and Postcolonial Perspectives” (Editions Springer, 2019)
[xvi] Cf. Koehler R.P. Henry. La grotte dite « du Juif » à Sefrou (Maroc). In : Bulletin de la Société préhistorique de France, tome 51, n°9-10, 1954. pp. 414-418 ; doi : https://doi.org/10.3406/bspf.1954.3135 https://www.persee.fr/doc/bspf_0249-7638_1954_num_51_9_3135
[xvii] Simon Lévy, Secretary-General of the Judeo-Moroccan Cultural Heritage Foundation, Director of the Museum of Moroccan Judaism in Casablanca.
« La tradition de « sainteté » provient de loin, avant l’arrivée de l’islam, de cultes plus ou moins « naturistes ». A Sefrou, ville dont on dit qu’elle est plus vieille que Fès, se trouve une grotte, Mul bhl, « Celui du mont ». Un culte qui semble avoir été « adapté » par les juifs : « celui qui n’arrive pas à trouver Rebbi Amram à Ouazan, le trouve dans (la grotte) de Mul bhl … Saint de substitution ! Sainte commodité ! Dans la grotte il n’y a rien. Aucune tombe ; à Rebbi Yahia Lakhdar non plus. Rebbi Abraham Mul Ness, dans une grotte d’Azemmour, ne semble pas avoir de nom de famille, mais il s’agit de « Celui (qui fait) des miracles » … D’autres, plus proches dans le temps, ont des histoires plus concrètes. Quelques uns forment des « dynasties » et on peut les dater, tels les Abehsera, depuis Rebbi Yacaqob, enterré au Caire, jusqu’à Rebbi Ishaq dont la sépulture se trouve à Gourrama (Tafilalet) et, finalement, Baba Salé, mort en Israël il y a quelques années. »
[xix] Cf. Saisset, P. 1930. Heures juives au Maroc. Paris: éditions Rieder.
She wrote that in spite of the fact that Moroccan Jews were considered inferior, prior to the Protectorate, yet they were protected and well treated, unlike in any other place in the world:
« Que les Juifs aient souffert de leur isolement et des injustices dont ils étaient victimes, cela est indéniable ; mais nous ne devons pas oublier qu’ils ont rarement subi des massacres, et que si leurs villes n’ont pas pu se développer en étendue, ils ont pu vivre, penser, et jouir d’une paix quasi absolue pendant cinq siècles.
Les Occidentaux, qui se disent civilisés, les Bulgares, les Roumains et les Russes, ne leur ont jamais permis de se réaliser, comme les sultans du Maroc et comme ceux de Turquie. Il a fallu attendre la Renaissance du sionisme pour trouver à Jérusalem le même éveil intellectuel qu’à Fez au X ème siècle.
Arabes et Juifs ont pu vivre au Maroc, sans que les Juifs soient écrasés par des tyrannies impitoyables, sans que la vie arabe ait souffert de leur contact étranger ».
« Sefrou est presque entièrement juive. Aujourd’hui sa population est un peu noyée par les gens du bled et les Fasi, venus pour faire de bonnes affaires avec les gens de la montagne. Mais si, avant d’aller au marché, nous nous arrêtons au souk, nous y retrouvons ces mêmes boutiques juives qui ont le talent de faire une encyclopédie de marchandises dans un mètre cube d’espace. »
« À la limite du souk, avant d’entrer dans le plein soleil de la rue, et de franchir cette ligne si extraordinairement nette entre ombre et lumière, nous hésitons à nous mêler au flot humain qui déferle, de plus en plus pressé, et nous apporte, avec le frôlement rugueux des burnous, le cliquetis des poignards, le choc des bâtons sur le sol, le vol de poussière argentée, les gutturales lancées à pleine gorge, les invectives, les imprécations, les injures coupées de rires sauvages, les sourires ambigus de ces faces inquiétantes – parce qu’inconnues – et toute la saveur violente, âcre, insupportable, mortelle et délicieuse de la bête humaine, dont on ne prend conscience que dans le corps à corps de l’amour ou dans la foule. »
« Affrontant le jeu de la bousculade, nous voici au marché du grain, à celui du charbon, à celui du sel, du gros sel gris qui vient des flancs de la montagne. Il est pareil en sa grossièreté à ces villageois dont l’âme à peine dégagée de la matière doit être elle aussi toute en grisailles indécises, en impuretés, et en reflets limpides.
Tout à coup, parmi le tumulte, on entendit une voix d’enfant qui chantait. Le timbre strident, aigu comme celui de la plupart des chanteurs maures, avait je ne sais quelle pureté et quelle passion désespérée. Échappant à la foule, nous trouvâmes le chanteur accroupi dans un minuscule café maure, au premier étage d’une maison festonnée de vastes arcades où l’ombre était fraîche comme en un temple … »