1. Jews Have Lived in Morocco For Millenia
It is not
known for sure when the first Jews settled in Morocco, but it seems
clear that they were there for at least the entire duration of the
current exile (which began in 70 CE).
They lived first among the Berber tribes, who dominated North Africa,
and then through various Christian and Muslim regimes. At times, they
were tolerated, and at times, they were persecuted, but the Jewish
presence remained throughout.
2. They Were Strongly Influenced by Spanish Jews
|This Torah scroll, seen in the Aben Danan Synagogue in Fez, is covered with fabric, not a hard case. This follows the Spanish tradition, as opposed to the Eastern Sephardim, who house their Torahs in cylindrical cases.
successive waves of oppression sent Spanish Jews fleeing the Iberian
Peninsula, it was natural for many to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to
Morocco. Thus, in time, the Jews of Morocco adopted Spanish-Jewish
(Sephardic) customs, rituals and identity in many respects.
However, the toshavim (“indigenous”) and megurashim
(“exiles”) do retain certain differences, such as the exact formula of
the ketubah document, with each family following the traditions of their
At one time, there were separate synagogues for each community, but that has largely ceased to exist.
Read: 19 Facts About Sephardic Jewry
3. Their Family Names Reflect Their Rich Heritage
Moroccan Jewish family names reflect the community’s Berber, Arabic,
Spanish, and Hebrew roots. For example, Assouline means “from rock” in
Berber, Abergel implies a one-legged man in Arabic, and Toledano
indicates that one’s ancestors had been exiled from Toledo, Spain.
4. They Are Also Known as Maghrebi Jews
|A Purim play in Demnate, a town in Morocco's High Atlas Mountains (Photo: Diarna.org)
Morocco is located on the Westernmost tip of the Islamic,
Arabic-speaking world, both Jews and non-Jews from the region are known
as maghrebi, “western.” This is particularly interesting when one
considers that Morrocan Jews are generally included under the banner of
the eidot hamizrach, “communities of the east.”
5. Great Rabbis Lived in Morocco
the millennia, thousands of great Torah scholars and leaders have
called Morrocco home. Here is but a small (somewhat random) sampling:
Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi (“From Fez”) was a leading rabbi in the 11th century. He was forced to relocate to Spain where he headed a great yeshiva.
Rabbi Moses Maimonides
(“Rambam”) was born in Spain and spent many years in Egypt. When he
wrote his famed commentary to the Mishnah in the 1160s, however, he
lived in Fez.
Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar,
known as the Ohr Hachaim, led a yeshiva in Salé in the first part of
the 18th century, before famine forced him to relocate to Livorno,
Italy, and eventually Jerusalem.
Raphael Ankawa was the chief rabbi of Morocco. He is still revered among
Moroccan Jews who annually mark the anniversary of his 1935 passing on
the Hebrew date of 4 Av.
Shlomo Amar was chief rabbi of Israel from 2003-2013. Born in 1948 in
Casablanca, he attended the Chabad Oholei Yosef Yitzchak school before
immigrating to Israel.
6. The Mellah Was the Traditional Jewish Quarter
|A sign marking the historic "Al Mellah street" in Essaouira (Phoo:Wiki)
Just as European Jews were confined to ghettos, Moroccan Jews were restricted to mellahs.
The word means “salt,” and is a result of the area of the Fez Mellah
being near or in a source of salt. The Jews were directed to settle
there since it was close to the palace, and the king was thus able to
offer his protection.
In time, the term spread to many other cities in Morocco as well.
7. Shmuel Palache Is Famous for Being a Jewish Pirate
|Rembrandt's "Man in Oriental Costume" is believed to be a portrait of Shmuel Palache.
Fez to a prominent Sephardic rabbinic family, Shmuel Palache was a
merchant. He helped Morocco and the Netherlands concluded the “Treaty of
Friendship and Free Commerce in 1610. Despite his many accomplishments
as a diplomat, Torah scholar, and community leader, he is best known for
privateering, which he did with a permit from Prince Maurice of Nassau.
8. Many Don’t Eat Kitniyot on Pesach
Generally, Ashkenazim do not eat kitniyot
(rice, beans etc.) on Passover, while most Sephardim do. Moroccan
custom concords more closely with Ashkenazi practice, and they, too,
avoid many (but not all) forms of kitnioyt on Passover.
Read: The Kitniyot Debate
9. Mimouna Is Celebrated After Passover
Among Moroccan Jews, after Passover concludes, a special celebration called mimouna is held. People visit each other’s homes to enjoy elaborately set tables, especially a crepe called moufleta.
means “luck.” On Passover many people did not eat at each other’s homes
since not everyone had the same standards. The post-Passover
socialization demonstrates that there are no hard feelings.
10. They Were Quick to Adopt French
|The first page of the Or ha-Maʻarav newspaper, written in Judeo-Arabic in Hebrew letters.
before Morocco became a French Colony, many Jews in Morocco had
exchanged their Judeo-Arabic and Ladino for French. In part, this was
due to the Paris-based Alliance Israélite Universelle, which
operated a string of schools in Morocco. The schools’ agenda of
modernization and Europeanization was often at odds with the
traditional, spiritual and deeply religious nature of Morroco’s Jews.
11. There Is a Strong Kabbalistic Tradition
|Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzeira, revered as the Abir Yaakov.
Kabbalists, including members of the Abuhatzeira family (including
Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzeira, known as the Abir Yaakov, and Rabbi Yisrael
Abuhatzeira, known as the Baba Sali) hail from Morocco, and Moroccan
Jews have a strong tradition of studying Kabbalah and revering its
12. Moroccan Jews Enjoy Spicy Fish and Dafina for Shabbat
Moroccan Jews, a spicy fish tagine is enjoyed on Friday night and again
on Shabbat morning. During the daytime meal, a slow-cooked stew known as
dafina is enjoyed. It is different from the classical Ashkenazi
cholent in several respects, notably the presence of eggs and the fact
that each component is often neatly cooked in its own bag, a boon for
picky eaters who only want some elements but not others.
Watch: How to Make Dafina
13. They Wear Tefillin During Mincha on Fast Days
Moroccan Jewish men follow the custom of wearing tefillin
during the Mincha afternoon services on fast days (not just on 9 Av,
when it is universal). This is done because there is a custom to say at
least 100 blessings each day. Since no meal blessings are said on fast
days, the additional blessings said when donning the tallit and tefillin can be used toward the tally.
Read: 14 Tefillin Facts Every Jew Should Know
14. Lala Sulika Is Venerated and Admired
|Headstone of Sulika, with her name spelled in French as Solica Hatchouël and in Hebrew as סוליקא חגואל.
(Solica Hatchouël) was a beautiful Jewish maiden in Fez. A Muslim
neighbor who wished to marry her clained that she had converted to
Islam. Imprisoned and tortured, she refused to renounce her Judaism.
Even when a son of the Sultan offered to marry her if she would only
accept Islam, she remained steadfast. She was beheaded on 27 Iyar, in
the year 1834.
Read: The Story of Sulika
15. Chabad Was Established in 1950
before he passed away in the winter of 1950, the Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi
Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, of righteous memory, laid the groundwork for
Chabad emissaries to serve in Morocco.
escapees from the Soviet Union who had risked their lives for Judaism,
these brave couples embraced the Moroccan Jews (who at the time numbered
350,000) and set up a network of schools, camps, and social
organizations that continue to serve the Jewish community.
16. Many Fled to Israel, France, and Canada
|A Moroccan Torah scholar in 1964 in Migdal Ha-Emek, Israel (Photo: Boris Carmi /Meitar Collection / National Library of Israel / The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection)
establishment of the State of Israel, and Moroccan independence from
France, many Jews wished to leave the country. The lion’s share made
their way to Israel, where they now constitute the largest ethnic bloc,
following Ashkenazi Jews. At the same time, fluent in French language
and culture, many chose to make their way to France, where they now form
the bulk of the Jewish community, and Canada, where French is spoken
17. The Agadir Earthquake Was Devastating
the port city of Agadir was struck by a devastating earthquake and
ensuing tidal wave, which claimed thousands of lives. Having hit the
Jewish quarter with particular force, contemporary media reports
estimated that “1,500 Jews of the 2,300 who lived in Agadir lost their
lives.” This included students at the local Chabad yeshiva, which housed
80 children at the time.
18. There Are Still Jews in Morocco
majority of the country’s Jews, estimated to be about 3,000, are
concentrated in Casablanca, a bustling metropolis of 3.4 million.
Despite its reduced size, the Moroccan Jewish community remains fully
functional, active and vibrant. With the introduction of diplomatic ties
with Israel, the future of Moroccan Jews looks brighter than it has in
Read: What It’s Like to Be a Chabad Woman in Morocco
19. Thousands of Visitors Come to Celebrate Hilloulahs
|Candles lit in memory of the Baba Sali on his hilloulah (Photo:SkokieChabad.org)
Moroccan Jews, the anniversary of a righteous person's passing is cause
for celebration. Throughout the year, Jews come from all over the world
to celebrate various hilloulahs at the resting places of the righteous scattered throughout the country.
these special dates, Moroccan Jews all over the world study Torah, light
candles, feast, and rejoice in honor of the special souls who have
brought light and healing to so many.
Read: A Moroccan Hilloula in Suburban Chicago
||The author wishes to thank Rabbi Levi Banon, Chabad rabbi in Casablanca, for reviewing this article and adding his insightful comments.