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A Short Jewish History of Morocco

August 4, 2022 | by Shira and Rabbi Chef David Trakhtman

Discovering the greatest gift of the Moroccan Jews.

Just as Israel’s location in the Middle East enables its culture to be influenced by a wide range of regions; Morocco’s position on the coastline of Northern Africa has long facilitated a flow of trade from European nations like Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy. Historically, there was a strong cultural and culinary influence from ancient peoples like The Berbers, Phoenicians, Carthaginian and Muslim empires. Traditionally, Morocco has been more accepting of the Jewish right to exist than other countries. With the Alhambra Decree in 1492, many of the Jews who were expelled during the Spanish Inquisition sought refuge in Morocco. In fact, at the height of Moroccan Jewry, the population grew to between 250,000 to 350,000 and remained one of the largest Jewish communities in the Muslim world for hundreds of years. To this day, The Moroccan Jewish Museum in Casablanca is the only one of its kind celebrating Jewish culture in the entire Arab world.

Entrance to Jewish Museum in Morocco

Why were Jews so benevolently blessed with tolerance in busy city centers like Marrakesh?

The reigning Sultans relished in the taxes collected from the early Jewish merchants, but while the Jewish religious practice was protected under sharia law, Jews themselves were decreed to live in the walled Jewish quarter. Segregated within locked city gates, a curfew at night, and without shoes to keep them from traveling far, Jews were humiliated but lived in relative safety from the widespread pogroms that plagued Europe at the time. Despite this level of subjugation, the Mellah market in the Jewish area of Marrakesh thrived more profitably than its non-Jewish competitors. Many merchants from around the world preferred to lodge or do business with the Jews. It was simply safer because for some reason the Mellah was largely spared from The Black Death, a plague that killed nearly half of the Moroccan population at its peak.

Miniature Costume Display at Jewish Museum in Morocco

Was it a miracle the Jews were saved, some scientific explanation, or perhaps a combination of the two?

Ironically; just as in Europe, when Jews kept traditional Torah rituals like the mikveh (the ritual bath), the washing of hands upon arising or eating bread, and the laws of kashrut, they maintained a level of cleanliness and health that was higher than the general population. Thus the promise found in Exodus (Shemot) 23:25 was actualized in real life,“​​And you shall worship the Lord, your God, and He will bless your food and your drink, and I will remove illness from your midst.”

These days the Moroccan Jewish population live largely outside of Morocco. For example, from its original 40,000 inhabitants in Marrakesh only around 200 remain. According to one eyewitness from the Ohayon family, one of the remaining households, a massive migration of Moroccan Jews happened in one night. The community got together and decided to sneak their children out, sending them to either France, Israel, or America for better education and marriages. They took with them whatever items of value they could, including one of their greatest gifts to the world, their famous Moroccan Fish recipe. Chances are, even if you are not Moroccan, you have tasted and loved their traditional fish dish, a delicacy that is as rich as the history of the people who created it.  Get the recipe for Moroccan Fish here.

Fun facts:

1. Of all the Sephardim, Moroccans have some of the most similar cultural practices to Ashkenazim except for two distinct customs. If you go into a Moroccan synagogue you may find the congregants using an Ashkenazi Torah. However, they sit in a circle so they can see one another, rather than with the cantor in front and the parishioners following behind in rows.

Recreation of a Synagogue in the Jewish Museum of Morocco

2. Many Moroccans have a tradition of saying 100 blessings a day, and because there are fewer blessings in morning prayers on Shabbat, Moroccans created a very unique marker of their meal. Moroccans have a custom of making a full appetizer course to start their meal. This ritual differs from all other Shabbat meals around the world; wherein after kiddush, people wash and eat their meal directly having made the blessing over bread. No other blessings are required until the blessing at the end of the meal. Moroccans, on the other hand, do not wash for bread and then eat their meal. Rather these special sephardis make kiddush on wine and then eat a full appetizer course before washing and eating challah. In this way, they are able to make additional blessings for each different type of food group, adding more blessings to their Shabbat.

Photo credit: All the images from the Moroccan Jewish Museum were taken by Shira and are fee for use.
The image of the fish was taken by David Trakhtman and is free to use.

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