Bar Mitzvah and Education

Bar Mitzvah and Education

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A Bar mitzvah is a boy 13 years of age plus one day. According to rabbinical traditions, as of this day, the boy is considered responsible for his own deeds (Pirke Avot). Customs, however, differ in Morocco.

According to the Talmud Bar Mitzvah takes place as soon as the father observes that the child is able and ready to assume the duty of hanacat tefilin. According to Talmudic traditions a boy of age can join the ‘minian’ or quorum of ten people required to conducting prayers (Yehuda Ben Tema, Avot 5:25). The term Bar Mitzvah in the Talmud did not specify an age but refers to Jews who are expected to fulfill deeds as prescribed in the Torah and rabbinical traditions (Baba Metsia’ 95). This definition of a Bar Mitzvah is important because it differentiates between a Jew and a gentile, who is not expected to fulfil all the prescribed rules of behaviour mentioned in the Torah. (This does not mean that a gentile is less worthy than a Jew or that he has fewer rights. In fact, Torah prescribes granting equal rights to a gentile (Leviticus 20:33-37). It only means that a gentile is not obliged to comply by Torah commandments. He becomes obliged to do so as soon as he converts to Judaism). Thus according to Talmudic traditions, one could become Bar Mitzvah when deemed mature enough to assume responsible behaviour, which requires by definition compliance to Torah commandments.

Moroccan Jew followed the Talmudic tradition most of the time, although rabbinical practices have been adopted in more recent years. Bar Mitzvah ceremonies were held in Morocco as soon as a boy appeared to have gained enough knowledge of the Torah, sometimes as early as the age of 7. But in most cases, children celebrated Bar mitzvah in Morocco around the age of 12.

The term Bar Mitzvah was redefined in the 14th Century to be a boy 13 years of age plus one day. According to rabbinical interpretations, a boy is mature enough at this age to assume responsibility for his own deeds. Thus his parents are relieved of responsibility for his misconduct. Before the age of 13 and one day, a boy is considered a child who lacks the maturity to assume responsibility for his actions and thus his parents are to oversee his conduct and assume related consequences in accordance with Harambam’s ruling.

Ceremonial aspects

According to Jewish traditions, there is no need for a ceremony to establish the age of responsibility (Bar Mitzvah). A boy becomes responsible for his own behaviour as he matures regardless whether a ceremony is held or not. Yet, it has become a tradition to celebrate the age of responsibility. Usually, the boy is called to the Torah podium on the Sabbath or the first Monday or Thursday following his becoming 13 years of age plus one day. The boy is expected to read a portion of the Torah as well as the Maftir (a related reading from Prophet’s). If he cannot read the portion himself, another person reads it on his behalf but he must at least recite the Torah blessings. The father stands at the side of his son and declares immediately thereafter that he is no longer responsible for the conduct of the boy (this is also according to rabbinical tradition rather than Torah prescription).

In Morocco, a boy was expected not only to learn the five books of the Pentateuch (Torah) but also one section of the Talmud. Sometimes the boy was even tested as to his knowledge of Torah and Talmud before allowed to celebrate Bar Mitzvah. Children who passed the test at an earlier age, i.e., before 13, were allowed to celebrate Bar mitzvah. This does not imply that all children of age were really versed with Torah and Talmud in Morocco. Children in major urban centres such as Casablanca, Fez, Meknes were most likely able to meet these requirements. However, the situation was less rosy in the distant periphery, where teachers were not available and parents were not educated enough to teach their children. Therefore, many children went through the Bar Mitzvah ritual without meeting the requirements. In such cases, children simply learnt by heart some of the prayers.

A few weeks before Bar Mitzvah, the boy is taught how to wear talith (prayer shawl) and tefilin (two separate small boxes containing relevant Torah passages (shema’), one is installed on the left arm close to the heart while the other is worn on the head like a crown to symbolize that Torah is in the heart and mind of the believer)

Historically, there seem to be a divergence in the scales of celebration of Bar Mitzvah in Morocco. On one hand there is evidence that many people celebrated it modestly, putting an emphasis on the ritual (Torah reading and wearing a prayer shawl and tefilin), rather than on the festivity aspect. However, a feast is prescribed, according to tradition (seu’dat mitzvah), as Abraham did offer a meal in the honour of Isaac’s Bar Mitzvah. Recent, as well as, past practices indicate that celebrations may have been extravagant at times, leading to repeated rabbinical calls to moderate festivities and consumption.

The Bar mitzvah usually delivers a speech or two (drasha) of Biblical/religious significance and guests shower him with gifts and blessings.

Moroccan Jews hold the Bar Mitzvah feast Sunday evening or Wednesday evening, that is the night before Monday or Thursday, which are the days when Torah is read in synagogues and when the boy is summoned to read Torah as well as wear talith and tefilin. Sometimes the prayer was held in the home of the Bar Mitzvah because of the belief that on this day, the Shecina descends from heaven to inhabit the home of the Bar mitzvah and leave a bit of Its spirit behind. The boy sits between his father and the rabbi. The rabbi helps the boy to put on the arm tefilin while the father helps his son to wear the head tefilin. Chanting (piyutim) is extensive, making the prayer very festive as well as long. The boy usually delivers a speech (drasha) at the end of the prayer. The speech is delivered in a mix of Hebrew and Arabic to ensure that everyone understands its content. The boy is often showered with candies. He and his parents donate money to the synagogue and the poor. Sometimes, the Bar Mitzvah walks around the synagogue with his talith bag to collect donations. The money is then donated to the rabbi or to the poor.
The cycle of the Bar Mitzvah rituals

According to tradition Bar Mitzvah begins with Torah reading on Shabbat afternoon (minha), followed by a meal (seudat mitzvah) at the parents’ home. The Bar Mitzvah delivers a speech (darush) Saturday night.

The Hena. A second speech (darush) is sometimes delivered on Sunday or Wednesday night during the hena ceremony (more details below).

Torah Reading (Alyia). A third speech (darush) is delivered on Monday or Thursday after the Bar Mitzvah precxribed Torah reading (alyia), this time in the synagogue.

A full scale Bar Mitzvah feast is held Monday or Thursday night. Family and friends are invited to a big celebration with music, a band and lots of food.

In Morocco it was a tradition to consider a twelve years old boy as a Bar Mitzvah. Often the child learns a passage of the Talmud (masecet) by heart and gets examined by a local Rabbi. If the boy is successful, the father invites the congregation to a ritual feast. During same week on Monday, Thursday or Saturday, The Bar Mitzvah is summoned to a Torah reading. He also puts on the tefilin, if it is on a weekday. In such case, the teacher helps the child wear the arm tefilin (tefilin shel yad) and the father helps with wearing the head (tefilin shel rosh). Sometimes different parents or relatives assist in the ritual by wrapping one round or two of the tefilin strap around the boy’s arm. From the ideal described above, there are deviations. Normally, only one speech (darush) is delivered and often the Bar Mitzvah gets help in preparing it if he cannot do it himself.

Ceremonies are conducted in a very festive mood. Singing (piyutim) and cries of joy (zegharit) are abundant. One of the most popular songs (piyut) is David Ben Hassin’s poem: ‘Living Divine’ (elohim hay):

Living Divine
May you be praised.
Your Covenant is our crown,
Our pride is Moses’ Code.
We carry
On our mind and
Next to our heart
Your blessed ways,
For everyone to see.
For you are
The source of life

Other relevant Bar Mitzvah ceremonies

1. Tailoring the suit for the Bar Mtzvah. It is common to buy new cloths for the Bar Mitzvah in general. However, there is a distinct tradition whereby the father of the Bar Mitzvah takes his son to a tailor to prepare him a new suit. Often, some festivity accompanies phases of suit preparation. For example, cries of joy (zegharit) and candy showers may mark the cutting of the suit or trying it or bringing it home.

2. Hair cutting ceremony. Many Moroccan Jewish ceremonies are accompanied by hair cutting ceremonies. Bar Mitzvah is no exception. In many cases, the barber or hair stylist comes to the home of the Bar Mitzvah to cut the hair of the boy. Although in some cases, the boy goes to a barber in the company of his father. In both cases, hair cutting is celebrated with cries of joy (zegharit) and candy showers as well as a meal (seuda). On this occasion only a small number of people are invited, i.e., close family members.

Hair cutting has mystical significance as hair is believed to contain special power (recall Samson’s hair as well as Elijah’s, among other ‘first-born’ children dedicated to serve the priesthood was kept long. It is a mark of holiness and devotion. In addition, as it is believed that the Shecina descends from heaven to bless the Bar Mitzvah with Its presence, cutting hair is meant to reduce the ‘holiness’ of the boy so that he would be able to contain the light of the Shecina. In other words, if the boy does not cut his hair, he might not be able to contain the Shecina’s light and thus run the risk of ‘breaking apart’ like the shattering of primal creation vessel during Genesis.

3. Hena ceremony. As mentioned earlier, a speech (darush) is sometimes delivered on Sunday or Wednesday night during a hena ceremony. Hena is a vegetal ointment, which is applied to the hand of the boy as well as his guests. It is accompanied with a significant feast, which consists not only of food but a very elaborate desert table, as well as music and dancing and story telling.

The hena ceremony has no foundation in Jewish traditions. It is in all likelihood borrowed from Berber neighbours, who used hena ointments as a shield from ‘other world creatures’ known as ‘jnun’ (or genies). Nowadays, most Moroccan Jews are not aware of the pagan aspect of the hena ceremony. For them, the hena ceremony is another occasion to spend time together to deplete accumulated wealth. One might also note that lifecycle rituals offered a primary source of entertainment in a society where there were practically no concert halls, theatres etc… Culture and entertainment took place in the context of lifecycle celebrations both at home and in synagogues.

4.Processions. Several processions took place on the occasion of Bar Mitzvah. Going to the tailor, the barber, the Hamam (i.e., Turkish bath) or to the synagogue and back, often were ceremonial events that involved a procession, which involved the participation of family members and friends. Processions were marked by cries of joy (zegharit) as well as candy showers and greetings from bystanders in the street.

One of the most important processions associated with Bar Mitzvah takes place on Bar Mitzvah day. The boy wears tefilin (phylactery) and talit (prayer shawl) at home and marches at the head of a procession to the synagogue with lit candles and mint and myrtle (bessamim). Lit candles symbolize Divine light while mint and myrtle Its spirit.

4. Charity. Charity takes place in a variety of forms. The Bar Mitzvah is given the opportunity to give alms to the needy from his own pocket. In addition, he might make a round in the synagogue to collect donations, which are given to his rabbi/teacher or the poor. Torah readings (alyia), among other honours, are auctioned and revenues are donated to the synagogue of the community. But the most impressive act of charity of Moroccan Jews is the pairing of boys from needy families (an orphan, for example) with well to do boys to celebrate Bar Mitzvah. The wealthy family then covers all expenses. Often, a wealthy family would feel privileged to pair its son with a poor but learned Bar mitzvah boy, because the latter is better versed in Torah reading and interpretation, etc…

Food consumption during Bar Mitzvah feasts (seudot) also provides opportunities to provide for the needy. Bar Mitzvah is partly a consumption ritual (seudat mitzvah) to which most of the congregation is invited. It is a time of sharing food and joy, especially with the needy. It is an occasion to share food with the needy, without humiliating them through an obvious act of ‘giving.’

Meanings and functions of Bar Mitzvah

Bar Mitzvah is a ritual, which aims to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. Form a religious point of view it is meant to enable boys to fulfil covenants prescribed in the Torah. Although the purpose is mainly religious, it fulfils other functions, i.e., the education the child to transform him into a responsible member of the community, as well as, to enhance communal integration and solidarity. Education for responsible behaviour as well as communal solidarity are key components of the underlying structure which held Jewish communities together across the ages in spite of dispersion. It is important to note that education and responsible behaviour made Jews useful to their host communities, especially in countries where education was not widespread. Education made Jews useful to others. It is their usefulness to others, which made them central to the development of their hosting societies. Unfortunately, it also made them an object of like and dislike at the same time. Education allowed Jews to make a positive contribution to host communities as well as assume leadership roles but being an alien part to local communities made them marginal and vulnerable as any elite would be when challenged. Jews were especially vulnerable because they were attacked not only by the masses, but also by aspiring elites vying for positions of power (i.e., local ministers) and governing elites (i.e., kings and princes) because it was easy to scapegoat a sub-servant marginal and alien functional elite.

Ritual Consumption and Bar Mitzvah

In spite of well-reported decent neighbourly relations between Arabs and Jews in Morocco, Jews remained vulnerable to abuses. As a consequence, it was not worthwhile to accumulate wealth, leading Jews to develop elaborate consumption rituals to use it up. Bar Mitzvah offered an excellent opportunity to deplete accumulated wealth. However, extravagant consumption also attracted negative attention from envious neighbours. Therefore, in spite of biblical traditions, which reinforce and legitimate the feast associated with Bar Mitzvah (among other rituals), rabbis in Morocco called upon followers to moderate their festivities. Interestingly, cabalistic traditions in Morocco fulfilled a similar function among Jews of the interior (i.e., the inhabitants) but from an abstention perspective. For according to Rabbi Yaacov Avihatsira, one should not let material matters tempt the self and that the individual is to put an emphasis on fulfilling spiritual duties, which are associated with the completion of creation, a process that brings a Bar Mitzvah closer to the divine. Forgoing material possessions is compatible with spiritual existence. Sharing possessions with the needy is part of spiritual being because it increase righteousness in the world while enhancing harmony (i.e., tikun or reparation of the broken vessel).

The role of the Levites as educators

Preparation for Bar Mitzvah implies education, i.e., a process of socialization. One of the key Jewish commandments prescribes: ‘you shall be holy as is your creator’ (Leviticus 19:2). Learning is the key element that makes one holy because it spreads righteousness in the world and minimizes deviant behaviour. In ancient times, Levites were assigned the duty to teach the people of Israel. After the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jews in the world, rabbis assumed Levites teaching duties. Nowadays, teachers fulfil this task. Teachers make a key contribution to fulfilling this covenant. Teaching without pay (i.e., as a good deed or mitzvah) is highly regarded. However, compensation is due because teachers are prevented from regular occupation (menuiim milaa’ssok bimlaca). One may recall the tradition of redemption of the first-born, which prescribes a payment to priests (i.e., Levites) to compensate them for assuming priesthood and teaching duties in lieu of children of other Hebrews (see redemption section). Indeed, in Morocco, there were times when teachers of children between 3 and 7 years of age (‘moreh de bet raban’ or ‘heder teachers’), experienced hardship, especially when communities were poor and could not afford paying junior teachers. Often teachers had other occupations to earn a living, i.e., as scribes (sofer) or suppliers of religious items (tashmishe kedusha), or prayer leaders (hazan), lithurgy singers (paytan), a ritual slaughterers (shohet) and sometimes they also kept a business on the side, i.e. selling spices. Regulations (takanot) often dealt with teachers’ compensation in Morocco. As a general rule, Junior teachers (heder) did not do as well as senior teachers (yeshiva level).

It is puzzling that a community that values education does not institutionalise adequate compensation to educators. It appears that some of the communities were too poor to allocate resources to educators. Also, the mitzvah to educate a child is the responsibility of the parents rather than the community. Therefore, parents who had the means often took care of their own children’s education, often neglecting the needs of the children of the poor. It may have been a matter of survival as Moroccan Jewry was subject to extended periods of abuses and poverty, especially in remote rural areas. Having said so, wealthy Moroccan Jews did sponsor learning institutions where the children of the poor could study freely. Furthermore, inadequate funding of education may have occurred as righteous educators were expected to fulfil the mitzvah of education without compensation. Thus communities were not expected to allocate resources to education in a formal manner and educators were expected to fend for themselves, i.e., by assuming other duties as explained earlier.

Education took place in synagogues, although schools became the main centres of education in the 20th century in Morocco. According to oral traditions, rabbinical edicts prescribed and regulated the process of education after the destruction of the Temple (70 CE). Synagogues became then centres of learning in Morocco, as much as elsewhere. Early education (heder) took place in synagogues (sla). Teachers of early education (tinokot debet raban) were considered minor educators, while yeshiva teachers were more educated and better compensated. Yeshiva studies took place also in synagogues. All activities in synagogues were financed by donations rather than membership payments. In short, synagogues were the centre of preparation for Bar Mitzvah and education in general. That is before the establishment of modern education in Morocco in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Regulation pertaining to education (takanot)

Rabbinical regulation prescribes that parents have the duty to provide education to their children until Bar Mitzvah and if possible thereafter too. Rabbi Yaacov Even Tsur ruled in 1721, (Iyar 5481), that parents are forbidden to take away children from learning Torah to work. This ruling (takanah) indicates that Jews experienced significant economic hardship in Morocco around that time. Yet, the ruling reiterates the precedence of learning over work, an old tradition among Jews across the ages.

But learning has informal aspects in Morocco. Children were prepared for Bar Mitzvah not only through formal learning but also informally as an ongoing part of everyday life. It was a continuing education process through a. Torah reading in public, b. study groups focussing on Pirke Avot, Talmud or Zohar and 3. ongoing interpretation of sources such as Mishnah and Talmud in conjunction with routine prayers. In fact education often occurred more in informal rather than formal structures. For this reason, many Moroccan Jews have no certificates or diplomas to ascertain their education and yet they may be really erudite.

Learning is so important in Jewish Morocco that oral accounts stated that ‘ the Creator spend a fourth of Its time to learning.’ The ultimate aim is total self-devotion to learning. Therefore, learning was a principal occupation for some rabbis and teachers while working was only a secondary occupation. Some sociologists may argue that this pattern may have had significant consequences on the economic well being of the community at large, as the learned did not aim to accumulate wealth but only make a living. This tradition was very much alive in Morocco till massive immigration to Israel as of 1948. Until then, learning Torah was a priority and only when one was not apt to learning, was he directed to a trade apprenticeship (see Rabbi Yossef Ibn Aknin, (contemporary of Harambam), in his book ‘Tuv Nefesh’ in Berber Morocco; Rabbi Yehuda Ben Shmuel Ben Abbas in ‘Yair Nativ’, about 1250 in Arab Morocco; and Harambam in ‘ Hilkhot Talmud Torah’ in Moorish/Spanish Morocco).

How does education take place in Morocco?

Learning for Bar Mitzvah through rituals.

1. learnig to pray, i.e., reading liturgy, Torah, making a’lyia, reading the Prophets (haftara). Reading implies not only word recognition but also proper enunciation (dikduk) and singing (tea’mim). Moroccan Jews aim to teach their children to read Torah and Haftarot as early as a child can learn. Usually initiation to learning takes place symbolically in rituals such as:

2. The visit to the circumcision household (see circumcision section) of toddlers (tinokot debet raban) carrying Hebrew letters on wooden boards laced with honey. The toddlers bring Torah, synagogue and learning to the home of circumcision (Brith Milah) and thereby create an emotional bond between children and learning.

3. Fathers fulfil their educational role by taking the infant, barely a month or two old, to a place of learning/synagogue to submerge him in holiness. On this occasion toddlers (tinokot debet raban) are showered with candies.

4. By the age of three, a formal initiation to learning takes place (i.e., hatuna bezei’r anpin) (see initiation section). On this occasion, boys are ‘wedded’ to learning in a ritual, which aims to integrate toddlers in the community at a very early age, hence the symbolic marriage to the Torah in the synagogue.

Learning for Bar Mitzvah through informal education

Mothers and siblings play an important education role through modelling:
1. Alms giving (tsedaka) every day. One may find a variety of charity boxes in Jewish Moroccan homes, for the needy, United Jewish Appeal (Keren Kayemet), yeshiva boxes, orphan boxes etc…
2. Love for the Land of Israel (Eretz Israel) through admiration of messengers who come to collect funds to support a variety of causes in Israel (shelice Eretz Israel). Jews in Morocco provided support to messengers when travelling to collect funds; they listened to them when preaching in synagogue; they went on pilgrimage (hilulot) to their tombs, if they died in Morocco, and they kept their memory alive through story telling (see Eliany, Folktales of the Moroccan Jews).
3. Respect for others in every day life, i.e., kissing the hand of elders and parents….

Learning through repetition

Initiation to learning begin around the age of three, that is when the child goes to the heder. Here the child is exposed to Hebrew letters and learning by repetition, often without understanding the content. Much of the learning takes place through oral repetition (tasmia’).

Learning trades

It is a duty to learn a trade but it cannot take precedence over learning Torah. Even when one’s main business is trade, he should not neglect Torah learning. Respect for the Divine (yirat hashem) is not a simple matter of learning, it is first and foremost a duty of a person to himself, to bring oneself as close as possible to oneness with the Divine and achieve thereby holiness for man was created in the image of God (adam betstelem adonay nivra).

The main purpose of learning

Learning aims to integrate the individual into the symbolic and spiritual world of the Jewish tradition. Children become proficient in reading by the age of seven or eight. In many cases, children at this age learn an easy passage from the Bible (i.e., a haftara such as parashat Noah). Although the child is not given a a’lyia, he is given the occasion to read a biblical passage at the end of the weekly Torah reading. The occasion is celebrated like a Bar Mitzvah, although a Bar Mitzvah takes place some time later. Having said so, early cases of celebration of Bar Mitzvah are known as early as the age of seven or eight, when a child is exceptionally bright. In most cases, Bar Mitzvah is celebrated by the age of ten or eleven for children who can read well and who learnt to put on tefilin. Often two brothers close in age celebrate Bar Mitzvah together. Sometimes, the children of poor neighbours celebrate Bar Mitzvah together with well-to-do children in a demonstration of communal caring and charity.

Comparative learning and content understanding (havanat hanikra)

Yehuda Even Coresh ruled that one should ‘read twice and translate once’. The ultimate in Bar Mitzvah preparation is not only learning to read but also understanding the content, i.e., through translation (sherh). Thus it was common to read Bible passages (haftarah), translating it them to Arabic, one of the Berber languages, French or Spanish, as well as, interpreting them (perush). It is a form of comparative learning that includes interpretation of one or more known interpreters such as Rashi. By the age of thirteen, the Bar Mitzvah is expected not only to understand the Torah but also interpret it and write a speech (darush), which is delivered in the course of the Bar Mitzvah ceremonies. The speech is often written in a prosaic style (bilshon melitsa). Only the bright and well-educated children achieved this goal. Many boys learnt the darush by heart; much like North American Jewish boys do nowadays, when learning Torah reading for Bar Mitzvah. But the real purpose of Bar Mitzvah should not be ignored, the ideal of education is knowledge (bekiut), understanding (Havana) and innovation (hidush).

Reinforcing learning through writing/copying

Many students learnt to write by copying passges they learnt because there were no printing houses in Morocco until the turn of the 20th Century. By copying, the community gained a book as well as a ‘trained’ scribe.

Learning in the yeshiva

A Bar Mitzvah who demonstrates wisdom (hocma) is usually enlisted to a rabbinical academy (yeshiva) to be amongst the learned (talmide hacamim) of reputation (sheshmam holec lifnehem). Often the learned teacher is also a silent businessman who sponsors talented students to study with him. Learning flows in both directions. Teachers gain from their students insights and vis-a-versa (ashrey rav shelamad metatlmidav ve talmid she lamad merabo).

Most learning in rabbinical academies (yeshiva) takes place in the form of advanced comparative analysis. Students are usually divided into small groups of two or three members. The students are given general instructions by a rabbi/teacher. Then they read a passage in the Bible or the Talmud, along with related well-known interpretations and discuss them as to the meaning and implication. The process aims to advance understanding of the law (beur hadin). Student aims to seek understanding of the covenant purposes, the rules and intents through the rich literature of previous rabbinical ruling (poskim). This is essentially learning in the comparative mode but it takes place in the context of small group discussion, often pairs or triads, which may be very fluid since students may move from one group to another at any time.

This type of learning is compatible with the stage of moral development that adolescents in modern societies go through in a peer setting as discussed by Piaget and Kohlberg. Learning in small peer oriented groups enhances moral development as well as internalisation of norms and values. Learning through discussions is also associated with the development of autonomy, or independent thinking according to both Piaget and Kholberg. The teacher in a yeshiva, in spite of his apparent authority, act as is a guide rather than an authoritarian teacher, as he himself is subject to previous rabbinical rulings, for which he is only an interpreter; thus the peer structure has more influence on learning than the teacher. Students do refer to their teacher to get clarifications or to explain difficult passages but this is done voluntarily. Students ask for an opinion, which takes place in the context of other opinions (i.e., peers) reinforced by the teacher who explains the different positions taken by authoritative rabbinical rulers (poskim).

Learning the Talmud and Shulhan Aruc

A Talmud section (massecet) takes about six months. ‘Graduation’ ceremonies take place to mark the passage from one section to the next. The event is somewhat festive in a sense that students are given the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding as well as ability to introduce new interpretations (hidushim).

Students also learn the essence of rabbinical Judaism as summarised in ‘shulhan aruc.’ In case of doubt, students always refer to ‘shulhan aruc’ in Morocco. Learning is also guided by the teaching of Rabbi Isaac Alfassi (Harif) as elaborated on in ‘Sefer Ha Halcot,’ a summary of the Talmud as well as Harambam’s ‘Misheneh Torah’.

Learning aims to encourage the development of understanding as well as innovative interpretation rather than reoccurring interpretation (pilpul lehidush rather than pilpul leshem pilpul).

Continuing education

Religious life was omnipresent in everyday life among Moroccan Jews. Learning took place on every occasion, in the course of lifecycle as well as daily rituals. Therefore, it was ongoing and took place in informal settings, rather than structured settings, i.e., schools. Learning took place in study groups on evening weekdays as well as on Saturdays and holidays. Rabbis and learned members of the community read rabbinical sources and discussed (or lectured) relevant interpretations and legends. Moroccan Jews, especially the less educated ones, loved rabbinical legends (see Eliany’s tales). There were many Zohar groups (Book of Splendour) in which ‘midrash’ and legends and myths were discussed in details. Liturgical singing (piyutim) was another informal way to convey Biblical teachings as well as transmit traditions.

The ultimate in learning practices for some devotees takes place at night. Moroccan Jews followed Harambam’s teaching, i.e., that learning is best at night (adam marbe daat lilmod balaila). Many study groups (Bar Yohai Havurot) read Zohar from midnight (tikun hatsot) till Morning Prayer (shahrit). Elders recount how they dipped their feet in cold water to stay awake.

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