The Tale of the Kingdom of Ephraim in the Dra’ Valley
ELIANY Marc © 2013
My name is Benjamin. I’m working on a PhD at the University of East Anglia now, but I am interested in my ancestors, as I am a descendent of the Derhy family, Karaites residents of the Draa region in Morocco. We were called Benshabat, but we were Levites.
Believe me, what I can tell you is that the Jewish kingdom of the Draa Valley is far from being just a legend! In fact, silver coins with Hebrew writings attest to the existence of a Jewish state in the Todra Gorge dating around the 9th century.
Historians Maurice Dorès and Michel Abitbol, Chair of the Department of African Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, report that an independent Jewish, Karaite kingdom existed in the Draa Valley as late as the 15th century. It used to be big around the 6th century but shrunk became quite small by the 11th and 12th centuries. As far as I know, the founders of the ancient Draa kingdom settled in the region around the time of the Babylonian exile. Some of the exiles established a community in Djerba.
My ancestors were separated from the Pharisees and didn’t know about the Talmud or holidays such Purim until later. When rabbinical Jews arrived, my ancestors did not acknowledge the oral law which they were not aware of. That is the reason my ancestors were labeled Karaites. Rabbinical sources date Karaism in the Draa to the 11th century, but Jews lived in the region quite earlier.
Moussa Dari (משה דרעי ), the renown Karaite poet came from the Draa to settle in Cairo. The Karaite Cairo Synagogue carries his name. I learnt a lot about what happened in the Draa region from the 6th to the 12th century from the Gattefosse and Toledano manuscripts.
You see, the Benshabat’s were originally Levites from another Ephraimite kingdom established in Morroco, around Oufrane (Ifrane). This kingdom was built around the time of the Babylonian exile too. Some say the Ephraimite kingdom existed west of Egypt since Joseph’s time. Levites lived among them and served as ‘priests. One of their renown rulers was Abraham Ha-Ephrati. Ephrati’s relation to the name Ephraim in mentioned in Rabbi Toledano’s books about Jewish surnames in Morocco.
Cabbalist Rabbi Jacob Levi, later known as Jacob Ben Shabbat ( יעקב בן שבת), is originally from Oufrane, although he settled later in Mogador). He was renamed ‘Ben Shabbat’ in 1620 due to a miracle. Rabbi Jacob Levi earned a living as a caravan merchant, as many Jews did at that time. On one occasion, he refused to go along with the caravan on Shabbat eve and stayed in the desert. Later the caravan was attacked by robbers and some of the merchants even died, but rabbi Jacob Levi survived, as a lion kept him company the whole time, ‘guarding him’ and keeping him safe. Rabbi Jacob Ben Shabbat in revered as a saint in Morocco by Jews and some say even Moslems attend his grave!