Facts and Fictions in Rabbinical Accounts in relation to Rabbi Haim Ben Atar

Facts and Fictions in Rabbinical Accounts in relation to Rabbi Haim Ben Atar

Marc Eliany © All Rights Reserved

Ben Atar Haim, (Sla 1691e – Jerusalem 1743e), known as ‘Or Ha Haim’ (Light of Life), as well as ‘hakadosh’ (the holy or the saint), is the son and grandson of rabbis known for their generosity and philanthropy (Moshe and Haim respectively). Haim was the son in law of Moshe Ben Atar, his great uncle, who was an advisor to king Ishmael Al A’laoui (1672-1727) and was known for establishing rabbinical academies and supporting rabbinical students in Meknes, among other places.

Historical Context

Relative peace reigned in Morocco in the days of Ishmael Al A’laoui (1672-1727). Mimran, Toledano and Ben Atar represented the king in foreign lands and bought him armaments to maintain peace from Tangier in the North to River Nun in the South. But in spite of the contributions Jews made to the well being of Morocco, they remained subject to great humiliation. Those were the days when injustice made life bitter but Jews praised Heaven they earned a living in spite of their hardship, the poor did not go hungry and rarely did any conversion to Islam take place in spite of their dispersion in most remote corners of Morocco (See for example Hirschberb, 1965 Zafrani, 1983 and Chouraki, 1985 for related historical evidence).

Rabbinical Accounts

Rabbinical reports by rabbi Yossef Ben Naim indicate that royal edicts aimed to humiliate Jews during the reign of king Ishmael by imposing heavy taxes, which included labor, i.e., demeaning tasks without remuneration, a ceremonial slap when the dhimma levy was delivered, walking bare feet in streets adjacent to mosques, and moving away from the path of Moslems. Attacks on Jewish quarters were also common. Authorities intervened from time to time to spare life and property, but not systematically nor with conviction (Sar Shalom).

Legendary Accounts – The Magic Mirror Tale

According to a folktale associate with Haim BenAtar, the mayor of Sla, who was especially hostile to Jews, spread rumors that Jews killed a Moslem boy. Moslems then attacked the Jewish quarter, spreading death and destruction everywhere.

Rabbi Haim rushed to King Ishmael and gave him ‘a magic mirror’ which showed Sla’s mayor planning a coup. Although the king was in the midst of his anniversary celebration, he led a company of soldiers to Sla, chopped its mayor’s head and dispersed the mob.

Fact versus Fiction

Setting the tale in its historical context, it seems that the essence of the account is anchored in facts, although a few details are not accurate. The ‘magic mirror’ detail is of course a fictional element used to valorize the miraculous deliverance of the Jews of Sla due to the benevolent intervention of Haim Ben Atar. Haim was the son in law of Moshe Ben Atar, who was in fact an advisor to King Ishmael. It may be possible that either Haim or Moshe intervened on behalf of the Jews of Sla successfully.

It is know also that Moshe Ben Atar’s influence became too significant to bear, bringing about his dismissal, imprisonment and death (fact). Moshe may have been dismissed following a power struggle between Moslems and Jews in the royal court. Kings dismissed Jewish court advisors to disinherit them too.

Haim Ben Atar returned to Sla after losing his benevolent father in law and learnt gold and silver embroidery to make a living while continuing his rabbinical occupations (fact).

Legendary Accounts – Haim in the Lions’ Den

According to a second legendary account, the governor of Rabat demanded of Rabbi Haim to embroider a wedding gown, among other matrimonial costumes, within a short delay. Rabbi Haim stated he could not fulfill the governor’s demand because of a vow he made to occupy himself with embroidery only one hour per day while the rest of his time is devoted to learning. As rabbi Haim persisted in his refusal to yield to the governor’s demands, he was thrown into a lions’ den. But Rabbi Haim survived the ordeal, chanting Psalms to sooth the lions’ fury. The governor realized then that rabbi Haim was a holy man, showered gifts upon him and released him.

Rabbinical Accounts

Rabbi Haim reported in his preface to ‘Or HaHaim’ that after the death of Moshe BenAtar, Moroccan authorities made claims on the inheritance due to him and his wife. As the claims were exaggerated and could not be met, Haim was imprisoned. The Jewish community collected the funds required to release Haim and he moved to Fez. But it was a time of drought and Jews suffered not only of famine but also of re-occurring attacks. So Rabbi Haim moved north to Tetuan.

Legendary Accounts – The Redemption of the Jewish Pirate

After a short stay in Tetuan, Rabbi Haim sailed to Jerusalem, his boat sunk but he survived miraculously hanging on to a piece of wood. Rabbi Haim drifted to North African shores where he survived an encounter with a lion as well as with a Jewish pirate that was once upon a time his student. Rabbi Haim convinced the pirate to mend his ways and sail with him to Livorno, Italy (Sar Shalom).

Rabbinical Accounts

The North African Jewish community in Livorno welcomed Rabbi Haim and helped him publish two books: ‘Or Ha Haim’ a mystical commentary on the Bible as well as ‘Peri Toar’ (Majestic Fruits). He refused a rabbinical post in Livorno but managed to enlist ten rabbinical students to join him in his journey to Jerusalem as well as financial support a rabbinical academy there.

The group landed in Acres, stayed there about one year to avoid a plague in southern Israel. Haim went on pilgrimage to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohay tomb in Meiron then. He settled as planned in Jerusalem a year later and established there a rabbinical academy. Rabbi Haim Azulay (Hida), (Jerusalem, 1724 – Livorno, Italy, 1807), among his students, testified as to his teacher’s depth in learning.

Raabi Haim Ben Atar influenced the Hassidic movement a great deal. According to rabbinical accounts, Baal Shem Tov, a Hassidic leader traveled to Kushta (Turkey) on his way to Jerusalem to meet Rabbi Haim but cancelled his trip for unknown reasons. Rabbi Guershom, Baal Shem Tov’s brother in law did go to Jerusalem to study with rabbi Haim, but arrived after the later died (Sar Shalom).

Ben Atar Haïm, son of Moché, known as Or HaHaim, was born in Meknès, Morocco. He was a rabbi, cabbalist and teacher. He is the founder of the rabbinical academy ‘Yéchivah Kénésset Israël.’ He is the author of ‘Héfets Hachem’ (God’s Wish), a commentary of the Talmud; ‘Richon lé Zion’ (First in Zion), a commentary on the Bible and the Talmud; ‘Safék Sféka’ (Doubts of Doubts), an essay about prophecy and related matters, among other books mentioned above. He is commemorated annualy and a rabbincal academy ‘Or Ha Haim’ is named after him.


Moroccan rabbis like rabbi Haim Ben Atar were quite productive. They wrote commentaries on the Bible and the Talmud in most cases. In the case of Or Ha Haim, the interpretation was influenced by a Cabbalistic or mystical conception. As there was no Hebrew printing house in Morocco, rabbis traveled to foreign countries to print books. Sometimes, they also gave manuscripts to messengers to print them in Livorno, among other places.

From time to time, rabbis reported historical events in prefaces to their manuscripts. These reports tend to be tinted by a world of concepts dominated by their beliefs. Although most rabbi had rationalist tendencies, some tended to attribute common event to divine intevention. For example, Haim Ben Atar attributed his surviving the encounter with a lion as God’s will. Some of the details may have been intended to glorify God and the writer too.

In addition to rabbinical interpretation, historical event went through a second layer of transformation in folk tales. Common people, sometimes educated but mostly uneducated, tended to tell a tale as if they witnessed it or as a legend, disregarding chronology (i.e., a distant historical event may be told as a recent experience). They also tend to glorify heros by transforming a simple intervention into a miracle, i.e., Ben Atar’s pleading with the king to protect the Jews was transformed into a miracle with the use of a magic mirror with a capacity to convey a coup!

Yet, in spite of rabbinical and folk interpretations, most tales were anchored in real historical events as demonstrated above. King Ishmael and Moshe Ben Atar and their relationships can be clearly identified and described. Therefore, historical evidence can be derived from oral folktales and rabbinical accounts, although it shpuld be done with care.


Ben Atar Haim, Or Ha Haim, Jerusalem (Hebrew)

Chouraki, Andre 1985 Histoire des Juifs en Afrique du Nord, Hachette

Hirschberg, J.W. 1965, A History of the Jews in North Africa from Antiquity to our Time, Jerusalem Bialik Institute. (Hebrew)

Sar Shalom Shimon, ???? Moroccan Sages, Jerusalem, Hod Yossef. (Hebrew)

Zafrani Haim, 1983 Mille Ans de Vie Juive au Maroc, Histoire et Culture, Religion et Magie, G.P. Maisonneuve et Larose, Paris

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