Sainthood, Lineage and Social Stratification in Jewish Morocco

Sainthood, Lineage and Social Stratification in Jewish Morocco

Marc Eliany © All Rights Reserved

Lineages dominated the rabbinical landscape in Jewish Morocco for many centuries. Learning, more than any other criterion, characterize known lineages. From time to time it was rewarded with reverence. Folktales and/or pilgrimage commemorate leading patriarchs. Two families are used here for illustration purposes: Avi Hatsira and Ankaoua, although other names would certainly make the case as effectively.

Avi Hatsira Yaacov of Tafilalet (1808-1880), discussed in detail in this series, left behind descendents whose notoriety remains significant in contemporary Israel. Yaacov was a rabbi, cabbalist and prolific author. Most of his manuscripts (13) were published (12) after his death in Israel, for example: Yorou mishpatéca lé Yaacov (Teaching Thy Law According to Jacob); Levona Zaka, a commentary on the Mishnah; Pitouhé hotam, (Conceptual Elaborations), overt and covert commentaries; Chah’aré Aroukha (The Gates to Heaven); Levoushe Serad, commentaries on legendary accounts; Mahasof halavan, commentaries on weekly Torah readings; Ginze Ha Melec; Chah’aré Aroukha among other publications. He died in Daminhur, Egypt, on his way to Jerusalem. He is commemorated in tales and pilgrimage. The name ‘Hatsira’ or straw mat is associated with a legend that Yaacov arrived to Morocco flying on a straw mat.

Click here for a detailed profile: Theological Conceptions of Existence among Moroccan Jews Based on the Writings of Rabbi Yaacov Avi Hatsira

Yaacov Avi Hatsira is the descendent of Shemouel Elbaz (1600e), sent to Morocco by the Sephardi community to raise funds. Elbaz, among other messengers from Jerusalem chose to stay in Morocco. Among Yaacov’s descendents are: Massood, Isaac, Aharon, who brought the manuscripts above to publication, Abraham (1868-1948), Meknès, Morocco. He was a rabbi and member of the rabbinical court of Casablanca. David (1866-1920), Tafilalet, Morocco. He was a rabbi, cabbalist and prolific author (see for example: Séfér sécel tov (The good sense guide); Pétah ohél (The gate to the Tent); Séfér Béréchit ou Shemot (Genesis and Exodus). He was the director of a rabbinical seminary in Tafilalet. He was assassinated in Morocco. Among the most recently known Avi Hatsira actors in contemporary Israel are Israel (i.e., Baba Sali), a rabbi and Aharon, a politician. Israël (Baba Sali) (1890-1984) was born in Morocco (1890) and died in Israel (1984). Israel was a rabbi, cabbalist and a founder of a rabbinical seminary in Jerusalem and Nétivot in Israel. His tomb became subject to pilgrimage too.

Ankaoua Ephraïm (he kof yod daled – 1442). Born in Toledo Spain. Rabbi in Morocco and Algeria (Tlemcen). Doctor. Philosopher. Linguist. Cabbalist. Author of Chah’ar Kévod Hachém (Gates to Divinity). Became an object of pilgrimage.

He is the son of Ephraim son of Israel Ankaoua, son of Yossef, nicknamed the saint (Hakadoch) (?-1391). Born in Toledo, Spain. Rabbi, author of Ménorat hamaor (the source of light), with focus on ethics. He chose to die rather than convert in Spain.

In the time of king Alfonso and archbishop Brosso, Jews lived in peace. But after their death, Martinez the priest led a hate campaign against the Jews, beginning in Seville and spreading from there to the rest of Spain. Attempts of the authorities to protect Jews failed, resulting in much destruction of Jewish property, conversions and death.

Ephraim lost his father when the killing campaign reached Toledo but he survived and found refuge in Marrakech, Morocco (kof nun alef). Living conditions in Morocco were difficult then. Learning and rabbinical authority declined. Taxes were heavy and included a labor levy, which reduced Jews to poverty. Ephraim trained young rabbis everywhere, neglecting not adult education.

Ephraim’s name is associated with legends, which point out his concern and contribution to the community. In one tale, the king’s daughter got sick and no one seemed able to cure her. The king announced that he who cures his daughter would be rewarded generously. Ephraim cured the king’s daughter but instead of asking for a personal reward, he pleaded with the king to alleviate the tax burden imposed on the Jews as well as to allow them to settle in Tlemcen. The King agreed and appointed Ephraim as his personal doctor. (Click here for another Ankaoua tale).

Ephraim’s descendents served the Jewish community in Morocco, and elsewhere in the Diaspora, for many generations. One of the most renowned descendents is Raphaël (1848-1935), born in Sale, just outside Rabat. He too was a rabbi. He founded a rabbinical academy and presided at the High Rabbinical Court in Rabat. He is the author of Karné réém (The bull’s Horns), Hadad vé Téma (Hadad and Téma), Pa’amon zahav (The Golden Bell), Pa’amon vé Rimon (The Bell and the Pomegranate), Toh’afot réém (The Bull’s Might), among other unpublished manuscripts. He is considered a saint and people go on pilgrimage to his tomb.

Other descendents are: Abraham (1810-1860). Morocco. Rabbi. Chief Rabbi of Tlemcen, Mascara, Tunis and Livorno. Author of Otsrot hayim (Life treasures). Yom Tov (XVIIIes.). Turkey. Rabbi. Author of commentaries on Maimonides and many rabbinical rulings.

Sainthood, Lineage and Social Stratification

Political instability exposed Moroccan Jews to economic hardship. Everyone suffered in such conditions but Jewish misery was especially pronounced because in periods of political instability, they became easy target of common robbers and road pirates. In addition, Moslem elites, whether in government or opposition, extorted special levies from Jews to finance their activities. Furthermore, religious fervor often aimed to reduce Jews to misery to bring about conversion as well as prove Islam’s superiority over Judaism.

As usual, people seek greener pastures when subject to harsh living conditions. Jews do not make an exception here. They only make the case well. Conditions permitting, Jews deserted Morocco whenever they could. Those with marketable resources left first, i.e., rabbis to serve communities elsewhere, a few individuals who managed to accumulate wealth in the service of Moroccan kings in commerce or skilled people who worked as diplomats and thus gained access to foreign residency. Moroccan Jews also wandered to Jerusalem, Hebron, Acres, Safed, or Tiberias, acting on Jewish longstanding yearning to Zion. It is clear, however, that from the time of the Arab conquest of North Africa (seventh century) to 1948, i.e., the independence of Israel, Moroccan Jews had few immigration opportunities. Most stayed in Morocco, subject to oppressive living conditions, in spite of occasional reprieves.

Under these circumstances, many Jews converted to Islam. It is difficult to estimate how many converted and how many returned to Judaism. Rabbinical accounts do provide evidence some Jews did return to Judaism in urban centers such as Fez but not all. Remaining Jews adopted a survival mode characterized by ritual consumption and flat social stratification.

Ritual consumption and social stratification

As political instability, economic insecurity and religious persecution persisted, it did not make sense to Jews to accumulate wealth in Morocco. Therefore, even during periods of relative stability, Jews did not save. They consumed wealth in perennial celebrations of lifecycle events and holidays. Wealth could not serve as a base of social stratification because general living conditions reduced Jews to poverty during periods of instability, Jews who accumulated wealth were robbed, the few who accumulated modest resources left Morocco and finally, wealth was consumed systematically. Yet, there is plenty of evidence that Jews did not always live in misery in Morocco. There were times of respite during which Jews made a decent living but they knew well that it was temporary and thus opted for ritual consumption that converted wealth into prestige.

Sharing wealth in the course of lifecycle events and holidays became not only a lifestyle but also an effective mode of mutual support. Although giving alms to the poor was common, ritual consumption formed the underlying socio-economic safety structure in poor man’s Morocco. Sharing ‘wealth’ in the course of ritual consumption, however modest, spared the poor humiliation while rewarding the giver with prestige. Prestige became then the base for social ranking but only to a limited extent, because there was too little wealth to spare!

Yet, it is well established that rabbis did command considerable prestige in Jewish Morocco. Avi Hatsira and Ankaoua are only two examples but they are of significant importance for social stratification. Rabbis were rarely well to do economically but rabbinical education gave them enough prestige to rank them at the top of social ranking. Furthermore, in a society deprived of economic resources, rabbi made the main social group who had a marketable resource: they had something to give to the community and they gave generously. Rabbis in Morocco served their communities as teachers, leaders, and judges with little or no pay. They were also generators of wealth and providers to the needy. They often formed partnerships with merchants, if they were not merchants themselves and shared their resources with the community at large.

To conclude, political instability, economic insecurity and religious persecution flattened the stratification system in Jewish Morocco. Equality prevailed by default and no one allowed anyone else higher ranking with very few exceptions. As mentioned earlier, people who served kings or local elites did accumulate moderate amounts of wealth but most deserted Morocco as soon as they could. The same applies to diplomats. Thus leaving rabbis in a position of high ranking and respect. As most Jews in Morocco lived in modest conditions and had relatively low education, they rewarded highly ranked benefactors with tales and pilgrimage, granting simple rabbi quasi-divine qualities.


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