Our story takes us back some 250 years to the city of Fez, today in Morocco. Fez lies in the western part of northern Africa, known as the Barbary Coast. Rabbi Masoud Alfassi lived in Fez, as his name Al-Fassi indicates. He and a group of friends longed to live in the Holy Land and one day they finally decided to travel 3,000 miles, through the Sahara Desert, to the Land of Israel.

Traveling through a desert was done in caravans. A desert, especially one the size and likes of the Sahara, is home to many dangers: wild animals like the Barbary lions, poisonous snakes, bandits and marauders, frightening sand storms, and sweltering heat. A caravan of camel trains was the only way to make it through alive, and so Rabbi Masoud joined such a caravan and headed out on his journey.

Obviously, they tried to find as many inhabited towns as they could on their way to minimize the danger. From Fez, they headed through the Algerian Desert to Tripoli, which is part of the Sahara. This was a large chunk of the itinerary, taking up 1,200 miles of their complete journey.

A large caravan such as the one in our story moves at about the speed of walking, allowing them to cover between fifteen and twenty-five miles a day. At this rate, the journey would take them quite a few months.

When the first Friday approached, Rabbi Masoud informed his friends that it was time to stop and take a rest, as the holy Shabbat was approaching. “Rabbi Masoud, we can’t just stop and rest here,” they all protested. “This place is overrun with the dangerous and frightful Barbary lions! You are endangering your life! It’s pikuach nefesh; we must continue on our way!”

Rabbi Masoud didn't argue with anyone. He told his attendant to take their belongings off the camels, as he intended to stay and make Shabbat in the desert so as not to desecrate the holy day.

His friends felt that staying with him would be suicidal, so they had no choice but to leave Rabbi Masoud to his fate. They continued their journey with broken hearts, certain that Rabbi Masoud and his attendant would soon be food for the lions. They tore their clothes in mourning.

The caravan moved on while Rabbi Masoud and his attendant stayed behind, finding solace in the silence and tranquility that such an uninhabited area offers.

As the daylight began to wane, Rabbi Masoud did a curious thing. Scraping his staff along the ground, he drew a circle in the sand. Remaining within the circle, Rabbi Masoud ushered in the Shabbat, prayed Maariv, and asked his attendant to prepare the Shabbat meal. He proceeded to recite Kiddush with great joy.

The attendant was nervous. The danger they had placed themselves in was clear and yet he knew that Rabbi Masoud was a holy man! He looked on with awe, seeing his master’s strong heart.

As expected, after Kiddush, the calm silence was pierced by the frightening roar of a lion. It wasn’t long until the attendant saw the lion approaching their very location. The attendant was overcome with fear and he grabbed his holy master by the shoulder.

Rabbi Masoud, seeing his attendant’s fear, turned to him in the calmest tone. “What is it you fear? Look how calm the lion is. Nothing bad will happen to you. We will tread on cubs and vipers, and we will eventually ride upon the back of this very lion that you see. Hashem sent this lion to protect us on our way until we will reach inhabited land. Now, please bring a bowl of water so we can wash our hands for the Shabbat meal, and do not fear!”

With a trembling heart, the attendant began to prepare the bowl, but his eyes locked with those of the fierce lion who was sitting so close to him just outside the ring in the sand. It was too much to bear and he collapsed back into his seat.

Rabbi Masoud became agitated and said to him, “Didn't I tell you!? Have trust in G‑d! The lion will not enter our circle. Can’t you see him resting just outside of it?”

Art by Rivka Korf Studio
Art by Rivka Korf Studio

His words didn’t calm the attendant very much. It is not hard to imagine how he felt. The Barbary lions were the biggest of the lion family, and with nothing but a mere scratch in the sand supposedly keeping the lion at bay, the intense fear of the attendant is quite understandable. Nevertheless, with his hands shaking like leaves in the wind, he managed to do his job and wash the steady hands of his holy master.

When they finished their meal, Rabbi Masoud recited Grace after Meals as if he were sitting in his own home at his Shabbat table, safe and secure, and peacefully lay down for the night. Not so the poor attendant. He couldn't close his eyes all night, staying as close as possible to his master.

When morning came, Rabbi Masoud got up and his attendant washed his hands. He prayed the morning prayers as usual, made Kiddush, and ate the Shabbat meal. He even managed to take an afternoon nap. He got up to pray Mincha, followed by the third meal, and then Maariv. He recited Havdalah, escorted the Shabbat out with a customary fourth meal, and then went to sleep.

Rabbi Masoud rose early the next morning. The request he made following the morning prayers caused the attendant’s heart to nearly leap from his chest. “Would you please saddle the lion? It is time to continue on our journey,” asked Rabbi Masoud calmly, as though he were asking to saddle a camel or horse.

The attendant understood what he had been asked to do, but he was frozen in place. He couldn’t bring himself to simply approach the lion and saddle him up!

Rabbi Masoud told him, “Didn't I tell you? Do not worry and do not be afraid. To us, it is just a beheimah, a tame animal!”

His master’s words of conviction and the strong faith he had exhibited over the course of the Shabbat found their way into the heart of the attendant. He mustered up all his courage and gingerly approached the lion. He fitted it with a saddle, secured their belongings, and the two men promptly made themselves comfortable upon its back. Unlike other riding animals, the lion moved with incredible speed and dexterity, making its way through the desert in a very short time, arriving very soon thereafter in the town of Tunis.

As you can imagine, when a great Barbary lion approached the city, the Tunisians ran and shut themselves in their houses out of fear. They peered out from the safety of their homes and watched the lion march through the city until it arrived at the Royal Palace, known as Palace de Bardo [which now houses the Bardo National Museum]. Hearing the commotion, the Bey (governor) of Tunis approached a window and below he saw an enormous lion with two people riding it like a camel. He shouted down, “What is it you want? Do you want to destroy the whole town with this frightful lion you brought into the city?”

“You have my word that he will do nothing to the town, sir,” Rabbi Masoud responded. “He will now return to his place in the desert!” The attendant unloaded their belongings from the lion and Rabbi Masoud commanded the lion to return in peace.

“Do not harm anything or anyone,” he instructed the lion. “Nor shall you roar or raise your voice until you reach your place in peace.” The lion returned home as calmly as if he were a sheep.

Three days passed, and a caravan approached Tunis. The travelers looked awful and travel-weary, their clothes torn, a heart-rending tale on their lips. They told—with tears and moans—how they had no choice but to leave their friend, a great rabbi, all by himself in the dangerous desert, and they were sure that by now he had been torn to death by the sharp teeth of wild lions.

The people of Tunis heard their story. “Three days ago,” they told the members of the caravan, “a rabbi arrived in our city. He is a man of great wonders. He arrived on the back of a fearsome lion. Perhaps this is the friend you left in the desert?”

The travelers from Fez could hardly believe their ears. “Where can we find him!?”

The people showed them where Rabbi Masoud was staying, and with great joy and surprise, they were reunited. Rabbi Masoud and his attendant shared the story about the lion who protected them and brought them to safety. They embraced each other, thanking G‑d who saved them from death.

Rabbi Masoud became acquainted with the Jewish people of Tunis and he quickly realized how little they knew about the basic laws and practices of Judaism. He decided to cancel his trip to the Holy Land and remain there, teaching the Jewish people of Tunis the way of G‑d and His Torah. He is remembered for reuniting the people with their faith and the many students he taught there.

Translated and adapted from Shivchei Tzadikim (Djerba, 1919), reproduced with permission from the Kankan Journal.