1. Jews Have Lived in Morocco For Millenia

It is not known for sure when the first Jews settled in Morocco, but it seems clear that they were there for at least the entire duration of the current exile (which began in 70 CE). They lived first among the Berber tribes, who dominated North Africa, and then through various Christian and Muslim regimes. At times, they were tolerated, and at times, they were persecuted, but the Jewish presence remained throughout.

2. They Were Strongly Influenced by Spanish Jews

This Torah scroll, seen in the Aben Danan Synagogue in Fez, is covered with fabric, not a hard case. This follows the Spanish tradition, as opposed to the Eastern Sephardim, who house their Torahs in cylindrical cases.
This Torah scroll, seen in the Aben Danan Synagogue in Fez, is covered with fabric, not a hard case. This follows the Spanish tradition, as opposed to the Eastern Sephardim, who house their Torahs in cylindrical cases.

As successive waves of oppression sent Spanish Jews fleeing the Iberian Peninsula, it was natural for many to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco. Thus, in time, the Jews of Morocco adopted Spanish-Jewish (Sephardic) customs, rituals and identity in many respects.

However, the toshavim (“indigenous”) and megurashim (“exiles”) do retain certain differences, such as the exact formula of the ketubah document, with each family following the traditions of their ancestors.

At one time, there were separate synagogues for each community, but that has largely ceased to exist.

Read: 19 Facts About Sephardic Jewry

3. Their Family Names Reflect Their Rich Heritage

Common Moroccan Jewish family names reflect the community’s Berber, Arabic, Spanish, and Hebrew roots. For example, Assouline means “from rock” in Berber, Abergel implies a one-legged man in Arabic, and Toledano indicates that one’s ancestors had been exiled from Toledo, Spain.

4. They Are Also Known as Maghrebi Jews

A Purim play in Demnate, a town in Morocco's High Atlas Mountains (Photo: Diarna.org)
A Purim play in Demnate, a town in Morocco's High Atlas Mountains (Photo: Diarna.org)

Since Morocco is located on the Westernmost tip of the Islamic, Arabic-speaking world, both Jews and non-Jews from the region are known as maghrebi, “western.” This is particularly interesting when one considers that Morrocan Jews are generally included under the banner of the eidot hamizrach, “communities of the east.”

5. Great Rabbis Lived in Morocco

Throughout the millennia, thousands of great Torah scholars and leaders have called Morrocco home. Here is but a small (somewhat random) sampling:

  • Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi (“From Fez”) was a leading rabbi in the 11th century. He was forced to relocate to Spain where he headed a great yeshiva.

  • Rabbi Moses Maimonides (“Rambam”) was born in Spain and spent many years in Egypt. When he wrote his famed commentary to the Mishnah in the 1160s, however, he lived in Fez.

  • Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar, known as the Ohr Hachaim, led a yeshiva in Salé in the first part of the 18th century, before famine forced him to relocate to Livorno, Italy, and eventually Jerusalem.

  • Rabbi Raphael Ankawa was the chief rabbi of Morocco. He is still revered among Moroccan Jews who annually mark the anniversary of his 1935 passing on the Hebrew date of 4 Av.

  • Rabbi Shlomo Amar was chief rabbi of Israel from 2003-2013. Born in 1948 in Casablanca, he attended the Chabad Oholei Yosef Yitzchak school before immigrating to Israel.

6. The Mellah Was the Traditional Jewish Quarter

A sign marking the historic "Al Mellah street" in Essaouira (Photo:Wiki)
A sign marking the historic "Al Mellah street" in Essaouira (Photo:Wiki)

Just as European Jews were confined to ghettos, Moroccan Jews were restricted to mellahs. The word means “salt,” and is a result of the area of the Fez Mellah being near or in a source of salt. The Jews were directed to settle there since it was close to the palace, and the king was thus able to offer his protection.

In time, the term spread to many other cities in Morocco as well.

7. Shmuel Palache Is Famous for Being a Jewish Pirate

Rembrandt's "Man in Oriental Costume" is believed to be a portrait of Shmuel Palache.
Rembrandt's "Man in Oriental Costume" is believed to be a portrait of Shmuel Palache.

Born in Fez to a prominent Sephardic rabbinic family, Shmuel Palache was a merchant. He helped Morocco and the Netherlands concluded the “Treaty of Friendship and Free Commerce” in 1610. Despite his many accomplishments as a diplomat, Torah scholar, and community leader, he is best known for privateering, which he did with a permit from Prince Maurice of Nassau.

8. Many Don’t Eat Kitniyot on Pesach

Generally, Ashkenazim do not eat kitniyot (rice, beans etc.) on Passover, while most Sephardim do. Moroccan custom concords more closely with Ashkenazi practice, and they, too, avoid many (but not all) forms of kitnioyt on Passover.

Read: The Kitniyot Debate

9. Mimouna Is Celebrated After Passover

(Photo:Wiki)
(Photo:Wiki)

Among Moroccan Jews, after Passover concludes, a special celebration called mimouna is held. People visit each other’s homes to enjoy elaborately set tables, especially a crepe called moufleta.

The word means “luck.” On Passover many people did not eat at each other’s homes since not everyone had the same standards. The post-Passover socialization demonstrates that there are no hard feelings.

10. They Were Quick to Adopt French

The first page of the Or ha-Maʻarav newspaper, written in Judeo-Arabic in Hebrew letters.
The first page of the Or ha-Maʻarav newspaper, written in Judeo-Arabic in Hebrew letters.

Even before Morocco became a French protectorate, many Jews in Morocco had exchanged their Judeo-Arabic and Ladino for French. In part, this was due to the Paris-based Alliance Israélite Universelle, which operated a string of schools in Morocco. The schools’ agenda of modernization and Europeanization was often at odds with the traditional, spiritual and deeply religious nature of Morroco’s Jews.

11. There Is a Strong Kabbalistic Tradition

Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzeira, revered as the Abir Yaakov.
Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzeira, revered as the Abir Yaakov.

Many great Kabbalists, including members of the Abuhatzeira family (including Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzeira, known as the Abir Yaakov, and Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, known as the Baba Sali) hail from Morocco, and Moroccan Jews have a strong tradition of studying Kabbalah and revering its teachings.

12. Moroccan Jews Enjoy Spicy Fish and Dafina for Shabbat

Among Moroccan Jews, a spicy fish tagine is enjoyed on Friday night and again on Shabbat morning. During the daytime meal, a slow-cooked stew known as dafina is enjoyed. It is different from the classical Ashkenazi cholent in several respects, notably the presence of eggs and the fact that each component is often neatly cooked in its own bag, a boon for picky eaters who only want some elements but not others.

Watch: How to Make Dafina

13. They Wear Tefillin During Mincha on Fast Days

Moroccan Jewish men follow the custom of wearing tefillin during the Mincha afternoon services on fast days (not just on 9 Av, when it is universal). This is done because there is a custom to say at least 100 blessings each day. Since no meal blessings are said on fast days, the additional blessings said when donning the tallit and tefillin can be used toward the tally.

Read: 14 Tefillin Facts Every Jew Should Know

14. Lala Sulika Is Venerated and Admired

Headstone of Sulika, with her name spelled in French as Solica Hatchouël and in Hebrew as סוליקא חגואל.
Headstone of Sulika, with her name spelled in French as Solica Hatchouël and in Hebrew as סוליקא חגואל.

Sulika (Solica Hatchouël) was a beautiful Jewish maiden in Fez. A Muslim neighbor who wished to marry her claimed that she had converted to Islam. Imprisoned and tortured, she refused to renounce her Judaism. Even when a son of the Sultan offered to marry her if she would only accept Islam, she remained steadfast. She was beheaded on 27 Iyar, in the year 1834.

Read: The Story of Sulika

15. Chabad Was Established in 1950

Shortly before he passed away in the winter of 1950, the Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, of righteous memory, laid the groundwork for Chabad emissaries to serve in Morocco.

Recent escapees from the Soviet Union who had risked their lives for Judaism, these brave couples embraced the Moroccan Jews (who at the time numbered 350,000) and set up a network of schools, camps, and social organizations that continue to serve the Jewish community.

16. Many Fled to Israel, France, and Canada

A Moroccan Torah scholar in 1964 in Migdal Ha-Emek, Israel (Photo: Boris Carmi /Meitar Collection / National Library of Israel / The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection)
A Moroccan Torah scholar in 1964 in Migdal Ha-Emek, Israel (Photo: Boris Carmi /Meitar Collection / National Library of Israel / The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection)

After the establishment of the State of Israel, and Moroccan independence from France, many Jews wished to leave the country. The lion’s share made their way to Israel, where they now constitute the largest ethnic bloc, following Ashkenazi Jews. At the same time, fluent in French language and culture, many chose to make their way to France, where they now form the bulk of the Jewish community, and Canada, where French is spoken alongside English.

Read: 9 Facts About the Jews of Canada

17. The Agadir Earthquake Was Devastating

In 1960, the port city of Agadir was struck by a devastating earthquake and ensuing tidal wave, which claimed thousands of lives. Having hit the Jewish quarter with particular force, contemporary media reports estimated that “1,500 Jews of the 2,300 who lived in Agadir lost their lives.” This included students at the local Chabad yeshiva, which housed 80 children at the time.

18. There Are Still Jews in Morocco

Today, the majority of the country’s Jews, estimated to be about 3,000, are concentrated in Casablanca, a bustling metropolis of 3.4 million. Despite its reduced size, the Moroccan Jewish community remains fully functional, active and vibrant. With the introduction of diplomatic ties with Israel, the future of Moroccan Jews looks brighter than it has in decades.

Read: What It’s Like to Be a Chabad Woman in Morocco

19. Thousands of Visitors Come to Celebrate Hilloulahs

Candles lit in memory of the Baba Sali on his hilloulah (Photo:SkokieChabad.org)
Candles lit in memory of the Baba Sali on his hilloulah (Photo:SkokieChabad.org)

Among Moroccan Jews, the anniversary of a righteous person's passing is cause for celebration. Throughout the year, Jews come from all over the world to celebrate various hilloulahs at the resting places of the righteous scattered throughout the country.

And on these special dates, Moroccan Jews all over the world study Torah, light candles, feast, and rejoice in honor of the special souls who have brought light and healing to so many. 1

Read: A Moroccan Hilloula in Suburban Chicago