The rituals of Moroccan Jews

The rituals of Moroccan Jews

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Morocco's head of the government Benkirane during the innauguration of a Jewish temple in Morocco.
Former Morocco’s head of the government Benkirane during the innauguration of a Jewish temple in Morocco.

No one can deny the salient role of North Africa, especially Morocco, as a region that embraced Jews while they were witch-hunted and tortured in Europe. The general belief among European mainstream media, including the continent’s popular culture, is that the Arab world is populated by Muslims only. Very rare are those who realize that the Arabian territory, including North Africa, was until recently a religiously diverse place with far more confessional pluralism than Europe itself.

Historically speaking, the Jewish community of Morocco has ancient ties to the Maghreb region, ones dating back to more than two thousand years. Morocco has a significant Jewish past, which even predates Arab immigration to the region. The last wave of Jewish exodus took place during the 15th century when Isabella and Ferdinand decided to put an end to the Islamic Arab emirates in Andalusia. The Spanish crown with the assistance of the inquisitors placed both Jews and Muslims between the devil and the deep sea; in other words, between forced conversion to christianism or exile. North Africa was back-then a tolerant, safe and a welcoming shelter for all those who were forced to leave their homes. This fostered Morocco to become a melting pot in which both communities have lived together. As a matter of fact, both cultures and traditions interwove to make an authentic culture in Morocco.

Notwithstanding this, the number of Jews in Morocco nowadays has plummeted as a result of immigration, though they have left indelible traces behind, especially in Mellah. The walled Jewish quarter in Mellah with its synagogues and cemeteries are a living proof of the aforementioned. According to Mr. Eli Malik, the author of “The Ancient Jewish Rituals in Morocco”,  Jews left their footprints on the Moroccan culture, ones that are vividly represented in Jewish people’s social parties and ceremonies.

Wedding and birth are two major cases in point. Most Jewish birth celebrations are commemorated in a similar fashion to those of their Moroccan Muslims counterparts. Birth and children are highly valued in the Jewish Moroccan community, which can be understood from the ceremonies of the earlier pregnancy stages and, later, with the baby shower customs. Another mutual and familiar ritual among Jews and Muslims is the circumcision of male children. It is truly a very old tradition practiced by Hebrews, one that dates back to the  time of Abraham.

Superstition is also considered as a bilateral belief, one is symbolized by the evil eye. Both communities believe in the bad impact of the evil eye; that is why, they both resort to certain practices, such as the use of the number five, embodied by the palm of a hand with its five fingers, well-known under the Moroccan Darija dialect world “Khmisa”, in order to nullify and get protection from harmful influences. Last but not least, sacrificing some sort of animals in order to ask for redemption and atonement for the one’s sins is a very popular tradition among both.  Animals might be also sacrificed to get God’s blessing when moving into a new residence or when new baby is born. For example, when a Jew or Muslim moves to a new house or gives birth to a baby, they would spiritually sacrifice a chicken or a sheep in the guise of an offering to God, with an aim that this latter will curse out the house and hallow the baby.

Moroccan culinary fails not in showcasing commonalities between both communities. The Jewish cuisine enriches the Moroccan one with their special Andalusian dishes. The traditional imperial city of Fez, owing to the fact that it has witnessed an exodus of Jewish after the reconquista, is a living proof of the aforementioned, with dishes like pastilla both prepared by both communities, though with subtle variations. 

All in all, in spite of the fact that the number of Jews in Morocco has plummeted to a few thousands in the last years; the feeling of belonging to the motherland is still deeply rooted in their hearts.