History of the Moroccan Sephardic Community


by Alicia Sisso Raz



The Jewish settlement in Morocco can be traced back to the Second Temple period, when merchants arrived with the Phoenicians and settled there.  They peacefully coexisted with the Berbers, the original inhabitants of Morocco, but circumstances had changed during the seventh century upon the Arab conquest. Some moved to the hinterland together with the Berbers, while others remained in the cities.  However, the history of the Moroccan Jewry is intertwined with that of the Iberian Jewry; both communities maintained close contacts as early as the sixth century, when Spain was under the Visigoth control. It is recorded that Jews fled persecutions in Spain and found refuge in Morocco when the Visigoths reigned there.  Members from both communities went back and forth either escaping prosecution in one place or the other, for commercial activities and later on for learning and for teaching purposes.  The Golden Age of the Spanish Jewry attracted many Jews throughout the Arab world, but the majority who immigrated to Spain came from Morocco, and according to scholars, most of the Iberian Jewry is of Moroccan origin (Zafrani).                        


            The Jews of Spain took part in all aspects of the societal life, and lived according to  the Sephardic paradigm: "Be an observant Jew at your home and a man of the world outside." The Sephardic Jewry ("Sephardi" means "Spaniard" in Hebrew) produced an admirable number of scholars in a variety of disciplines; it was a magnificent period, unparalleled in Jewish history for centuries. Books were written on Jewish thought, mysticism, Biblical and Talmudic commentaries, as well as on philosophy, medicine, linguistics, grammar, poetry, etc.. Artists and artisans of all kind, such as goldsmiths, silversmiths, and weavers, worked independently or in collaboration with Christian artists at famous workshops. (Mann). It is a period that gave us asdai Ibn Shaprut, Samuel Hanagid, Yeudah Haleví, Isaac Alfasi, the Ibn Ezra family, and Solomon Ibn Gabiról, whose book Fons Vitae had been mistakenly attributed to a Christian author until the 19th century! Spain was also the birthplace of Moses Maimonides (Rambam, acronym of: Rabenu Moshe Ben Maimon,), Namanides, Moshe de León,  and the *Zohar, Abraham and Yehuda Cresques, famous for their exquisite shoreline maps and marine devices, and Don Isaac Abrabanel, to name but a few.  


            But these golden years that started in the 10th century came to a gradual end, and decades of worsening conditions, persecution and uncertainty followed. Battles, power struggles, and discord amongst the Muslims in Spain coupled with persecutions and pogroms by the Spaniards wherever they managed to regain possession of their towns, sent continuous waves of Sephardim to exile.  For some, whenever the situation in Spain worsened, the direction was to North Africa, and when it improved or the circumstances in their new place was even worse, the Mediterranean was crossed northward, back to Spain.  

Maimonides and his family fled from Spain to Morocco in the 12th century. Maimonides has been  the towering figure in Jewish history.  A philosopher, physician, astronomer, rabbi and leader of his people, whose intellectual depth and principal works (*Mishne Torah and the *Guide for the Perplexed) justify the name he has been referred to: "The great Eagle" and the saying “From Moses (the biblical) to Moses (Maimonides), there was no one like Moses." Maimonides and his family settled in Fez where he studied  medicine, but the family continued to Egypt nine years later, due to persecutions by the fanatic Almohades, the ruling dynasty in Fez at that time.  Many Jews were forced to convert to Islam during those years, though most were able to return to Judaism later on.  

            Fez was the important intellectual center in North Africa during the middle ages, and the focal point of the Moroccan Jewry until the mid eighteenth century; the majority of the Jews who fled from Spain even before the expulsion ended up living there. The community was well established, economically successful, and was famous for its yeshivot (academies), its scholars, the learning tradition, and its prestigious rabbinical leadership. The Jews of Fez spoke Spanish until the 18th century, and the Takkanot, the ordinances of the Rabbis of Fez for the Castilian community of Morocco, were written in Spanish until it has been gradually replaced by Judeo-Moroccan in the eighteenth century (Gerber). The local Judeo Moroccan-dialect, however, contains vocabulary in Spanish and Portuguese.  The gradual replacement of Spanish with Judeo-Arabic was characteristic to the Sephardim who settled in southern Morocco, while the communities in northern Morocco have retained their Judeo-Spanish; this vernacular is called aketía. Nonetheless, Edmundo D'amicis, the Italian author who visited Fez in the turn of the 19th century, was surprised at the fact that all the Jewish women, whom he met at a reception at the house of a European ambassador, spoke Spanish. (De Amicis)


            The rabbis of Fez were constantly responding to kusiot (queries) from all parts of Morocco and beyond, and they left an extensive responsa. Upon request, rabbis from Fez officiated in other communities in Morocco, in Europe, and even as far as in Bukara. The first Rabbi of Tetuan, rabbi aim Bibas, was a native of Fez, as was also rabbi Isaac Uziel, who was one of the first rabbis of the Spanish and Portuguese community in Amsterdam.  Rabbi Yosef Maimon, arrived in Bukhara as an emissary on behalf of the Jerusalem Jews and found an isolated community. He  brought them Torah scrolls and prayer books, updated them on the current Jewish thought and law, introduced them to Minhag Sepharad  (Sephardic rituals and customs), and became their spiritual leader.  It is thought that he went back to Morocco, and returned to Bukhara with several Talmidei ajamim (students) from Moroccan Yeshivot.  Sheliim (representatives) from other communities kept arriving in Fez, asking for donations to support the poor in their communities.  It is recorded that sheliim from as far away as Poland had arrived, equipped with letters from their rabbis. At first, the community of Fez gave them a generous sum of money, but after realizing that there was a lot of forgery involved, it was decided that donations would only be given to sheliim that presented letters from known Polish rabbis.  The rest were supplied with food and "two zuzim" (some money) to cover their expenses for their way back home. (Gerber)


            Spanish Jews were fleeing Spain for Morocco during many instances even before the expulsion of 1492.  It is estimated that about 10,000 of them fled the persecution in Seville around 1391 and settled in Fez, Jews from the region of Ronda, Spain, settled in Chauen in 1471. In 1489, three years before the expulsion, there was a wave of Jews from Granada who settled in Tetuan. (Vilar)  There is no way of calculating the number of expelled Jews who arrived in Morocco in 1492, but it is estimated between 20,000 to 80,000. The local Moroccan Jewish community at that time numbered about 60,000. Luis del Mármol, the Spaniard traveler who visited Fez in the 16th century wrote that there were about 10,000 Jewish households in the city of Fez, and he estimated the Jewish community by 40,000 inhabitants, most of them being of Spanish origin. (García- Arenal)

            The expulsion edict of 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella brought an end to Jewish life in Spain. Most of the expelled Jews from Spain resettled around the Mediterranean and in the Balkans. Another route was to Portugal.  But, after only 4 years, in 1496, they were forced to convert while in Portugal.  Consequently, many converted in order to be permitted to remain in Spain and Portugal, albeit secretly continued practicing their Judaism.  Others left for France, Italy, Turkey and Morocco.  The expelled Jews arrived in Morocco through the Atlantic coastal towns; few landed in Tangier, but they were not allowed to live in the city; only in the outskirts of town. (Serels)  In many instances they were robbed of their possessions by the Portuguese governors of the coastal towns, and they suffered incredible hardships. According to Abraham Ben Salomon de Torrutiel, the Sultan of Fez showed good will toward the expelled Jews whose possessions were confiscated by the Portuguese governors at the ports, and sent mules and provisions to Arcila, in order to bring them to Fez. The first northern African ghetto, the Mella, was built then for protection purposes.  (Gerber) 


            Meanwhile, there was a constant stream of expelled Jews who kept arriving.  Some of them stayed in the coastal towns of Larache, Azemmour, Safi, and  Arcila, while others continued to Fez, Tetuan, and Salé; to Alcazarquivir, Debdu, and later to Mogador and to other places.  Years later, during the 16th and 17th Centuries, Anusim (forcefully converted Jews) from Spain and Portugal stared to arrive at the Moroccan coastal towns, yearning to return to the faith of their forefathers. Unfortunately, quite a large number returned back to the Iberian Peninsula because of the hardship they had encountered in Morocco.  Other Anusim chose to settle in Holland, where life conditions resembled those of Portugal.  The latter community gave us the great philosopher, Barukh Spinoza.  Although he was excommunicated by the Rabbis of Amsterdam, he never renounced his Jewish faith and continued his intellectual activity in solitude. Spinoza is considered the first modern philosopher, and is one of the most influential philosophers, admired for his noble character and his philosophical system.

            Similar to other Sephardic communities around the Mediterranean during the first years that followed the expulsion, the Megorashim (expelled Jews) in Morocco formed their own communities, apart from the existing communities -- the Toshabim (Autochthones).  However, many of the Toshabim were familiar with the Iberian way of life; they had been going to and fro Spain for generations.  Many sought education in Spain or went to live there, as did Dunash ben Labrat and Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (the RIF), adding to the splendor of the Spanish Jewry.  As a result, the division between Toshavim and Megorashim dissipated with time, yet the customs of the Megorashim prevailed and became the minhag for all the Moroccan Jewry. (Assis)


            The expelled Jews were regarded very highly during the first centuries that followed the expulsion, because of their sophistication and advanced skills which surpassed those of the local population. Likewise, they benefitted from their experience and familiarity with various languages, nations, and cultures. They became involved in Moroccan diplomacy, and contributed to the economy and to the political relations with Europe, acting as ambassadors to European kingdoms in the services of the Sultans, and representing European kingdoms at the Moroccan courts. They thrived as translators, interpreters, agents of the authorities, and financiers. They established international trading firms, and were instrumental in the import and export, the trade of grain, and of other goods. Their artisans were also highly regarded; the expelled goldsmiths and silversmiths were the finest in the country and beyond.

            Many Moors fled Spain for similar reasons as the Jews, and there was initially a sense of a shared destiny, but this sentiment had faded with time. Life conditions were in constant fluctuation, and the circumstances for most of  the Moroccan Jewry have worsened since the 18th century.   One of the main reasons for it was the lack of central government. Morocco was composed of several kingdoms that were in constant strife with each other in addition to the  battles against the Portuguese who controlled the coastal towns. A sympathetic Sultan could have been succeeded by a less favorable one, and the Jews were at the mercy of different Sultans, living a life of uncertainty and instability. When fighting and chaos broke out, those who could afford to leave moved to other places. 


            According to the Pact of Umar, Jews throughout the Muslim world were considered Dihmmi, a status which granted them certain protection and rights, for which they had to pay in return the Jizya: a poll-tax imposed on each individual.  However, this limited protection was not equally respected at all times. For years, Moroccan Jewry endured humiliating laws, pogroms and looting raids, and they were constantly asked for excessive taxation (the Jizya was only one of them). The representative of the community who delivered the collective Jizya to the government official, had to bow his head and get a blow on his neck, as a reminder of the "Jews' inferiority". Whenever conflicts erupted between the various Sultans, devastation followed.  The battle between the sultans of Fez and Marrakesh ended up with the latter gaining control over Fez. This was followed by even more hardships and additional taxes, in order to cover the expenses for the numerous battles.  The community of Fez was affected severely by this development, which caused it to dwindle; it became impoverished, and  subject to continuous raids, attacks and fires.  Many left Fez and moved to Meknes, Tetuan, Rabat, Marrakech, and to Palestine. Meknes and Tetuan succeeded Fez as important spiritual centers, and Tetuan became known as "The little Jerusalem of North Africa".  (Gerber)

            The Jews of Tangier were expelled several times from their homes.  A positive change started only as late as the 19th Century.  The Jews of Arcila, Larache and Alcazarquibir were massacred at many other times. The Jewish quarters of Fez, Chauen, Tetuan and other communities were sacked, robbed and set on fire several times. This unbearable situation prompted Sir Moses Montefiore, who was 79 years old at the time, to travel to Morocco with the hope to ameliorate the living conditions.  He was received by the Sultan and his officials with great fanfare and honor.  The Sultan made many promises, which were neglected soon after Sir Montefiore returned to his home in England. The situation remained almost unchanged. (Lipman)

            The Spaniards who entered Tetuan in 1860 during their "War of Africa", documented the horrors they saw in the Jewish quarter: men were set on fire, homes and stores were looted, barefoot women were covered with rags, and all were starving from hunger for not having any food for days. (Castillo)  As unthinkable as it is, the latest attack on the Moroccan Jewish quarters, even in the big city of Casablanca, happened as late as 1912, when  Morocco became a protectorate of Spain and France.  Especially brutal was the "Pogrom in Fez"-- the "Tritel"  with unimaginable atrocities against old and young, men and women, children and babies.   Community records, libraries with rare books and other historical treasures and artifacts were burned and lost forever.  It is hard to conceive it, but until the imposed French and Spanish Protectorate in Morocco, the Jews had to take off their shoes whenever they approached a Mosque or crossed the path of a distinguished Muslim; they were prohibited from riding horses, the men were obligated to wear a distinct black hooded cloak, and there were additional humiliating restrictions.  Young girls were abducted and forced to convert to Islam and marry their abductor.  This resulted in the custom of having the girls marry  at a very young age. Fortunately, the Muslims did not touch married women.


            Although there were members of the community who were rich and influential, especially in the coastal towns, life for most of the Moroccan Jewry was reduced to humble living situation as the centuries progressed, and the lustrous past became a distant memory. In an attempt to escape persecutions and worsening conditions in their cities, those who could afford it moved to other cities or left the country all together. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Jews from Morocco emigrated to Italy, Holland, England, and later on, especially natives of Tetuan, to Latin America. These Moroccan Jews had a very good reputation in Latin America; they were literate, hard working and spoke Spanish; very different from other immigrant groups.  They sent some of their earnings back home, and after years of hard work they would go back home and got married. (Vilar) 

             Few settled in North America; Isaac Pinto, a native of Tangier who lived in New York city, translated in 1778 the letter  from the Moroccan Sultan to President George Washington, congratulating him  for the newly gained independence. In the late 19th century, there was a wave of Moroccan Jews, especially from Tetuan, who emigrated to Orán, in Algiers, to Gibraltar, Melilla and Ceuta.  This is why the aketia (the Moroccan Judeo-Spanish vernacular) is called "Tetauni" in Orán! There was an established Sephardic community in Livorno, Italy, and many, especially from Fez emigrated there.  The intellectual leader of the Italian community in the 19th century was rabbi Elijah or Eliyahu Benamozegh, whose parents were born in Fez. He was an exceptional scholar with a cosmopolitan humanistic view who wrote many books and commentaries: a rabbi and professor of theology; an original thinker who was called, "Plato of the Italian Jewry". (Trivellato)


            The Jewish communities in the coastal towns, especially in Mogador, maintained its high status longer than most of the other communities.  Members of the Mogadorian elite were influential entrepreneurs and diplomats.  Many of them represented European countries and enjoyed their protection.   They maintained strong commercial and cultural ties with European countries, and controlled the import and export of many goods, including, tea, sugar, metal tobacco, gunpowder, leather, and other goods.  A British School had been established in Mogador, years before the French Alliance Israélite Universelle.  Tipad, boril, and atornar (terms in aketia, for "tea pot", "nuisance" and "defend") for example, signal to the British ties and cultural influence. 

            The community of Tangier, which numbered only 50 members in the 17th century,  benefitted as well from the international status of the city, and the community begun to flourish and  to commercially prosper during the  nineteenth  century. It became a desirable dwelling place for the Moroccan Jewry, and many, from all parts of Morocco, moved there during the nineteenth century. With the French protectorate in 1912, Casablanca became the desired city for many throughout Morocco.

              Memories of the glorious Spanish past kept nourishing the hope of the Moroccan Jewry for better times.  The Sephardic Jews held on to their customs, niceties, graceful etiquettes, ceremonies, Dere Eretz (good manners and dignity), cuisine and language.  They  preserved the romances (ballads) and cantares (chants, songs) which  they had carried with them from Spain, and keep singing them to date.  Characteristic to all the Sephardic Diaspora, they have a profound spiritual connection to the land of Israel.  Despite the fact that most of the communities became impoverished in later centuries, they kept sending their contributions of support to the Jewish communities in Palestine. There was a steady flow of emigrants from Morocco to Israel over the centuries:  the parents of rabbi Haim Yosef David Azoulay (the IDA) and rabbi Haim Ben Attar, the author of Or Haayim, arrived in Israel in the 18th century with other Moroccan Jews; the Toledano family who settled in Tiberias, and whose descendant was rabbi Yaakov Moshe Toledano, author of Ner Hama'arav. The latter maintained an extensive correspondence with many European scholars, researching various topics.  Similar were rabbi ai Gaguin and rabbi Naman Meir Batito, who both officiated as Rishon Le Tzion, (Chief rabbis in Palestine). (Gerber) 

            Rabbi Batito was born on the way from Tangier to Israel in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Evidently the number of Moroccan Jews who left for Israel (similar to many others throughout the Sephardic Diaspora) grew during the 19th century, most likely in response  to the call of the Sephardic rabbis, Yehuda Bibas (born in Gibraltar) and rabbi Yehuda Alcalay (from Sarajevo) to go and live in Israel. They preached for activism, and prompted the idea that the Geula (redemption) will be hastened by the actual dwelling in Israel, rather than staying in the Diaspora and wait indolently for the Messiah. (Spector Simon)

            In his book Shema Israel, rabbi Alcalay addressed the Sephardic rabbis, asking them to deliver this message to the congregants at their synagogues. There are scholars who think that rabbi's Alcalay's ideas influenced Theodor Herzl, the creator of the modern Zionist movement.  Herzel's grandfather met Rabbi Alacalay and was familiar with his ideas.  The activism found in the ideas of the Sephardic rabbis was in a sharp contradiction to the standpoint of the contemporary Ashkenazi rabbis. The latter thought that no one should interfere with the divine plan, and they held that Jews should remain in the Diaspora, until the arrival of the Messiah. (Angel) The majority of the Moroccan Jews that went to Israel following this call, settled  in Tiberias, Zefad, ebron and Jerusalem,  in which they established the community of the Moghrabim.  In 1860 a group from Tetuan immigrated to Israel and settled in Haifa.  (Elazar)

            The creation of Israel, the Arab - Israeli wars and the regained Moroccan independence from Spain and France, affected the Moroccan Jewish community, which numbered about 300,000 in 1948.  Its members emigrated mostly to Israel, Spain, France, Belgium, England, Switzerland, North and South America.  The community in Morocco has dwindled to roughly 2,000.  Presently, thanks to enlightened Moroccan kings, the situation in Morocco has improved remarkably, and there are Jews who hold key positions in the Moroccan economy. King Mohamed V protected the Jews and resisted the French Vichy policies during World War II. His son, King Hassan II, followed his footsteps, as also has his grandson, the present king of Morocco, King Mohamed VI. 

            And now, as if the nostalgia for the long lost golden Spanish past was not enough, there is a nostalgic sentiment for the life in Morocco as well. Thus members of the community have managed to lead their life with these two yearnings, for these two pasts, one more remote than the other.




Cabbala - collective Jewish mystical thought.

Guide for the Perplexed - Philosophical reasoning of Judaism by Maimonides.

Halakha - the Jewish collective body of its religious law.

Mishne Torah - Code of Jewish Law by Maimonides.

Talmud - Commentaries and explications of the Torah by ancient rabbis that form the Jewish law.

Torah - The books of Moses.

Zohar -  The book of splendor.  It is the primary book  of Cabbala.



= to the Hebrew "ח"

KH = to the Hebrew "ק"




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© January 2010, Alicia Sisso Raz

The article is at the Data Base of Beit Hatefutsot, the Museum of Jewish Diaspora, Tel Aviv