Morocco History


In 1492 when the Spanish expelled the Jews from their land, many fled to Portugal. In 1496 the Prince of Portugal was arranged to marry Juanita, the daughter of the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The Portuguese agreed to expel their Jews in order to smooth the unification of the two monarchies, though they didn’t want to lose the Jews’ economic influence. They therefore closed the ports and sent priests to the wharves to convert the fleeing Jewish population. The Church immediately validated these conversions, creating an entirely new class of Portuguese citizens — Christaos Novos, New Christians. Nevertheless, a lot of Christaos Novos did escape and migrated to places like Cape Verde, the refueling stop on the ocean route to the New World.

When Jews arrived at the archipelago the Portuguese inhabitants put them into a ghetto in the Cape Verdean capital, Ribiera Grande. The New Christians in Cape Verde practiced Christianity as other Portuguese did, though the other Cape Verdeans, jealous of their economic status, continually threatened to expose them as Jews. These Christaos Novos worked as merchants and in some cases slave traders, hiding their Judaism for generations until the late 1700s when the religious animosity fostered by the Inquisition faded. By that time, however, most New Christians had stopped practicing Judaism in any form.

When the slave trade became illegal in the early 1800s, Cape Verde became a place for steamers heading to and from the Americas to load and unload coal. Jews came to Cape Verde from Morocco looking both to make money in the coal industry and to flea their status as second-class citizens in Islamic North Africa. A small Moroccan-Jewish community developed on Cape Verde, primarily on the islands of Santiago, San Vincente and Santo Antao, and thrived there for nearly a century until many of them left for the State of Israel in the second half of the 20th century.


Most Moroccan Jews have migrated to Israel over the last several decades, but some remain to carry on the traditions of their ancestors. Traditionally, Moroccan Jews have not only looked to the Talmud for their practices; they have also gleaned some customs from their African neighbors. North Africa has been main center of Kaballah (Jewish mystical study); in several places in Morocco, scholars chanted the Zochar (the book of Jewish mysticism) twenty-four hours a day. This Jewish mysticism blended well with the general mystical inclinations of their North African neighbors. Native Berbers and Muslim invaders alike believed in sorcery, runes and the evil eye.

Moroccan Jews absorbed some local customs into their own rituals. For example, Moroccan Jews have long-followed the rite of tahdid, which takes place on the eighth day after a male child is born. After the circumcision of a male child the father takes an old sword and, as all pronounce exorcisms against the djnun, the evil spirits, the father makes wide slashes with the sword along the walls of the room to destroy or chase them away. When this is done the father places the sword beneath the mattress of the mother to protect her from harm as the women throw incense all over the house to ward away evil spirits. Like their Berber neighbors (and unlike most other Jewish communities) Moroccan Jews venerated their “saints” – their learned sages – enough to develop specific ritual practices around their worship.

Jews would make offerings to the saints in form of candles or oil lamps lit in front of the tombs of saints and invoke their names in times of stress. They made private pilgrimages to tombs of venerated saints when they faced an important family event or on specific holidays to counteract evil forces. The most dedicated pilgrims would undergo ritual purification before going to the tomb. At the tomb itself the pilgrims would take off their shoes, extend their hands toward the tomb in adoration, bring their fingertips to their eyes and then to their lips. They would kiss the tomb and place a cube of sugar on the stone, pour water on it, then kneel down and eat the diluted sugar off the stone as a sign of communion with the saint. They would recite Psalms before the tomb and say a prayer for the saint’s soul. The Hiluda was a collective pilgrimage that would take place on the anniversary of the death of the saint. The evening of the Hiluda the crowd would come near the holy site to dance and chant by the light of the oil lamps and, like a religious revival, they would claim to see the saint and dance around in the light of the fire. The saint’s soul would visit at midnight and stay at the gathering throughout the night.

Jay will visit the Morocco in August of 2000 and return with images, personal stories and even more information about this North African Jewish community.

©2000 Jay Sand