Moroccan Jewish Community Life

Before the Twentieth Century

Fez Mellah Market in 1894, from Burton Holmes Travelogues with Illustrations from Photographs by the Author, vol. 1, (1919 edition),

Until the 20th century, all Moroccan Jews lived in mellahs (Jewish quarters), whether walled, separated or integrated with the medina (Muslim city or town). Their private and public lives were integrally linked to their dhimmi status under Muslim law. This status, which reflected Islam’s view of Jews as a protected but disdained people, allowed autonomous governance of Jewish religious, secular and justice institutions in return for an annual per capita payment of taxes to the Sultan. Outside the mellah, Jews were allowed to interact socially and commercially with Muslims, but they were careful not to do or say anything that was considered insulting to Islam.

The Jewish Community Council administered the mellah. It was made up of rabbis, rabbinical judges, Jews educated in religion and law, and wealthy Jews. The Council was responsible for setting taxes, establishing budgets, collecting and managing charities, and administering synagogues and religious foundations.

The nagid (prince) headed the Jewish community, represented it to outside officials such as the Sultan, governor or royal officials. He had the responsibility to assure the peace, collect taxes and implement decisions of the Council and Rabbinical Tribunal. He also could advise the Sultan or royal officials on collaborating with the Jewish community.

In the second half of the 19th century, many wealthy Jewish community members built strong commercial relations with European powers, frequently receiving protégé status that sheltered them from taxes and rabbinical courts. This status enabled them to wear European clothes, own slaves and engage in other behavior that went against the norms of Jewish subordination to Muslims.

The Council passed regulations for all Jews under its jurisdiction. To assure that Jews followed these regulations, the Council had the authority to excommunicate, expel from the mellah, physically punish, shame, imprison or fine wrong-doers. The nagid could turn the most serious offenders over to non-Jewish authorities for more severe punishments.

The rabbinical court enforced Jewish law as well as local regulations and rules affecting public and private behavior, including marriage, divorce, inheritance and contracts between Jews. Its decisions could be enforced either by bailiffs or the nagid. Jews could also seek to arbitrate their disputes outside of the court.

Both the Council and the rabbinical court were determined to avoid intervention from the Sultan and other royal and governmental bodies outside the mellah. They put pressure on Jews who used the Muslim courts to resolve their disputes or who informed on other Jews to Muslim authorities. They also employed Jews from the community to police morals, including prostitution, adultery, sales and consumption of wine and mahia (the eau de vie produced by Jews), and interaction with Muslims.

Most Jews paid wealth taxes to the Council as well as indirect taxes on kosher meat, wine and other consumer products. Council members, particularly the nagid, were responsible for funding the payment of services during crises as well as providing gifts to the Sultan and royal representatives.

Five pm Tea at the Home of a Jewish Family in Fez, from Burton Holmes Travelogues with Illustrations from Photographs by the Author, vol. 1 (1919 edition)

For men, the synagogue was the center of Jewish life, where they attended prayer, attended open Council meetings, studied torah and sent their boys to school. In addition, they spent time working in shops, warehouses and handicraft manufacturing areas. Women spent less time in public, but they left home to shop, attend Jewish holiday and life-cycle events, visit family members and neighbors, and go to medical appointments. Few of them attended prayer at the synagogue. Some women served as midwives. Poorer women worked outside of the family home more frequently than women from wealthier families.

Rabbis, rabbinical staff, shochets (kosher butchers) and mohels (circumcisers), often came from families who had taken on these functions for generations. The Council paid directly for the rabbis and rabbinical staff, while it subsidized shochets and mohels, who collected their own fees.

Children Attending Heder in Fez

Parents sent boys to heder (basic Hebrew schools). Some moved on to yeshivot (schools to study Talmud). Beginning in the 1860’s, the French-funded Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU) established secular Jewish-oriented vocational schools in several areas of Morocco, which drew students away from the heder and yeshivot. AIU schools also taught girls, either separately from boys or co-educationally. The AIU encouraged boys and girls to remove their traditional head coverings and dress like Europeans. To combat early marriage, AIU banned married girls from its girls schools. Leaders, employees and supporters of heder and yeshivot fought against the AIU schools until the protectorate began in 1912.