Moroccan Jewish Religious Practices

Prayers and Synagogues

Prayer Service at Slat Al Azama Synagogue in Marrakesh

While practicing Muslims are required to pray five times a day, Jewish men are supposed to pray three times a day, in the morning, afternoon and evening. Rabbis do not require women to attend the prayer services, based on the assumption that they have many household duties. In all congregations, at least ten Moroccan Jewish men participate in communal prayers in the morning and evening (the afternoon and evening prayers are usually combined).  Men over 40 years-old are likely to read and pray fluently in Hebrew.  The synagogues are full on Jewish holidays.

Prayers are performed using the Sephardic tradition, which uses a different order of prayers than the Ashkenazi Orthodox prayer book and employs different melodies for prayers.  Many of the melodies come from Andalusian music, the popular Moroccan music that has its roots in 15th century Muslim Spain. A rabbi coordinates prayers led by members of the congregation.  The services are entirely in Hebrew.  Sermons are rarely if ever delivered.  A minyan of ten men is required to begin the prayer. Men wear kippas (prayer caps) and talit (prayer shawls) for all prayer services.  For the weekday prayers, they also wear tefillin (a leather box containing Torah verses and leather straps to mount the box on the forehead and wrap around on arm and hand). Each day, those Jews descended from the prophet Aaron (Cohenim) recite the priestly blessing for the congregation.

Prayer Service at Erfoud Synagogue

The rabbi stands on a raised area in the center of the prayer room.  The ark containing the Torah is in the front of the room.  Women sit in the back or in a balcony, separated by a translucent curtain.  Men sit on benches facing each other.

Despite the seriousness with which some Jews participate in the prayer service, there is a feeling of informality.  Many men are dressed informally.  Children run in and out of the prayer room.  Little girls sometimes sit beside their fathers or brothers, when they are not making noise out in the hall.

In order to finance synagogue activities and help the Jewish poor, the rabbi auctions off the right to recite certain prayers or to assist in the Torah ceremony.  In bidding for these honors, many Jews bid in amounts that contain the number 18 or in multiples of 18, which is considered a holy number, according to the Zohar.  The richest members of the community usually win the right to open the ark.

In addition to prayer services, some holidays are celebrated in a special way.  For Saturday morning prayer, a kiddush luncheon might be held afterward. On Yom Kippur, a governor or royal representative may visit the larger synagogues. During the festival of Sukkot, many synagogues build a sukkah (hut) in which to have a kiddush.  For Passover, everyone receives a bag of  salt. During the Purim service, children throw firecrackers in the prayer room.  For the solemn holiday of Tisha B’Av, the prayer takes place on the ground.

Morocco has a tradition of both public and family-owned synagogues.  The public synagogues are typically larger than the family-owned ones, and are usually more active in Jewish community affairs.  Family synagogues are often attached to homes and are attended by extended family members and friends.  They are owned by rich families or inherited.

Jewish Education

Students at an Alliance Israelite Universelle School in Tetouan

Prior to the twentieth century, young Jewish boys participated in small classes led by the rabbi to learn the basics of Judaism and to read Hebrew. Many of these schools were replaced by secular coeducational Jewish schools established by the French-sponsored Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU). To train teachers in Jewish studies, the AIU created a Hebrew teacher training school in 1946. A small percentage of older Jewish male students attended yeshivot, where they studied the Bible and Talmud. Two foreign networks, Ozar Hatorah and Lubavitch-Chabad, supported Jewish religious schools. A rabbinic training academy was created in 1950.

Jewish Life Cycle Events

Henna Designs for Moroccan Jewish Brides

Religious law and custom, sometimes reflecting supernatural beliefs, guide Jewish life cycle events, such as circumcision of boys (brit milah), bar mitzvah, marriage and funerals. Prior to a newborn boy’s circumcision at eight days, a Moroccan Jewish father would brandish a sword to protect the child from the demon Lilith, believed to be Adam’s first wife. At their weddings, Jewish women, like Moroccan Muslims, have henna patterns drawn on their hands and feet to ward off evil, promote fertility and attract good energy. When a Jewish man dies, he must be buried the same day, if possible. No women are allowed in the funeral procession. After the body is buried, men walk around the burial plot seven times to prevent evil spirits from attacking.

Marriage, Divorce and Child Support

Rabbi Yeshayahu Pinto, Head of Morocco’s Rabbinical Court

Under Moroccan law, Jewish religious courts (Beth Din) made up of rabbis oversee matters of family law, including marriage, divorce and child custody and support. They base their decisions on the Sephardic approach to Jewish law (halacha) with a few modifications that reflect Moroccan tradition. Under certain circumstances, they will permit bigamy. In 2020, only one Beth Din remains, covering the needs of the 2,500 Moroccan Jews.

Pilgrimage to Jewish Saints

Moroccan Jews, whether they live in Morocco or elsewhere in the world, feel a strong tie to respected rabbis from the regions where they lived. Many of these rabbis were masters of the Kabbalah. When Jews pray at their tombs during pilgrimage festivals (hiloulot), they believe that the prayer is more likely to be fulfilled. While prayer at these tombs is considered powerful, the rabbis themselves are not considered intermediaries with God.