Hiloulot are events where Jews can return to their native villages or regions and visit with others who have also moved away, either to the major cities of Morocco, or overseas. Each saint has its own followers, who take care of the grave and perhaps a nearby synagogue and arrange the festival. Some of the hiloulot attract thousands of people, from as far away as Israel, Europe, the US and Canada. Most are small affairs, however, with only a few dozen people attending.
The main religious purpose of the hiloula is to pray for a good life and the resolution of problems. Jews light candles, touch the memorial stone, and pray at the tomb of the saint. By performing these actions, many Jews believe that these prayers will have more power than those performed in their synagogue or at home. Moroccan Jews will never admit that they are praying to the saint, however. Neither is the saint considered to be an intermediary between human beings and God.
Yet, many Jews visit the saint’s tomb with the hope that their prayers will be granted. Some saints are believed to be especially powerful, attracting men who would like to get married or women who wish to have children, for example.
Hiloulot are celebrated with lots of food, drink, and music. In some of the larger hiloulot, families rent rooms and gather with friends to feast and party. Orchestras may play Andalusian music.
Women offer food and drink to others attending the hiloula, because they believe that doing so is a mitzvah (good religious deed). People drink whiskey, wine and home-made mahia (fig liquor flavored with anise) as they sing Hebrew songs and trade stories.
Often, the caretakers of the saint’s tomb use the occasion to collect money for their work. Large candles and other memorabilia are auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Ceremonies at the saints’ tombs are often attended by dignitaries, such as the Governor or Caid, who represent the King. Jews use the occasion to publicly proclaim their attachment to the King, and to pray for his good health.
Many of the Jewish saints have been dead for over two hundred years. After the death of a learned and pious Jews, the local community would decide whether to honor his memory by making him a saint. Many of the saints were born in the land of Israel and came to Morocco to collect money for yeshivas with which they were associated. Others were wise men who were sources of inspiration and guidance for members of the community.
The tradition of praying at the tombs of Jewish saints evidently grew out of similar practices carried out by Moroccan Muslims. It is likely that the Amazigh people, more than the Arabs, were the original source of this practice in Morocco. Throughout the country, one sees rounded white structures housing the Muslim saints, or marabouts.
Pilgrimages to the marabouts are celebrated with festivals, known as moussems. During the moussems, Muslims light candles and pray at the tombs, just as the Jews do during the hiloula.
The largest pilgrimage takes place in Ouezzane, in the foothills of the Rif Mountains. Rabbi Amram Ben Diwan came to Morocco in the 1770’s to collect funds for the yeshivas (talmudic schools) of Hebron in Palestine. He was trapped in Meknes for seven years because of political instability and died in Ouezzane.
Another large festival is held in Ben Ahmed, near Settat, for Saint Rabbi Yahia Lakhdar. There is a small hiloula at the synagogue at Bab Mellah in Rabat, and a larger one in the Jewish cemetery in Salé.
During the holiday of Lag B’Omer, visitors are welcome at hiloulot throughout Morocco. Jewish community leaders can help you to make the proper contacts to find out where and when the festivals will take place.
While some Muslims come to pray at the tombs of Jewish saints, believing that they are more powerful than Muslim saints, some Jews consider the late King Mohamed V to be a saint and make a pilgrimage to his mausoleum in Rabat. These Jews revere his memory, because of his efforts to defend the Jewish community from the Nazi-controlled French Vichy Government during World War II.
The Jewish Community has established an organization to coordinate hiloula and the upkeep of Jewish saints’ tombs. It is called the Commission on Jewish Saints in Morocco.
Several books have been written on Jewish saints. One I would recommend is entitled, Saint Veneration Among Jews in Morocco, by Issachar Ben Ami. It examines the reasons why saints have become an important part of Moroccan Jewish life and describes the history of many saints.