Jewish Telegraphic Agency
He used to have visitors during Passover -- pilgrims, in
This year, it may take a miracle. But for Elfassie,
miracles are a part of daily life.
"They came from all over to visit," boasts the
dark-complexioned, white-bearded Elfassie in Arabic, adjusting his pointy,
knit skullcap. "They arrived from
The tzaddik is Rabbi Shlomo ben Hensh, dead 500 years
but still revered like a saint. Elfassie has devoted the last 24 years of
his life to guarding the tzaddik's tomb.
These days, few visit Elfassie and his tzaddik to ask
for blessings. Israeli tourism to
But the spirit of the tzaddik has survived many crises
during his five centuries interred in the
Most members of the Moroccan Berber tribes are Muslim
today. However, some North African Berbers, like Elfassie's ancestors,
were Jewish before Arab conquerors arrived here more than 1,300 years ago.
Like their Muslim counterparts, who revere each departed
holy man, Jewish Berbers always made the commemoration of tzaddiks a
cornerstone of their religious life.
Today, commemoration is not merely life's cornerstone
for Elfassie -- it is life.
Fifty years ago, he says, Ourika had 300 Jewish
families, two synagogues, Jewish schools, rabbis to perform circumcisions,
bar mitzvahs and weddings, and plenty of kosher food and matzah.
Elfassie worked the
Then his family and friends joined a wave of Moroccan
Sa'ada, who was born in Ourika and devoted her life to
guarding the tzaddik, died in 1978. Elfassie and Yamna assumed sole
responsibility for the rabbi's tomb.
Two years ago, after more than 40 years of marriage,
Yamna died. The couple never had children.
Now, Elfassie is alone with three graves -- those of his
wife, his mother and the man they stayed in Ourika to watch, the tzaddik.
"There are still many tombs of tzaddikim around
Elfassie begins recounting the legend of Rabbi ben Hensh:
"More than five centuries ago, he came from
"He was coming to collect tzedakah donations to
bring with him back to the
"Though he was about to die from his wounds, Rabbi
ben Hensh turned into a snake and hissed from the back of the mule to
protect his possessions. The bandits ran away terrified," Elfassie
"So the snake turned back into the rabbi, and he
rode to the
"But it was Friday," Elfassie says. "The
sun was going to set, to begin Shabbat. It is forbidden to ride on
Shabbat, the day of rest."
Elfassie proudly elaborates whatever Jewish knowledge he
has retained against the forces of time and isolation. He remembers few
standard Hebrew prayers, and reading in any language is a struggle for
him, but Elfassie said Kaddish daily for his wife and mother after they
"Then another miracle happened," he continues.
"The sun stopped going down."
He explains: "It is also forbidden to carry on
Shabbat, even for a mule. But with the sun stopped, it was OK, and the
mule came to this spot."
Elfassie points to the tomb before him, lined with
stacks of Hebrew prayer books contributed by foreign visitors. The room is
filled with a soft glow that permeates three windows divided into purple
and gold panes.
"The tzaddik buried himself here."
The primitive, ancient grave is covered with a raised,
white marble tomb donated by expatriate Moroccan Jewish devotees in 1976.
The Elfassies always felt that the tzaddik's bizarre
story was their most pressing Jewish reality. Although the Elfassies often
considered leaving the
Both Yamna and Elfassie saw a snake, which became a
stick and blocked the door. They believed the vision was a sign.
"The tzaddik does not want his grave to be
lost," Elfassie explains. "Insh'allah," he says in Arabic,
"May it be God's will that someone will come to protect the tomb when
He places his Jewish faith in God's will, but calls God
by the Islamic name "Allah."
Elfassie usually only travels from Ourika to Marrakech
to attend synagogue on the High Holy Days with the 240 remaining Jews
there, or to buy kosher meat. Soon he will make the long bus trip for the
Elfassie clings to the hope that ben Hensh's spell is
strong enough to attract visitors to Ourika during this Passover season,
despite the global political situation. But even more, Elfassie hopes that
new protectors will take his place preserving the tzaddik's memory -- the
last vestige of Berber-Jewish history in