Moroccan Jews are unique in their
reverence for deceased learned and pious rabbis.
, there are hundreds of Jewish saints, as these rabbis are called,
whose tombs are usually located in Jewish cemeteries.
While some Jews regularly visit the saints' tombs to pray,
once a year groups of Jews hold a festival, known as a hiloula,
at the gravesite. Many hiloulot
take place during the holiday of Lag B'Omer, in the spring between
Passover and Shavuos.
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, 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
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
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
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 Berbers, more than the Arabs, were the original source of
this practice in
. 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.
Jewish saints are located in all areas of Morocco
, both in the regions inhabited by Berber Jews and those inhabited
by Sephardic Jews. Some
saints are located near big cities, such as
Fez, Meknes, Marrakech, and Tangier.
Others are located in small towns, such as Ksar El Kbir,
Demnate, Erfoud, Tineghir, Sefrou, and Taroudant.
Some are found in rural mountain areas, such as on the road
to Ourika, south of Marrakesh, and in a deserted Jewish village near
Ouirgane, the town where the Rosarie Hotel is located on the road to
The largest pilgrimage takes place in Ouezzane, in the
foothills of the
Amran Ben Diwan came to
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
Another large festival is held in Ben Ahmed, near Settat.
There is a small hiloula at the synagogue at Bab Mellah in
Rabat, and a larger one in the Jewish cemetery in Sale.
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 la Commission des Lieux Saints Juifs au Maroc.
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 each
of Saint Rabbi Habib Mizrahi
Tombs of Jewish Saints