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Interior of the Rashbi Synagogue, Ramla, Israel, 2019
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Interior of the Rashbi Synagogue, Ramla, Israel, 2019


Interior of the Rashbi synagogue of Moroccan Jews, Ramla, Israel, 2019
Shaphardi Nusach (Sephardi rite).
2 Amichai street, Ramla
Photo: Michael Strimban
The Oster Visual Documentation Center, ANU – Museum of the Jewish People

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Kingdom of Morocco  المملكة المغربية

21st Century

Estimated Jewish population in 2018: 2,100 out of 35,000,000 (0.006%)

Conseil des Communautés Israelites du Maroc
Phone: 212 522 48 78 51/ 522 29 57 52
Fax: 212 522 48 78 49



The Jews of Morocco

687 | The Jewish Khaleesi

According to Sefer Josippon – a book written in the middle ages, which documents the history of the Jewish people during antiquity – some 30,000 Jews fled after the destruction of the Second Temple to the Maghreb area (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia), which was at the time inhabited by Berber tribes.
Legend has it that these Jews founded Jewish kingdoms in the vicinity of modern-day Morocco and even caused many of the Berbers to convert to Judaism. Some sources, part historical and part mythical, mention a Jewish queen named Dihya al-Kahina, who headed the resistance to the Arab conquest in the late seventh century. Al-Kahina, who was described as “A true desert queen, beautiful as a horse and strong as a wrestler”, fascinated many scholars. They describe her as a beautiful, charismatic leader, tough and brave, who yet treated captive enemy warriors mercifully, even adopting two of them.

800 | Fez De-Talmud

In the early ninth century, the great yeshivas of Babylon passed the torch to several heirs, among them the Jewish center in the city of Fez, in northeastern Morocco.
While the Arab conquerors imposed an inferior “dhimmi” status on the Jews of Fez, they still thrived relatively speaking. Muslim historian al-Bakhri noted that “In Fez the Jews lived better than in any other city in the Maghreb”.
Indeed, in Fez there gathered many Jewish scholars, who contributed to its growth as a vibrant spiritual center. The best known were linguist and poet Judah ibn Kuraish and Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, who founded a great yeshiva in the city and wrote the “Sefer HaHalachot”, which refined the essence of religious rulings from the Mishna and the Talmud and won its author eternal fame, as it is an integral part of any yeshiva's library and curriculum to this day.

1146 | Doctor Muhammad and Mister Moses

In order not to fall prey to the cruelty of the Almohad dynasty, which seized control of Morocco in 1146, the Jews were forced to choose between two options: Die or convert. Some chose a third option: To become anusim (crypto-Jews), which is to say, Jews at home and Muslim in public. This situation roused Maimonides, who lived in Fez at the time, to write his famous “Epistle on Martyrdom”, which gave the anusim permission to live in a bi-polar state of identity, until the need should pass. According to tradition, the house in which Maimonides' family lived stands to this day in the old city of Fez.

1492 | A Moroccan Righteous Among The Nations

The expulsion from Spain has been burned into the collective Jewish consciousness as a national disaster that will live in eternal infamy. Like other cases in Jewish history when Jews were uprooted, in the Spanish expulsion too there was no great desire among most nations to take in the Jewish refugees.
One exception was King Muhammad al-Sheikh, a ruler of the Wattasid dynasty, a “Righteous Among the Nations” of his time who was one of the few rulers to open his country to the Jews fleeing Spain.
The refugees from Spain acclimated naturally to their new country. They settled mostly in the urban communities of Fez, Meknes, Sal'e and Marrakesh, and soon integrated into the local Jewish community, creating a new economic and rabbinical elite.

1631 | The Holy Zohar

Like in Christian Europe, so in the lands of Islam, the political game of musical chairs never stopped for a moment. The Jews of Morocco were tossed from one regime to the next, each with its own whims and caprices regarding the Jews. These frequent changes ended in 1631 with the ascension of the Alawite dynasty, which rules Morocco to this day. The rulers of this house treated the Jews warmly, allowing them to find their way to key positions in high places, as royal mint managers, royal treasurers and more.
But the main hero of Morocco's Jews in those years was not a high-ranking official, nor a learned rabbinical leader, but a book: The Holy Zohar, considered the foundation text of Jewish mysticism. The “Zohar” had its greatest influence on the cities of southern Morocco, where Kabbalah literature flourished. Among the most famous sages of this stream of thought one can list Rabbi Shimon Lavi, Moshe Ben Maimon Elbaz and Yaacov ben Itzhak Ifargan, and also Rabbi Avraham Azoulay, great-grandfather of the Hid”a, the gaon Chaim Yosef David Azoulay.

1739 | Imprint of a Genius

While the printing press was invented in Germany back in the 15th century, it had yet to be heard of in Morocco even 300 years later, and so the belated creative explosion experienced by the Jews of Morocco during the reign of King Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif in the late 17th and early 18th century has not received the acclaim it deserves. Among the greatest of that forgotten generation were the members of the Toledano and Bardugo families and the rabbis Even-Tzur, Azoulay and Ben-Hemo. But one member of that era still managed to win eternal fame: Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar, author of “Or HaChaim” (“Light of Life”).
It was fate that drove Ben Attar to make aliyah in 1739, after a bitter inheritance dispute within his family. En-route to Israel Ben Attar stopped in Livorno, Italy, where he printed his books, and the rest is history.
The greatness of Ben Attar crossed all sectarian and geographical boundaries. According to legend, when the founder of the Hasidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov, heard that Ben Attar was making aliyah, he wished to join him, but heaven itself prevented it, on the grounds that if the two great tzadikim were to meet, the messiah would have to come, and the People of Israel were not yet ready.

1838 | The Moroccan Roots of Tel Aviv

In 1838 a clipper set sail from the shores of Morocco bound for the Land of Israel. Aboard it were Moroccan Jews whose hearts longed for the Holy Land. But the treacherous sea ended their hopes and sank the vessel. Among the few to survive the tempest was Avraham Shlush.
Although most discussions of the aliyah of Moroccan Jews focus on the early years of the State of Israel, the great Shlush family – which in 1887 founded the neighborhood of Neve Tzedek (the first Jewish expansion outside of Jaffa and one of the kernels of the city of Tel Aviv), and participated in the founding of Tel Aviv itself 20 years later – is but one of the proofs that this community began making aliyah long before the establishment of the state, and continued doing so in a slow but steady manner until it was founded.
Another famous pioneer who bears mentioning is Chaim Amzaleg, who participated in the purchase of land for the moshavot (colonies) of Rishon LeZion and “The Mother of Moshavot”, Petah Tikva.

1860 | Renewed Ties

For many years the Jews in Morocco were relatively cut off from Jewish communities in Europe. This changed somewhat thanks to the “Tajar al-Sultan” (Royal Merchants) – a new class of Jews that developed in the late 1850s. This group of merchants conducted trade relations with the powers of Europe on behalf of their sovereign, while at the same time establishing ties with their European brethren.
In those years there also began a large migration of Jews from Morocco to South America, following the booming rubber trade in the area, mostly in Brazil. One of the leading international merchants of Jewish origin in this period was Moses Elias Levy from the city of Mogador, who upon reaching adulthood migrated to Florida of all places, and in an act of solidarity purchased hundred of thousands of acres with the intention of providing refuge for persecuted Jews in Eastern Europe.

1912 | All Israel Are Friends

In 1912 the signing of the Treaty of Fez turned Morocco into a French protectorate. For the Jews of Morocco this treaty heralded the end of a dark period replete with pogroms and the beginning of a new era, in which the Jews enjoyed a cultural, social, and political renaissance.
During these years the teaching of Hebrew, combined with the ideas of Enlightenment (both the general kind and Jewish Haskala) spread throughout Morocco via the global Jewish school network Alliance Israelite Universelle (translated into Hebrew as "All Israel Are Friends"), which took the children of Morocco under its wings. It was then that the Jews of Morocco began to exit the Mellahs (the Jewish quarters, somewhat akin to the European ghettos) and move to the new European-style neighborhoods in the major cities.

1940 | The Holocaust Stops in Morocco

In 1940 the Nazis conquered France and established the Vichy regime – a German wolf in French sheep's clothing. Historians are divided as to the extent to which Moroccan King Muhammad V acquiesced to the edicts of the Vichy regime. In any event, the Jews were soon expelled from government positions and thrown back into the ghetto-like Mellah. In addition there is a well-known story of 153 Moroccan Jews who happened to be in Paris and were sent to Auschwitz. In 1942 the Allies conquered Morocco and stopped the plans of the Nazi death machine in North Africa.

1948 | Aliyah to the Melting Pot

The establishment of the State of Israel caused much excitement among the Jews of Morocco. However, this was not just due to love of their people, but also resulted from the hardships of life in Morocco.
During those years the struggle for national independence escalated in Morocco and the national press often incited against Jews. The high tensions led to deplorable incidents including the pogroms of Oujda and Jerada, in which 42 Jews – men, women and children – were murdered.
Between 1948-1956 some 85,000 Jews made aliyah from Morocco, then still under French rule. The immigrants were forced to adjust to the national “melting pot” policy led by then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, and many of them felt that their rich culture was being trampled by the Zionist steamroller. Thousands of them were led in the dead of night to frontier settlements in order to man and populate the borders. In time these settlements would come to be known as “Development Towns” (“Ayarot Pituach”). This trauma stayed with the immigrants for many years, and found expression in Israeli music, literature and film.

1967 | The Perils of Independence

In 1956 Morocco was liberated from French rule, and banned the Jews living in its territory from emigrating to Israel. One reason was apparently the important role played by the Jews in the Moroccan economy. In 1960 the Israeli Mossad embarked on a daring mission to smuggle the Jews of Morocco to Israel aboard the fishing vessel Egoz. On one of its excursions the ship sank near the Straits of Gibraltar, and nearly all those aboard perished, including 44 immigrants. The disaster drew significant global notice, followed by international pressure on Morocco, until it relented, allowing its Jews to leave under various restrictions. Between 1961-1967 approximately 120,000 Jews made aliyah from Morocco to Israel.
In 1967, following the Six Day War and the growing threats to the Jewish community in Morocco, the final wave of aliyah from the country began, leading to the relocation of some 10,000 people.
In 2014 the Jewish community of Morocco numbered around 2,500 people, as opposed to 204,000 Jews who lived in the country in 1947. Many of the Jews of Morocco also immigrated to other countries, including France, Canada and the United States.