Jewish Heritage of Erfoud and Rissani, Morocco
In many mountainous and rural parts of Morocco, particularly in the Atlas, Talifet and Draa region, there are many cemeteries in very isolated areas known only to their inhabitants or the descendants of the families. Jewish tourists from all over the world come to Morocco to retrace the lives of their ancestors who played a significant role in Morocco’s history. In 1931, the Jewish population of Erfoud was about 1,172. Many were artisans and owners of various spice shops and the town was the home to many great Rabbis and Kabbalists, including Rav Yitzchak Al-Fasi (also known as the “Rif”) (1013-1088), the Rambam (1160-1165), R’ Joseph Gikatila, and the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh (1698-1742), whose burial sites are visited every year by Jewish pilgrims. These pilgrimages bring new life to these sites and also maintains a connection to customs rooted in memories and local traditions.
In this region, Rabbi Shmuel Abuchatzeira and his family moved to the city of Tafilalt, from Israel, where Rabbi Shmuel’s son Moshe became the Rav of the city. Rabbi Moshe’s son, Yaakov, known as the “Abir Yaakov,” succeeded his father as Rabbi of Tafilalt. Rabbi Yaakov’s eldest son, Moshe, became an Av Beit Din in the same city, and it was here that his son, Yisrael, the man who would become the Baba Sali, was born on Rosh Hashanah 5650 (1890). The name Abuchatzeira was not the family’s original name. The grandfather, Rabbi Masoud, was named Elbaz. He came to Israel on a large barge or raft, and in Arabic, this is called a Chatzeira, which means the owner of the raft.
This Jewish cemetery has a new synagogue to accommodate the services for visitors and tourists, and especially in the month of December for the rabbi’s Hiloula, the event marking the anniversary of a sage’s death. This is an example that Jewish life can be found not only in the big cities but in small towns and in the Atlas Mountains”. The cemetery is well preserved and many of the tombstones’ inscriptions are readable.
Rissani Jewish Cemetery
Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira is known as the Baba Sali, lit. “Praying Father” (1889–1984) was a leading Moroccan Sephardic rabbi and kabbalist renowned for his alleged ability to work miracles through his prayers. His burial place in Netivot Israel has become a shrine for prayers. Before he became an icon in Israel, France, and around the world, the Baba Sali lived on the edge of the Sahara desert.
There are four famous rabbis buried in the Rissani cemetery, among them Rabbi David Abu Hatziera. An ongoing on-site renovation of the Rissani cemetery was being conducted by Mr. Michel Sebag during a visit by American journalists in November. A new Ohel, or mausoleum, is being erected around the grave of Rabbi David Abu Hatziera as well as a new synagogue, a dining hall, guest rooms for the Rabbis, bathroom, and a kitchen to accommodate the thousands of guests who will celebrate the annual Hiloula in December. There are about 6,000 tombstones in this cemetery that date back 500 years. Mr. Sebag told NYJTG that he would be initiating renovations for other cemeteries in Morocco such as in Guarana and other cities, and had already completed at least 10 renovations, including the one in Erfoud with its new synagogue.
Erg Chebbi dunes of Merzouga
In the same region, you can explore the wonders of the Sahara by camel trekking in the Erg Chebbi dunes famed for their great height and size; they can rise up to 150 meters high in some places, 22 kilometers long, and five kilometers wide. You will experience a spectacular view of the desert flora and fauna from a distance. My advice is to wear a dark turban to keep your head cool in summer and warm in winter.
Traveling through these dunes was a surreal and mystical experience that will make you feel as if you were in the middle of a Star Wars movie. Looking around from every angle, all you will see is a sea of the desert as the dunes stretch out to the Algerian border and offer one of the most authentic desert experiences. Moroccan legend says that the Erg Chebbi sand dunes were sent by God as a punishment for turning away a weary traveler from the Sahara Desert. Moroccans believe that the dunes piled up outside Merzouga to teach them a lesson so that they would never again refuse to help tired travelers. These dunes are indisputably one of the greatest sights of Morocco.
Erfoud: Nomadic family hospitality
In the Moroccan Sahara Desert and in the Atlas Mountains, many people still maintain their peculiar nomadic tribal way of life as in the Erg Chebbi dunes, where we visited a Berber family. Inside Erg Chebbi there are a few families that survive due to the presence of water wells, as water is the most important commodity in the life of nomads.
Instead of having tents, this nomad family has a portable house made of wood and canes, covered with blankets. This way of covering the tent prevents heat and light from going inside. Fresh mint tea were served from a silver teapot held high while pouring into traditional glasses, with lots of Moroccan sugar, dried dates, bread and oil made of boiled butter. They explained to us how the chores such as milking goats, tending animal herds and learning to bake bread in the traditional way.
Collecting wood is also an important part of nomadic survival. Basic kitchen utensils are used to cook and prepare traditional foods like Tajine, fava bean soup, and oven-baked bread. The backdrop is the beautiful landscape of the Sahara Desert.
For more information, visit:
To plan a trip to Morocco, contact the Moroccan National Office of Tourism or log on to http://www.visitmorocco.com/en.
Fly Royal Air Morocco – https://www.royalairmaroc.com/us-en/
Visit the Erg Chebbi Dunes of Merzouga & Overnight in a Sahara Desert Camp on a Morocco Private Tour. Book a tour with Mr. Mustapha Merzuga of https://moroccoadventures.com/ or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org and can be reached via WhatsApp at + 212 670-761-106.
Story & photography by Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide.com
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Moroccan National Tourist Office.