The gates shuttering the world of Moroccan Halacha have been opened wide with the recent publication of “Darke Abotenou: the Laws and Customs of the Jews of Morocco,” as we discussed in last week’s column. The introduction to this magnificent work sheds light on an otherwise enigmatic enterprise, the inner workings of Moroccan Halacha. I believe the key points can be boiled down to three points that serve to create the distinctive Moroccan approach to Halacha.
Secret #1: The Influence of the Rosh
How and why did the Rosh, who was born and raised in Germany, exercise a major influence on Moroccan Jewry? It turns out that the Rosh was forced to flee from persecution in Germany and then settled in Spain where he served as the leader of the community and was enormously influential. When the Jews were banished from Spain in 1492, many of the megorashim (refugees) moved to Morocco. The megorashim exerted an enormous influence in their adopted land especially in Fes and Northern Morocco.
The megorashim brought with them their affinity for the approach of the Rosh. In fact, a mantra of many Moroccan poskim is wherever the Rosh goes, we go (a play on the word “rosh,” which also means head). Thus, although Moroccan Jews in general follow the rulings of Maran Rav Yosef Karo like other Sephardic Jews, they occasionally follow the Rosh. Most famously, Moroccan Jews follow the Rosh (Berachot 2:5) who rules that the bracha for full Hallel is “Ligmor et HaHallel” and “Likro et HaHallel” for chatzi Hallel. This stands in contrast to the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 422:2), which rules that no bracha is recited on chatzi Hallel.
Jack Varon, chairman of the board of Congregation Shaarei Orah, informs me that Turkish Jews also follow the Rosh regarding the bracha on Hallel. This is not surprising since the megorashim from Spain also emerged as the dominant community in Turkey after the Spanish expulsion. Many Turkish Jews retain Spanish names (such as Varon and Galanti) that memorialize their Spanish origins.
Secret #2: Follow the Rama When the Shulchan Aruch Is Unclear or Silent
Darke Abotenou records that Moroccan rabbis will follow the Rama in case Maran Rav Karo is unclear or silent. Chacham Ovadia most decidedly does not adhere to this rule. There are numerous examples of this phenomenon that account for significant differences between Rav Ovadia/Yerushalmi on one hand and Moroccan practice on the other.
The following are two prominent examples. On a Motzei Shabbat preceding a week during which a Yom Tov falls, Moroccans will omit Vihi No’am whereas minhag Yerushalmi will not. The Shulchan Aruch does not address this issue, but this rule is recorded in the Rama (O.H. 295:1). Moroccan Jews, accordingly, view this Rama as authoritative but minhag Yerushalayim does not.
Similarly, the Rama (O.H. 621:6) mentions the practice of mentioning the names of the deceased on Yom Kippur (serving as the basis for the Ashkenazic practice of Yizkor), while the Shulchan Aruch is silent regarding this matter. Thus, Moroccan Jews mention the neshamot in a ceremony known as the Hashkava Kelalit, whereas minhag Yerushalayim has nothing of this sort.
Darke Abotenou makes a critical clarification at this point. The similarity between some Moroccan and Ashkenazic practices lead some to wrongly conclude that Moroccan Jews were influenced by Ashkenazim in their midst. This unfounded rumor receives its tailwind from the very strong and influential presence of Lubavitch shluchim in Morocco beginning in the 1950s (Morocco was the first country outside North America to which the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent shluchim).
In response, Darke Abotenou cites a fiery letter sent by the beit din of Casablanca headed by the venerable Ribi Shalom Messas to the Chabad emissaries in Morocco, warning them that although they are most welcome and encouraged in their outreach work, they dare not tamper with the local community’s minhagim. Darke Abotenou also cites a letter from the eminent 19th-century authority Ribi Yosef Berdugo who wrote to the great Ribi Yaakov Berdugo: “We should not use proofs for [our] customs from Ashkenazi sources, because we do not follow the custom of Ashkenazim whatsoever.”
The similarity between Moroccan and Ashkenazi custom is not at all due to influence of Chabad. Rather, the similarity emerges from the impact of the Rosh and the reliance on the Rama in case Rav Karo is silent. The accusation that Moroccan practices have been adulterated is unfounded and should not be repeated.
Secret #3: Well-Based Practices of an Ancient Community Blessed With Many Great Rabbis
This past Shabbat Nachamu we had the privilege of hosting Rav Shlomo Amar at Shaarei Orah. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Rav Amar at the Friday night meal during this incredible Shabbat. I was shocked, though, to see Rav Amar nibble on some olives and salad after Kiddush but before Netilat Yadayim. This seemed to create a hefsek (unwarranted interruption) between Kiddush and the meal as well as creating a question regarding recital of a bracha achrona as well as unnecessary brachot!
However, upon studying Darke Abotenou, I learned that this is an ancient Moroccan practice, in order to make sure one recites the required daily 100 brachot. Darke Abotenou offers a compelling defense for this practice, including the argument that all Jews make a similar interruption between Kiddush and the meal at the Pesach sedarim!
The Moroccan Jewish community is an ancient one, dating to the exile subsequent to the destruction of Bayit Rishon. In addition, the community has been blessed with great rabbanim including the Rif, Ri Migash and the Ohr HaChayim as well as myriads of Torah luminaries. In fact, Morocco is one of the few places on earth where there has been uninterrupted Torah learning for at least the past 2,000 years! Thus, venerated Moroccan customs approved by its great Torah authorities deserve enormous respect. In fact, many unique Moroccan customs predate the composition of the Shulchan Aruch. Rav Karo specifically notes in his introduction to the Shulchan Aruch that his intention is not to uproot already established community practices.
The Rishonim coined the phrase “minhag Yisrael Torah hee,” the customs of the Jewish people constitute Torah. On a simple level, this phrase summons us to regard minhagim as a legitimate component of Torah. Rav Soloveitchik adds that this phrase also teaches that the customs of our people need to be studied and explained like any other portion of the Torah. Darke Abotenou performs this task magnificently, helping all Jews appreciate the rich legacy of a great Jewish community with a rich past and bright future even now that almost all of the community no longer resides in Morocco.
By Rabbi Haim Jachter
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.