Yosef ben 'Amram, haDayyan of Sijilmasa

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About Yosef ben 'Amram, haDayyan of Sijilmasa

Sijilmasa (Ar. Sijilmāsa) was a town in the Mahgreb near the present-day Moroccan town of Rissani in the Tafilalet oasis, approximately 300 kilometers (190 miles) southeast of Fez, along the chain of North African Jewish settlements in the border region between the settled country and the Sahara. The chain of settlements lay along a caravan route which probably dated to antiquity, and medieval sources such as the geographer al-Bakrī report that Sijilmasa was founded by Berbers in the mid-eighth century. At various times, both the town and the oasis which surrounded it were walled. Sources allude to a Jewish community in Sijilmasa from at least the tenth century until the twelfth, at which time persecution by the Almohads put the community under a great deal of pressure. In his famous elegy Aha Yarad (Alas, There Befell!), Abraham Ibn Ezra laments the destruction of the Sijilmasan Jewish community and refers to it as “the city of geonim.” Nonetheless, the town was a center of rabbinical learning both before and after the early Almohad persecutions, and learned Jews of Sijilmasan descent are known through at least the fourteenth century. However, a safe-conduct issued by Jaime I of Aragon in 1247 suggests that at least some of the Jewish populace left for Majorca or other points in Spain.

Gaonic responsa and many documents from the Cairo Geniza reveal th e involvement of the Sijilmasan Jewish community in commerce, the importance of the town as an outpost to the western Sudan, Mauritania, and Ghana, and its connections with the Babylonian center, often by way of Qayrawan. The Geniza documents show Jews from Sijilmasa traveling as far east as Baghdad. The head of the Babylonian/Iraqi Jewish community in Fustat, Egypt, Sahlān ben Abraham, was married to the daughter of the av bet din (chief judge) of the rabbinical court of Sijilmasa in 1037, and a Sijilmasan Jew, Abū Zikrī Judah Kohen, was active in minting and the Saharan gold trade; other Jews seem to have also been involved in the latter. A surviving gaonic responsum to the community of Sijilmāsa concerns the eating of locusts. A Sijilmasan scholar, Solomon ben Nathan, compiled a Judeo-Arabic siddur (prayerbook) with halakhic notes and composed a commentary, also in Judeo-Arabic, entitled Pereq Qinyan Torah (A Chapter on Possession of the Torah).

Although it was visited by the famous Arab traveler Ibn Baṭṭūṭa in 1351, the town of Sijilmasa disappeared in 1393, victim to the unstable economy and politics of the Marinid Empire. In the late twentieth century, a small geniza was found in the Jewish cemetery in Sijilmasa, but its contents seem not to have survived.

Phillip Ackerman-Lieberman


al-Bakrī, Abū ʿUbayd Allāh. Description de l’Afrique Septentrionale: Texte arabe, ed. M. de Slane (Algiers: Imprimerie du Gouvernement, 1857), pp. 148–150 et passim.

Goitein, S. D. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, 6 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).

Hirschberg, Haim Z. A History of the Jews in North Africa, 2d rev. ed., 2 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 1974).

———. “The Problem of the Judaized Berbers,” Journal of African History 4 (1963): 313–339.

Lightfoot, Dale R., and James A. Miller. “Sijilmasa: The Rise and Fall of a Walled Oasis in Medieval Morocco,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 86, no. 1 (1996): 78–101.

Tobi, Yosef. “The Siddur of Rabbi Shelomo Ben Nathan of Sijilmasa: A Preliminary Study,” in Communautés juives des marges aharienne du Maghreb, ed. Michel Abitbol (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 1982), pp. 407–429.

Tafilalet (Tafilalt; Ar./Berb. Tāfīlālt) is a fertile region in southeastern Morocco, situated in the Ziz River basin on the northern edge of the Sahara Desert. It is famous for its date palm industry, and is the patrimonial home of the Filālī (nisba or adjectival form) sharīfs (Cl. Ar. shurafā’; Coll. Mor. Ar. shorfa), the rulers of the Moroccan Alawid dynasty since the seventeenth century. Tafilalet was also the name of an administrative district under the French.

Jews lived in the Tafilalet region at least as early as the end of the first millennium, when there was a Jewish community in the city of Sijilmasa in central Tafilalet, whose ruined walls can be seen near modern Rissani. Cairo Geniza documents show that that the Jews of Sijilmasa maintained close ties with the geonim of the Babylonian yeshivot in Iraq in this period, even sending financial donations to the academies, and Sijilmāsī appears as a family name (the regional name Tafilalet, however, is never mentioned in the documents). While the site of Sijilmasa was abandoned at the end of the fourteenth century, Jews lived in the region in Marinid times. Leo Africanus, in the sixteenth century, indicates that there were numerous Jews, mainly artisans and merchants, in the principal fortified settlements (Ar. qaṣr, pl. quṣūr) of Tabu‘samt and El-Mamoun, and that Jews were employed in minting coins.

The shurafā’ of Tafilalet, where Rissani is located near the site of ancient Sijilmasa, gained control of Morocco in the 1630s, establishing the ‘Alawid dynasty, which is still in power in the twenty-first century. The largest Jewish settlement in Tafilalet was in the principal mellah ( mallāḥ ), or walled Jewish quarter, of present-day Rissani in the Oued Ifli district. Jews were also settled in many of the villages of the region, such as Ghirlane, Essifa, Tabeghsent, Irara, and El Mâadid (al-M‘ādid). The Jewish population of the Tafilalet region was estimated at six thousand in the nineteenth century, and Jewish merchants were engaged in the regional and trans-Saharan trade with Algeria, Fez, and the port of Essaouira (Mogador) on the coast. After the town of Rissani was developed by the French in the first third of the twentieth century, most of the Jews left the villages and moved there (580 Jews in 1936) or migrated to other places, such as the towns of Boudnib, Erfoud, and Ksar es-Souk. In particular, there was a large migration to Algeria; many Filālī Jews moved to the Algerian city of Oran. When Jews still lived in Béchar (formerly Colomb-Béchar) in Algeria the majority of the comunity was of Filālī origin. The total number of Jews in the Tafilalet remained about the same as in the nineteenth century—5,830 according to the 1936 census.

During the French protectorate, Tafilalet became a larger, administrative province, stretching from the desert area dozens of kilometers south of Rissani to Midelt in the north, and from the Goulmima area in the west to the remote eastern area of Boudnib. The French made Ksar-es-Souk (modern Errachidia) a military base and district capital, a status it still has today in independent Morocco. After Moroccan independence in 1956, the majority of the country’s Jews emigrated to Israel. Since the 1970s, only a few individual Jews have lived in the Tafilalet district, but Jewish tourists from Israel and other countries often visit the graves of the saints in the region. The saintly Abuḥaṣera (Abiḥaṣera) dynasty is of Filālī origin, and the tombs of several of its members are pilgrimage sites.

Until the last generation of Jewish settlement in Tafilalet, the local Jews saw themselves as descendants of the ancient community of Sijilmasa. Thus their marriage contracts (Heb. ketubbot) and writs of divorce (Heb. giṭṭin) specified that they lived in the city of Sijilmasa located on the Ziz River. There is no doubt that the Jews of the Tafilalet communities surpassed the Jews of the nearby villages and towns in the expanded Tafilalet district in knowledge of Torah and strict observance of the commandments (miṣvot). Evidence indicates that there were no illiterate Jewish males in Tafilalet; by contrast, dozens of Jews in nearby areas did not receive any education and could neither read nor write. Almost all the rabbis in the villages of the nearby districts received their training in Tafilalet.

Some of the rabbinical families in Tafilalet had a genealogy stretching back several generations. The most prominent of them was the Alzraʿ family; Rabbi Jacob ben Baba Alzraʿ, who died sometime in the first third of the twentieth century, could count twenty-six generations of rabbis in his family. Starting from the mid-nineteenth century, the Abuḥaṣera family stood out among the region’s religious leaders. Jacob Abuḥaṣera(1808–1880) known as Sidnā al-Ḥakham (our master the rabbi), wrote numerous books on Kabbala, as well as a kabbalistic commentary on the Torah, Pituḥe Ḥotam (The Engravings of a Signet). He wrote numerous liturgical poems ( piyyuṭim), and they, too, bear the impress of his strong inclination toward Kabbala. Many of his liturgical poems were known throughout the Tafilalet region and in other localities in Morocco and Algeria. He died in 1880 in the town of Damanhur, Egypt, on his way to the Holy Land.

Jacob’s son Masʿūd succeeded him. Masʿūd died in 1908, and Jacob’s youngest son, Rabbi Isaac, was murdered in the Toulal area in 1912. Jacob’s grandson, David ben Masʿūd Abuḥaṣera (known as the Baba Ddu, 1866–1919) was executed in 1919 by a Berber leader on suspicion of having cooperated with the French army. After his death, the Abuḥaṣera family’s yeshiva moved in 1920 to the town of Boudnib, where it remained for about twelve years, teaching students from around the region. When David died, his younger brother, Israel Abuḥaṣera (known as the Baba Sali, 1890–1984), gained prominence, acting as the region’s rabbinical judge (dayyan) in Erfoud before he emigrated to Israel, where he died in the town of Netivot in the northern Negev. Throughout the life of the Baba Sali, masses thronged around him to receive blessings. Following his death in 1984, his grave became a place of pilgrimage. Another noted member of the family was Jacob Abuḥaṣera’s great-grandson Makhlūf ben Elijah ben Aaron, who served as head of the rabbinical court of Marrakesh around the middle of the twentieth century and wrote books on Halakha.

     Researchers on traditions of reading and translating the  Bible into Judeo-Arabic(shurūḥ; sing. sharḥ ) have given considerable attention to the achievements of Tafilalet, which went far beyond what was accomplished in other Jewish communities of Morocco. Academic study of its local customs was made possible thanks to the transmission of material by Rabbi Abraham ben Aaron Ben Harosh(1912–2002).

Moshe Bar-Asher


Bar-Asher, Moshe. Masorot u-Leshonot shel Yehude Ṣ efon Afriqa (Jerusalem: Hebrew University and Bialik Institute, 1999).

Ben-Ami, Issachar. Culte des saints et pèlerinages judéo-musulmans au Maroc (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 1990).

Dunn, Ross E. Resistance in the Desert: Moroccan Responses to French Imperialism, 1881–1912 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977).

Goitein, S. D. A Mediterranean Society, 6 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967–93).

Jacques-Meunié, Djinn. Le Maroc saharien des origines à 1670, 2 vols. (Paris: Klincksieck, 1982).

Leo Africanus [Jean-L%C3%A9on l’Africain]. Description de l’Afrique, trans. A. Épaulard, 2 vols. (Paris: Maisonneuve, 1956).

Mezzine, Larbi. “Juifs et Musulmans dans le Tafilalet: Perceptions et réalities,” in Relations judéo-Musulmanes au Maroc: perceptions et réalités, ed. Michel Abitbol (Paris: Stavit, 1997).

Citation Moshe Bar-Asher. " Tafilalet." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online , 2012. Reference. Jim Harlow. 12 August 2012 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-jews-...>

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Yosef ben 'Amram, haDayyan of Sijilmasa's Timeline

Al-Qayrawan, Kairouan North, Kairouan, Tunisia
Errachidia Province, Meknès-Tafilalet, Morocco
Rissani, Errachidia Province, Meknès-Tafilalet, Morocco