It Sounds Better in French… or Does It?

What happened when rabbinic courts in Morocco were under the authority of the French colonial government?

Dr. Yoel Finkelman
A "Ketubah", a traditional Jewish marriage contract from Kenitra, Morocco, 1951, the National Library of Israel

You never know what you’re going to find in an archive. A single, seemingly innocent page might be evidence of something quite large. That was certainly the experience of NLI archivists while cataloging the mid-20th century archive of the Beit Din of Kenitra (also called Port Lyautey), a costal Moroccan town north of Casablanca.

Archives of rabbinical courts and Jewish self-governing institutions are common. They tend to contain summaries of court decisions and the reasons behind them, notarized agreements or receipts, copies of standard contracts or documentation, or details of appointments and administration of the court. They differ of course from time to time or place to place, but there are many commonalities. One of those commonalities is the insistence that internal Jewish communal and court records appear in Jewish languages whether forms of Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew, or others.

Medieval and early modern Jews benefitted from a great deal of cultural and political autonomy. Local non-Jewish officials granted the Jewish community rights and obligations, expecting Jews to regulate their own internal affairs, raise money for Jewish use, pay taxes to local governments, litigate disputes, and generally keep community members in line. Jewish communities were granted authority to tax members, and even punish them with fines, excommunication, and sometimes corporal punishment. Jewish communities functioned as autonomous governments over the Jewish residents.

Naturally, governance requires record keeping. The Jewish languages in these records made life easier for communal leaders, and the documentation was designed to keep internal Jewish affairs in the hands of Jews, particularly the leaders themselves. Take a typical pinkas, or record book, from the Jewish community of Frankfurt am Main.

A pinkas (record book) from the Jewish community of Frankfurt am Main  (1552-1802), the National Library of Israel

The community leaders kept their records in a language that only Jews could understand, and in many cities restricted access to those record books even from lay Jews. Only community leaders could get access to them.

Similar documents exist from Jewish communities in the Arab world, where Jewish communal legislation was recorded in manuscripts that summarized the local communal bylaws, regarding things such as appointment to leadership positions, taxation, sumptuary laws, and fines or punishments for disobedience. One such document, an example of among literally hundreds of similar ones held at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, includes lists of 18th-19th century Jewish communal ordinances from Fez and Meknes in Hebrew, written in professional scribal hand.

A pinkas containing 18th and 19th century records of the Jewish communities of Fez and Meknes, written in Hebrew, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

Court decisions, contracts, and receipts were also recorded, again largely in Jewish languages. One example, from the NLI’s collection, documents a 1753 Hebrew-language agreement between the Jewish community of Fez and a local Jewish seller of beans and seeds. He would gain exclusive rights to sell his wares to Jews, in exchange for a fee he would pay to the communal coffers.

A 1753 Hebrew-language contract containing an agreement between the Jewish community of Fez and a local Jewish seller of beans and seeds, the National Library of Israel

Records like these provided important resources when problems arose, someone violated a rule or agreement, or an issue came to be adjudicated. Laypeople also needed documentation of economic transactions, in case of disagreement after financial deals. But, since Jewish communities were largely autonomous, responsible for their own affairs, there was no need to make Jewish documents accessible to non-Jews by using the local vernacular.

But the archival materials from the Beit Din of Kenitra in the mid-twentieth century held by the NLI were not in rabbinic Hebrew, but in French. Jews in Morocco spoke French during the colonial era, but it is not common at all to find rabbinical courts or halakhic documentation conducted in the vernacular. Why, then, would the Beit Din use French?

The answer stems from significant reforms that the French colonial government in Morocco made in regulating Batei Din [rabbinic courts]. To understand these reforms, it helps to compare the situation to Jewish courts that exist in the two biggest centers of Jewish life today, the United States and Israel. The model in the United States, where religious courts have no formal governmental authority whatsoever, involves entirely voluntary institutions. The government has little say in how they operate, and those courts act only for themselves and their constituents. The model in Israel is the reverse. Some religious courts are formally part of the state itself. They have no independence at all from the state.

But the French colonial government in Morocco offered a different, hybrid, suggestion. The colonial government wanted to reform the relationship between the Beit Din and the colonial authorities. Beginning in 1918, the French protectorate began to systematically reform Jewish communities and their institutions, modernizing them by limiting their authority and linking them to new, modern bureaucracy. They created Jewish rabbinic courts that would operate based on Jewish laws, but would be subject to the oversight of the colonial authorities, who would authorize the Batei Din to make decisions about internal Jewish affairs, particularly regarding marriage, divorce, and family law. Once the Jewish court had acted, the French Protectorate required systematic information about decisions, personal statuses, litigants’ obligations, or divorce settlements and their financial consequences. The French Protectorate demanded that the Jewish Beit Din take responsibility for personal status, and therefore also take responsibility for systematically reporting things to the government.

A French document from the archive of the  Kenitra Beit Din containing a statistical summary of past court decisions, including marriages and divorces, between 1944 and 1964, the National Library of Israel

This created new record-keeping responsibilities for the court. They could not simply run their own business, by Jews for Jews, in Jewish languages. Instead, the French and local authorities required systematical paperwork from the Jewish community. The Beit Din would collate its decisions about personal status, translate the decisions into French, and send them off to the local authorities. This practice continued even after Moroccan independence in 1956. The archive of the court in Kenitra includes such reports for the years 1944-1964. It even includes some long-term statistics, summarizing the total number of marriages and divorces performed during those years.

In terms of the content, the archive of the Kenitra court is fairly typical. But the small change in language is actually a microcosm of much more dramatic changes taking place in the relationship between Moroccan Jews, colonial Europeans, and local Muslim populations.


The Kenitra Beit Din Archive has been cataloged and made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.











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