Moroccan Jews (and the Jews of Western Algeria in the areas adjacent to Morocco) to this day begin the Passover Seder with a short text in Judeo-Arabic at the center of which is the figure of Moses…
As we all know, the Passover Haggadah deals entirely with story of the Exodus from Egypt, followed by the crossing of the Red Sea, all the while praising the Creator and expressing gratitude for the many miracles and wonders He performed to liberate and bring the Israelites from slavery to freedom.
According to the story told in detail in the first chapters of the Book of Exodus, Moses was a major player in all the events of the Exodus from Egypt, from the moment God spoke to him before the Burning Bush and entrusted him with the mission to go and speak with the Egyptian Pharaoh. He led the Israelites through the Red Sea as though crossing dry land, and then across the desert for forty years until his death before entering the land of Canaan. And yet, throughout all the pages of the Haggadah, the dominant biblical figure of Moses is not mentioned even once. Furthermore, in the Haggadah we read: “And God brought us out of Egypt not by the hand of an angel, nor by the hand of a fiery being, nor by a messenger, but the Holy One, blessed be He, and He Himself in His glory.”
Why was the figure of Moses erased so completely from the Passover Haggadah? The Haggadah text we know today was formulated in the fourth century CE. It was around this time that the figure of Jesus was enshrined as a central divine figure of the Christian faith which was rapidly spreading across the known world. Some believe that the Jewish sages, fearing the rise of a similar popular movement among the Jewish people that would counter Jesus with the figure of Moses as the true divine figure, attempted to expunge the figure of Moses even from the memory of the constitutive events associated with him. These events are of course recounted in detail in the Haggadah, the central text of the Passover Seder, which shaped Jewish consciousness for generations.
Yet, to this very day, the Jews of Morocco (and the Jews of Western Algeria in the areas adjacent to Morocco) begin the Seder with a short text in Judeo-Arabic, in which the central figure is none other than Moses. The text is recited at the beginning of the fourth stage of the Seder – yahatz – before the reading of the Haggadah, when the person conducting the Seder picks up the three matzot, takes out the middle matza and breaks it in half (reserving one half to be eaten later during the Tsafun ritual).
The Judeo-Arabic text is recited while the broken piece of matza is held up for all to see. According to this short text, God parted the Red Sea for our Ancestors into twelve paths through Moses, our rabbi and prophet. This is followed by a prayer that asks God to save the members of the communities from exile and bring them to the Holy Land just as He delivered our ancestors out of Egypt from slavery to freedom. The Judeo-Arabic text eventually crystallized into two different but closely related main versions, one used in the Tafilalt and adjacent communities in the southeast and northeast of Morocco, and another, shorter version, customary in other communities. The wording of the text varied slightly from one community to another, as often occurs with a text that is primarily transmitted orally.
Why did Moroccan Jews see a need to bring Moses to the Seder and return him to the story of the Exodus? And when did it happen? As can be discerned from the Arabic language of the two versions discussed here, the text about Moses was formulated at the end of the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth century. During this period, the last incarnations of medieval literary Judeo-Arabic, called Middle Judeo-Arabic, were still in use. Despite losses to the text over the generations because of its oral transmission, many traces of this ancient language can still be found in it.
What is the connection between the language and the consolidation of this special text? It seems that the return of the figure of Moses and his role in the Exodus story came at a time when the Jewish communities in Morocco and other lands of North Africa and Andalusia, that is, Muslim Spain, were allowed to return to open practice of their Judaism at the end of the thirteenth century under the rulers of the first Marinid Sultanate. The connection is a dramatic and even tragic event of long duration that nearly destroyed all the North African and Andalusian communities at the beginning of the reign of the fundamentalist Muslim Almohad Caliphate.
The first rulers of this dynasty coerced all the Jews under its rule to convert, to become anusim by forcing them to hide their Jewish observance for more than one hundred and twenty years; those who refused to convert to Islam were immediately sentenced to death. The period of the forced conversion began in approximately 1140, at the beginning of the Almohad sect’s takeover of Morocco and North Africa, including Libya and Andalusia, and ended after the empire’s disintegration in 1269, when Marrakesh was conquered by the Marinid tribes, who gradually regained most of Morocco’s regions.
At the beginning of the period of forced conversions, when Maimonides and his family lived in Fez (1160–1165), conditions had at least permitted Jews to live as Jews inside their homes if they wished, while behaving as Muslims in public. Praying in synagogues and the performing of Jewish ceremonies in public were strictly forbidden. In 1167 or 1168, during the period that has been termed the “gentle apostasy” ((השמד הרך, Maimonides wrote what has become known as the “Letter of Apostasy” (איגרת השמד) – a letter of encouragement to the Jews of Fez who were secretly holding onto their Judaism: “And the works of His hands will be done in secret because never has there been anything heard like this marvelous apostasy [author’s emphasis, JC] in which there is no objection except for speech alone.”
However, conditions worsened immeasurably afterwards under the rule of Sultan Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur (ruled from 1184 to 1199) and his son Muhammad Al-Nasser (ruled from 1199 to 1214). The two rulers imposed even harsher regulations on the Jews of North Africa and Andalusia, in their communal and religious life and economically, but the memory of the persecutions is recorded only among the Jews of Morocco. The religious commentator and physician Rabbi Joseph ben Judah ibn Aknin (1150?-1220?), who lived through the difficult events in Fez before he was able to leave Morocco, wrote a personal account of the persecutions and humiliations imposed on the Jews of Morocco. His testimony also included a harsh rebuke of those Moroccan Jews who did not leave Morocco to save themselves from the ruin. His story appears in the sixth chapter of his treatise Tibb al-Nufūs (“The Hygiene of the Souls”). In it he describes first-hand the persecutions that were the lot of the Jews of Morocco: the contempt and daily humiliations suffered at the hands of the Muslims; the constant fear of being reported to the authorities for not keeping the laws of Islam, which would lead to loss of their property, wives and even their lives as punishment; the prohibition against any sign of Jewish life even inside the homes, and the prohibition against educating children in the Jewish religion and the Torah; the forgetting of the Torah and the Hebrew language that resulted; the humiliating clothing they were forced to wear; the removal of children from Jewish homes to educate them in the religion of Islam; and finally, the prohibition against practicing commerce, the trade which put food on their tables.
This second period of the great apostasy dealt a fatal blow to the remnants of the “gentle apostasy.” Accounts of this period are almost entirely absent from historical research due to the lack of documentation. Only Maimonides’ temperate description of the “marvelous apostasy” remains in the historical consciousness, though it barely captured the severity of the decrees subsequently imposed on the Jews of Morocco in particular, as the seat of the rulers Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansour and his son Muhammad Al-Nasser was in Fez. For about eighty years, the anusim were forced to live as Muslims in every sense, to participate in prayers in mosques and to abolish all Jewish symbols. It is true that in these strict conditions came some relief with the disintegration of the Almohad Empire, but even then, the prohibition against practicing Judaism continued. With the Marinid tribes’ eventual takeover of Morocco and other large parts of the Almohad Empire, Jews were allowed to return to their Judaism, but they did not do so demonstratively for fear of antagonizing the Muslim populations whose hatred of the Jews had grown under the Almohad caliphate. The hidden Jews saw their return to Judaism as a second exodus from Egypt.
Moreover, because of the forced Muslim education they received, and the Muslim sermons they were forced to hear in the mosques, the central figure etched in the minds of the converted Jews was the figure of the Prophet Muhammad, who has always been at the center of Islamic worship and belief. The community leaders who sought to restore Jewish life and Jewish consciousness among the survivors of the apostasy needed to obliviate the image of the Prophet of Islam and counter it with a central Jewish figure that would overshadow it. Hence their need for the image of Moses, which Maimonides had already established as one of the thirteen principles of the Jewish faith, as described later in the piyut – Yigdal Elohim Hai [Acclaim and Praise the Living God] composed at the beginning of the fourteenth century by Rabbi Daniel ben Yehuda Hadayan: “In Israel there never arose another prophet like Moses, able to see God’s likeness.”
From the end of the thirteenth century and through the fourteenth century, the image of Moses appeared in other Judeo-Arabic poems and texts that were at the core of the Judeo-Arabic culture and poetry that developed from that time among Moroccan Jewry and until the community’s dispersal in the third quarter of the twentieth century. These poems, most of which were written in late Medieval Judeo-Arabic, include poems recited in the home of a new mother on the eve of the circumcision of her newborn; poems about the Exodus from Egypt and its wonders according to the Midrash; poems in praise of Moses; the repertoire of Passover texts known as Dhir, which are unique to the Jews of Morocco; and the long text of the Ten Commandments read on Shavuot. In the fourteenth century, the biblical texts and other para-liturgical texts were also translated into late Medieval Judeo-Arabic – the translations of the Sharḥ – i.e. the traditional calque translations familiar today. In these Judeo-Arabic texts, Muslim terms used to describe the supreme qualities of Muhammad were used to describe Moses, to emphasize him as the true messenger of God (Rasul Allah) and chief of the prophets, who spoke directly with God (Kalim Allah).
In the manuscript seen above, the long text of “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors” appears twice, on the right in square script and on the left in cursive:
“Thus did God part the sea for our ancestors into twelve paths when the Israelites were brought out of Egypt by our rabbi and prophet Moses son of Amram, peace be upon him; He rescued them and delivered them from hard work to rest and from slavery to freedom. He sent him, may His name be exalted, so that He may lead us today also in the same way; May He gather our communities to His destroyed holy house, and save our captives from this exile for the sake of His great and holy name.” The forcibly converted Jews referred to themselves in these various poems as “captives.”
You can listen to a reading of the original Judeo-Arabic text in the recording below:
The manuscript above contains a shortened version of the long text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors”: “Thus did God part the sea into twelve separate paths when the Israelites were brought out of Egypt by our rabbi and prophet Moses son of Amram, peace and love be upon him. He rescued them and delivered them from hard labor to rest and from slavery to freedom. God, may His name be exalted, sent him. Thus shall He do to us now and save us for the sake of His great and holy name; Amen.”
Listen to a reading of the original Judeo-Arabic text in the recording below:
The manuscript above contains a shortened version of the text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors”: “Thus did God part the sea when our ancestors were brought out from the land of Egypt by our rabbi and prophet Moses son of Amram, peace and love be upon him. Just as He saved them and delivered them from hard labor to freedom, so God will save us from this exile. May it be His will and let us say Amen.”
Listen to a reading of the original Judeo-Arabic text below:
This article is a preview of a forthcoming comprehensive essay I am preparing on the beginning of the development of Judeo-Arabic poetry and culture in Morocco in which I will expand on much of the material that has been described here in brief. This large essay is now in advanced preparation for publication under the title: Destruction and Restoration: The Destruction of Jewish Life in Morocco under Forced Conversions of the Almohads and its Restoration, Joseph Chitrit, Haifa: Pardes Publishing House, 2023 (three volumes, in Hebrew).