Moroccan Judaica

by Barbara Steinberg

Jewish traders and farmers have lived in Morocco’s cities and Atlas mountains since the time of the Roman Empire. However, the most notable Jewish immigration to Morocco came in 1492, when Queen Isabella I of Castille ordered them to convert to Christianity or leave Spain. Each Moroccan city had a separate Jewish quarter called a “mellah,” and Jews became known for their intricate craftsmanship in jewelry making.

I wanted to pick the most beautiful pieces I could find, so those who go on Sarah’s Jewish tour in Morocco will have something to compare with what they’re going to see.

A highlight of the tour will be guest speaker Jo Samar, owner of the Galerie Aida, and one of the last Jews in Essaouira. His shop has a sumptuous jewelry collection, and you can be assured his Jewish pieces are authentic.

One of the most important pieces of Judaica is a set of Torah finials. The Torah is a piece of parchment inscribed with the first five books of the Old Testament. The ends of the scroll are attached to wooden staves with handles and circular rollers to facilitate unrolling the scroll for reading. When it is put back in the Torah arc, it is draped in velvet, and the tops of the wooden handles are often capped with decorative finials. There are examples in the Jewish Museum of Morocco and the Bet El Synagogue, both in Casablanca.

The architecture of Torah finials reflects the culture from which they came. For example, a pair of Dutch finials, c. 1765, made by Christian goldsmith Willem Hendrik Rosier, resemble the steeple of Amsterdam’s Old Church.

From the Michael and Judy Steinhardt collection, which sold at Sotheby’s on April 29, 2013, we see that Moroccan finials are entirely different.

These silver gilt Torah finials are from 19th century Morocco. The staves have spirals, and the openwork design symbolizes a pomegranate that frames an inscription under glass. Bell pendants hang from each side. The pomegranate symbolizes “new fruit” and is traditionally eaten on the second night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

Another pair of parcel-gilt silver finials replicate Morocco’s signature octagonal lantern. They also have bell pendants and were made in the 19th Century. The glass encases red and green velvet backing, which mimics candlelight.

Amulets are essential objects of Judaica, either to hang on a wall or wear as a pendant. This pierced silver piece is 10 inches high. The 20th Century Moroccan artist who made it engraved the silver with foliage.

Backed in red velvet, it was made for Rebecca Faranti, but Shaddai שדי is listed above her name. שדי is one of the holy Judaic names for God. It first came from the polytheistic Canaanites in the ancient Phoenician city of Ugarit (1450-1200 BC), unearthed in Northern Syria. The story goes that El Shaddai was the Canaanite God of the Mountains before Jews adopted the name as one of many for their monotheistic God.

Perhaps the most famous amulet in religious jewelry is the open right hand: khamsa in Arabic; hamsa in Hebrew.

The symbol was first found in ancient Mesopotamia. In Arabic, “khamsa” means five, or the five fingers of the hand. The Islamic khamsa is called the Hand of Fatima, after Fatima Zahra, the daughter closest to her father, the prophet Muhammad.

The hamsa (no k) crept into Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish culture through their contact with the Muslim world. Often, it is called “hamesh,” the Hebrew word meaning five: five fingers on the hand, the five books of the Torah, or a reminder to use your five senses to praise God. Jewish hamsas are called the Hand of Miriam, to commemorate Moses’s sister.

They can be decorated with the Mogen David; Hebrew text; a menorah; or the Hebrew letter די (shin), the first letter of Shaddai. The text “Rabbi Aaron” is written on this one, and this hamsa with a menorah comes from a private collection. (photo by Jo Samar).

After 1948, emigration to Israel, France, and Canada dramatically decreased the Jewish population of Morocco. By the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the majority of Moroccan Jews had left. However, vestiges remain, especially in jewelry making. It will be an unforgettable experience to see it.

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