Rabbi Professor Moshe Amar is one of today’s leading historians of North African Jewry. I feel enlightened every time I meet with him and leave wanting to research and learn more.
In our last meeting he told me part of the story of Rabbi Hayim Ibn Attar, or the Or Ha-Hayim (1696-1743). Rabbi Ibn Attar was a Torah commentator from Sale, Morocco. Learning directly from his namesake grandfather, he became engrossed in Torah study, yet he would accept no money for his studies (like the Jews of Yemen – see ASF IJE clip “Learning Like a Yemenite”). Instead, he weaved gold for a living, a trade he similarly learned from his grandfather. Over time, however, he ran into trouble with the local authorities and was forced to flee the region. He left for Livorno, Italy where he was welcomed warmly by the strong Jewish community.
It was not long before the Livorno Jewish community realized the jewel that they had in their midst. As Livorno was a preeminent site for publishing and distributing important Jewish works, it was decided that Rabbi Ibn Attar’s commentary should be funded, published and distributed. Thanks to this decision, the Or Ha-Hayim’s works were spread, even making their way to the Chassidic movements. The Baal Shem Tov, the great Chassidic master, acquired a copy of the published works for himself, quoted the Or Ha-Hayim to his students and consistently referred them to his commentary. To this day, the Or Ha-Hayim is a focal point of Torah study on Shabbat for many Chassidic movements, where some have even written commentaries on his commentary.
Not long after, the Livorno community saw they could not keep Rabbi Ibn Attar to themselves and decided to sponsor him to open a Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Before traveling there, Rabbi Ibn Attar returned to Morocco and gathered 30 of the top Yeshiva students to join him on this endeavor. Upon arrival in Jerusalem he continued writing and teaching and from there his messages continued to spread.
As with anyone of such caliber, there are bound to be exceptional stories.
One tells of a shochet (ritual slaughterer) in the Land of Israel who heard about the Or Ha-Hayim and how he had developed such a following. He questioned the greatness of Rabbi Ibn Attar and wondered if he deserved all the attention he was receiving. When word of this shochet got back to the Gerrer Rebbe of the time, he sent a letter out to all of his Chassidim that just as this man questioned the greatness of the Or Ha-Hayim, they should question his slaughtering and thereby not hold by his kashrut. This story is actually recorded in one of the Gerrer Rebbe’s letter anthologies.
Then there is legend and lore. A story is told in many Chassidic circles, that one Friday evening the Baal Shem Tov washed his hands and had a stunned look on his face. He maintained the stunned look throughout the blessing on the bread and the beginning of his meal. One of his students tentatively approached him and asked what had happened. He said that Rabbi Hayim Ibn Attar has passed.
How did he know?
It is said that there is a revelation made at the time of Friday night handwashing before eating the challah. That revelation is made to only one person on earth at a time. When on that particular Shabbat the Baal Shem Tov received that revelation, he understood that the person who had previously received the revelations no longer occupied his body on earth. The Or Ha-Hayim had passed on.
The story of this Moroccan Rabbi and his influence over the greater Jewish Experience is not a lone case. Moroccan Jewry has a rich history and culture, and it is part of our Jewish Experience. I am excited to hear the stories, research and songs and experience the art of Moroccan Jewry at our Moroccan Conference at the Center for Jewish History, New York, June 17-19, 2019 as well as through our online course on Moroccan Jewry set to launch later this year.