Academic journal article Ethnology

Moroccan Hassidism: The Chavrei Habakuk Community and Its Veneration of Saints

Academic journal article Ethnology

Moroccan Hassidism: The Chavrei Habakuk Community and Its Veneration of Saints

Article excerpt

This article investigates an ethnically mixed, nonterritorial community

centered around a rabbi of Moroccan origin. Through exploring the unusual

stages of this rabbi's sanctification and of the establishment of the

community itself, the idiosyncratic combination of traditional North African

Jewish elements and Ashkenazi Hassidic elements creates a syncretism that

is prominent for the veneration of saints, which serves the rabbi as an

instrument for legitimizing his own status and as a way of consolidating

his congregation. The source of the community's attraction, as well as its

rabbi's charisma, lies in its liminal, socially ambiguous status and

location, and transcendence of ethnic and cultural boundaries.(1) (Moroccan

veneration of saints, Hassidism, liminality, ethnic boundaries, Moroccan


On a torrid Sabbath in June 1992, while driving in the Galilee, I chanced upon a row of cars on the narrow road leading to the tomb of the prophet Habakuk. Thus began a year's study of Chavrei Habakuk (the Habakuk Congregation). This accidental entrance into the field began most inauspiciously: at the height of the Sabbath, I intruded by car on a congregation of Orthodox Jews, and compounded the sacrilege by entering the sacred precinct around the grave bareheaded and dressed disrespectfully in short sleeves, short pants, and sandals. About twenty men immediately surrounded me, demanding vociferously that I leave the site. Some suspected me of being a journalist assigned to spy on them and on a government minister spending the Sabbath with them; others came to my defense and tried to calm tempers. Before I could turn back, the rabbi heading the congregation approached. A handsome and courtly man, gentle and well spoken, he rescued me from the pressing crowd. Grasping that my arrival had been quite innocent and without sinister intentions, he invited me to join him in entering a large tent erected near the tomb. Within, at long, set tables, sat a group of people whose heterogeneity was evident at first glance: most were dressed in elegant suits and black hats, but some were in jeans, T-shirts, and yarmulkes. Others wore traditional Moroccan garb, and among them sat wearing long silk coats (kapotot) and fur shtreimels (hats worn by Hassidim on the Sabbath and holidays). The rabbi announced that I had clearly been "sent" and my arrival was no accident; instantly, people who moments earlier had been trying to evict me smiled, made room, and apologized for their behavior.

The hilluloth (memorial feasts; sing, hillulah) and pilgrimages to saints' graves are the key to understanding the community itself and its leader. The rabbi is of Moroccan origin and is perceived by his adherents as a saint. The community's initial members were Moroccan Jews (today, more than half the members are Moroccan Jews and the vast majority are of North African and Arab origin). Therefore, the hilluloth and pilgrimages, and the rabbi himself, should be examined within the framework of the veneration of Moroccan Jewish saints in Israel.

In some of Chavrei Habakuk's hilluloth and pilgrimages to saints' graves there are divergences or innovations relative to the patterns of saint veneration customary among North African Jews living in Israel. The rabbi himself embodies simultaneously images of Moroccan saints and Ashkenazi Hassidic rabbis. He created the Chavrei Habakuk community, and thereby a new phenomenon in Israel: Moroccan Hassidism.


Pilgrimage is a paradigmatic and paradoxical human quest, both outward and inward, a movement toward ideals known but not achieved at home. As such, pilgrimage is an image for the search for fulfillment of all people inhabiting an imperfect world (Morinis 1992a:ix-x). In Judaism, the concept of pilgrimage dates from the First Temple, when Israelites traveled to the Temple thrice yearly to celebrate Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. …

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