Mind and Soul
Jewish Thinking in Morocco

Theological Conceptions of Existence among Moroccan Jews Based on the Writings of Rabbi Yaacov Avi Hatsira

Marc Eliany © All Rights Reserved

Rabbi Avi Hatsira Yaacov lived in Tafilalet, Morocco, 1808-1880. Tafilalet is located in the Ziz Valley, at the foothill of the southern Atlas. The climate is subtropical on mountaintops but subSaharian in the valley below. Allaouites controlled the area and used it as a base to take control of Morocco. Mohamed VI, the king of Morocco, is a descendent of the Allaouites.

Vestiges of an Ancient Jewish Kingdom

The Jews of Tafilalet are believed to be descendents of an ancient Jewish kingdom that existed in the Touat region. Most Touat Jews settled in Sigil Massa upon the fall of their kingdom. Some of them settled in small villages spreading from Midalt in the north to Souss in the south, from Marrakech in the west to Zagura in the east. Many of the descendents of the ancient Jewish kingdom that existed in the Touat region converted to Islam. It is believed that Ait Mussa and Ait Israel, among other tribes in the region, are of Hebrew origin.

Toshavim and Megorashim - Mutual Influence

The influx of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewry (1492-1497) had limited impact on Jews in the Touat region. Relatively few Spanish and Portuguese Jewish refugees settled in the Touat region. Refugees who did settle in this region were totally absorbed within the ancient local population and had little influence on it. The world of concepts of local Jewish inhabitants draws from ancient Hebrew traditions that were kept almost intact. They differed in their writing style and in their preference of cabbalistic traditions over rational interpretations and their use of Gimetria and Notrikon. They also preferred a mystical and humble life style, with emphasis on fulfilment of the mitzvoth based on halakha, midrash and ethics (written and oral traditions).

Cabbala and Ethics

Torah is perceived in cabbalistic terms as a reflection of the divine in its content and form. Therefore much effort is spent to discover divine intents in content and form. Learning overt meanings of Torah did not satisfy old inhabitants. In order to reach higher levels of understanding of divine intentions, in depth research into hidden meanings is required. Cabbalist are expected to be truly devoted (avodat emet) to understanding the underlying intent of divine intention (kavana)as conveyed in overt writings such as Torah (Avi Hatsira Yaacov, Maagale Tsedek).

Learning according to cabbalists requires withdrawal as well as devotion (prishut vehitkadshut). According to Avi Hatsira Yaacov, such practices are not limited to exclusive elites or reclusive learned: 'do not think that learning is in heaven or beyond the sea... it is at everyone's reach when one devotes oneself to learning.' (Avi Hatsira Yaacov, Ginze Hamelekh).

Avi Hatsira Yaacov conveyed that divine understanding is a mystical transmition from generation to generation; it is a matter of belief rather than rational derivation. Avi Hatsira distinguished clearly between belief and rational systems. Subsequently, some of the followers of Avi Hatsira Yaacov took it as criticism of the rational thinking in North Africa (i.e., 'many of our children who learnt French tend to dismiss their learned fathers...' in Abraham Hamu, Lidrosh Elohim, tav,resh,lamed, tet, Livorno).

Concepts of Divinity

Divinity derives its notion in the divine wish (she zehu retsono shel hakadosh barukh hu). It is a theological concept that is completely divorced of any rules of nature or rational thinking. All derivations are therefore a matter of practical interpretation to facilitate understanding.

The essence of this conception is contained in the will of god who is the source of every thing. The divine created all matters (kle kibul) by wish, for example: man, light and all the world of genesis. Matter contains holiness (atsilut) too. Material creation occurred first, spiritual creation followed. Human beings are a product of both matter and divinity. They are the only force able to overcome evil and understand divine light. Learning Torah is the way to overcome evil and understand divine intentions. Human beings in general and the People of Israel, specifically, were given the duty to complete the creation by seeking deeper understanding, that is through learning the underlying meaning of divine intentions as well as through a constant expression of humility by the practice of good deeds (mitzvoth) and prayers. Good deeds and prayers are the tools by which the material world (broken vessels) is repaired (tikun). Coupling (zivug) a man and a woman symbolizes the process of reparation (tikun) 'for the ultimate coupling occurs when Israel fulfils the will of the creator' (hazivug hashalem vehameule hu sheisrael ossim retsono shel hamakom). In other words, a complete reparation occurs when the created becomes one with the divine. This notion is identical to the Vedanta. There are different levels of reparation; oneness is a matter of degree, like parents and children, Jacob and Leah, Jacob and Rachel and Moses and the Divine at Mount Sinai.

The Role of Man in Creation

Human beings are the crowns of creation because they play part in it by enhancing harmony between the parts that make the whole. When human beings fulfil their divine role, i.e., contribute to the completion of creation, they become one with the Creator. In this sense, they are the envy of angels who are god's servants rather than pro-active actor who have the choice to participate in the completion of creation. Angels are but messengers of the Creator while human beings are born in the image of their primal Creator.

The Concept of Evil

Human beings are subject to a continuous struggle to overcome evil forces, which persist in their intention to corrupt humanity. Evil forces are like basic elements in an elastic model in physics (klipot). Evil forces win often. But when Israel follows the precepts of the Torah they can overcome the corrupting forces of evil.

Just people suffer for two reasons:
a. The Creator deprives them of material pleasures in order to hasten their hold on the world of divinity; the just pays for his few mistakes in this world in order to gain a complete foothold on divinity. Unjust people are paid in advance for their good deeds because they do not merit a place in the world of divinity; and
b. Just people forgo pleasures on earth in order to accomplish not only personal but cosmic salvation. This is the thinking that underlies self-sacrifice, for example: ten just people sacrifice themselves to save the world from destruction in every generation (ten martyrs or assara haruge mlkhut).


Israel brought upon itself exile because it did not follow the Torah precepts. Rather than becoming closer to the divine they wandered away from the holy. Israel in exile is like the dispersion of the parts when chaos reigned in the world. Israel must follow the precepts to bring about reparation (tikun). Redemption is therefore a parallel and incremental process: in Avi Hatsira's view of the world the People of Israel must reassemble in the Land of Israel, rebuild Jerusalem and then sanctify itself by enhancing harmony between the cosmic parts in the world. Avi Hatsira does not make in his conception of the world for a redeemer (messiah) or an apocalyptic end of the world.

The Role of the People of Israel

The people of Israel are a corner stone to redemption due to merit. Israel came to see the light like Abraham in a world of idolatry. Like Moses, Israel sought justice when oppressed. The Children of Israel also took the time to sanctify themselves in the desert and they learnt the precepts of the Torah before setting foot in the Holy Land of Israel. Like the just, their sins are few and they pay for them in this world to facilitate their rise to heaven in a state of holiness.

The Soul (nefesh)

Tension perpetuates material and spiritual existence. Giving in to material drives takes one away from the purpose of creation while pairing spiritual existence with the material body enhances cosmic harmony. The ultimate in existence is personal harmony, which is reconciliation between the material and spiritual constituents within us.

There are different levels of spirituality. Few people achieve the highest level, i.e., the level attained by Moses. No one is born with spiritual wholeness but the capacity to achieve the highest level of existence, i.e., oneness with the divine, rests within all.


Arrogance is the source of all wrongdoing. Modesty is the source of all qualities. Modesty is the corner stone for internal reconciliation as well as cosmic harmony and thus the key instrument to attain oneness with divinity.

Arrogance is associated with pursuit of material wealth, increased internal tensions and distance of the self from spirituality. It leads to corruption, social inequities and injustice.

Repentance is the essence of Avi Hatsira's morale doctrine. It allows reconciliation between conflicting parts. It brings back the individual to the sources of divinity. It implies abstinence from excess material pleasures and striving for divine understanding through learning. This is the reason Torah is defined as the essence of charity (Torat hesed). Learning for sake of learning is associated with arrogance. It is also corrupting. Learning should aim to seek divine understanding and that brings internal and external harmony. The function of the Torah is like providing human beings with a key to the treasure chest given by a Lord to his servant.

Repentance due to fear of punishment of any sort is worthless. For repentance to bring about redemption, it must be derived from an understanding that links one to creation and to the Creator. It is a state of selflessness in which one fuses with the divine.

Rabbi Yaacov Avi Hatsira did not preach. He lived his vision of morality and divinity. He earned the respect of his fellow community members because of his good deeds and his humble style of life. He was a role model to many students in southern Morocco. Avi hatsira's students and followers did not seek recognition for their good deeds. They strived to achieve heavenly existence on earth and thereby uplift the whole world with them.

Sainthood and Lineage

Avi Hatsira (or Abouhatsera or Abihsera) Yaacov Ben Masoud was a rabbi, cabbalist and prolific author. Most of his manuscripts (12) were published after his death in Israel, for example: Yorou mishpatéca lé Yaacov; Levona Zaka, a commentary on the Mishnah; Pitouhé hotam, overt and covert commentaries; levoushe Serad, on legendary accounts; Mahasof halavan, commentaries on weekly Torah readinds; Ginze Ha Melec; Chah'aré Aroukha among other publications. He died in Daminhur, Egypt, on his way to Jerusalem. He is commemorated in tales and pilgrimage. Yaacov Avi Hatsira is the descendent of Shemouel Elbaz (1600e), sent to Morocco by the Sephardi community to raise funds. Elbaz, among other messengers from Jerusalem chose to stay in Morocco. Among Yaacov's descendents are well known rabbis such as Massood, Abraham, Isaac and Aharon, who brought the manuscripts above to publication. (Isaac, born in 1876, was killed by a fanatic Muslim (1912). Among the most recently known Avi Hatsira actors in contemporary Israel are Israel (i.e., Baba Sali), a rabbi and Aharon, a politician.