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Visions of suffering and death in Jewish societies of the Muslim west.

The author encountered evocations of suffering and death in all the studies and research he devoted, over 40 or so years, to the intellectual, social and religious life of western Muslim Judaism, and indeed the whole of traditional Jewish thought and its varied modes of expression: rabbinical law, Hebrew poetry, the literature of homily and preaching, mystical writings and the kabbala, dialect and popular literatures in Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Berber. Some passages are taken from the Zohar ('The town the angel of death cannot enter', for instance). The author also refers to the Talmud and magic therapeutics, the power of sacred names, Jewish and Muslim miracle workers, hunting down and casting out demons, etc. Agony, refusal to die, joyous commemoration of death, the cemetery and the cult of the dead, Judeo-Muslim pilgrimages, the wealth of the customs, beliefs and rites of the past lead the author to reflect on the question of death in the present-day world.


My consideration of suffering, sickness and death will be historical, socio-anthropological and religious in nature. It is a formidable topic, a many-faceted interrogation.

For my part I shall focus only on issues affecting the North African Jewish world. Although all Jewish societies, whatever their origin, are agreed on the basic question--the centrality of religion and the literary substrate of the biblical and rabbinical tradition underlying the vision of sickness and death in the Jewish world--and are distinguished by a certain mythology, by an imaginary, by rituals and gestures, beliefs and practices that are determined to a greater extent by the socio-cultural, and even historical and geo-political, environment.

Indeed I have come across suffering and death, or rather evocations of them, throughout the study and research I have been conducting for over 30 years into the intellectual, social and religious life of Judaism in the Muslim west, that is to say the whole of traditional Jewish thought and its various modes of expression: rabbinical law, poetry in Hebrew, homilies and sermons, mystical writing and the kabbala, dialect and popular literature in Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Berber, seeking out the historicity of that literary creation, cultural universe and collective memory.

The management of death, and by association of suffering, their socio-religious and mystical environments, is to varying degrees dealt with in all these writings, as I have explained in two of my books. (1)

I now come to a few introductory remarks on the Jewish societies of the Muslim West. North African Judaism (historically of course) has close links with universal Jewish thought and its varying modes of expression, a special relationship as regards writing in Hebrew and classical and traditional literary creation, the Jewish humanities in fact. I must add at once that this Judaism is also the product of the North African soil from which it arose, flowered and thrived for almost 2000 years, cultivating an active solidarity with the environment in intimacy of language and similarity of mental structures: a considerable element of religious symbiosis and even syncretism.

The social imaginary and its most diverse representations are marked by the stamp of religion and magic, which both come together in ritual and give it its universal dimension as well as its local fit. These representations punctuate the most solemn moments of life, the special times that structure or cut across day-to-day existence, such as birth, marriage, death, etc., with the rites and ceremonies that go with them.

Each of these rites, each of these ceremonies is at one and the same time a manifestation of local popular imagination, active solidarity with the native North African cultural context, whether Arabo-Berber or inherited from the Hispano-Moorish world, and the expression of faithfulness to universal Jewish thought, a collective memory whose origins go back to historical and prehistoric times, biblical memory itself.

It is in this context that I will briefly approach the problematic of sickness, suffering and death as they were perceived in the Jewish world in the beginning, and have been seen later in the societies of the Muslim West that I know best.

Suffering and sickness

The first time the advent of sickness preceding death is mentioned in the Bible is in relation to the patriarch Jacob.

'Jacob was told that his father was ill', (2) is what we find in the biblical text (Genesis 48.1). The author of the Zohar comments (Zohar II, 174b):
   In ancient times, before the advent of Jacob, people lived quietly
   at home, in their houses. When the moment to die arrived, death came
   upon them by surprise, and they died without sickness. When Jacob
   came, he addressed this prayer to the Blessed Holy One:

     'Master of  the world, I beg you to bring it about that people
   fall ill for two or three days and do not join their ancestors (draw
   their last breath) till they have expressed their last wishes to
   their family and repented of their errors.' The Blessed Holy One
   agreed and granted his wish.

So people used to pass directly, so to speak, from life to death. They did not experience suffering and sickness.

Here it may be appropriate to mention the extraordinary privilege enjoyed by the town of Luz. (3)

The town the angel of death does not enter

In the famous town of Luz, which is often referred to in biblical narratives, death had no power, and when one of its inhabitants reached a ripe old age, they left the town in order to grow weak and expire beyond its walls. A similar legend is known elsewhere, in Ireland. (4)

Luz has been identified with Bet-El in the land of Canaan, then with a town in Hittite country and Lizan in Kurdistan. I should point out as well that the word luz means 'almond' in Semitic languages; but in Hebrew it also means a vital organ and more specifically the cervical vertebra, which is thought to be indestructible; it is with this little bone, called the Jew's bone, a bone that does not rot in the grave, that the resurrection of the body will begin when the time comes, according to a legend passed down by the literature of the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 18; Ecclesiastes Rabbah XII 5), the Zohar (I 137a and III 122a) and Jewish, Christian and Muslim medical and theological writings from the Middle Ages. (5)

In a fascinating text the Zohar says:
   In the inhabited world there is a town where the 'exterminating'
   angel has no power, and which he is not allowed to enter; the people
   living there die only when they leave it ... All its citizens die
   like other human beings, but outside the town. Why can the
   exterminating angel not exercise his power there? We might think it
   is not within his domain. Not a bit of it! In the Holy Land itself,
   where no other power is exercised, people die. Neither is it because
   of the sanctity of the place, since there is nowhere on earth a
   place more holy than the Land of Israel; and it is not because of
   the virtues of its founder since many other people have greater
   ones. R. Isaac says: 'Till now I have not heard anything on this
   question and I will not say anything about it.' They went to see R.
   Shim'on and asked him for an explanation. He told them: 'It is true
   that the place escapes from the empire, the influence of the Angel
   of death and the Blessed Holy One refuses to allow anyone ever to
   die there. And do not think people died there before the town was
   built. Not at all! The fact is that, since the world was created,
   the destiny of the place was fixed and it was proclaimed that no one
   would die there. It is an enormous mystery, the mystery of
   mysteries, for those who meditate on the mystery of Wisdom. Indeed
   when the Blessed Holy One created the world, He did so with the
   mysterious help of letters. They spread out before Him (6) and He
   created the world by drawing the Holy Name. They appeared before Him
   in different orders and various shapes, so that they could take part
   in creating the world, in revealing it and starting it up. The
   Blessed Holy One commanded that the start-up ('asiyah) should end in
   the letter yod. The letter tet was then above that place (Luz),
   hanging in the air.

The letter tet is the light of life; which is why it is said to be a favourable omen for someone to see the letter tet in a dream; it is a sign of long life. (7) So it is because the letter tet remained hanging above that place (where the town of Luz would be built) that the angel of death was forbidden to go into action there.

As regards the (as it were) calm, direct transition from life to death, which I shall have occasion to mention again, we should remember the words the text uses, in this context, about great biblical figures: Abraham (Genesis 25.8), Ishmael (Genesis 25.17), Isaac (Genesis 35.29), Jacob (Genesis 49.33): 'He expired (or simply declined), died and was gathered to his father's kin', three sequences, three rapidly succeeding phases.


The last phase, 'join or be gathered to his family, fathers, people', seems to be the main one. It is mentioned in relation to the death of Aaron and Moses in Numbers 27.13 and 32.50 and Deuteronomy 32.50. The first time healing a sick person (of an individual, personal illness) is referred to, it is in relation to the prophet Elisha (Kings II 7) and the king of Judah, Hezekiah (Isaiah 38.2 et passim): 'when King Hezekiah fell gravely ill, he turned his face to the wall and offered a prayer to the Lord.' His prayer was answered, and God gave him fifteen more years of life (despite the prophet Isaiah's disturbing predictions).

The great scourges the bible alludes to are not individual sicknesses. The plagues of Egypt, the great epidemics are collective punishments inflicted on the world's peoples, or his chosen people, by God, in specific circumstances.

The sufferings and torments of Job are an exception. They are a test which is the origin of the problematic of theodicy, the status of good and evil and divine justice.

The literature of the Talmud is far more familiar with human sickness and suffering.

The German Jewish doctor Yehudah Leib Katzenelsohn wrote a treatise in Hebrew entitled The Talmud and the Science of Medicine, a work that his son published in Berlin in 1928. The topics covered are: animals (and animal parts) unsuitable for consumption; the so-called Trefot problems; ritual examination and slaughter; haemophilia and pathological anatomy; description of the 248 organs, names of diseases, etc.

In fact the Hebrew term Yessourim, which fully expresses the idea of individual suffering and pain, appears only in rabbinical literature, which is later than the Bible: the Talmud, homilies and mystical texts.

In this literature it is said that these individual sufferings are caused by sin, and they purge and purify people of sin. This process of purification and expiation is described in detail in the Talmud treatises (more particularly Berakhot 5a, Shabbat 53b, etc.).

There reference is also made to suffering for love inflicted on the just, who are thus washed clean of their sins in this world. And suffering is seen as the ultimate form of purification leading to mystical union with the divinity (Sanhedrin 101a, Ta'anit 8a, Baba Metsi'a 83a, 84b, 85a).

In addition another Talmud text teaches us that knowledge, essentially the study of the Law, is acquired only through suffering and hardship, and that there is no royal road to learning and attaining knowledge.

It is possible to heal sickness by prayer, as we have seen in the case of King Hezekiah. Previously Moses had prayed that his sister Myriam might be cured of the leprosy she was struck with as a punishment (in this case because she spoke ill of her brother Moses).

The Mishnaic treatise Abot, the basic book of Jewish ethics (VI, 5), speaks in these words:
   Studying the law is superior to the priesthood and royalty for, if
   royalty requires 30 virtues and the priesthood 24, acquiring
   knowledge requires 48, namely: attention and memory, intelligence,
   respect for the teacher, fear of God, humility, good humour, a pure
   life, communing with the wise, choice of fellow-students, assiduity,
   devoting little time to business, sleep, amusements, etc.

Therapeutics in the Talmud and magic

The Talmud and Jewish books of medicine contain a large number of medical recipes whose ancient names have been well known since Maimonides.

But this is not our subject. Here we shall focus on that therapeutic practice associated with what has been called the imaginary, the practical kabbata and magic. This therapeutic practice is aware of the virtues of herbs, fruits, minerals and other ingredients; it makes abundant use of incantations, the sovereign remedies provided by charms and spells, amulets and talismans.

MS. 8[degrees] 3865 in the University of Jerusalem National Library is a collection of texts from Kabbalah ma'asit 'practical kabbala' and astrology. The author is R. Hayyim Ben 'Attar, a Jerusalem rabbi originating from Morocco, who in the early 20th century was sent to work in his native land as an itinerant mendicant rabbi.

--So that a man who is suddenly struck dumb (May the Merciful One preserve us from that!) may get his speech back, he must have citron peel put in his mouth. There will be a marvellous transformation.

--Another way of curing this affliction is to take old willow leaves and a piece of apiqomen, (8) reduce all this to a very fine powder, mix with food and put in the sick person's mouth.

--The virtues of the citron fruit are many: its peel assuages all internal pains and strengthens the blood-vessel walls (and the nerves); the white pith on the skin envigorates; its bitter pulp refreshes the liver and quenches thirst; the pips it contains calm pains, facilitate digestion and sweating. The whole fruit is delicious; eating it gladdens the heart and revitalizes the body. It acts exactly like the 'theriac' [sic!], an infallible remedy for all illnesses.... Furthermore it is effective when children are infected with smallpox (eruptions of the skin).

--Henna firms the skin and has many virtues; its uses are manifold.

--The perfume called alghalya (9) in a foreign language is effective against eye infections, especially the one called fsud al-'inin which presents as furious itching. The eyes must be rubbed several times with it, some say sixteen times. It is also successfully used to facilitate procreation by applying some to the 'crown' of the penis before marital relations.

--Another perfume called 'al-mask' in a foreign tongue (a kind of musk) cures ear infections. It is diluted with rosewater and a few drops are applied inside the ear with a bit of cotton wool.

From this same Moroccan manuscript comes the magic square illustrated below, highly elaborate, whose function is to 'make one invulnerable to bullets, white weapons and various illnesses'. (10)

The power of the holy names

The holy names inscribed on amulets and talismans and in therapeutic writings, invoked in incantatory prayers and many appeals and vows, belong to various onomastic orders and come from several sources: God's Ineffable Name and its many amplifications arrived at by various methods. All the texts of the Scriptures, particularly the Pentateuch and the Psalms, are likely to contain the sacred names of God. Furthermore there is a whole vocabulary relating to angels of which we can see the seeds in the biblical texts themselves, and which starts to develop in the Talmud, the Midrash and the Aggada and expands amazingly in kabbalistic literature, the Zohar, the great classics of Jewish mysticism and the more specialized books of a science that borders, on the practical kabbala and magic. They all use cryptographic artifices and arithmological speculation, the language of the so-called 'letters' and their innumerable combinations, angels' alphabets and writing processes, secret handwriting, 'rounded letters', mystico-magical inscriptions whose origins are very ancient, going back to the early centuries AD: the sefer ha-Razim, The Book of Mysteries, etc. (11)

On p. 89 below are the graphic representations given by our manuscript of some seals of archangels, high princes in the angelologue, and their servant riders. They are in the following order: Raphael (1), Gabriel (2), Sama'el (3), Mikhael (4).

The name of the gravely ill person is also changed during the ritual, which contains recitation of psalms (Alphabetical Psalm 119 in particular).

Visiting the sick person is a religious and moral obligation of the highest importance. It was a responsibility that was laid on God himself, as a Talmud text related in commenting on the biblical narrative, when God visited the convalescent Abraham after his circumcision, at 99 years of age.

Caring for the sick is another obligation which was laid especially on specialized brotherhoods linked to those who visited the sick.

Let us enter a space covering sickness and death. Two factors should be considered:

(a) The duration of the sickness preceding death is significant. A Talmud text stipulates: 'Dying after a five-day illness is a normal thing, after four days a reprimand from heaven, after three days a severe punishment, after two days a hasty death, and after one day a brutal or apoplectic death.' (12)

(b) The type of sickness also has a meaning: 'To die of an intestinal disease is to eliminate one's sins, which comes to the just.' (13)

Death, religion and magic

Death, the death that comes accidentally or following an illness, gives rise to a considerable number of rituals both orthodox and heterodox. It is the occasion of a ritual obeying the rules and prescriptions in the Halakhah (Hebrew law in general) and various codes, more particularly the one in force in North African and Mediterranean societies, the Code of Joseph Qaro, Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh De'ah and Maimonides' code, the Mishneh Torah). It is the universalist Jewish aspect of this ritual, confessional, religious and legalistic, that presents others arising from the social, local and native imaginary, local folklore and magic, with a cult and ceremonial in which the Arab-Berber, Jewish and Muslim groups, who have similar mental structures, meet, come together and acknowledge one another. In this special space that is death, as indeed in others such as birth and marriage, there is manifested a cultural symbiosis, or even a syncretism at the religious grassroots that is expressed in the same beliefs, the same gestures, the same incantatory formulas, sometimes the same cries and wails at the precise moment of death.

Indeed it is in that cultural space that encounters take place between Jewish mysticism and Muslim mysticism.

With regard to the links between Muslim Sufism and the Jewish kabbala more specifically, it is impossible to understand, or even to conceive of, the existence of a Jewish spirituality and esotericism, such as that of Bahya Ibn Paquda, Abraham Abulafya, Abraham Maimonides, his son Obadya and many other mystical writers of the Jewish faith, without their Muslim esoteric environment and familiarity with Sufi mysticism.

Whatever form the kabbala assumes, in speculative texts, in contemplative mysticism as well as the turn towards the practical kabbala and magic, in all these facets it represents the reflection of a society, a mode of expression that is closely bound up with other modes of expression of thought (halakhah, d rashah, poetry and music, exegesis of texts, etc.). Thus it forms a cultural universe that is a valuable, almost unique source of history, the mirror in which the community looks at itself.

Jewish and Muslim miracle-workers: talmid-hakham and talib Hazzan and marabout, khettat 'scribe'

For the classes of Muslim society among whom magic is practised, what is alien is magical. And in North Africa there are two groups of people who live a separate life, Jews and Christians. They are the supreme sorcerers; people believe the Christians acquired magical practices from Jesus because he 'brought the dead back to life', and that the Jews possess a portion of the power of their prophets, some of whom, like Solomon, are true mythical magicians in Muslims' eyes, and traditionally familiar with science and magic; the same beliefs used to circulate in ancient Arabia, where the magicians were mainly Jewish scribes and Christian monks.

However, Jewish and Muslim miracle-workers, talmid hakham and talib Hazzan and marabout, khettat 'scribe' of both faiths, all operate in accordance with the same principles, use the same practices, in the name of God or Allah. Here more than elsewhere, in the domain I have called the social imaginary and its popular representations, the element of syncretism is greater, more obvious, as is attested by the thousand and one recipes, incantatory formulas, sayings, themes and motifs that are used indiscriminately by both groups, in the same language or the two different languages, Arabic for the Muslim, Hebrew and Arabic in Hebrew characters for the Jew, with a clientele from either faith, the Muslim making use of the wisdom of the Jewish hazzan and the Jew trusting in the Muslim marabout's baraka or karama, 'divine grace'.

T. Schrire points out that certain North African Jewish amulets bear the raised hand, the crescent and the disc, the 'sign of Tanit', which represent Baal and his wife and belong to the Phoenician mythology and pantheon. (14)

There are other Jewish amulets from Morocco whose makers, cultivating ecumenism and practising a high degree of syncretism, depicted, engraved on the metal (most frequently silver plates), both the (Christian) cross and the (Muslim) crescent, two designs whose lines contain the traditional Hebrew magic inscriptions: SMRKD, a sacred Name formed from the last letters of the first five verses of the biblical book of Genesis (1.1-5); YWHK, the last letters of Psalms 91.11; another divine name, Shadday, etc. (15)

Funeral rites associated with the burial ceremony

Here we should note two significant rites: the first is specifically Jewish, the second bears the mark of a North African Judeo-Muslim and Berber-Arab cultural symbiosis:

--In laying out the deceased it is the custom in Jewish societies to place the thumb in the hollow of the hand so as to make, together with the fingers, one of the names of God or rather one of his attributes Shadday 'All-Powerful', made up of the letters shin (three uprights), dalet (one) and yod (a point); the hand is extended to signify that it is renouncing all this world's goods.

--In Muslim societies, the person laying out covers the deceased's genitals with a piece of their burnous; this remnant of the garment is kept as a relic in which it is believed the virile strength and baraka of the dead father has taken refuge; carefully preserved in the family, it is placed on the daughters' heads on the night when their marriage is consummated in order to pass on to them the paternal baraka. The corresponding Jewish usage, which was observed in several families I knew in Mogador and Casablanca, is to tear up the deceased's last shirt and distribute the pieces among the family members, who guard them preciously so that they may each receive their share of the dead father's or grandfather's blessing.

Circumambulatory rites and chasing demons; gold pieces

Immediately the party reaches the graveyard there begins the circumambulatory ritual of the haqqafot, seven turns round the coffin in a tight circle of ten people holding hands and reciting a special liturgy. The author of Nahalat Abot says that this is a tiqqun, a 'ritual of reparation' intended to chase away evil spirits, for it is said: 'Around him (the deceased) there prowl impious ones' (a reference to Psalms 12.9).

The mittah or 'funeral bed' is taken to the grave. When it is a well-known rabbi or a man renowned for his great piety, the lowering of the body is sold to the highest bidder; the money collected is paid into a fund for the poor or some other charitable cause. At the four corners of the grave people throw in a few pieces of gold thus evoking an episode from the life of the patriarch Abraham recorded in this text: 'To the sons of the concubines Abraham had had, he gave gifts ... and he sent them away eastwards, to the land in the east, out of his son Isaac's way' (Genesis 25.6). In Fes people still think (as above) of a potential offspring's jealousy, represented here by evil genies that have to be appeased with a portion of the family heritage (ha l-irusha dyalkum 'Here is your share of the heritage', they say to them in Judeo-Arabic). People also say ka idahhbu es-sitanim 'They chase away the satans', punning on the word dahhaba, which means both 'chase away' and 'gild' in the local patois.

'Your bones will flower again like grass'

Before leaving the graveyard people pick blades of grass and throw them backwards over their heads to show their grief, but also to express hope in the resurrection and the advent of the messianic era, for it is said: 'Your bones will flower again like grass' (Isaiah 66.14) 'and the towns shall see their inhabitants grow like the grass of the fields' (Psalms 72.16). People wash their hands without wiping them on a cloth, letting them drip dry. This, according to a text from the Midrash, is to chase away the spirits which cling more determinedly to impurities on the hands, but also, adds the author of Nahalat Abot, to affirm and show that 'our hands did not shed this blood' (a reference to Deuteronomy 21.7) and that they are not responsible, etc. There are some who also wash their faces while repeating this verse: 'God shall wipe away the tears from every face' (Isaiah 25.8). When there is little or no water (for instance, in the case of a caravan in the desert), people follow a custom borrowed from Muslim society which consists of performing the ritual ablutions by rubbing one's hands with sand (tayammum) or earth ('istijmar).

The beliefs and ideas about death are those put across by Jewish biblical or rabbinical writings (Talmud, Midrash and legends, Zohar, etc.) or by an oral, popular, dialect literature, the great works of which belong to the collective memory of the Mediterranean Semitic world, which collects multiple, varying versions of them, created more often than not on the basis of a written version.

We should remember that in Jewish thought death, for individuals, is a particularly important problem, since it marks the moment of reckoning for a life, 'the day of judgement and calling to account' (Yom ha-din, Yom din ve-heshbon), the moment when once and for all the nature of eternal existence is to be decided, whether they are to be eternally punished or saved; nevertheless it is not the essential problem since it is subordinate to that of redemption and salvation. Death is a moment of deep emotion and great exhilaration, too, for believers who are detached from the things of this life, indifferent to the banality of earthly existence. For them it is the open door to a new world, 'the future world' ('Olam habba), the route to the blessedness to which every being with faith and religion aspires. (16)

Agony and the time for confession (17)

The teshubah, 'turning in on oneself', and repentance.
   Before the final moment the dying person should 'turn completely in
   on themselves', repent in order to die innocent, and recall King
   Solomon's words: 'Everything goes to the same place. Everything is
   dust and it all goes to dust.' This is the moment to entrust one's
   soul to the Blessed Holy One, out of love, in order to do the will
   of one's creator, remember that one is no better than the ancestors,
   that the soul is leaving the shadows for the light, servitude for
   salvation ... At the moment when a human being takes leave of this
   world, their actions pass before them one by one and say to them:
   You did this or that, in such and such a place, on such and such a
   day; and the person replies yes and signs, as it is said: 'with
   their hand all humans sign in recognition of their action' (Job
   37.7 paraphrased); they accept the divine sentence and acknowledge
   that God is right in his justice.

Beliefs and legends, usage and custom: refusing to die

Though the death sentence, once pronounced, is irrevocable, accepting it is very often difficult for the person responsible. It is said that the patriarch Abraham refused to let his soul be taken by the angel Michael. Moses refused to hand over his to Sama'el. Rabbi Hiyya did not give in to the angel of death until the angel had tricked him by dressing as a beggar. Sometimes God has to intervene to overcome the resistance of renowned Talmud heroes. Thus Joshua ben Levi snatched the sword away from the angel of death and through Bat-Qol, the celestial voice, God had to shout to him: 'Give him back his weapon, the sons of men have need of it.' With regard to the ritual of birth, we have noted a story in the same vein, the exploit of this master of the kabbala 'who had conquered the female demon Lilith who had been responsible for the death of Jewish male children in Baghdad; he grabbed her deadly sword and gave it to his family where it is still carefully kept'.

Blending with the legends whose Jewish sources are known there are many others of Arab origin or belonging to a cultural substrate common to both societies. One of these says: 'Forty days before death a leaf falls from the Tree of Life that stands under God's throne, into the arms of Azrael (the angel of death according to the Muslim literature of homilies), thus announcing a human being's end.'

Another tells: 'When a just person dies, Azrael appears before them accompanied by a legion of good angels bearing the perfumes of Paradise, and makes the soul leave the body like a drop taken from a bucket of water.' It is also said that when people overdo their lamenting and weep excessively over a person's death, Azrael, standing at the door of the house, declares: 'Why this lamenting and weeping? I am only God's messenger, executing his orders. If you rebel against him, I will come back and take another from among you in this house.'

The Qaddish and its redemptive power

The word Qaddish is the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew qadosh, 'holy'. It designates a crucial part of the Jewish liturgy, a public doxology (anthem to the glory of God) that has to be recited in the presence of the minyan, the quorum of ten believers who are adult in religious terms (13 years old) and who respond Amen. This prayer, composed in Aramaic, the vernacular of the Babylonian communities, except for the ending and a few responses in Hebrew, exalts, magnifies and sanctifies the Name of the Eternal and pleads for the Messiah's swift arrival, the advent of the Kingdom of God, redemption and universal peace. But there is no reference to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (by the Romans), which might give an indication as to its more ancient origin. There are several versions of this composition, all of which contain a common section augmented by additional elements according to circumstances, especially in the Rabbis' Qaddish (qaddish de-rabbanan) and the Qaddish of the Dead (or the Orphans).

In a midrah ('Otiyot de Rabbi Aqiba) dating from the Gaonic period (the High Middle Ages), it is said that with the advent of the Messiah God will sit down in paradise and will comment in a sermon on the 'New Torah' before the assembly of the saints, the pious and the angels. At the end of the sermon Zerubabel (18) will rise and recite the Qaddish in a voice that will be heard from one end of the world to the other, and all humanity will respond Amen. All the souls, of both Jews and Gentiles (goyim), will say Amen as well. Then God's compassion will be aroused and he will give to Michael and Gabriel the keys of Gehenna whose 40 gates will open at the Archangels' command ... All those redeemed from Hell will come forth from there to be led into Paradise.

Rabbi' Aqiba and the woodcutter

According to a later aggadah 'legend' (Seder Elyahu Zota) Rabbi Aqiba saved the soul of a dead person from the punishment of Gehenna by getting his son to learn and recite the Qaddish. Here is the text of that legend:
   One day R. Aqiba met a spirit (a soul) which appeared in the guise
   of a man carrying on his back some wood that was intended to feed
   the fire of Gehenna where he burned every day as a punishment for
   the ill treatment he had inflicted on the poor in his lifetime, when
   he was a tax collector. He would be spared that terrible torture, he
   added, only if his son could recite the Qaddish before a gathering
   of the faithful. So, hearing the man had completely neglected his
   son's religious education, R. Aqiba went off to look for the son,
   found him and undertook to teach him to read the Torah; one day the
   son was able to get up in public and recite the Qaddish, thus
   saving his father from hellfire.

The hillulah or the joyful commemoration of death

The anniversary of Moses' death is celebrated on 7 Adar. That of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohay, who is traditionally supposed to have composed the Zohar, is marked on lag ba'omer (the 33rd day of "Omer), which is 18 Lyyar, and that of Rabbi Me'ir, the 'master of miracles' (ba'al ha-nes), the 14th of the same month. The commemoration of these two Palestinian saints' deaths has become the occasion for festivities, illuminations on the sites of their graves at Meron and Tiberiad, and in all the Mediterranean communities. In Morocco local saints and holy men are celebrated as well, with every kind of miracle-worker and illustrious North African masters ('Amram Ben Diwan David Ad-Dra', David Al-Ashqar known as Moulay Ighghi, etc.), by making seasonal pilgrimages and what is called here and elsewhere the hillulah, whose dramatic and spectacular character should be noted.

It is a sort of fair that is both religious and secular, comparable to the Islamic custom of moussem. On the site of the Rabbi's and saint's presumed grave a ritual takes place which the pilgrims generally perform after they have made a vow at a special event or after a promise freely made to the Rabbi to visit his grave from time to time or on a set date. The ritual of hillulah and the pilgrimage contain special liturgies associated with great brotherhoods. Prayer and chanting of the psalms are accompanied by substantial meals, generous libations of eau-de-vie and wine, dances and songs, great bonfires, folk and popular events that come close to heresy and which the rabbinate orthodoxy frowns on but cannot prevent.

It is also the occasion for fertile literary creation in Hebrew and the local dialects. As regards hagiographic poetry, we find here the two hierarchical levels of Jewish knowledge: on the one hand Hebrew scriptural knowledge with piyyutique compositions for the occasion, and on the other poems with verses in Judeo-Arabic (or more rarely Judeo-Berber). The long chanted qasd'id or qisas recount the saint's extraordinary life, a life filled with fabulous events, miraculous interventions, prophetic signs and visions. The shorter pieces, of one or two verses, which are laudatory and unrestrained, or individual acts of grace, are generally improvised; they are sung while performing one of two gestures won at special auctions: the right to light an oil lamp or candle dedicated to the saint and Rabbi, and the right to raise and drink the glass of eau-de-vie in his honour and as an act of grace.

The mystical doctrines, and the Zohar in particular, see the day of death as a day to celebrate (Yoma de-hillulah) and the author of a biblical text (Ecclesiastes 7.1) says that 'the day of death is better than the day of birth', which the Midrash interprets thus: 'death tells of the meritorious life of the deceased ... It is also like the boat that comes into the harbour full of merchandise' (Exodus Rabbah, 48). 'And the great of each generation have to die to make way for their successors', we read elsewhere.

The graveyard and the cult of the dead

The hillulah is celebrated in the synagogue; but the ceremonial and festivities take place more particularly in the graveyard, which is also visited on Mondays and Thursdays, and on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and Kippur, taking great care not to go twice on the same day to the same grave.

This visiting the graves of the dead on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and Kippur is explained by the author of Nahalat Abot in the following way: 'On that day God is getting ready to judge the world. So the souls of the dead beg for divine mercy for the living, to whom they announce in a dream the decision affecting them, once this has been made by the heavenly court.' And so the living come here to pray to the dead to intervene on their behalf.

Sick people and barren women sometimes come and stay in the graveyard, close to the saints and local holy men, in small rooms specially reserved for this purpose, spending three or seven days at a time there begging and praying for a cure and for their wishes to be granted.

Among Muslims the graveyard is habitually a place for taking a walk; women and children go there on Fridays and drink tea while they chat. On the 27th day of Ramadan and more especially on the feast day of the 'Ashura, people carry out a general purification on the graves, which are literally drenched. Nothing here reminds us of the sadness of Christians' mournful visits and the Day of the Dead.

Judeo-Muslim pilgrimages

The same grave may be a Judeo-Muslim pilgrimage destination, a compromise space where one can often witness manifestations of cultural symbiosis, or even religious syncretism, which may seem surprising, with Jews and Muslims seeking intercession and protection from the same saints, performing the same practices and gestures, making the same offerings, using the same invocations, the same forms of prayer. From their visit to the same saint both groups go back rich in imagination of all the good things they hoped for from the success of their pilgrimage, returning home filled, at the very least, with additional faith and hope.

Eulogies and funeral orations

Elegiac poems, which are generally collected in anthologies with the title El Sefod, 'time of lamentation and weeping', attract our attention first because of the considerable part played by the 'lament' in funeral rites and the importance of the place occupied by the qinah 'elegy' in the liturgy of the seven days of mourning and the three great ceremonies of remembrance. Furthermore, this kind of literature, because of the content of the pieces themselves and the indications the author writes at the beginning, gives us information, which in some respects is valuable, about the deceased and the circumstances of their death, a considerable biographical and historical document.

The funeral orations composed by Jacob Aben Sur, a 17th/18th-century Moroccan author, and the notes at their head, inform us about Jewish society of his time, of Fes and Meknes more particularly, the relations between that society and the Muslim environment and the authorities, both central and local, the lay dignitaries who ruled the community, the senior magistrates and rabbis who legislated and supervised its members' moral and spiritual health. Himself the principal judge in the Fes court and an eminent preacher, Jacob Aben Sur was also required, because of this and as part of his functions, to deliver funeral sermons.

Fundamentally these elegies are veritable funeral orations and homelies. Expressions of grief and regret, enumeration of the deceased's qualities and titles, are associated with meditations and reflections on problems of faith, variations on the theme of death, truisms about the ephemeral nature of life and the 'fragility of the world', the precarious character of the body compared with the immortality of the soul, the delights of the 'world to come' promised to the just and wise who sit, crowned in glory, at the foot of the heavenly throne.

Dying with a kiss (19)

Dying at a venerable age is a blessing; dying young or in the flower of life is a misfortune and a curse (in this respect compare the biblical texts of Genesis 15.15 and Isaiah 38.10). One dies because of the original sin, that of Adam eating the forbidden fruit. Also because of the individual's personal sins. However, rabbis quote the names of heroes and saints who died without committing any sins but by the primordial serpent's poison.

People die in various ways, peacefully or violently, after a long or short agony, each according to their merits. There is 'death with a kiss' (mitah be neshiqah); it is like a hair taken off a glass of milk or a drop taken from a bucket of water, passing from life here below to the one beyond without suffering; it is thus that the just, the saddiqim, die; it is thus that Moses died, 'by the mouth of God' (Deuteronomy 34.5). That is how his brother Aaron and his sister Myriam died. According to Maimonides (Chapter 51 of the third part of the Guide for the Lost), the phrase 'dying with a kiss' means the deaths occurred when the three people concerned felt the pleasure caused by sensing God: they died because of the strength of their love eros, hesheq (Hebrew), "ishq (Arabic), whose object is God.

Entering into death with eyes open

This is the lot of the just, who are called directly to God, entering into death with their eyes open, or as a Judeo-Arabic saying from Morocco puts it, 'entering paradise with eyes open'. In Muslim society these blessed ones are the barber who circumcises children, who are thus purified by this Abrahamic rite, and the man who bakes the bread and liberates his soul in exposing himself throughout his life to the flames of his oven. In Jewish society this is also the fate of the humble who have had pious functions and difficult work.

The announcement of death: shadow and dream, the angel of death and the doctor of the Law

Losing one's shadow, dreaming of relatives and friends, seeing a roll of the Law (sefer torah) in a dream are prior signs of forthcoming death and they also announce the arrival of the angel of death.

In a hagiographic poetic piece in Judeo-Arabic recorded at Tinghir (High Atlas) and published by me elsewhere, (20) a number of ideas and beliefs are set out, together with all kinds of notions dear to the writers of the kabbala or even those of the Halakhah, and closely reflecting the attitudes of the Jewish people of those communities from the Atlas (and North Africa in general), and their local traditions and folklore: the world of death and its myths, paradise and the heavenly court, the extraordinary power of the saints' intercession, funeral rites, the duty to teach one's child the Torah, obligations between friends. I have found all these ideas expressed in texts I know well, for example Zohar 1, 217b-218a, of which I translate a page below:
   One day, R. Isaac was sitting at R. Judah's door, plunged in
   deep sorrow. R. Judah came out and, finding him in this condition,
   said to him: 'What in particular is the matter today?' [R. Isaac]
   replied: 'I have come to ask you three things: when you are
   studying the Torah and happen to quote some of my words, you must
   say them in my name and mention their author; you will do my son
   the service of teaching him the Torah; every week you will go and
   pray on my grave.' R. Judah asked: 'What tells you that you are
   about to die?' The other man replied: 'My soul has been leaving me
   every night (recently) but I was not illuminated by a dream as
   before: and what is more, when I bow at Shomea Tefilla during my
   prayer, I do not see my shadow on the wall; so it means that the
   messenger has gone to announce (my death), for it is said: "It is
   by his shadow that man walks" (Psalms 39.7) and "Our days on earth
   are a shadow"' (Job 8.9) 17. R. Judah said: 'I will do all you ask
   provided you keep (lit. choose) a place for me beside you in the
   other world; that way (we shall be neighbours) as we are in this
   one.' R. Isaac wept and said: 'Do me the favour of not leaving me
   any more.' Then they went to R. Simon's house and found him busy
   studying the Law. Looking up, R. Simon saw R. Isaac; the angel of
   death was running and dancing before him. He went to take R.
   Isaac's hand and said: 'I order whoever normally comes in to enter;
   and whoever is not accustomed to coming in should not enter.' R.
   Isaac and R. Judah went in; the angel of death was forced to stay
   outside. R. Simon looked at R. Isaac and saw that his hour had not
   yet come. He still had till the eighth hour of the day.

      He asked him to sit down and they studied together. R. Simon
   said to his son Eleazar: 'Sit by the door and do not speak to
   anyone, and if someone wants to come in, you will command him not
   to.' Then he said to R. Isaac: 'Have you seen your father's image
   today (in a dream) For, as we have been taught, at the hour when a
   human being leaves this world, their father and close relatives are
   by their side, they see them, recognize them along with all the
   people they were close to here on earth; riley all gather round and
   accompany their soul to the place that has been allotted to them.'
   R. Isaac answered: 'Up to now I have seen nothing.' At once R.
   Simon rose and said: 'Master of the Universe! R. Isaac is well
   known to us, he is one of the seven eyes (21) here below. I have
   him, leave him to me.' Then a voice spoke out and said: 'The throne
   of the master [R. Isaac] is near the wings of R. Simon. There, he
   is yours, you shall bring him with you the day you come to sit on
   your throne.' Then R. Eleazar saw the angel of death going away
   saying: 'There is no place for the master of great works where
   R. S. bar Yohay' is to be found.' R. Simon said to his son:
   'Come and support R. Isaac, I can see he is afraid.' R. Eleazar
   came in and took (the hand) of R. Isaac while R. Simon returned to
   his study of the Law.

      R. Isaac fell asleep and saw his father (in a dream) who said to
   him: 'My son, your share is good in this world and in the world to
   come for, among the leaves on the Tree of Life in the Garden of
   Eden, there rises a tall tree "powerful in both worlds" and it is
   R. Simon bar Yohay. He holds you (he shelters you) in his
   branches.' R. Isaac asked him: 'Father, what is my fate there?' The
   father replied: 'For three days they "covered" your room, putting
   in open windows so that you should get light from the four sides of
   the Universe [four cardinal points]. I am glad when I see your
   place and I say: "Your share is good; however your son has not yet
   learnt enough of the Torah up to now."' R. Isaac said to his
   father: 'Father, how much time am I granted (to live) in this
   world?' The father answered: 'I am not permitted (to tell you).
   It is a thing that is never revealed to humans. But at R. Simon's
   Hillula it will be your job to put up his table.'

Here I should add another idea from the Zohar: when the judgement hour approaches for a person, a new spirit enters them, and because of that they perceive what they could not before, the divine Presence (shekhinah), because they are leaving this world. Indeed if it is written: 'No one may see Me and live' (Exodus 33.20), that is in life; but it is permitted at the time of death. (22)

Here are two texts taken from Hesed le-Abraham, whose author is Abraham Ben Mordekhay Azulay (Morocco/Palestine, 17th century). I have translated and analysed them in my book Kabbale, vie mystique et magie, pp. 238-41, where other writings by this author are listed: Or Ha-Hammah, Jerusalem 1876, Przemsyl 1898; Zohare Hammah, Venice 1655; Hesed le-Abraham, Sulzbach 1695, Amsterdam 1685.

(1) The sensitivity of the dead; Luz, the resurrection bone; the secret of the shroud and the linen garments. The supernatural virtues of the white linen robes of the Pharaoh and the High Priest (IV/52).
   The Talmud and the Zohar teach us that there always remains a
   relationship, a bond after death, between body and soul once they
   are separated and the soul has withdrawn from the body; this bond
   continues even when the worms have penetrated the bones and got a
   hold on them, but it is reduced to relations with that
   indestructible 'little bone', which is comparable to leaven in
   dough and is destined to play a pre-eminent part at the moment of
   the body's resurrection. That bone is housed inside the skull at
   the rear in the lower section, below the brain; it is, so to speak,
   independent of the other bones in the skeleton. Its size is the
   same as a grain of barley, shaped like a little cube rounded at
   the corners. It has running through it a network of blood vessels
   like a spider's web whose threads cross and interweave in a
   complicated tracery, it brings together within it the nerves of the
   five vital senses, the very ones on which almost all of the human
   body's activities rely ... Unlike the other bones it does not
   putrefy but keeps, together with the soul, a solid link until the
   day of the resurrection, when it will be required to restore the
   body and assist return to the mystery of origins ...

      You should know further that there is a mystery connected with
   linen garments; this material possesses a supernatural power that
   is beneficial for living and dead, children and adults. When a
   human being leaves this world covered in a white linen shroud, even
   if their death occurs on 'foreign territory' (elsewhere than holy
   ground), the accusing angels come to confound the person are
   silenced and immediately replaced by other gentler ones who take up
   the deceased's defence. The magic power and marvellous and
   exceptional virtues attached to these garments of pure linen,
   without any kind of admixture, have been examined, verified,
   tested in every situation, even in cases of a newborn, whom the
   demon Lilith normally threatens, another evil genie or another
   spirit from the left. By virtue of his superior wisdom the Pharaoh
   knew the virtues of this kind of garment. Wearing white linen he
   paraded, haughty and superb, proclaiming he was God in person
   before his scholarly magicians and the great ones of his empire,
   all of whom were thunderstruck, ignorant as they were of the power
   and charm of the garments their monarch was wearing. Instructed by
   the Holy Spirit, Joseph managed to penetrate their secret. He
   discovered that white linen clothes warded off from whoever wore
   them every kind of scourge and calamity, those originating in the
   'evil eye', those stemming from spells, charms or the workings
   of witchcraft, all those forces of evil associated with wicked
   genies, will o' the wisps and spirits, execrated of course by the
   Creator and Master of the universe. However, it must be said in
   addition that those clothes do not save people from natural
   disasters caused by water and fire, cold and heat, stone and iron,

      You should also know that no one is exposed as much to the
   greatest dangers as the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) when he enters
   the Holy of Holies, on the day of Kippur, in order to perform the
   'divine ritual' described in the Seder ha'bodah 'Order of service'.
   No one other than him is permitted to enter, neither human nor
   angel ... And in order to ward off the jealousy, rivalry and
   hostility of the inhabitants of earth and heaven, the Blessed Holy
   One advised him to wear white linen before setting foot in that
   sacred place ... Coming back to Pharaoh and Joseph, when Egypt's
   sovereign saw Jacob's son, his first minister and new confidant,
   dressed in white linen, he was seized with concern; suspicion and
   fear took hold of him; that is why 'he put a gold chain round his
   neck' (Genesis 41.42), in order to counteract the charm of his
   white linen garments, abolish and annihilate the power attached to
   them. At that moment Joseph did not show any surprise so that
   Pharaoh should not realize he knew the secret. When he got home he
   took off the chain.

(2) Seven tests await human beings when they die: they correspond to seven significant moments that follow one another from the instant of the separation of soul and body to the time of redemption and reincarnation (V/l). (23)
   The first, hard, test is the one that is undergone the moment the
   soul leaves the body; it punishes them both for the errors
   committed through an active collaboration between them, in
   association so to speak. The next test occurs when the funeral
   cortege is being led from the deceased's home to the graveyard.
   During the whole journey the person's actions and words go
   before them, accuse and publicly humiliate them, proclaiming urbi
   et orbi, for each of the transgressions they have committed in this
   world, for each crime and offence, their nature, the sentence and
   punishment that they incur and which await them in the world to
   come. The third test is the one the deceased goes through when they
   enter the grave, which is seen as the exit door from this world and
   the threshold of another ... The fourth test is inflicted on them
   in the grave itself, immediately after burial, which rabbinic
   literature calls hibbut haqeber, 'the flagellation of the grave'.
   (24) The angel of death, assisted by the one called Dumah, who
   rules over the world of 'silence', beats the corpse violently with
   metal chains ... The next and fifth test is going through Gehenna,
   hell; it is intended in particular to purify the soul, to 'whiten'
   it in a way. During the sixth test the body is given over to vermin
   which take it over and devour it; while the soul grows sad and
   mourns, the body suffers atrociously, as it is said: 'the bite of
   the worm is as painful for the body of the deceased (for their
   corpse) as the prick of the needle can be, stuck into the flesh of
   a living person.' (25) The soul's exile is the seventh and last
   test; this is its continual migrations and transmigrations,
   successive incarnations and reincarnations; it is condemned
   to wander and roam hither and thither, without the slightest
   respite, till the end of its long, painful journey, which is
   terminated by its final redemption, its redemption paid for in the
   course of its wanderings and transmigrations, by carrying out the
   tasks it had to accomplish in this world.

Out of all these tests the first is the one that has here detained Abraham Azulay the longest; it is the most disputed and argued over. The author devoted a lengthy essay to it, composed of ingredients borrowed, naturally, from the Talmud, the Midrash and the Aggadah, from the many works of Jewish ethics (musar) known in his time, but still more plentifully from the Kabbalistic literature with which he is familiar and which he privileges.
   The first test, inflicted at the supreme moment when the soul
   leaves the body, is painful, hard and difficult; the separation
   may be gentle and light as well, 'as easy as taking a hair out of
   a glass of milk' (Berakhot 8a, Baba Barra 17a). The operation is
   carried out by the angel of death, who is allowed on this occasion
   to punish and inflict suffering in proportion to the gravity of the
   transgression; to the actual degree that the person had 'persisted'
   in the fault, the executant of high offices is permitted to exact
   his due. (26)

With the legends whose Jewish sources are known are mingled others of Arab origin or belonging to a cultural substrate common to both societies. All these rites, uses and customs, together with the legalism and the imaginary underlying them, bear witness to a judicious balance between the specificity of identity and the universality which are both characteristic of the Jewish vision of suffering and more especially death in the societies of the Muslim West. And it is the mark of the whole religious and ritual life of these societies which have upheld, into the 20th century in the case of Morocco, a civilization, way of life and culture their ancestors had known for many centuries, if not a millennium, with a varying degree of particularity and universality, the latter dominating at certain liturgical moments, for instance Yore Kippur, where one of the main ritual items is that prayer called Seder haAvodah, a group of texts in rhyming prose and in verse describing in detail the 'sacred ritual', the gestures the High Priest used to perform on the Day of Atonement in the Temple at Jerusalem in ancient times. We should note the universalist tone of that prayer, an epic hymn in which, curiously enough, there appears neither the image of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, nor that of the Jewish society living there, but in which are expressed nostalgia for a time gone by, desire and hope of finding again the immemorial times of a distant glory ... In the Jewish religion the archaic scenario of the periodic renewal of the world has been gradually historicized while preserving something of its original significance. The restoration movement is aiming at the return and resurrection of a situation that is past and gone but still felt to define the ideal. The movement is backward-looking, focused on the history of origins insofar as these are recognized as an ideal in the imaginary and memory of a whole people. Experience is attached to the past by virtue of a desire to restore the original state of things and the 'life of the ancestors'.

Returning to the topic that concerns us, 'the vision of suffering and death' in the societies we are studying, we may conclude our exposition with this question: can modern medicine conceive of a return to that mythic situation I described at the start of my article, and find, by other routes and means, the time of origins when passing from life to death occurred peacefully, 'joining one's ancestors' as the Bible text expresses it, to signify expiring and dying, without pain, suffering and sickness, concepts that do not appear till late on in the societies whose history I have been relating?


This text is a revised and augmented version of my lecture given in the context of a round table on 'Suffering, sickness and death' at the Fourth International Conference on anti-cancer chemotherapy, which took place in Paris in February 1993 and brought together researchers and doctors.

(1.) Mille ans de vie juive au Maroc, Paris, Maisonneuve et Larose, 1982 (1998 under the title Deux mille ans de vie juive au Maroc, with additions and a new postscript), in which the vision of death and the associated cult, rituals and beliefs were exhaustively examined. As for the mystical speculations on death and the therapies from the practical kabbala, which I found in North African Jewish kabbalistic writings, they are included in some of the chapters from my book (1986/1996) Kabbale, vie mystique et magie, Paris, Maisonneuve et Larose.

(2.) English quotations from the Bible are from the New English Bible (2nd edn, 1970), slightly adjusted where necessary (translator's note).

(3.) See Mille ans de vie juive au Maroc, p. 99. The town is frequently mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 28.10; 35.6; 48.3; Joshua 16.2; 18.13; Judges 1.23 and 26), where it is identified with Bet-E1 in the land of Canaan, then a town built by a refugee from Bet-El in the country of the Hittites (Judges 1.23-6). The legend itself is recounted in the Talmud (Sotah 46b, Sukkah 53a), the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah, on Genesis 28.19). See also Zohar I 137a.

(4.) 'Ireland in the Middle Ages' in Jewish Quarterly Review Vl, p. 336.

(5.) See also Kabbale, vie mystique et magie, pp. 54, 162, 206, 238.

(6.) See Zohar I 204a.

(7.) It is impossible here to give the text from the Zohar referred to above with its many commentaries. It will merely be noted that it says that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, whose creation preceded that of the world, appeared before God in various shapes and combinations resulting from the permutations defined by certain rules; one of those shapes is the presentation of the letters in reverse alphabetical order from taw to alef, with each begging for the creation of the world to start with itself. The Creator decided that this task should be performed by Bet ..., the expression of Wisdom, sefirah Hokhmah, and that the completion of creation should be carried out by yod, the expression of sefirah Malkhut, the sovereignty of God over the earth. Furthermore, following speculation on the structures and functions of the four worlds (Asilut, Beri'ah, Yesirah, Asiyah) and the ten sefirot that make up each of them, we get to the fact that each sefirah corresponds to a particular space, and so Jerusalem is part of the heritage of Malkhut, the tenth sefirah and the letter yod, while Luz belongs to the ninth sefirah represented by the letter tet and called yesod, which means the attribute hay 'olamim 'the Eternal Living One'.

(8.) Citron fruit and willow branches are two of the four species that make up the ritual bouquet (lulab) for the feast of Sukhot (see Mille ans de vie juive au Maroc, pp. 253-5). The apiqomen is the half massah, the symbol of the Paschal lamb eaten at the end of the meal on the eve of Pessah (ibid., p. 241). Apart from its mystical symbolism inherited from the many exegeses carried out on the Song of Songs over 2000 years, the pomegranate fruit is also a miraculous remedy. All its parts (skin, seeds) and its various species (there are sweet and bitter ones, cooked or raw) are thought to have virtues and special qualities in the area of magic therapies. It is the fruit 'par excellence that can delight the heart', as our manuscript emphasizes (p. 24).

(9.) According to Doutte, quoting an Arab author, Magie et religion, pp. 73-4, this is one of the fifteen perfumes with the most effective magical properties. In fact it is a preparation with a musk base that contains cinnamon, honey, gallnut, wallflower. According to other sources it is also a creamy perfumed paste, black in colour, based on musk, amber and ban 'cassia' oil or a mixture of musk and civet (see Litteratures dialectales et populaires juives en Occident musuhnan, p. 107, n. 15). In Morocco and Algeria people know the seven perfumes used for the sab'bkur 'seven fumigations': al-jawi al-khel (black benzoin), al-jawi la-byad (white benzoin), bkhur as-sudan (ebony resin), al'ud-al-qmayri (aloe wood), al-qesbur (coriander), al-luban (incense) and al-mi'a (myrrh). Others are known too, such as al-hramel (harmel) and al-ruta (rue), which enjoy a high reputation, as do saffron, camphor, myrtle, alum and salt.

(10.) Deciphering of and commentary on this talisman are to be found in nay book Kabbale, vie mystique et magie, pp. 392-5.

(11.) See Kabbale, vie mystique et magic, pp. 361-413.

(12.) Mo' ed Qatan 28a.

(13.) Erubin 41b, Shabbat 118b.

(14.) Hebrew Amulets, London, 1966, p. 56.

(15.) Ibid., p. 72.

(16.) Here we should note that, for Jews as for Muslims, death is not the end of life. It is a threshold opening onto eternity.

(17.) In addition to my personal experience and my own evidence there is, in this chapter on death, information borrowed essentially from the ritual Nahalat Abot, 'the fathers' legacy', published in Livorno in 1808, in which a rabbi from Mogador, Isaac Qoriat, collected the liturgical texts for the days of mourning and an account of the funeral rites performed in Morocco.

(18.) It was Zerubabel who brought the exiles from Babylon into Judea after Cyrus's decree authorizing their return (539/538 BC).

(19.) This concerns the idea that some just people, and Moses in particular, had the privilege of being exempt from the sufferings of death and of leaving this world in a state of quietude and ineffable gentleness, with a divine kiss. Two texts from the Zohar develop this notion (II, 124b and 145a/b). This spiritual relationship is one of union suggested to mystics by the Song of Songs 1.2: 'He will kiss with kisses from his mouth.' So a person whose soul leaves 'with a kiss' belongs to another spirit from which they are never separated; their spirit has been part of the divine spirit. In the first text the Zohar expresses it as follows: 'I will send my angel before you ...' (Exodus 13.20). Rabbi Isaac began his speech thus: 'May he give me a kiss with his mouth' (Hymn I, 2). The Community of Israel says: 'May he give me a kiss from his mouth.' Why does it not say: 'May he declare his love for me'? We are taught that it is because, by kissing, friends exchange spirits and in that way become a part, unite one with another. And that is why the kiss is placed on the mouth, the source of the spirit. When two friends' spirits meet in a kiss, mouth to mouth, they do not leave one another ever again. Hence death with a kiss is so desirable. The soul receives a kiss from the world above (the divinity) and unites with the Blessed Holy One, nevermore to be parted. That is why the Community of Israel says: 'May he give me a kiss with his mouth; its spirit unites with His and will never again be parted.'

(20.) See Haim Zafrani, Litteratures populaires et dialectales, pp. 164-84.

(21.) According to Derek Emet (marginal glosses in the Zohar, ed. De Wilna, 1895) this refers to the seven companions of the Zohar legend, symbols of the seven eyes that together watch over the world; see the end of the Idra de Nazir, fol. 144a.

(22.) Watching Alain Corneau's film Nocturne indien I could not help comparing this idea from the Zohar with one of the episodes from the film. Talking to an Indian philosopher, the narrator refers to a character who said these words in the last moment of his life: 'Give me my glasses.'

(23.) See Zohar I, 245a; III, 54b and 126b. See also M. Idel and R. Yehudah Halewa (1984) and his Safenat Pa'aneah, in Shalem, Year IV, Ben Zvi Institute, Jerusalem, pp. 131-4. In this unpublished work, which M. ldel briefly analyses here, we have the original opinion on this familiar theme from the kabbala of another Moroccan kabbalist, from Fes, who emigrated to Palestine in the first half of the 16th century.

(24.) Berakhot 18b.

(25.) Ibid.

(26.) 'There are 903 ways of dying, the most painful and the hardest is dying by suffocation as caused by croup; the gentlest is the death that occurs with or via a kiss' (Berakhot 5a). People die peacefully or violently, each according to their desserts (see Mille arts de vie juive au Maroc, p. 97). Like many other just people, e.g. Aaron, Myriam and the patriarchs, Moses died with God's kiss, according to an interpretation given to Numbers 33.38 and Deuteronomy 34.5 (Deuteronomy Rabbah XI, 10; Yalqut 787 and Baba Bara 17a). In Muslim society it is said, in reference to the commentary on the Koran by Al-Baydawi (surah 79, 1), that 'when a just person dies, the Angel of death ... makes sure he takes their soul as one takes a drop of water out of a bucket'.

Haim Zafrani

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Author:Zafrani, Haim
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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