Jan 27, 2011

The Jews of Djerba

With the spate of uprisings and increasing riots in the Middle East in different Muslim countries, and specifically the recent overthrow of the government in Tunisia, Mishpacha magazine (Hebrew) last week had an article about the Jewish community in Djerba.

The article talked with Rav Rafael Cohen, a rav in Israel of Tunisian descent. His ancestors had been rabbonim in Djerba, and he has been connected to the community in Djerba for a couple of decades, traveling a couple times a year to be with the community and speak in the shuls, along with general contact all year round between Tunisia and Israel by phone and the like.

It was a fascinating article, describing Jewish life in Djerba, and I wanted to share a few anecdotes and thoughts Rav Cohen described in the article.

1. I'll lead off with the story, as related, about the history of the Jewish community. The Jewish community of Djerba is dated back to at the least the First Temple period. The community consists of mostly kohanim and some yisraelim, but no leviim. The main shul in Djerba has one of the stones from the mizbeiach of the First Beis Hamikdash, as they took it with them when they were sent into exile by the destruction and then used it in the construction of the shul as a reminder of the Beis Hamikdash.

When the Jews were allowed back to Israel (probably called Judea at the time), and Ezra was planning on building what would be the Second Beis Hamikdash, he went to all the Jewish communities in exile and tried to persuade them to come back to Eretz Yisrael with hhim and to build the beis hamikdash. he was specifically looking for leviim for them to take their role in the Temple, the Levites of Djerba refused to join him in his quest. They said the new beis hamikdash would eventually be destroyed anyway, so they did not feel it necessary to bother uprooting the community, just to head back into exile a bit later and start anew.

Because of their refusal, Ezra cursed them saying they would not complete the year. Since then, there have been no leviim in Djerba - those that were there died out, and since then any passing through make sure to not stay for an extended period of time.

2. Rav Cohen related an interesting anecdote describing how dedicated they are to Torah study in Djerba and that the people there are tremendous talmidei chachomim that rival the chachomim of Eretz Yisroel, and the yeshiva there rivals the best yeshivas in Eretz Yisrael.

Rav Cohen related that you can give a shiur to them, talk in Torah, drush, pilpul, etc. and you will hear a response that is the same as a sevara provided by rishonim and acharonim, they ask questions and provide answers with amazing depth and clarity. And "it is difficult to believe that this bachur standing in front of you with a colored shirt and the unusual kipa, is the one that said this...there is a contradiction between the eyes and the ears. They don't have the white shirts and black kipa standards the way we do. Their mode of dress is deceptive."

I am amazed that Rav Cohen who comes off as so intelligent and dedicated really is shocked that people wearing colored shirts can be smart and say a good sevara...

3. 10 years ago Suha Arafat came to Tunisia. Lila Terbelasi (sp?), the wife of President Ben Ali (who has now been banished from Tunisia but was good to the Jews), brought her to the main shul in the Jewish community.

In the shul at the time there was a young girl, the daughter of one of the members of the community. the visiting women asked her what her name is. She responded "Sharon".

Arafat turned to Terbelasi in surprise and asked "Sharon has even come here?"

4. Rav Cohen talks a lot about the education system and that in Djerba there is no such thing as a mechalel shabbos. They are all frum and study Torah. The education system does not include most secular studies. He compared it to the Jewish community of Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia, where many are not religious.

In Tunis they are more mixed with the non-Jews and have decided to include more secular education. Many also left the Jewish area and live with everyone else near the market. They have been exposed to the French culture and have been influenced away from Torah.  When comparing the Djerban community to the Tunis community and explaining why in Djerba they stayed religious and kept away from the French studies,  Rav Cohen said they saw how they requested just a half hour of French education, and ended up with just a half hour of Torah education.


  1. i like how not only can he not believe that people in nonwhite shirts can learn Torah, their mode of dress is actually "deceptive". Like they're trying to pull a fast one on you.

  2. It sounds patronizing, but maybe it's more for the benefit of the readership than Rabbi Cohen's own perspective. I find that a lot with Mishpacha and similar - they write assuming some of the narrow-minded biases of the readership.

    Sort of the flip side of writing very PC to a secular audience.

  3. is there a pic of the stone from the mizbaech??

  4. Tunisia is a secularized, almost European Arab country. Its more influenced by France than the surrounding Arab World. So the Jasmine Revolution is not likely to the same changes in other Arab countries.

  5. i don't know what your colored shirt issue is. he didn't just say that they could say a good sevara, he said a sevara on the level of the rishonim and acharonim. such sevara are usually not found in someone who hasn't dedicated most of his life to learning torah. (and one who hasn't wouldn't even fully understand what he is trying to say) such a person is indeed rare to find in a colored shirt

  6. Her is a contemporary first hand account of the Jewish community in Djerba.



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