The Jewish Mellah in Marrakech, and a story from the Talmud, Morocco

It is a little hard to find your way around Marrakech, when you first arrive there.
But after you find your bearings, it is easy to remember some landmarks and make your way to explore the areas around them without getting lost.

For me, I found that the help of the Google maps application on my iPad was the MOST helpful thing.
It did not matter where we were or how much we ventured into dark alleys, I could always pop out my iPad and find us as the pulsating blue moving dot on my map.

Many small streets were not named, but they do connect through a network of lanes if you are willing to explore.
It is truly a maze and it is helpful to know where you are, before finding your way to where you WANT to go, which a paper map and a compass do not reveal.

The streets of the Marrakech Medina are filled with scooters, zooming by… Leaving you in a cloud of grey exhaust fumes.

On top of this, the market streets are filled with cyclists pushing along on clanky contraptions with no brakes that they call bicycles.
A few time per day I saw a cyclist crash into people, or miss a curve in the road and crash into the nearby wall.

When we were in the Atlas mountains, as well as in Ait Benhadou, we saw the name “Earth Cafe Marrakech”, written on boulders in the most unlikely remote places.
We found out that it is a vegetarian cafe at the heart of the Medina in Marrakech.

With all the signs around Morocco, we found it laughable that we had a bit of a trouble finding the cafe in Marrakech….
But it was our first night, and Jules pulled me away from many small alleys that had young men standing there, trying to confuse tourists so they can get paid to point them in the “right” direction…

This confusing strategy is applied all over the city.
Stand long enough on one corner and four different people will all point in opposite directions and tell you that what you are looking for, is just there.

We found Earth Cafe, and had a good dinner there, as well as a lunch a few days later, accompanied by fresh juices.

However you walk, if you crisscross the Marrakech Medina, you are bound to cross the central court, called Jemaa El Fna.

It is a cacophonous place where if you spoke the language, you could get your fortune told… By large women with hunger for money in their eyes, who supposedly can read your future in the cards, or in the lines of your palm…

These women will start cursing you, if you point your camera at them, and during the day they look sweaty and annoyed, as they sit on tiny stools under a plastic umbrella.

There is a row of skinny men who shine shoes…. Lines of fresh fruit juice and water sellers, that compete for your attention as you approach them, by yelling and waving an orange at you, while simultaneously speaking to you in Spanish, French or English…

There are fully clothed belly dancers, shaking their hips to the sound of scratchy music coming out of a small boom box.

There are men with fully dressed monkeys on a leash, collecting money for a photo.

There are people selling all sorts of trinkets and toys.

There are musicians drumming or clapping metal castanets.
They drum and play in groups, and sing rhythmic songs… (NOT the wonderful Moroccan Gnawa music, but still pleasant to hear.)

If you give them five or ten Dirhams, they will smile in gratitude… But if you only place in their cloth a Dirham or two, they will give back a hard look as if you were robbing them and not just passing by…

They will however flash a wide smile filled with gratitude, if a Dirham were placed by a local… Because then they feel truly appreciated… After all, they reason, a Dirham is hard to earn and the local was just passing by…..

The area around the central court is filled with souks.
These Markets sell everything from gifts, ceramics, metal work, clothing, shoes, spices, herbs, food, cosmetics and oils.

It was a bit hard to fend off all the offers to go into the many stores selling repetitive things that I did not wish to buy…

I did go into one store that had nicer things and spent a fortune in Moroccan terms for three items of clothing.
The owner was gleaming in joy, like a cat who got fresh sardines AND milk….. as after much negotiation, I handed him the crisp $350 in hundreds and a fifty dollars bill.

But I did not care… His quality was great and it was the ONLY time in Morocco that I even saw any clothing that I was willing to buy.

So… If you see a strange woman wearing a blue velvet shawl (or a green one, since I bought two) or a fancy Jellaba dress walking around looking like Merlin the Magician, with a pointy head cover- it is probably foolish me…

There are many small and large restaurants to dine in around the Jemaa El Fna square, if you have a strong stomach, and many antique shops selling products that look old but just have the grime of age on them.

The Musee De Marrakech is a beautifully restored building, and it is worth a visit.
Beside the nice (but small) collection of crafts, the building itself features some of the best painted wood ceilings, plaster work, mosaic fountains and windows and doors that you will see anywhere in Morocco.

Cafe Arabe was where we took a long afternoon break to rest and refresh.
Packed with tourists, but still a haven of good drinks and the BEST chocolate fondant cake ever.

The Mederasa, or old Islamic School, was lovely and well preserved, but not as amazing as the one in Meknes.

We took a walk through the old Jewish quarter, which is called the “Mellah” in all of the cities of Morocco, where Jewish people settled.

Most of these quarters were abandoned by the Jewish people, who moved out of Morocco at the inception of the state of Israel, and their houses were left empty.

If locals moved into their homes and lived there, they are still preserved, but in some places the houses just deteriorated to rubble.
Here in Marrakech, an old synagogue that was built in 1492 is still standing.
It looks nice with blue and white tile all over its central courtyard.

Mellah- is an Arabic and Hebrew word that means “Salt.”

In cities, a Jewish quarter- Mellah, was surrounded by a wall with a fortified gateway.
Usually, the Jewish quarters were situated near the royal palace or the residence of the governor, in order to protect its inhabitants from recurring riots against Jews, since its inhabitants played a vital role in the local economy.

In contrast, rural Mellahs around Morocco, were separate villages inhabited solely by Jewish people.

There are a few explanations as to why the word “Salt”- Mellah was adopted as a term for all the Jewish quarters around Morocco.

The first official Mellah was established in the city of Fes in 1438.

In 1438 the Jews were forced out of the old part of Fes and were allowed to settle in the town of Hims, which had been built on a site that was known as Al-Mallah, “the saline area”.

Initially, there was nothing derogatory about the term Mellah.
Some documents used the expression “Mellah of the Muslims”, and the Jewish quarter featured large and beautiful houses, which were favored residences.

Later on, however, popular etymology explained the word Mellah as a “Salted, or cursed ground.”
(Meaning that where there is no sweet water, there is no life.)

Another explanation for why the name Mellah was used, was that it was believed that the Jewish people ran the salt trade in Morocco.

The last explanation, was that in ancient times in Morocco, they had the habit of displaying the heads of rebels and invaders on the gates of the city.

In order to prevent the decaying flesh from decomposing and smelling, they used salt to drain the blood and preserve the heads, before placing them on the gates.

It is rumored that this job was done by some Jews and that is how the name stuck.

The Mellah’s walls were not always successful in protecting its dwellers.
On May 14, 1465 in Fez, nearly all the Jews were killed by the rebels who overthrew the ruling Merinid dynasty.

That attack sparked a wave of killing and violence against Jews all over Morocco.

The reason for that anti-Jewish wave of violence, was that a Jew was appointed as a Vizier (Chief Counselor in the Arab world) to the ruling King.

Walking around the Marrakech Jewish Mellah, some shrewd young men have learned to speak just enough Hebrew to try to entice you to hire them.

We saw the old Jewish cemetery, which as we entered it, Jules exclaimed: “Wow, SO MANY Jewish people lived here once….”

Now…. Since I am on the subject of Jewish people, I wish to share a story that many probably have never heard.

It is a variation of a story from the Talmud.
The Talmud (Hebrew for “Limud” which means to “teach, and to study”) is a central text of mainstream Judaism.
It takes the form of a record of rabbinical discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history.

This story that I am about to share, is a bit like a Zen Koan, which is a question with no answer, that is presented to the seeking Zen student, with the intention to exhaust the intellectual mind and to come to the realization that the Truth, cannot be understood intellectually.

So is this story aimed at explaining how impossible it is to understand the Truth intellectually:

A student comes to the Rabbi, and asks him to teach him the Talmud.
At first, the Rabbi sends the student away, telling him that it is impossible to teach and understand the Talmud.

The Rabbi finally said to the student: “I agree to teach you the Talmud on condition that you answer one question.”

The student agreed and asked the Rabbi “What is the Question?”

The Rabbi then said: “Two men fall down through the chimney.
One comes out dirty and the other comes out clean.
Which of those two goes to wash up?”

“Very Simple,” replied the student. “The one who is dirty goes to wash up.”

The Rabbi then said: “I told that you will not succeed in understanding the Talmud.
The exact opposite happened.
The clean one looks at the dirty one and thinks that he is also dirty, and so HE goes to wash up.

The dirty one, on the other hand, looks at the clean one and thinks that he is also clean and, therefore, does not go to wash up.”

The student then says to the Rabbi: “This I did not think of.
Ask me, please another question.”

The Rabbi then said: “Two men fall down through the chimney.
One comes out dirty and the other comes out clean.
Who of these two goes to wash up?”

The student said: “Very simple.
The clean one looks at the dirty one and thinks he is also dirty and goes to wash up. The dirty one, on the other hand, looks at the clean one and thinks that he is also clean and, therefore, does not go to wash up.”

The Rabbi said: “You are wrong again.
I told you that you will not understand.
The clean one looks into the mirror, sees that he is clean and, therefore, does not go to wash up.
The dirty one looks into the mirror, sees that he is dirty and he goes to wash up.”

The student complains to the Rabbi “Hey, No fair! You did not tell me that there is a mirror in the room there.”

The Rabbi then said: “I told you.
You are not ready.
With your mind, you will not succeed in understanding the Talmud.
According to the Talmud, you have to think of ALL possibilities.”

“All right,” groaning, said the student to the Rabbi. “Let us try once more.
Ask me one more question.”

For the last time, said the Rabbi to the student: “Two men fall through the chimney.
One came out dirty and the other came out clean.
Who of these two went to wash up?”

“This I get!” replied the student. “If there is NO mirror there, the clean one will look at the dirty one and will think that he is also dirty and will, therefore, go to wash up.

If there IS a mirror there, the dirty one will look into the mirror and will see that he is dirty and will, therefore go to wash up.”

The Rabbi then said: “I told that you will not succeed in understanding.
You are not ready, you have an unruly Mind.

Tell me, how is it possible for two men to fall through the SAME chimney and for one to come out dirty and for the other to come out sparkling clean?”

2 Comments on “The Jewish Mellah in Marrakech, and a story from the Talmud, Morocco”

  1. hmmm I left a comment but it disappeared; just want to say, love your description of the merchant! so perfect..and the thought of using a navigation tool while in a crowded medina: brilliant! Enjoying(vicariously) yoiur adventure, love the photos as many objects of beauty. xo amy gigi

    • Thank you my dearest Amy, for reading this and for your comment.
      It was wonderful to get a taste of your wonderful gentle spirit, while we are traveling in Morocco.
      It sounds like you have a marvelous time when you’ve been here yourself…
      It is so lovely to know that you are with us in spirit… By reading our blogs.
      Many blessings to you and much love,

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