Perched on the edge of a mountain above a river valley sits the 500 year-old tomb of an emissary from the land of Israel who died while on a fundraising trip in southern Morocco. The Rabbi Shlomo (Solomon) has been given the moniker “Ben Lhans” (“Son of the Snake”) and remains one of the most revered Jewish saints in Morocco, including by Muslims, who call him “Mul Asguine.” What makes his tomb even more remarkable is a living man who has resided there for over 30 years: Hananiyah Alfassi, the last Berber Jew in the Ourika Valley. Hannaniyah guards the rabbi’s tomb, welcoming visitors and pilgrims from around the world.
Ourika’s Berber Jews: While today most Moroccan Berbers are Muslim, there was once a large Berber Jewish population in North Africa. After Arab conquerors arrived 1,300 years ago, not all Berbers converted to Islam. In the 1950s, the Ourika Valley, where the rabbi’s tomb lies, had 300 Jewish families, two synagogues, and several Jewish schools. Many members of the community would make pilgrimages (“hilulot”) to the tombs of righteous men and women, to celebrate holidays and to invoke their memory as intermediaries to God.
The Rabbi: The many legends that surround the life of the “Son of the Snake” rabbi are chronicled in Issachar Ben-Ami’s “Saint Veneration among the Jews in Morocco.” Rabbi Shlomo appears to have come from Israel to southern Morocco, crossing North Africa by mule, as many emissaries did on fundraising missions for study halls in the Holy Land. Why he died and how he ended up buried on the edge of a mountain outside a Jewish cemetery remains the subject of many legends. Hannaniyah offers his own explanation, which attributes many miraculous feats to the rabbi.
The Site: The tomb of Rabbi Shlomo was once reached only by an 8 kilometer donkey ride, though today a paved road through the valley passes by his tomb. In 1976, donors from around the world built an elegant marble tombstone over the site. Later, a wealthy woman, whose prayers at Rabbi Shlomo’s tomb were answered, funded the renovation of the tomb complex, which includes several guest rooms for visitors (some of whom come to visit for a week or more). Marked by an exterior sign in Hebrew, the pink structure is just off the main road winding along the mountainside.
The Guardian: Hananiyah Alfassi is the son of Lalla Sa’ada Alfassi, who guarded Rabbi Shlomo’s tomb until she died in 1978 and whose grave outside the entrance to the rabbi’s tomb has also become a pilgrimage site. Hannaniyah, whose last name indicates his ancestors hail from the city of Fez, is the last Berber Jew in the Ourika Valley. When he was younger, he worked olive presses and traded crafts. Most of the local Jewish community emigrated to Israel in the 1960s, but he remained along with his mother and wife, Yamna, who died in the late 1990s. The couple tried moving to Israel, but Hananiyah had a stroke right before he was set to leave and took it as a sign he should remain to guard the rabbi (see video above for a more detailed account of this legend).
Visiting: Many local tour guides know the shrine complex and can direct tourists to the spot. Hannaniyah, who lives in the complex, is generally around and eager to receive guests. In return for a few Moroccan dirhams, he happily blesses visitors. The question remains, though, who will guard the rabbi’s tomb after he is gone? In the meantime, Hannaniyah is the living memory of the region’s ancient Jewish community and its traditions.