Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

23 Tammuz 5762 - July 3, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Jews of Libya

by C. Ofek


The Jews of Libya were never a large community, numbering no more than 38,000 at the largest, just before almost 90 percent left for Eretz Yisroel before Libya attained independence in January, 1952. Yet it is an ancient community and there is evidence of Jewish settlement there dating to the time of the Second Beis Hamikdash.

This series of articles documents many of the special customs of the community. It also tells the story of its last half-century in Libya and the early years in Eretz Yisroel, when it was smothered by the Zionist movement.

Readers who can add to the information here are invited to send their comments and additions. Email:; Fax: 972 2 538 7855; Telephone: 972 2 532 2514.

Libyan Rabbinical Leaders

The Libyan kehilla had two leaders. One was the rov, called Chacham Bashi, who took care of our spiritual needs and made sure there was complete separation between the Jews and gentiles.

I remember that one Thursday, the rov went up to the bimah and announced that no one can go to the Fish Market and buy fish for Shabbos. Anyone who bought fish already must not eat it.

Much later we understood the reason. The fish market was full of Arab customers and the rov did not want us to intermingle with them. Anyone who already had fish threw it out; no one dared disobey the rov.

The other leader was called the "Kaeed." He took care of material matters and represented the Jews before the government in matters such as tax collection and keeping peace and order. He had the authority to levy monetary punishments or even order imprisonment if necessary.

The "Vaad Kehilla" ran and supported the communal institutions of Tripoli. Its job encompassed a number of important areas. It provided communal meals of "Ezras Evyonim," and sent poor families a monthly stipend, paid for medical expenses, or meat, eggs and milk for the sick and needy. During holiday season, the Vaad made bar mitzvas for one hundred poor boys.

In later years, we all benefited from a new task the Vaad took upon itself. The streets in the city center had been swarming with beggars. The Vaad gave each beggar a weekly stipend on condition that they desist from begging and sleeping on the streets.

The Vaad also founded a rent-free "House for the Needy," which was under constant supervision of the Ministry of Health. The Vaad also supported a fund called "Chinuch" that paid the tuition of 3000 poor children, and also provided them with hot meals and clothing before yom tov. The teachers' salaries were also paid by the Vaad, with no government aid.

"Rabbonus," another important institution in our community, was comprised of a chief Rabbi and three dayanim. They acted as the beis din for divorces, inheritances and borrerus. A special department called "Botei Kneisios" built and renovated shuls, was responsible for their cleanliness and appointed chazzonim. The "Chevra Kadisha" renovated the cemetery after World War II and fixed the matzeivos that were bombed by the Germans during the war.

The Libyan Jewish kehilla was carefully organized. Its many activities were supported by various taxes it levied, as well as rent from buildings donated to the kehilla. Every wealthy Jew had to pay a yearly tax based on his income. The shechita tax and wine tax were very profitable, because even Christians and Arabs often bought kosher meat and wine because of its high standards of cleanliness and quality.

A spirit of giving and love for a fellow Jew enveloped the community. All of the Vaad members were volunteers! During World War II, in 1940, a boat of 300 Jewish refugees from Central Europe was stranded in Benghazi, because the boat that was to take them to Eretz Yisroel never materialized. We greeted them warmly and happily and promised to take care of all their needs. A "fight" ensued over who would be zoche to the mitzva of hachnosas orchim. We had one of the refugees stay at our house for three months, until he was able to go to Eretz Yisroel.

Ancient Customs

Our guests from Europe were very impressed by our minhagim. We explained to them that these minhagim were based on mekoros from halocho or medrash and were passed from father to son for many generations.

The night before Rosh Hashana as well as before Yom Kippur, before sundown, we used to fry special flat pancakes called "safnez" in a large frying pan on the primus, and the entire family ate some. The minhag is cited in Shulchan Oruch Orach Chaim.

In Libya, most of the community fasted on erev Rosh Hashana and spent the night before every yom tov in shul, saying Tehillim, Zohar and selichos. This custom enabled them to eat before their fast.

On Yom Kippur, we used to translate Yonah into Aramaic and Arabic, so everyone would understand its message of teshuvoh. During bircas Cohanim of tefillas ne'ilah, all the boys were brought to the shul and they stood under their grandfather's or father's talleisim. It was beautiful to see an entire nation, from young to old, standing to receive the brochoh.

The day after Yom Kippur was Yom Simchas Cohanim as a remembrance to the yom tov the Cohen godol used to make after Yom Kippur. The Cohanim of Libya didn't work that day and made a big seuda for their families and neighbors.

On Hoshanna Rabba, families used to buy liver and intestine, roast them and serve them for the seuda. This minhag originated from the fact that any family of means slaughtered a lamb on Hoshanna Rabba night and roasted the liver and intestine. In fact even today, it is called the "Night of the Liver and Intestine."

On 23 and 29 Teves, Tripoli Jews had two "Purims" -- Purim Ashraf and Purim Bergel -- to commemorate two miracles that occurred over 165 years ago.

The night of rosh chodesh Nisan was called the "Night of the Basisa." The entire family, including the married children, gathered together. The mother prepared a mixture of ground wheat and barley with spices, added some sugar and almonds or dates, and brought it to the table. The father took a key in his right hand and poured oil into the mixture with his left hand.

He stirred the mixture with the key while davening, "Hashem Who opens everything without a key, Who grants everyone with a generous hand, give us from Your good in order that we can do good for others, and pour from Your bounty to Yisroel." Afterwards, the entire family tasted the "Basisa."

On motzei Pesach we ate the "Maimuna," a freshly- baked loaf of bread with a hard egg and piece of meat left over from yom tov.

Before Pesach, we bought a large sack of flour, which we watched carefully to make sure it did not become chometz. The diligent homemakers baked eighteen- minute matzoh every day of Pesach. They used to tie a thin piece of material around their mouths and would not talk while baking the matzoh, lest a drop of saliva make the matzoh chometz.

After Pesach, we used the leftover flour to bake bread for the next few days. We were able to bake the Maimuna immediately after Pesach because our kitchens were basically empty. The oven was in the courtyard, which was shared by a few neighbors. The few metal and glass vessels we owed were kashered before Pesach and used for chometz afterwards. Only the rich owned earthenware vessels that they stored away.

The Jews of Libya received the tragic news of the Rambam's passing on Pesach, even though he passed away on 10 Teves, three months previously. Because they could not mourn on yom tov, they ate a seudas havro'oh on motzei yom tov, which was the source of the custom of the Maimuna.

On erev Shavuos, we children used to bring tiny leaves from a thorn bush as a remembrance of the sneh where Hashem revealed himself to Moshe Rabbenu. The mothers used to bake rolls in various shapes such as a ladder or luchos. We learned tikkun leil Shavuos at various homes. The hosts provided fruits and drinks for the learners.

When a boy began cheder, his mother used to take a hard- boiled egg of a chicken and bring it with the boy to the rebbe. The rebbe peeled the egg and wrote the first letters of the pesukim of Torah tzivoh lonu Moshe . . . and gal einai . . . niflo'os miTorasecho on it. The rebbe read the pesukim with the boy word for word and then gave him the egg to eat.

The baalei tzedokoh had a nice minhag for a bar mitzva. When they made a bar mitzvah for their own son, they also made one for an orphan or poor boy. They gave both boys everything the same -- clothing, presents and seuda -- like two brothers.

All the Jews of Tripoli participated in the minhag of Lechem Hatzedokoh. Every Friday, pairs of volunteers went around to each Jewish home with a large pushke and announced Tzedokoh! The homeowners brought out a loaf or half-loaf of bread and received a small piece of bread in return, which they divided among the family as a segulah for arichas yomim.

The Jewish grocery stores practiced an ancient minhag. There was a special container to store the vessels used to measure oil as well as the funnel used to pour the oil. The tiny drops of oil that remained in the vessels after a sale dripped slowly into the container. Every erev Shabbos, a talmid chochom collected the oil from all the stores. This oil was used to light the candles in shuls.

The source of this minhag comes from maseches Beitzo daf 29a, "Abba Shaul's friends gathered three hundred barrels of wine left from the measuring vessels and brought them to the secretaries of hekdesh in Yerushalayim. They said to them, `Since you were machmir on yourselves, use it for tzorchei rabbim.' "

My Heart is in the East

A deep yearning for Eretz Yisroel hakedoshoh was rooted in our very blood. The songs of emunoh and tefilloh that were written in Libya about Eretz Yisroel were used to put the children to sleep, accompanied the chosson to his chuppah and sung at every simcha. The songs' words were used to comfort mourners, and we even put dust of Eretz Yisroel under the heads of the meisim buried in Libya.

For generations, love of Eretz Yisroel was instilled into us with temimus and shleimus. I still remember the tremendous honor we accorded the shadarim from Eretz Yisroel, how we hung onto their every word about the holy land. One of the meshulochim once brought a sefer from Eretz Yisroel and my father actually trembled with excitement when he held it.

Everyone in Libya -- from the rabbonim and bnei Torah to the merchants and laborers -- thirstily swallowed up every word from Eretz Yisroel. Almost every home had Rabbi Meir Baal HaNess and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai pushkes. Only someone who saw the excitement of the multitude planning to go to Eretz Yisroel can understand the meaning of the word "yearning." When they came to tell us that we could go to Eretz Yisroel, thousands of families, without exception, liquidated their fixed assets, without a second thought. We simply sold whatever we could, packed whatever we could, stormed the Immigration Office and asked for one thing: to go to Eretz Yisroel!

Only someone who experienced the pure, simple emunah coupled with a lack of experience (unlike the Europeans, for example) could understand how Tripoli as well as the entire Libya was a fertile breeding ground for the buds of Zionism.

Years of Change

In 1913, a handful of young boys from Tripoli, who were influenced by Hebrew Zionist newspapers, tried to establish a Zionist movement in Libya. They asked the communal leaders for permission. The rabbonim vehemently opposed it and the idea was shelved.

World War II caused fundamental changes. In 1943, Tripoli was finally conquered by the British. British soldiers who spoke Ivrit appeared on the streets. One of the goals of these Jewish soldiers, unfortunately, was to instill Zionism into the Jewish community.

We were very naive, and we viewed these British soldiers as "kedoshim," like the shadarim from Eretz Yisroel. We never imagined that Zionism had anything to do with secularism. The Libyan Jewish community lived by itself, and had no communication with Eretz Yisroel or with Europe.

We in Libya were stringent on kalloh kechamuroh and meticulously followed every small detail of halochoh. A Jew once rode a bicycle on Shabbos, and everyone ostracized him and put him in cheirem. Our tefillos pierced the heavens. There was no such thing as a boy not getting up to daven at sunrise because he was tired. For selichos, the entire community got up at 3:00 in the morning. The shuls were always full. We had very strong roots in Torah and mitzvos and we could not understand that a Jew could behave differently.

We were shocked to discover that the soldiers from Eretz Yisroel had no connection to Judaism. These young Zionists were very involved in the education of the children and invited the local rabbonim, including myself, to a meeting on the issue. We thought we would hear divrei Torah; after all it was a meeting about chinuch. Instead we heard words of nonsense. We looked at each other in surprise--this is what they are trying to sell us? "Oya!" Afterwards, when we davened mincha, we thought the soldiers would join us, but they were busy talking to the teachers.

A doctor came along with the soldiers. I invited him for Shabbos and he brought me canned meat as a present. I asked him if it's kosher and he said, "It's not donkey meat."

I immediately threw out the meat and was inwardly fuming: This is how a Jew denigrates kashrus? The doctor came to shul with me and I wanted to give him an aliya. He said that he was sad and could not accept the honor. I told him that is no reason to decline; the aliya would help him overcome his sadness.

The doctor agreed and then my eyes darkened. He did not even know the brochos. I had to say them with him word for word, like a little boy. It was only then that I understood that these soldiers from Eretz Yisroel were very different from us -- they did not keep Torah and mitzvos.

However, the Zionists did succeed in opening a Jewish school in Libya and reviving the Hebrew language. Their goal, of course, was to turn us all into Zionists, beginning with the children. As soon as they came to Tripoli they hired capable teachers. It was interesting that meetings with them were held in the British army camp, and only Israeli soldiers were standing at the gates of the camp during the meetings. They said that they wanted to revive the Hebrew language in Libya. They were determined to succeed despite opposition from communal heads.

The Zionists used sneaky tactics to cover up their true goals. They opened a Talmud Torah Leili (night learning) in the evenings. Their intention was to disseminate their Zionist views under the guise of Torah. No devoted father dreamed of what was really happening. In the beginning, they gave free classes in Ivrit to men in the evening. Who didn't join these classes? My father joined and sent me as well.

At first, we came to classes just out of curiosity. But as time went on, we were all drawn into the movement to speak and read Ivrit fluently. In all the shuls and streets of Tripoli, the slogan was heard, "An Ivri speaks Ivrit." A resolution to not speak Arabic amongst ourselves was strictly enforced. These young Zionists knew our soft spot, our love for loshon hakodesh and Eretz Yisroel.

The women were offered Ivrit lessons as well. Respected women, including the chief rabbi's wife and busy housewives, attended every night. A large library of Ivrit books was opened, and a periodical entitled Learn Ivrit was published to help us review the reading and writing. An article was published in Eretz Yisroel entitled, "An Entire Community Speaks Ivrit." Even the children were fluent in Ivrit and played games in this language. We spoke Ivrit amongst ourselves on every topic.

One day the Zionists had a novel idea. They would open a special school to teach all the children, including the girls, Ivrit. Until then, the girls did not know a letter of Ivrit. They only went to the public schools; there was no Jewish school like talmud Torah for girls.

The idea faced immediate difficulties. There was a lack of qualified Jewish teachers in Libya as well as a lack of monetary means to finance the project. As it was, the boys' talmud Torah, supported by the Vaad HaKehilla, was having difficulty paying the teachers' paltry salary. What's more, the girls had been learning only a half a day in public schools and then spent the afternoons helping their busy mothers. No mother would send her daughter to additional hours of school.

The Vaad HaKehilla was vehemently opposed to establishing a new school. Why was it necessary to change the way the girls had been educated until now? They even refused to authorize use of the talmud Torah building in the late afternoon when it was empty.

The Zionists were infuriated by Vaad HaKehilla's "mistaken" approach. How long would the indifference to the girls' education last, they asked. The girl of today is the mother of tomorrow! If they did not have a proper Jewish education, they could end up assimilated with the gentiles, they said.

The false claim made an impression. How ironic that those who defied Torah and mitzvos, whose only connection with Judaism was the Hebrew language and Zionism, frightened the Jewish community of Libya, which had guarded itself from assimilation for generations, with fear of assimilation.

Libyan Jews scrupulously watched over their daughters. When the Zionists stressed this important point as a reason to open a school for girls, there were naive innocent fathers who innocently answered the call.

The first class opened with twenty girls, including my sister Rochel, who was seven-and-a-half at the time. The parents' goal in enrolling their girls was for their benefit, and they did not take into consideration who stood behind the school and what trap was hidden in it.


After the war ended, we suffered a heavy blow. The Arabs staged a big pogrom and slaughtered hundreds of Jews. Overnight, thousands lost everything they had and were left without even a roof over their heads. Sadly we asked ourselves, "What kind of future do we have in this bloodstained country? We want to leave already and go to Eretz Yisroel!"

And so, many families began to prepare for immigration to Israel. They enrolled their sons and daughters in the new school, to learn Ivrit. Learning conditions were extremely poor. Most of the classrooms were small and dark, and there was a lack of books and writing supplies. The English government did not look favorably on the Jewish school's rapid growth and gave the biggest, nicest school buildings to the Arabs.

In government circles, they gave us "friendly" advice -- forget about the Jewish school and avoid arousing the Arabs' wrath. Despite everything, the Jewish school grew by leaps and bounds, until it numbered about two thousand students. A thousand parents transferred their children from public school to talmud Torah. Everyone wanted to be ready to go to Eretz Yisroel.

The young Zionists did all they could to help the school's success. By the end of the first year, the girls already knew how to read and write a clear Ivrit. Eleven first grade classes were opened, comprised of different age girls. Conditions remained poor, but there was one thing teachers did not lack -- a powerful desire to teach all Libyan Jews Hebrew. The school grew from year to year, and new buildings and furniture were added as needed.

It was only in the sixth year of the school's existence, when the State of Israel was actually declared, that the school began to fall apart. The teachers secretly left for Eretz Yisroel and left no substitutes. Mass confusion reigned in the Jewish school system in Libya, which continued until the thousands of students left with their parents to the land of their dreams -- Eretz Yisroel. But there were serious problems there.


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