of the Grand Rabbi of Tunisia
Haim Madar ZS"L
Shelomo Alfassa - 5 December 2004
Printed in the Sephardic Image Magazine
Jewish community lost their grand rabbi on December 3, 2004 after
a long battle with illness. Rabbi Haim Madar passed away early in
the morning at Jerusalems Shaare Zedek Medical Center. Although
buried in Jerusalem, services were also held at the Beit Mordekhai
Synagogue in La Goulette, Tunis, and the Ghriba Synagogue on the small
island of Djerba off the coast of Tunisia. Djerba is the city where
Rabbi Madar lived for most of his life, it is ten hours from Tunis
where most Jews still live as they have for centuries, surviving by
metalworking and jewelry-making, maintaining strict and spiritual
Rabbi Madar was
an exceptional figure known both in Tunisia and throughout
the world for his tremendous knowledge of the Torah and Jewish law.
He was also a skilled scribe who in his younger days expertly manufactured
Jewish ritual items such as tefillin and mezuzot. He was the leading
and most revered rabbi in the country whose Jewish community is as
old as the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem (586 BCE).
The Jewish community of Tunisia has received over time an influx of
successive waves of immigration, mostly from Spain and Portugal at
the times of the Inquisition and then from Italy.
Rabbi has left us after a long and painful illness, said a Tunisian
Jewish community announcement published in Arabic and French language
newspapers. Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali sent his sympathy
to the family of Rabbi Madar as well as sent a message of condolences
to Haim Bitan, Grand Rabbi of Djerba, in which he conveyed to all
members of the Tunisian Jewish community his sincere expression of
Today as many
as 11 synagogues remain and the Jewish population numbers between
500-1500. Most live in Tunis but some live in small communities, mainly
in Djerba, Sfax, Sousse and Nabeul. The Tunisian Jews are quite religious
and are free to practice as they wish. Yet, in the past they faced
many anti-Jewish acts. In the last few decades, a small but deadly
number of attacks have occurred. In 1985 four worshipers were murdered
by local Arabs inside the ancient synagogue and in 2002 a tanker truck
used as a bomb crashed into a wall next to the synagogue killing several
tourists. Recognized to be isolated attacks, not state sponsored,
the Islamic government assures freedom of worship to the Jewish community
and even pays the salary of the Grand Rabbi.
Annually in April,
the Jewish community holds an international pilgrimage on the holiday
of Lag B'Omer to Djerba. As the centerpiece of Jewish life in the
country, the community looks forward to making this important journey.
Unfortunately, Rabbi Madar was unable to attend this year due to illness.
As the leader of the community, Rabbi Madar gained the respect of
the Muslim leadership, and on the occasion of this pilgrimage, Tunisian
Minister for Tourism, Abderrahim Zouari, addressed the pilgrims acknowledging
that the Tunisian Jews played an important role in the construction
of its culture and its civilization.
As late as 1946,
Tunisia had 105,000 Jews. Today, most Jews born between 1900-1950
live in France and Israel, immediately departing North Africa after
its Independence in 1956. In 1958, Tunisia's Jewish Community Council
was abolished by the government and ancient synagogues, cemeteries
and Jewish quarters were destroyed for urban renewal.
Even so, the Jewish community of Tunisia has gotten stronger and remains
one of most significantand last in the Arab world. Upon
announcing the death of their leader, the Tunisian Jewish community
stated they had lost a man of great piety and great culture.