Death of the Grand Rabbi of Tunisia

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Obituary/Article on the death of the Grand Rabbi of Tunisia, one of the last rabbis of a community of Jews living in an Islamic land.

The Tunisian 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 Jerusalem’s 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 Jewish practices.

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.

“The Grand 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 sympathy.

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 significant—and 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.”

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