Wide Angle

Jewish pilgrimage in Morocco #6 : Rabbi Raphael Berdugo, Meknes’ dayan and scholar

Rabbi Raphael Berdugo was the Rabbi of Meknes and a renowned scholar who was the author of several books. Berguda was known as «Raphael the Angel» by the Jewish community in Morocco during the beginning of the 19th century.

The city of Meknes. / Ph. DR
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Raphael Berdugo was the Rabbi of Meknes during the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. A renowned Dayan (judge) and respected scholar, Rabbi Berdugo was born in the former imperial city in 1747 to a rabbinical family.

His grandfather Moshe Berdugo, father Mordekhay and brother Yequtiel were all rabbis, according to Issachar Ben-Ami in his book «Saint Veneration Among the Jews in Morocco» (Wayne State University Press, 1998). The Meknes Rabbi is also the grandfather of Rabbi Yehushua Berduga, «who was a judge in the religious court», the same book recalled.

By the age of 15, Berdugo’s father died and he had to continue his studies «in dire poverty», reported Hyomi, a platform that pays tribute to the Rabbi.

«Raphael Berdugo never forgot his life of poverty and when he reached adulthood he stood up for the Jewish poor. He often spoke in their praise in his commentaries on the Torah as well as when ruling public amendments», the same source recalled.

A scholar, dayan and angel

Growing up, Raphael Berduga was a devoted and committed disciple. He used to «study the Torah at night in the basement of his house», Ben-Ami wrote, recalling that the Rabbi used to keep «his legs tied with a rope so that if started to doze, he would wake up and not miss his Torah studies».

When he turned 24, Berdugo was appointed head of the rabbinic court in Meknes. Historical accounts suggest that he had four sons.

As a scholar, the Rabbi of Meknes was known for being the author of several books. Studying the Torah and other religious books, Berdugo was famous for making commentaries in Arabic to help his students and people who were not fluent in Hebrew to get a better understanding.

«In Morocco, perhaps the most outstanding was Rabbi Raphael Berdugo, whose halakhic works (the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the written and Oral Torah) included responsa, a commentary of the Shulchan Aruch (the code of Jewish law) and Talmudic novellae», Zion Zohar wrote in his book «Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry: From the Golden Age of Spain to Modern Times» (NYU Press, 2005).

Zohar pointed out that Rabbi Berdugo was particularly praised for his «methodological and theoretical positions regarding the study and interpretation of classical rabbinic texts, positions that have been analyzed as prefiguring».

Known among the Jewish community as «Raphael the Angel», Rabbi Berdugo gained the respect of other Jewish scholars who were often turning to him to seek advice. According to the book «A Descriptive Catalogue of the Bension Collection of Sephardic Manuscripts and Texts» (University of Alberta, 1979), Raphael Berdugo was once asked to «intercede in a case involving an inheritance which was being disputed».

Rabbi Raphael Berdugo's grave

The Rabbi was also respected for the role he played during a crisis that hit the city of Meknes after the death of the sultan.

«Hacham Raphael Berdugo was a source of comfort and support for the Jews of the Maghreb (…) and particularly during the riots that broke out between the years 1790 and 1792», Hyomi wrote. The riots broke out after sultan Mohammed’s sons fought over the inheritance.

In 1821, Rabbi Raphael died, but his death was linked to a miracle. Two years after his death, the «king wanted to use his burial place», wrote Ben-Ami. They had to remove the saint’s bones and «buried him some place else». But what was surprising is that «when Berdugo’s mortal remained were being removed from one place to another (…) they found the cloth enshrouding his body still pure white».

The same book indicates that Berdugo’s family «went to light a candle at his burial place on the eve of every Sabbath, new month, and holiday».

Rabbi Raphael Berdugo’s hillulah is celebrated on Lag b’Omer, a Jewish holiday celebrated on the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer, which occurs on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar.

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