Jewish pilgrimage in Morocco #14 : Rabbi Shlomo Bel Hench, Ourika’s beloved saint

Venerated by both Muslims and Jews, Rabbi Shlomo Bel Hench is the saint of Ourika. The Rabbi is known for the many legends that have been associated to his life and death throughout the years.

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Not very far from Ourika, a tourist destination in Al Haouz Province of the Marrakesh-Tensift-El Haouz region of Morocco, lays the grave of rabbi Shlomo Bel Hench. His name has been associated with a number of legends and mysteries that marked the inhabitants of the region and his many visitors that come from all over the world.

Several accounts suggest that he was an emissary from the land of Israel, who came to Morocco to raise funds, before deciding to settle down in the Kingdom. It is believed that he died around the fifteenth century, when the region of Ourika was home to a big Jewish community.

In the 1590s only, 300 Jewish families lived there and had «two synagogues, Jewish schools, rabbis to perform circumcisions, bar-mitzvahs and weddings, and plenty of kosher food and matzah for Pesach», a platform called Scattered among the Nations recalled.

Venerated by Jews and Muslims

«Rabbi Shlomo (Solomon) who was nicknamed ‘Ben Lhench’ remains one of the most venerated Jewish saints in Morocco, visited by Muslims who call him ‘Moul Asguine’», said Soly Anidjar, a Casablanca-born Moroccan settled abroad.

What makes his grave a remarcakble one is the story of the man who has been living there for more than 30 years : Hananiyah Alfassi. The latter is «the last Jew in the Ourika Valley of Morocco's High Atlas mountains». He «guards the tomb of the 'Tzadik' who died 500 years ago. Foreign pilgrims visiting the Tzadik's tomb taped snapshots of famous rabbis to the wall behind him», the same source adds.  

Hananiyah Alfassi, however, died six years ago. The sad news was brought to us last month by Fadma, who takes care of his family and the shrine of Rabbi Shlomo Bel Hench.

Apart from the story behind this place, several legends have been associated with the figure of Rabbi Shlomo Bel Hench. Two of them were reported by the Jews of the region from one generation to the other. Moreover, one of these stories is shared by a blog on the Moroccan Jewish diaspora called Dafina.

«One day Rabbi Shlomo went to Marrakech on his mule to solve a conflict», a user recalled. His mission was successfully accomplished and while he was headed back home the sun started going down. «He did a gesture with his hand and waved at the sun which stopped immediately», the same source added. The legend goes that he made «time stop» and only after he reached his village that the sun started moving again.

Legends about snakes

The other legend is linked to the name of the Rabbi, Bel Hench, which refers to snakes. Again, this story has two versions to it. According to the first one, the Rabbi was nicknamed Bel Hench because «a snake encircled his head before dying». Others believe that the Tasdik would have «turned into a snake to protect the village’s horses from thieves».

This legend is highly reported by Jews who made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Shlomo Bel Hench. «In the sanctuary of the saint, we slept sometimes in the ground floor, or sometimes in the small room near the synagogue on the first floor», a pilgrim said.

According to the same account, during the night and near the tomb of Rabbi Shlomo, «a big snake fell from the ceiling in front of the saint's grave and directly near my brother's legs. My father was very frightened, but the people in the saint who were in the room told him not to move and that the snake would go away, and that's what happened», he said.

Today, the shrine of Rabbi Shlomo Bel Hench is visited annually. «We have visitors from Israel, France and Morocco in addition to our Moroccan visitors [of Muslim faith, ed]. Everyone is welcome», says Fadma, who looks after the place.

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