Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

16 Tammuz 5762 - June 26, 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 its 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.

Strong Spiritual Roots

Libya had many vibrant Jewish communities; about 38,000 Jews lived there. After Israel became a country, almost all of them made aliya. Today there are perhaps only two Jews left in Libya. The many trials and tribulations in their native country, coupled with a strong yearning for Eretz Yisroel, propelled the Jews to leave and rebuild their lives anew in the land of our forefathers.

"I was born in Tripoli, the capital of Libya," Reb Shaul, grandfather of over thirty bnei Torah, began.

My grandfather lived in the village of Tigris, a day and a half journey from Tripoli. The entire village was underground. The houses were hewed in stone, deep in the ground. The Jews who lived there were called the "cave dwellers." They wore Bedouin-style clothing, were generally tinsmiths or peddlers, and were extremely poor.

My father had told me a lot about the poverty in the village and how it was impossible to advance in any area, but hearing is not seeing. A short time before I moved to Eretz Yisroel, I went to the village on a mission. I must admit that I could not believe my eyes. This was where my father lived until he was fourteen?

A friend took me in a jeep, deep into the Libyan desert. I saw lines of ramparts on a plateau in a fertile valley. I climbed up on one of them and saw a large, deep square pit in the middle of it. Sounds were coming out of the ground--sheep bleating, children crying, men's voices. I called out in surprise, "What a wondrous world this is; where are the people?"

My friend led me to a hidden hollow that contained an opening with a low wooden door covering the bottom half. He took a peg out of his bag, put it into an inner hole and turned it around until the door opened.

We entered a long, dark corridor, like a trench, which eventually led to a spacious area. Warm sunbeams slanted down from somewhere above, dispelling a bit of the darkness. I thought that we had finally reached the cave dwellers, but I was mistaken. The area merely served as a stable and small workroom.

We exited through a crooked opening and entered a square courtyard. Many inner rooms were dug in the soft red ground, and corridor-like openings connected the courtyards of the individual houses. An entire village spent its life underground!

We saw men bent over their work, children playing and women cooking. The cave dwellers lived in the light of kerosene lamps and drew their water from rainwater wells. Drawing water was backbreaking work. The wells were swarming with red bugs, so the people covered their pitchers with material and strained the water.

The houses were extremely simple, with whitewashed walls and no furniture. Thick mats were spread on the dirt floors and everyone slept on woolen pillows on the mats.

Daily activities, like preparing food, were mainly done on the ground. The father supported his married children in his house. Each couple was given a room and everyone shared the kitchen. The family was united-- parents, children, grandchildren lived side by side. The sons gave the money they earned to their father and he calculated and supplied food for the entire family. The father alone made all the important decisions.

The village Jewish community thrived on mitzvah observance. We visited the Tigris shul, which was built partially under the ground and partially above it, but was surrounded by piles of dirt so as not to be seen from outside. Despite its abject poverty, the community supported a rov, mohel and shochet, and the young children were sent to "Kutav", a talmud Torah. There were many villagers who could not pay the tuition and many children roamed around idly. Some of them worked in the fields and vineyards. My heart went out to them. If I had not seen it myself, I would not have understood how these people-- 3,000 of them!--could live in the ground, far from the tumult of the city.

However, because life was extremely difficult and primitive, the youth left the village as soon as they could. My father was one of them. As a young boy of fourteen, he left his family and moved to Tripoli.

The Trials of the Modern World

His transition to the modern big city was very difficult. He first worked as a peddler, and then used the money he earned to learn the goldsmith trade, a respectable trade that was given to Jews. Over the years, he opened a store in the "Goldsmith Market" of Tripoli. Father and his co-workers went to the market early every morning, and the sound of the hammers hitting the anvils reverberated quite a distance. But when Shabbos came, the market was silent. All of the Jews, with no exception, kept Shabbos scrupulously.

My father could have easily given his respectable, profitable business to me, his oldest son. Trades remained in the family for generations. The family names, which are still in use today, reflected this local custom. For example, Chadad means blacksmith, Falach--farmer, Leban-- painter, and more.

The life of a goldsmith, however, was not so rosy. Their prosperous business aroused jealousy. Once, in 1936, the ruler of Libya, the Italian fascist Itlo Balbo (Libya was then under Italian rule) tried to force the Jewish goldsmiths to open their businesses on Shabbos, for no other reason than antisemitism. The Jews paid no attention to his repeated requests that turned into threats. It took outstanding courage to ignore government orders during fascist rule, especially the orders of the mighty Marshal Balbo. The sanctity of Shabbos superseded everything. Not a single Jewish store opened.

The Jews' disobedience aroused Balbo's anger. The local newspaper published a sharp article under the headline, "Tripoli is not Tel Aviv." The air was charged. Upon the ruler's orders, over two hundred Jewish store owners were arrested and thrown into jail. Three of them were whipped in a large square near the Jewish streets of Tripoli. One of them was my father.

The Jewish world stormed. HaRav Yaakov Meir zt'l, the Rishon Letzion at the time, and HaRav Dushinsky zt'l, sent a sharp protest to the Italian government. As a result, the decree was limited to two hours. The stores had to be open on Shabbos from 10:00 to 12:00, when everyone was in shul. The "fascist Sabbath" then began on Shabbos at noon and ended in the middle of Sunday night.

Left with no other choice, the goldsmiths secretly took steps against the decree and gave their stores to Arab friends for those two hours. The decree was in effect until Italy entered World War II. I was only ten years old, but I will never forget this terrible decree, nor the fate of the ruler. A few months later, his plane crashed and he was burned.

Learn Torah!

My father was very broken as a result of the whole episode. Shortly after the Shabbos he was whipped, he took me to his room, looked into my eyes and said pleadingly, "Shauli, my only son, my soul's delight, I want you to have it good. Do you see how hard I work to support you and how much trouble I have from parnossoh?"

Father paused and then said slowly, "Shauli, I only want one thing from you."

I didn't know what Father would ask. Maybe he wanted me to help him in the store or perhaps to proudly take his stance on kevod Shabbos my whole life . . . My father had but one request: "I want you to learn Torah!"

Father's one and only desire was that his Shauli learn Torah. I did not refuse. And so, I was enrolled in the talmud Torah of Rav Chavasi Luzune zt'l. Even today, I have fond memories of the pleasant years that I learned in cheder.

Rav Luzune, who was the principal of the cheder, was extremely devoted to us. Every time he met us, he stopped and put his holy hands on our heads and blessed us that we should grow in Torah. He showered us with much warmth and instilled in us values of respect for others, treasures that remain in me until today. The principal was known for his meticulousness and for his pure devotion to the level of learning.

Once, one of the teachers was late to class. We got rowdy and started playfully moving tables and chairs. Our devoted principal came in to calm us down, and punished me and a friend with standing next to the teacher's desk. When the young teacher entered the classroom, the Rov looked at him with his pure eyes and reminded him of the holy task of a talmud Torah teacher.

Afterwards he whispered to him that he should remember the school's motto. Then, I did not know to what the principal was referring. Years later, when I was appointed member of the school board, I learned the motto: "Cursed is the one who does the work of Hashem in deceit -- Orur oseh meleches Hashem remi'ah." It was only then that I realized how important the teachers' devotion to their job was to Rav Luzune.

We learned Chumash, Nevi'im, Kesuvim, Mishna and Gemora, bi'ur tefilloh, mathematics, Sephardi writing and Rashi script. Morning classes ran from 8:00 to 12:00. We were served a nutritious lunch and then learned until evening.

The mesibas siyum in the main shul was the highlight of the year. The most esteemed members of the community, communal leaders, rabbonim and talmidei chachomim were invited. We, the students, got up on a platform and recited a sugya from gemora or a long droshoh. Some students said something from parsha or recited some paragraphs of davening by heart, each one at his level. Rav Luzune even gave out prizes. I still have the five seforim and tallis that I received from him as a boy in talmud Torah.

The school took good care of their poor students. They gave us a fresh fruit every day at lunch, so the poor boys should have nutritious food. Rav Luzune gave them shoes and clothing, and the school even helped with the cost of the bar mitzva.

The talmud Torah was supported by a Libyan custom. Anyone who had someone sick in the family or merchandise going overseas, or dealings with the government, pledged to give a decent meal to talmidei chachomim with fruits and a generous monetary present. The money was passed on to a special fund that financed the school's expenses.

My father had much nachas from my diligence in learning. He always used to tell family members happily that he "merited a tzaddik son."

Once an Arab neighbor came to the house to speak to Father on an important matter. Father gave him a cup of coffee. The Arab said, "Listen, you have a very smart son. Whey don't you send him to a government high school? Then he could go on to Rome and become a doctor."

My father absolutely refused to consider the suggestion. He told the Arab that he was prepared to go hungry and barefoot; he would give me his last penny so that I should be able to learn Torah.

My father was not impressed by a "profession." He always used to tell me that parnossoh is in Hashem's hands. His sole desire was that I should learn and become a rov. Boruch Hashem, his dream was fulfilled in the zechus of his devotion to Torah.

On to Yeshiva

After talmud Torah, I went to the prestigious yeshiva "Der Svid," founded by HaRav Kalifa Svid zt'l. The yeshiva was open twenty-four hours a day and many talmidei chachomim came to use its many seforim.

Physical conditions in the yeshiva were very poor. The students took turns sleeping on wooden benches because there weren't enough beds. Food was sparse. Sunday, we ate the Shabbos leftovers of a number of families. Despite the difficult physical conditions, we toiled and grew in Torah.

The yeshiva produced many great rabbonim. Other students became dayanim, shochtim, mohelim, chazzonim and famous darshanim. I received smicha as a rov, mohel and shochet. This certificate was my father's most precious possession.

My father, like many Libyan Jews, invested much money into building shuls in Tripoli. Libyan Jews had a special custom. Many wealthy families who lived in their own houses set aside a portion of the house to be used as a shul or yeshiva. Many Jews with limited budgets used to host evenings devoted to limud Torah or a rosh chodesh seuda in order to be mezakeh the rabbim.

Our shul, the "Beis HaNasi Shul," had a very high ceiling and decorative mosaic on its walls. It was built on the ruins of an ancient shul. Every morning before shacharis, we gave tzedaka to the four pushkes in shul: the "Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov" box for the Jews of Chevron; "Dovid Hamelech" box for the poor of Yerushalayim; "Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai" for rabbonim and the poor of Tzfas; "Rabbi Meir Baal HaNess" for rabbonim and the poor of Tiveria.

Every once in a while, messengers from Eretz Yisroel would come and empty the pushkes. The day the "Chacham Kollel," as we called the messenger, arrived was a day of celebration. We gave him royal treatment. His meals were like fancy seudos mitzva with zemiros and the Chief Rabbi and communal leader gave him much honor. Everyone, from the elderly to the little children, came to him for a brochoh. Ten men accompanied him out of the city. These messengers from Eretz Yisroel definitely strengthened our longing for the land of our forefathers.

End of Part I

The Historical Context

Reb Shaul's story takes place in the middle of the twentieth century when Libya was under Italian rule. In 1911, Italy conquered Libya from the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

Benito Mussolini, founder of Fascism, became dictator of Italy in 1919. There was still a king in Rome, Victor Emanuel III, but his position was no more than honorary, without any power.

As a colony of Italy, Libya automatically fell under Mussolini's control. The schools hung up big signs bearing the slogan in Italian: "Mussolini never makes mistakes!" The Italians, under Mussolini's influence, deepened the tensions between Italians, Jews, and Arabs. In school, the "elite" Italians sat in the first row, the Jews in the second and Arabs in the third.

In 1926, Mussolini appointed Itlo Balbo as ruler of Libya. In 1936, the "Shabbos Decree" was enacted against the Jewish goldsmiths, along with many other anti-Jewish measures. In 1939, when Italy entered World War II, the Shabbos decree was cancelled.


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