In Roman Times.

Formerly one of the Barbary States of North Africa, but since 1881 a dependency of France; situated between latitude 31° and 37° north, and longitude 8° and 11° east, and bounded north and northeast by the Mediterranean, southeast by Tripoli, south and southwest by the desert of Sahara, and west by Algeria. A tradition is current among the descendants of the first Jewish settlers, traces of whom are still to be found among the nomadic Mussulman tribes of Drid, Henansha, and Khumir, that their ancestors settled in that part of North Africa long before the destruction of the First Temple. Though this is unfounded, the presence of Jews there at the appearance of Christianity is attested by the Jewish monument found by Prudhomme at Ḥammam al-Laṭif in 1883 (see "Mémoires de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres," 1883; "Revue Archéologique," March and April, 1883; "R. E. J." 1886). After the dissolution of the Jewish state a great number of Jews was sent by Titus to Mauritania, and many of them settled in Tunis. These settlers were engaged in agriculture, cattle-raising, and trades. They were divided into clans, or tribes, governed by their respective heads, and had to pay the Romans a capitation-tax of 2 shekels. Under the dominion of the Romans and (after 429) of the fairly tolerant Vandals, the Jewish inhabitants of Tunis increased and prospered to such a degree that African Church councils deemed it necessary to enact restrictive laws against them. After the overthrow of the Vandals by Belisarius (534), Justinian issued his edict of persecution, in which the Jews were classed with the Arians and heathens ("Novellæ," xxxvii.).

Tunisian Jewess.(From a photograph.)

In the seventh century the Jewish population waslargely augmented by Spanish immigrants, who, fleeing from the persecutions of the Visigothic king Sisebut and his successors, escaped to Mauritania and settled in the Byzantine cities. These settlers, according to the Arabic historians, mingled with the Berber population and converted many powerful tribes, which continued to profess Judaism until the reign of the founder of the Idriside dynasty. Al-Ḳairuwani relates that at the time of the conquest of Hippo Zaritus (Bizerta) by Ḥasan in 698 the governor of that district was a Jew. When Tunis came under the dominion of the Arabs, or of the Arabian califate of Bagdad, another influx of Arab Jews into Tunis took place. Like all other Jews in Mohammedan countries, those of Tunis were subject to the ordinance of Omar.

Under Islam.

In 788, when Imam Idris proclaimed Mauritania's independence of the califate of Bagdad, the Tunisian Jews joined his army under the leadership of their chief, Benjamin ben Joshaphat ben Abiezer. They soon withdrew, however; primarily, because they were loath to fight against their coreligionists of other parts of Mauritania, who remained faithful to the califate of Bagdad; and secondarily, because of some indignities committed by Idris against Jewesses. The victorious Idris avenged this defection by attacking the Jews in their cities. After an unsuccessful resistance peace was concluded, according to the terms of which the Jews were required to pay a capitation-tax and to provide a certain number of virgins annually for Idris' harem. The Jewish tribe 'Ubaid Allah preferred to migrate to the East rather than to submit to Idris; according to a tradition, the Jews of the island of Gerba are the descendants of that tribe. In 793 Imam Idris was poisoned at the command of Harun al-Rashid (it is said, by the governor's physician Shamma, probably a Jew), and about 800 the Aghlabite dynasty was established. Under the rule of this dynasty, which lasted until 909, the situation of the Jews in Tunis was very favorable. As of old, Bizerta had a Jewish governor, and the political influence of the Jews made itself felt in the administration of the country. Especially prosperous at that time was the community of Kairwan, which was established soon after the foundation of that city by 'Uḳba ibn Nafi', in the year 670.

A period of reaction set in with the accession of the Zirite Al-Mu'izz (1016-62), who persecuted all heterodox sects, as well as the Jews. The persecution was especially detrimental to the prosperity of the Kairwan community, and members thereof began to emigrate to the city of Tunis, which speedily gained in population and in commercial importance.

The accession of the Almohade dynasty to the throne of the Maghreb provinces in 1146 proved very disastrous to the Jews of Tunis. In pursuance of a fanciful belief, of which there is no trace in Moslem tradition, the first Almohade, 'Abd al-Mu'min, claimed that Mohammed had permitted the Jews free exercise of their religion for only five hundred years, and had declared that if, after that period, the Messiah had not come, they were to be forced to embrace Islam. Accordingly Jews as well as Christians were compelled either to embrace Islam or to leave the country. 'Abd al-Mu'min's successors pursued the same course, and their severe measures resulted either in emigration or in forcible conversions. Soon becoming suspicious of the sincerity of the new converts, the Almohades compelled them to wear a special garb, with a yellow cloth for a head-covering.

The intellectual status of the Tunisian Jews at that time was on a level with their political situation. Maimonides, who, while on his way to Egypt, sojourned some time in the island of Gerba and other localities, expressed himself, in a letter addressed to his son, in the following terms:

Interior of the Great Synagogue at Tunis.(From a photograph.)Maimonides' Opinion.

"Beware of the inhabitants of the West, of the country called Gerba, of the Barbary States. The intellect of these people is very dull and heavy. As a rule, beware always of the inhabitants of Africa, from Tunis to Alexandria; and also of those who inhabit the Barbary coasts. In my opinion they are more ignorant than the rest of mankind, though they be attached to the belief in God. Heaven is my witness that they can be compared only to the Karaites, who possess no oral law. They evince no lucidity of spirit in their study of the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Talmud; not even when they discuss the haggadot and the laws, although there are among them rabbis and dayyanim. With regard to impure women they have the same beliefs and customs as the Bene Meos, a Mussulman tribe which inhabits the same country. They do not look upon the impure woman, and turn their eyes neither to her figure nor to her garments. Nor do they speak to her; and they even scruple to tread on the ground touched by her feet. They do not eat the hinder part of slaughtered animals. In short, there is much to say about their ways and customs."

The Jews of Tunis at that time scrupulously observed most of the festivals, but did not celebratethe second days; they entirely ignored the festival of Purim, although they observed that of Ḥanukkah. According to their statutes, a man who had lost two wives could marry only a widow; on the other hand, if a woman lost two husbands she was called a "husband-killer" and was not allowed to remarry. This prohibition included also a woman who had been twice divorced. Male twins were always named Perez and Zerah; female twins, Sarah and Rebekah; a male and female, Isaac and Rebekah.

Under the Ḥafṣites.

Under the Ḥafṣite dynasty, which was established in 1236, the condition of the Jews greatly improved. Besides Kairwan, there were at that time important communities in Mehdia, Kalaa, the island of Gerba, and the city of Tunis. Considered at first as foreigners, the Jews were not permitted to settle in the interior of the last-named city, but had to live in a building called "Funduḳ"; later, however, a wealthy and humane Mussulman, Sidi Mahrez, who in 1159 had rendered great services to the first Almohade, 'Abd al-Mu'min, obtained for them the right to settle in a special quarter of the city proper. This quarter, called the "Hira," constituted until 1857 the ghetto of Tunis; it was closed at night. In 1270, in consequence of the defeat of Saint Louis of France, who had undertaken a crusade against Tunis, the cities of Kairwan and Ḥammat were declared holy; and the Jews were required either to leave them or to embrace Islam. From that year until the conquest of Tunis by France (1857), Jews and Christians were forbidden to pass a night in either of these cities; and only by special permission of the governor were they allowed to enter them during the day.

Tunisian Jewess.(From a photograph.)Taxation. Tunisian Jewesses.(From a photograph.)Jewish Girls of Tunis.(From a photograph.)

That the Jews of Tunis, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, were treated more cruelly than those of the other Barbary States may be surmised from the fact that, while refugees from Spain and Portugal flocked to Algeria and Morocco, only a few chose to settle in Tunis. Indeed, the Tunisian Jews had no rabbis or scholars worthy of mention, and had to consult those of Algeria or Morocco on the most ordinary religious questions. Their communal affairs were directed by a council, nominated by the government, the functions of which consisted in the administration of justice among the Jews, and, more especially, in the collection of the Jewish taxes. Three kinds of taxes were imposed upon the Tunisian Jews: (1) a communal tax, to which every member contributed according to his means; (2) a personal or capitation tax; and (3) a general tax, which was levied upon the Mohammedans also. In addition to these, every Jewish tradesman and industrial had to pay an annual tax to the gild to which his trade or industry belonged. In spite of all these exactions, however, the commerce of the country was in Jewish hands, and even the government was compelled to have recourse to Jewish merchants for the exploitation of the various monopolies; after the thirteenth century it adopted the policy of entrusting to a Jew the post of receiver of taxes. This functionary, who bore the title of "caid," served also as an intermediary between the government and the Jews, and his authority within the Jewish communitywas supreme. The members of the council of elders, as well as the rabbis, were nominated at his recommendation, and no rabbinical decision was valid unless approved by him.

Under the Spaniards.

During the Spanish occupation of the Tunisian coasts (1535-74) the Jewish communities of Bizerta, Susa, Sfax, and other seaports suffered greatly at the hands of the conquerors; while under the subsequent Turkish rule the Jews of Tunis enjoyed a fair amount of security, being practically guaranteed the free exercise of their religion, and liberty to administer their own affairs. They were, however, always exposed to the caprices of princes and to outbursts of popular fanaticism. Petty officials were allowed to impose upon them the most difficult drudgery without compensation. They were obliged to wear a special costume, consisting of a blue frock without collar or ordinary sleeves (loose linen sleeves being substituted), wide linen drawers, black slippers, and a small black skull-cap; stockings might be worn in winter only. They might ride only on asses or mules, and were not permitted to use a saddle.

From the beginning of the eighteenth century the political status of the Jews in Tunis steadily improved. This was due to the ever-increasing influence of the political agents of the European powers, who, while seeking to ameliorate the condition of the Christian residents, had to plead also the cause of the Jews, whom Moslem legislation classed with Christians. Joseph Azulai, who visited Tunis in 1772, described in glowing terms the influence at court of the caid Solomon Nataf. Forty-two years later the United States consul to Tunis, Mordecai M. Noah, gave the following account of the situation of the Tunisian Jews:

("Travels in Europe and Africa," p. 308, New York, 1819).

"With all the apparent oppression, the Jews are the leading men; they are in Barbary the principal mechanics, they are at the head of the custom-house, they farm the revenues; the exportation of various articles, and the monopoly of various merchandise, are secured to them by purchase, they control the mint and regulate the coinage of money, they keep the bey's jewels and valuable articles, and are his treasurers, secretaries, and interpreters; the little known of arts, science, and medicine is confined to the Jews. . . . If a Jew commits a crime, if the punishment affects his life, these people, so national, always purchase his pardon; the disgrace of one affects the whole community; they are ever in the presence of the bey, every minister has two or three Jewish agents, and when they unite to attain an object, it cannot be prevented. These people, then, whatever may be said of their oppression, possess a very controlling influence, their friendship is worthy of being preserved by public functionaries, and their opposition is to be dreaded"

Mohammed Bey.

During the long reign of Aḥmad Bey the Jews enjoyed a period of great prosperity. His successor, Mohammed Bey, inaugurated his reign in 1855 by abolishing the drudgeries formerly imposed upon the Jews; the caid Joseph Scemama, with whom the bey was on very intimate terms, probably used his influence in behalf of his coreligionists. In the same year, however, Mohammed Bey, being very religious, caused the execution of a Jew named Batto Sfoz on a charge of blasphemy. This execution aroused both Jews and Christians, and a deputation was sent to Napoleon III., asking him to interfere in their behalf. After two years of diplomatic negotiations a man-of-war was sent to enforce the demands of the French government. Mohammed Bey yielded, and issued a constitution, according to which all Tunisians, without distinction of creed, were to enjoy equal rights. The following articles of this constitution were of special interest to the Jews: (§ 4) "No manner of duress will be imposed upon our Jewish subjects forcing them to change their faith, and they will not be hindered in the free observance of their religious rites. Their synagogues will be respected, and protected from insult." (§ 6) "When a criminal court is to pronounce the penalty incurred by a Jew, Jewish assessors shall be attached to the said court." The constitution was abrogated in 1864 in consequence of a revolution, which entailed great suffering on several Jewish communities, especially on that of Sfax; but the constant fear of foreign interference rendered the government very circumspect in its treatment of the Jews. Since 1881 Tunis has been a dependency of France; and the Jews now enjoy the same rights as their Mohammedan fellow citizens.

Interior of the Great Synagogue at Tunis, Showing Ark of the Law.(From a photograph.)Population and Organization.

The bulk of the Jewish population of the regency, which numbers about 50,000 souls, is found in the city of Tunis (about 30,000 in a total population of 180,000). The Jews of that city are divided into two distinct communities: (1) the Tunsi, which comprises the descendants of the first settlers, and (2) the Grana (from "Granada"), which includes the descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese exiles, and of Jews of Leghorn ("Gorneyim")who settled there during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At first, owing probably to their small numbers, the Spanish and Portuguese exiles mixed with the old settlers; but toward the end of the sixteenth century they formed a separate congregation under the name "Ḳehal Gerush," and worshiped in a reserved place in the Great Synagogue. The new congregation was greatly augmented by the arrival of Italian, or Leghorn, Jews, and by the middle of the seventeenth century it had its own synagogue and its own rabbis. The two congregations, however, were united in so far as both were under the jurisdiction of the caid, both contributing to the communal revenues derived from taxation on articles of consumption, more especially on meat and Passover bread. A complete separation of the two congregations took place at the end of the seventeenth century, when the Leghorn Jews established butcher-shops of their own, refusing to pay the high tax on meat. This naturally provoked bad feelings on the part of the Tunsi congregation, which now had to bear the whole burden of this tax. At last, in 1741, the two congregations entered into an agreement according to which the Tunsi was to pay two-thirds of the taxes and the Grana the remaining third. The Grana congregation remained under the authority of the caid until 1824, when Ḥusain Bey officially recognized its autonomy.

Rabbis and Scholars. Jews of Tunis in Native Costume.(From a photograph.)

The intellectual condition of the Tunisian Jews kept pace with their political progress. Even in the seventeenth century there were prominent rabbis and scholars in the city of Tunis and in Gerba. In the middle of that century a descendant of Ẓemaḥ Duran settled at Tunis and established a Talmud Torah which produced many Talmudic scholars. Isaac Lombroso, who officiated as chief rabbi of Tunis from about 1710 to 1752, was the author of a commentary, entitled "Zera' Yiẓḥaḳ," on different sections of the Talmud; this work, which appeared posthumously in 1768, is the only Hebrew book which has as yet been published in Tunis. Lombroso's successor as chief rabbi was Mas'ud Raphael Alfasi, who, conjointly with his sons Ḥayyim and Solomon, published the "Mishḥa de-Rabuta" in Joseph Caro's Shulḥan 'Aruk (Leghorn, 1805). Among other rabbis of the eighteenth century were Nathan ben Abraham Burgel, author of "Ḥoḳ Natan," novellæ and explanations on the mishnaic order Ḳodashim and the treatise Horayot, etc.; and Elijah Ḥai Vita Burgel, author of "Migdanot Natan," novellæ on various Talmudic treatises. The most prominent rabbis of the nineteenth century were: Joseph Burgel, author of "Zera' de-Yosef," on the Tosafot; Isaac Ṭayyib, author of "'Erek ha-Shulḥan," on the Shulḥan 'Aruk, "Ḥuḳḳot ha-Pesaḥ," on the laws of Passover, and "Wawe ha-'Ammudim," on the "Sefer Yere'im" of Eliezer of Metz; Judah Nijar, author of "Ohole Yehudah," on the Sifre, "Shebut Yehudah," on the Mekilta, "Alfe Yehudah," on the treatise Shebu'ot, "Mo'ade Adonai," on the Semag, and "Simḥat Yehudah," on the small Talmudic treatises; Joshua Bases; Nathan Burgel; Samuel Sefag; Aaron ha-Kohen Mogadar; Abraham ha-Kohen Tanuji; Samuel Sefag; Abraham Ḥajjaj; Moses Faitusi; Nissim Marik; and Ḥai Bismut. The Tunisian rabbis possess full judicial power in all civil and commercial matters, and even in criminal cases if the crime committed is not one that calls for capital punishment. The community of Tunis possesses twenty-seven synagogues, among which the Great Synagogue of the Tunsi congregation, and that of the Portuguese, are very large. The Jewish inhabitants of Tunis include some financiers and a number of persons following liberal professions, but they are mostly engaged in commerce,in petty traffic, and especially in brokerage. There is also a considerable number of persons who follow various handicrafts.

Other Communities.

The other communities of the regency of Tunis are: Bizerta, with a Jewish population of about 600 persons; Gabès, with 500 Jews; Gerba, having 4,500 Jews and six synagogues; Goletta, 400 Jews and one synagogue; Keff, with 450 Jews, one synagogue; Mehdia, 100 Jews; Monastir, containing 500 Jews and one synagogue; Nabel, having 1,500 Jews; Porta Farina, 1,500 Jews; Ras el-Jabel, with 600 Jews and two synagogues; Soliman, 700 Jews; and Susa, with a Jewish population of 600 souls. Schools for children were established by the Alliance Israélite Universelle at Tunis, Mehdia, Susa, and several other places; special schools for Jews were established by the government at Sfax and Gabès. The superior hygienic conditions prevailing among the Jews of Tunis, in comparison with the other nationalities, caused great surprise to the French military physicians Testivint and Reinlinger. Instituting an inquiry into the number of deaths caused by tuberculosis among the various races of the regency, they found that from 1894 to 1900 the death-rate among the Mussulmans was 11.30 per 1,000 inhabitants; among the Europeans, 5.13; and among the Jews only 0.75 ("Revue d'Hygiène," xxii., No. 11).

Religious Customs.

The Tunsi preserve many peculiar religious customs which are not followed elsewhere. Their ritual, especially for the divine service on festivals, differs from the Sephardic as well as from the Ashkenazic. Some of the prayers are in Arabic. The first of every month the Yom Kippur Ḳaṭan is celebrated with great pomp, and the rabbis proclaim publicly full absolution from all sins. Passover cakes, as made in other countries, are wholly unknown to the Tunsi, but they use a peculiar method of their own in fashioning the unleavened dough into sticks, by joining the ends of which the cakes are made in the form of rings.

The Tunsi pronounce Hebrew largely according to the phonetic rules of Arabic. No distinction is made between the long and short vowels; the "ḳameẓ" is always pronounced as "ā." The pronunciation of the "ẓere" resembles more the "ḥiriḳ," while that of the "segol" approaches the "pataḥ." The פ and the ב are often confounded in pronunciation. No distinction is made between the "shewa" quiescent and the "shewa" mobile. Very peculiar is their custom of separating the Sabbatical sections "Maṭṭot u-Mas'e" at times when elsewhere they are read together, and vice versa. Contrary to the Masorah, the section Mishpaṭim is subdivided by the Tunsi into two sections, the first bearing the title of "Mishpaṭim," and the second that of "Im Kesef." Likewise another order is adopted in reading the Hafṭarot. With regard to the examination of the lungs of slaughtered animals ("bediḳah"), the Tunsi do not follow the regulations of Joseph Caro, but an older authority, whose prescriptions are less rigid.

Jewish Cemetery at Tunis.(From a photograph in the possession of Dr. Maurice Fishberg, New York.)

Brides of twelve or thirteen are not uncommon among the Tunsi. The marriage ceremony is performed by a rabbi, and usually takes place in the synagogue. The bride and bridegroom are seated on chairs placed on a table, and a ṭallit covers the heads of both. Two witnesses stand one on each side, while the officiating rabbi takes his position in front of the table, with the prayer-book in one hand and the cup of blessing in the other. It is customaryamong the Tunsi women to appear every Friday in the cemetery with a small earthen jar containing slaked lime, and a brush, with which they clean and whitewash the tombstones of their relatives and friends. The cemetery is usually outside the city walls, and, not being enclosed, is frequently entered by animals; the tombs, which are built of brick and mortar, are flat, and not more than six inches above the ground. See Carthage.

  • L. Addison, The Present State of the Jews in the Barbary States, 1675;
  • Morgan, Istoria degli Stati d'Algeri, Tunisi, Tripoli, e Morocco, London, 1784;
  • Marcus Fischer, Toledot Yeshurun, Prague, 1817;
  • D. Cazès, Essai sur l'Histoire des Israélites de Tunisic, Paris, 1888;
  • E. Mercier, Histoire de l'Afrique Septentrionale, i. 167, Paris, 1888;
  • Grätz, Gesch. v. 236 et seq.; vi. 6, 9 et seq.;
  • Eliezer Ashkenazi, in Ha-Lebanon, ii. 181 et seq., iii. 6 et seq., iv. 75 et seq., v. 236 et seq., vi. 85 et seq.;
  • Freund, Vom Tunesischen Judenthum, in Yeshurun, iv. 592;
  • Cognat, Israélites à Tunis, in Tour du Monde, 1893, ii. 98.
J. I. Br.