TUNIS (JTA) — Hundreds gathered at the Jewish cemetery in Tunis to pay homage to a revered scholar who, according to legend, drank himself to death after his wife burned all of his collected work.
Tuesday’s attendance for the annual commemoration of Rabbi Hai Taieb’s death reportedly was the largest ever — 500 to 700. Guests from France and Israel filled three top hotels outside Tunis, according to Jerry Sorkin, a Philadelphia-area businessman who promotes travel to Tunisia and was on hand for the event.
The colorful celebration features festive drinking by the attendees, who pour boukha on the rabbi’s grave. Plainclothes police provided security for the gathering.
According to the legend, Rabbi Hai Taieb lived a pious life from approximately the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century, spending all his time studying Torah, writing commentaries and influencing miracles. His work was produced in one room, which his wife was not permitted to enter.
His wife snuck in one day when he was not at home and, shocked by the accumulated papers and chaos, burned everything. Upon seeing the loss of his work, the rabbi took to drinking boukha, the Tunisian fig liquer that today is often used as a substitute for kiddush wine. He drank until his death, continuing to offer his wisdom to Tunisian Jews. Upon finding him dead, one of his followers alerted others, saying, “Rebbe Hai has died.”
The response by his many followers, who felt his wisdom would never die, was that he did not die. On his grave are the Hebrew words “Lo Mait,” which means he did not die.
Tunisia’s small Jewish community, estimated at about 1,500, enjoys generally warm relations with its Arab neighbors, though there have been incidents.