Marking a rabbi’s death in Tunis

Jerry Sorkin, a Philadelphia-area businessman who promotes travel to Tunisia and has strong Jewish ties there, has filed a report of an unusual and colorful gathering of Tunisian Jews paying homage to a revered scholar who, according to legend, drank himself to death after his wife burned all of his collected works. Here’s the gist of the story:

According to the legend, Rabbi Hai Taieb lived a pious life from approximately the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century, spending all of his time studying Torah, writing commentaries and influencing miracles. All his work was produced in one room, which his wife was not permitted to enter. When she snuck in one day when he wasn’t home, she was so shocked by the accumulated papers and chaos, she proceeded to burn everything. Upon seeing the loss of all his work, he took to drinking boukha, the Tunisian fig liquer that is often used today as a substitute for Kiddush wine. He drank and drank until his death, continuing to offer his wisdom to Tunisian Jews. Upon finding him dead, one of his followers alerted others saying, “Rebbi 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.

The annual commemoration of his death at the Jewish cemetery in Tunis is a curious celebration, with festive drinking by the attendees, who pour boukha on the rabbi’s grave. The attendees also light candles, which are placed on his grave, and say prayers in his memory and for positive events in their lives and those of their family members — weddings, births, bar mitzvahs and more.

This year’s attendance was reportedly the largest ever — 500 to 700 — with guests from France and Israel filling three top hotels outside Tunis. Tunisia’s small Jewish community, estimated at nearly 2000, enjoys generally warm relations with its Arab neighbors, though there have been incidents in the past.

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