Following the injunction of Deuteronomy 16, “Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates,” Jews in Israel and the Diaspora have for millennia established courts of law to settle disputes, and such institutions—known as batey din (singular, beit din)—can still be found the world over. Prior to the 19th century, most Christian and Muslim countries gave these courts exclusive jurisdiction over civil matters between Jewish litigants. Yoel Finkelman describes what made the beit din of the northwest Moroccan city of Kenitra unusual:
[T]he archival materials from the beit din of Kenitra in the mid-20th century . . . were not in rabbinic Hebrew, but in French. Jews in Morocco spoke French during the colonial era, but it is not common at all to find rabbinic courts or halakhic documentation conducted in the vernacular. Why, then, would the beit din use French?
The answer stems from significant reforms that the French colonial government in Morocco made in regulating batey din. . . . The colonial government wanted to reform the relationship between the beit din and the colonial authorities. Beginning in 1918, the French protectorate began systematically to reform Jewish communities and their institutions, modernizing them by limiting their authority and linking them to new, modern bureaucracy. They created Jewish rabbinic courts that would operate based on Jewish laws, but would be subject to the oversight of the colonial authorities, who would authorize the batey din to make decisions about internal Jewish affairs, particularly regarding marriage, divorce, and family law.
Once the Jewish court had acted, the French Protectorate required systematic information about decisions, personal statuses, litigants’ obligations, or divorce settlements and their financial consequences. . . . This created new record-keeping responsibilities for the court. It could not simply run its own business, by Jews for Jews, in Jewish languages. Instead, the French and local authorities required systematic paperwork from the Jewish community.