Ethiopian Jewish History and Culture

The presence of Judaism in Ethiopia has generated a myriad of questions and often incomplete answers. While it is almost impossible to say with certainty how Judaism was introduced to Ethiopia, we can make historical, cultural, religious and linguistic inferences that can give a more complete view of the relationship between Judaism and Ethiopia. Presented here are articles and essays that explore this relationship; the impact of Judaism on Ethiopian history; and Ethiopian Jewish identity and culture. More important, these articles represent the work of scholars within the Beta Israel/ Ethiopian community.

“The Question of Jewish Identity and Ethiopian Jewish Origins,”
by Ephraim Isaac, Ph.D

World Jewry can ill afford to divide itself into first- and second-class Jews. Xenophobia distracts us from recognizing that the mass aliyah of Ethiopian Jews to Israel was one of the most remarkable events in Jewish history. Doubts cast on the authenticity of Ethiopian Jewry do not hold up under scholarly inquiry. Ethiopian Jews are not Ethiopians or Jewish but Ethiopian and Jewish. Ethiopian Judaism has preserved some lost ancient religious practices. The fact that Ethiopian Jews speak Amharic and Tigrinya is no more unusual than that European Jews spoke and speak European languages. If the origins of some European Jewish groups were subjected to the same level of scrutiny as those of Ethiopian Jews, their authenticity too might be cast into doubt. There is far more that unites Ethiopian Jewry than divides them from other Jewish ethnic groups.

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“The Story of Ethiopian Jews,”
by Yohannes Zeleke, Ph.D

Dr. Yohannes Zeleke, is an Ethiopian archaeologist, anthropologist, historian, and former curator of the National Museum of Ethiopia. He is a board member of the Washington Association for Ethiopian Jews. His research interests include prehistoric archaeology, social and cultural anthropology, human origin and social development, prehistoric and ethnographic art and history, and the history of the Ethiopian Jews. He has worked with many research teams in Africa, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Russia, and Europe.

Archaeological evidence demonstrates that one of the first footholds of Judaism was in Ethiopia; that Hebraic people came to Ethiopia as early as the time of Abraham; and that others came during the era of the Israelites’ 300 years of bondage in Egypt, as well as during the reigns of King Menasseh and King Solomon. Scholarship about Ethiopian Jewry has been distorted by political agendas, bias, and ignorance, thus denying Ethiopian Jews credit for their contributions to Jewish, Ethiopian, and regional history. At various times in history, Ethiopia has been ruled by Jewish leaders and the state religion has been Judaism, although the history of Ethiopia is also replete with periods when Jews were persecuted. Today, there are still more than a million Hebraic Ethiopians in Ethiopia who urgently need access to education and other resources. Over 800 synagogues and Jewish historical sites are in danger of being lost unless action is taken to preserve them.

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Ethiopian High Holidays

Sigd is a unique festival celebrated by Ethiopian Jews 49 days after Yom Kippur. It is a day of remembrance of the covenant made when the Torah was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai and consists of prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving. In Amharic, Sigd means “to bow down” and shares its root with the word for temple (mesgid). The ceremony resembles the one presided over by Ezra to mark the renewal of the covenant in the Book of Nehemiah (8:1-10:40):

Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month, the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackcloth, and earth upon them. And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.

And they stood up in their place, and read in the book of the Law of the LORD their God a fourth part of the day, and another fourth part they confessed and prostrated themselves before the LORD their God. –Nehemiah 9:1-3