Ethiopian Jewish History and Culture
The presence of Judaism within 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.
“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.
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.
In Ethiopia, the Sigd was observed each year on mountaintops outside villages. At the crack of dawn, the Kessim (the community’s rabbis and spiritual leaders) would ascend the mountain, which was meant to resemble Mt. Sinai. The Kessim would then read from the Orit (the Torah) in the Ge’ez language, expressing the community’s yearning to return to the Holy Land.
Many Ethiopian Jews follow the custom of making vows at the festival, both private vows (e.g., for the sake of the recovery of a sick relative) and public vows (such as for the sake of bringing about the end of a drought). In the afternoon, there is a prayer (yizkor) to commemorate members of the community who have passed away.
After the prayer service was over, the Kessim would descend from the mountain to the villages, to joyous celebrations welcoming the Torah and accepting it anew. The community’s fast would be broken and a big feast with singing and dancing would take place.
Today, Sigd is still celebrated among Ethiopian Jewish communities. In Israel, Ethiopian Jews gather in Jerusalem from all over the country. Since the prophecy of returning to the Holy Land has been fulfilled, their prayers are now directed to redemption and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple.
At sunset on Friday, at the start of the Sabbath, the priests ring bells summoning the community to worship. They gather in the synagogue and say their prayers, facing east. At about 9:00 pm, they eat the Sabbath dinner.
Sabbath prayers continue throughout the night, into early Saturday morning. Then in mid-morning, the community gathers again to listen to the reading of the Ten Commandments and to have each family’s dabbos (large loaves of bread) blessed.
When the bread is blessed it is sliced in a special way according to tradition, and a portion is given to the priests, who eat some and pass the rest out to the poor.
Prayers and reading from the Torah take place throughout the day, with breaks for meals and rest.