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JERUSALEM – For centuries, the Jews of Ethiopia, the Beta Israel, lived in almost complete isolation from other Jewish communities around the globe. Professor Joseph Halévy recounted in “Travels in Abyssinia” that, when he journeyed to Ethiopia in 1868 to meet with some of its members, he had difficulty convincing them that, although he was white, he was a Jew.
By Shai Afsai
There were many Jews in other countries, Halévy tried to explain to the Jews of Ethiopia. As for Jews’ skin color, he told them, “they could not be distinguished from the other inhabitants of their respective countries.” Only after Halevy raised the issue of Jerusalem did most of the Ethiopian Jews before him conclude that, however astonishing it might be, he must indeed be one of them.
Ethiopian Jewry’s isolation throughout many centuries allowed for the development and preservation of religious traditions not found in the rest of the Jewish world. Among these is the annual holiday of Sigd, which normally occurs 50 days after Yom Kippur, on the 29th day of Cheshvan.
Thousands of Ethiopian Jews from cities across Israel traveled to Jerusalem on Nov. 14 in order to participate in the Sigd, a day of fasting, repentance, Torah learning and prostration (the word “sigd” means bowing or prostration in the ancient Ethiopian Ge’ez language).
The holiday commemorates and is modeled after the events described in Chapters 8-10 of the Book of Nehemiah. Then, in the sixth century BCE, the Jews returned to Zion from their Babylonian exile, separated themselves from the non-Jews in the Land of Israel and publicly pledged themselves to the Torah and its commandments.
The Sigd has been an official Israeli state holiday since 2008. Though there have been attempts to secularize the Sigd and turn the holiday and the weeks leading up to it into primarily cultural events, it remains an intensely religious experience.
One of the worshippers pressed tightly up against others at the Armon Hanatziv Promenade overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, Orly Sahalo, 21, of Rishon LeZion, said, “I had chills.
“I came and saw all the women dressed in white, lifting their hands. And [I] saw the qessotch [priests, the traditional religious leaders of Ethiopian Jews; qes is singular] using musical instruments, just as written in the Bible,” Sahalo said, referring to the drums and trumpets that accompany certain prayers.
Some 48 qessotch from around the country gathered, dressed in festive garb, beneath colorful umbrellas on a platform draped with Israel’s and Jerusalem’s flags. There, under a “Welcome to the Sigd Holiday” banner written in Hebrew and Amharic, the qessotch chanted prayers in Ge’ez, praising God and asking for forgiveness and blessings for the Jewish people. In addition, selections from the Bible were read aloud by the qessotch in Ge’ez and then translated into Amharic.
In Ethiopia, one important element of the Sigd was an emblematic separation from the surrounding Christians. At an educational and cultural event at Ramat Gan’s Bar-Ilan University on the eve of the Sigd, Qes Mula Zerihoon, the 40-year-old religious leader of the Ethiopian Jewish community in the town of Kiryat Ekron, explained that aspect of the holiday.
“On this day, we said to the Christians surrounding us: ‘We are Jews, resolute, believers in the Torah. You, the gentiles, cannot sway us to convert and cannot draw us to your religion,’” he said.
In Israel, the Sigd also has an expanded message of national inclusiveness, as Jews from other communities are welcome to participate in the holiday. “I am delighted to see people of so many colors, of so many shades, from so many countries. This is the Redemption,” Qes Mula told the Bar-Ilan audience, comprised mostly of students and soldiers. “Just as this holiday guarded us in Ethiopia,” he said, “we will continue to guard it in Israel, where there is no religious persecution and each person follows his religion.”
Though beginning with fasting and prayer, the Sigd concludes with celebration and a festive meal that follows repentance and renewal of the covenant. After the prayers, the qessotch descended from the platform and were quickly enveloped by the congregants who accompanied them with ululation, applause, and trumpet blasts to a nearby tent where the fast was broken.
Rabbi Yosef Hadane, the community’s chief rabbi, expressed pleasure with the proceedings and the large turnout. “This is a day of unity,” he said. “So many people came and answered ‘amen’ to the prayers of the qessotch. This opens the Heavens.”
Among the central elements of the Sigd’s prayers and readings is the hope of returning to Jerusalem. “Our forefathers in Ethiopia always prayed to return to Jerusalem and always prayed in the direction of Jerusalem,” said Rabbi Hadane. He considers it vital that the holiday continue to be celebrated now that the Jews of Ethiopia have at long last arrived in Israel. “We are here, but … the vast majority of the Jewish nation is still in the Diaspora, and this day and these prayers are very important for ingathering the exiles.”
Source: The Jewish Voice & Herald