Ethiopian Jews at seder 311.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Pessah is more than a time for forsaking bread and treasure hunting any and every possible crumb. It’s more than just seven days of munching on crisp, cracker-like matza and remembering what it must have been like to be liberated from slavery in Egypt.
Pessah is a perfect time to remember the exodus of Ethiopian Jews. And there’s no better way to enrich the Seder than with the story of this modern-day exodus.
The story of Ethiopian Jewry's arrival in the Promised Land makes us realize how fragile the freedom of the Jewish people is. It’s these memories and ideas which color the ways in which Ethiopian Jews celebrate Pessah today.
Like other Jews, Ethiopian Jews begin their Pessah preparations by
cleaning their homes and getting rid of any hametz. What is unique to
their Pessah preparations, however, is that they break all old dishes
and purchase new ones for the holiday. This is because in Ethiopia it
was difficult to make their dishes kosher, explains Rabbi Yosef Hadane,
the chief rabbi of Ethiopian Jews in Israel.
During Pessah, Ethiopian Jews eat matza like Jews elsewhere. But unlike
other Jews, in the Ethiopian community matza is baked daily and only
enough to last for one day is made.
In addition to not eating grains and certain legumes, some more
traditional Ethiopian Jews also avoid milk and live off matza, water and
salads for the seven days of the holiday. This is to distinguish
between the food ordinarily eaten on a daily basis and food eaten over
Ethiopian Jews used to sacrifice a baby goat or sheep at the beginning
of Pessah. The whole family would gather for the sacrifice, taste the
meat and eat matza. The meat that was left over from the sacrifice was
then burnt and buried.
This marked the beginning of Pessah, explains David Molla, an oleh from
Ethiopia who is the manager of the Mevaseret Zion Absorption Center for
Most Ethiopian Jews in Israel have since abandoned this practice, however.
“We miss this tradition very much,” says Molla, “but we understand that there is a need to fit in with life in Israel.”
Molla says he remembers celebrating Pessah in Ethiopia and that it was a
very important holiday. It was a time when the entire family got
together. If there were members of the family you hadn’t seen in months,
you’d see them over Pessah, he says. He now celebrates the holiday like
other Jews with a conventional Seder, Haggada and lots of family.
But not all Ethiopian Jews in Israel are fortunate enough to have their
family members gather around their Seder tables. The contested Jewish
identity of the Falash Mura, Ethiopians who converted to Christianity
yet claim Jewish ancestry, means that there are Ethiopian families who
have been separated.
Some members have made aliya, while others remain in Ethiopia. Getinet
Chekol is one such Ethiopian Jew. He made aliya with his wife three
months ago. Half his family is still in Ethiopia.
“I am free in Israel but I cry every day because my family is in Ethiopia,” he laments.
He hopes his family will come to Israel soon.
“I don't think aspects of traditional Jewish Ethiopian culture have been
lost in adapting to life in Israel,” says Rabbi Hadane. “While there
are differences in how the holidays are celebrated, the principle is the
The story of the Ethiopian Jews’ exodus is a modern-day miracle, says Hadane.
“Operation Moses and Operation Solomon are unbelievable. It is very
important for us and for everyone to understand that God did not forget
His people even in a village in Africa. He freed them from exile, and
brought us to Israel,” Hadane says.
Rabbi Menachem Waldman, an Ethiopian-Jewish history expert, has written a
Haggada which documents the heroic escape of Ethiopian Jews out of
This tells the story of how the Ethiopian Jewish community got their
freedom. It includes accounts of their exodus, prayers specific to
Ethiopian Jews as well as an explanation of Ethiopian Jews’ unique
Pessah traditions and customs.
The Haggada is not only aimed at the Ethiopian Jewish community. It is a
useful addition to any Seder, as it helps other Jews understand the
story and connection of this ethnic group to Judaism.
Hadane emphasizes that while it is important that the account of
Ethiopian Jewry's liberation be told, he sees this as only one chapter
in the larger story of the relations between Jews and their God across
“It is important that the story of all Jews, not just Ethiopian Jews, be
told,” he says. “When we talk about the miracle of the Ethiopian Jews
we talk about the miracle of God and all His people.”
Nicole Hyman is a South African freelance journalist based in Tel Aviv.