Until the middle of 20th century, the Jews of Ethiopia – the Beta Israel (House of Israel), as they referred to themselves – lived in almost complete isolation from other Jewish communities around the globe. During this prolonged separation, they developed and preserved distinct religious traditions not found in the rest of the Jewish world. One such tradition is the annual Sigd holiday, which ordinarily occurs 50 days after Yom Kippur. On that day thousands of Ethiopian Jews from across Israel ascend to Jerusalem, primarily to the Armon Hanatziv Promenade that overlooks the Old City. Since 2008, the Sigd has been an official Israeli state holiday, though it continues to be celebrated mainly by the country’s 130,000-strong Jewish community from Ethiopia.
Sigd means “prostration” or “bowing down” in Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopian liturgical language. The holiday commemorates and is patterned after events described in the Book of Nehemiah, chapters 8-10, which relates that after the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile to the Land of Israel in the 6th century B.C.E, they gathered in Jerusalem on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei (Rosh Hashana) and requested that Ezra the Scribe read to them from the Torah. In addition to that Rosh Hashana gathering, the Book of Nehemiah recounts another Jerusalem assembly that took place some three weeks later, on the 24th of Tishrei. That second assembly culminated in the Judean community publicly recommitting itself to the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
Those two ancient Jerusalem assemblies, on Rosh Hashana and on the 24th of Tishrei, are the Sigd’s blueprint.
Accordingly, reading, translating and expounding upon portions of scripture are features of the day, and the Sigd also involves fasting and a communal confessing of sins, as well as repentance and a renewal of the Israelite covenant with God. Longing for Jerusalem and the Temple are among its central themes.
HOW DID the Beta Israel come to celebrate this Nehemiah- based holiday, which is not found in any other Jewish community? One opinion, espoused by certain qessotch (the kohanim or priests who are the traditional religious leaders of Ethiopian Jewry) and Beta Israel rabbis, holds that in the past all Jews observed the annual holiday, but over time the practice was lost by Jews outside of Ethiopia.
While the qessotch and Beta Israel rabbis are pleased that the Sigd became an official Israeli state holiday in 2008, they would also like the holiday to become an integral part of the yearly Jewish holiday cycle and be embraced by more Jews, at least in Israel, rather than remain a holiday primarily celebrated by the Jewish community from Ethiopia. In a 2009 address before Shimon Peres at the President’s House, for example, Qes Semai Elias of Rishon Lezion, the director of the Council of Kohanim of the Ethiopian Jews in Israel, stated that the Sigd contained the “essence of the tradition of Israel as it was expressed in the Ethiopian exile,” and argued that the Sigd’s inauguration as an Israeli national holiday in 2008 was a “tremendous and heartwarming achievement,” but was not enough.
“Our next ambition in connection with the holiday is to claim a worthy place for it among the Jewish holidays of the Hebrew calendar, and to thus impart to the month of Marcheshvan, which is otherwise devoid of holidays, our own festive contribution,” Qes Semai told president Peres and his guests. “If we persist and believe in our suggestion, perhaps this dream will also be realized.”
In 2012, again speaking at the President’s House, Qes Semai reiterated the significance of the Sigd and promised to “continue to try and convince anyone who is willing to listen to us and has influence that this is a worthy and honorable holiday, a holiday we are all proud of. It can be a leading holiday in each and every town, extending beyond the boundaries of the community and touching each and every person in Israeli society.”
Similarly, Qes Emaha Negat of Netanya has stressed the intrinsic importance of the holiday to the qessotch, as well as its emblematic significance.
“The Sigd is not something that the community created there [i.e., in Ethiopia]. It was observed here, in Jerusalem, after the return from Babylon,” according to Qes Emaha. “And so our community safeguarded it, in order to strengthen Judaism, and we kept it for 2,500 years.
Why the rest of the nation of Israel didn’t keep it, we don’t understand. We now want the entire nation of Israel to preserve this heritage: that it be a yom shabbaton [day of rest] for the entire nation of Israel. The heritage of the Beta Israel comes from the Torah and Judaism, and it is important to us that it will not vanish at some point. Just as the Sigd was not forgotten, so too the rest of the traditions of the Beta Israel must not be forgotten.”
The increased contact between the Jews of Ethiopia and the wider Jewish world that began in the 20th century resulted in Ethiopian Jewry gradually bringing its religious traditions and practices more in line with Rabbinic Judaism.
Thus, for example, Ethiopian Jews began celebrating Hanukka, wearing tallitot and donning tefillin. The early encounters between non-Ethiopian Jews and Ethiopian Jewry were often characterized by the former’s lack of concern (or their preference) that the Beta Israel’s ancient customs would be lost as these made way for Rabbinic Judaism. This trend, already begun in Ethiopia, continued and intensified with the community’s mass immigration to the state of Israel.
World Jewry did not in turn take on any of Ethiopian Jewry’s unique traditions. It was an entirely one-sided affair. The importance that the qessotch and Ethiopian Jewish community activists placed in recent years on making the Sigd an official Israeli state holiday – and even a pan-Judaic holiday – indicates that they have become less amenable to this imbalance in religious exchange, with its attendant implication that Ethiopian Judaism has nothing to offer the wider Jewish world.
More Jews understanding and celebrating the Sigd might help mitigate the long-standing imbalance of Jews from Ethiopia taking on the practices of Rabbinic Judaism while not being able to offer any of their own unique traditional practices in return. Beyond that, it would allow world Jewry to connect to the “essence of the tradition of Israel as it was expressed in the Ethiopian exile” through celebrating a Jewish holiday in a month that currently has none.
Might it be possible for world Jewry to embrace the qessotch and Beta Israel rabbis’ dream for the month of Marcheshvan, 50 days after Yom Kippur – a “worthy and honorable” pan-Judaic holiday of fasting, repentance, and renewal of the Jewish covenant with God, commemorating the return from the Babylonian exile to Jerusalem? Shai Afsai’s “The Sigd: From Ethiopia to Israel,” from which this piece is drawn, appears in the Fall 2014 issue of CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly.