A modern-day Pessah miracle

The exodus of Jews from Ethiopia

Ethiopian Jews at seder 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
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 Pessah.
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 Ethiopian olim.
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 same.”
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 Ethiopia.
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 all generations.
“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.