Efforts underway to enable Ethiopian keisim to perform marriages

'Our traditions do not contravene Jewish law, and so there is no reason at all not to allow them’ says Keis Samai Eliyas.

Falash Mura 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Falash Mura 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Efforts are afoot to permit keisim, the traditional spiritual leaders of Israel’s 125,000-strong Ethiopian Jewish community, to perform weddings integrating traditional elements of the Beta Israel nuptial ceremony.
It was keisim who performed weddings among the Jewish community in Ethiopia, but since the religious leaders’ authority is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate here, they have been prevented from marrying Ethiopian Jews ever since the first mass aliyah in 1984. Instead, Ethiopian Jews in Israel who tie the knot must have a rabbi officiate at their wedding.
The traditional Ethiopian Jewish wedding ceremony excludes crucial components of the ceremony delineated in mainstream Jewish law, including the giving of a ring by the groom to the bride, the use of a marriage contract, and the recitation of the seven wedding blessings under the huppah [wedding canopy].
Conversely, the traditional Ethiopian Jewish wedding ceremony includes elements not found in the mainstream rabbinic ceremony. These include the reading of the Ten Commandments by the groom; blessings recited by a keis in Ge’ez, the liturgical Ethiopian language used by the Beta Israel community; and the recitation of various passages from Psalms.
Until now, Ethiopian Jews in Israel wishing to preserve these traditional wedding customs have had to do so in a separate ceremony that lacked any formal standing. According to leaders in the community however, there is an increasing demand amongst Ethiopian Israelis to include these traditional elements in their official, Chief Rabbinate-mandated wedding ceremony, and for the authority of the keisim to be recognized, as it was for centuries in Ethiopia.
“The keisim were spiritual leaders of the community in Ethiopia for 2,500 years, and they are religious leaders today in Israel,” Keis Samai Eliyas told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. “There is no reason they shouldn’t continue to be so and to have official functions. Our traditions do not contravene Jewish law, and so there is no reason at all not to allow them.”
At a recent conference held by the International Center for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry at the Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono, representatives of the ITIM religious services advisory organization, the Beit Hillel rabbinic association, and several keisim met to deliberate on and advance a wedding ceremony integrating the traditional celebration laid out in rabbinic law with the traditional elements of an Ethiopian Jewish wedding.
In addition, a plan to enable keisim to perform weddings was also laid out.
Eliyas said that this plan would authorize certain keisim to perform weddings, who would first need to complete a course on the Jewish laws pertaining to marriage and wedding ceremonies.
The wedding ceremony that has been drawn up is in the final stages of being approved, and will soon be presented to the Chief Rabbinate with a request that it approve the new formula for the ceremony.
While the conservative Chief Rabbinate is not thought to be enthusiastic about the proposed reforms, Elias said he believes there is a willingness to come to an agreement that recognizes the sensitivities of the Ethiopian Jewish community
“These are our traditions, and they have been with us since King Solomon and the First Temple [times],” said Elias. “The lack of recognition for keisim and our traditions has of course upset our community and it is time for this to change.”
Ethiopian Jews believe their community dates back to the visit to Jerusalem 3,000 years ago of the Queen of Sheba, who came to ask King Solomon hard questions. (1 Kings 10:1)