Ethiopians want Sigd to be recognized as Jewish holiday

Kiryat Gat's chief rabbi: Festival should have meaning for all Jews

Ethiopians sigd 224.88 (photo credit: Ruth Eglash [file])
Ethiopians sigd 224.88
(photo credit: Ruth Eglash [file])
Hundreds of members of the Ethiopian community signed their names to a petition Thursday calling for Israel's religious leaders to incorporate the annual Sigd festival in the calendar of religious Jewish holidays. As in previous years, Ethiopian Israelis young and old, Israel-born and new and veteran immigrants were bused from around the country on Thursday to Jerusalem's Haas Promenade to mark the ancient holiday, whose name means "to prostate oneself in worship" and is meant to renew the covenant between God and the people of Israel. It is normally celebrated 50 days after Yom Kippur, on the 29th of the Hebrew month of Heshvan, but was held two days early this year because the date fell on Shabbat. The community's spiritual leaders, or Kessim, recite prayers in the Ethiopian Jewish language of Gez calling for the return of all Jews to Jerusalem. The drive to have the holiday made part of the Jewish calendar was initiated earlier this week by the Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews, which sent its request to Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger. "There have been many festivals over the years that were started in the Diaspora but were eventually incorporated into the cycle of Jewish holidays by the rabbis of the time," said association spokesman Avi Masfin. He cited Hanukka and Purim as holidays that were established by particular communities and later adopted by all of world Jewry. Within an hour of issuing the petition and calling on passersby to show their support, more than 150 people had signed up. "We have talked about this becoming a mainstream Jewish festival for years, but mostly in the privacy of our homes. This is the first time that we have asked for recognition of our traditions from the larger Jewish public," said Masfin. While Masfin talked about the religious significance of Sigd, many of Thursday's revelers seemed anything but interested in the prayers taking place at the far end of the promenade, south of the capital's Old City. Most of the younger attendees were basking in the sunshine or enjoying hot dogs from vendors instead of fasting, as is the custom. "We like to come here and see our friends," said one teenage girl from Lod, who added that she comes to Jerusalem to celebrate Sigd every year. Around her, teens with spiky, bleached blond hair, ripped jeans, chains and piercings seemed to feel the same way. One 15-year-old from Jerusalem said the event was a Jewish festival and that all Israelis should recognize it, "like we celebrate the [Moroccan-Jewish] Mimouna." She suggested that all Israeli school children be taught about her community's traditions. "We are very proud of our culture," she said. "As Ethiopians we are very willing to learn about the Holocaust, even though we were not part of it," said Kiryat Gat Rabbi Sharon Shalom, a veteran immigrant from Ethiopia who has been ordained by the Chief Rabbinate. "We mark it because it is symbolic of persecution that happened to our fellow Jews. In the same way, Sigd should have meaning for all Jews." He said the festival was a chance for all Jews to fast, repent for their sins and pray for a return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem. Shalom did, however, caution that any integration of the festival into mainstream Israeli society should be done carefully, lest it increase existing divides between the community and non-Ethiopian Israelis. Rabbi Itzhak Paraz, director of Amar's office, told The Jerusalem Post Amar had strong relations with the Ethiopian community and was very sympathetic to their needs. He said that Amar, who is currently out of the country, would certainly be willing to sit down with community leaders to discuss the Sigd issue. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger was not available for comment.