The Biblical Roots of Ethiopian Blessed Bread

The Ethiopian-Jewish community marks Sigd, a holiday of self-examination with prayers and fasting, broken with a ceremonial challah-style bread called dabo. Community leader Pnina Agenyahu shares her recipe.

Israeli women from the Ethiopian Jewish community pray during the Sigd holiday in Jerusalem, Israel, November 30, 2016.
Israeli women from the Ethiopian Jewish community pray during the Sigd holiday in Jerusalem, Israel, November 30, 2016. Gali Tibbon, AFP

“And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people…. And Ezra blessed the lord, the great God. And all the people answered: 'Amen, Amen', with the lifting up of their hands; and they bowed their heads, and fell down before the Lord with their faces to the ground.” (Nehemiah, 8:5-6)

“They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Torah of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God. (Nehemiah 9:1-3)

This ancient description was the inspiration for Sigd, a Jewish-Ethiopian holiday that was celebrated this week in Israel, symbolizing the renewal of the union between God and the people of Israel. Sigd is marked 50 days after Yom Kippur and serves for communal self-examination, similar to the individual self-examining during Yom Kippur, including fast and prayers.

In Ethiopia, members of the Beta Israel community would gather on high mountains resembling Mount Sinai where the Kessim (religious leaders) would read from the Bible in Ge’ez, the religious language of Ethiopia. They would read a section from Exodus describing Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, from the book of Nehemiah and more. Members of the Ethiopian Jewish community would fast during the day and after the prays were over, the women would ceremoniously hand their baked challah, called dabo, to the Kessim for a blessing, and would break the fast with the blessed bread.

These days in Israel, the Ethiopian community gathers in Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood, facing the Old City and Temple Mount, and the Kessim recite the same prayers and Bible excerpts in Ge’ez, just as they did in Ethiopia. And just as back then, women bring the traditional dabo challah to be blessed by the Kessim and to break the fast, says Pnina Agenyahu, a member of the Ethiopian community who serves as the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s senior emissary for Jewish engagement. 

Pnina Agenyahu, senior emissary for Israel engagement at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
Yair Avi Yosef Angel

“We know that in biblical times the bread was round and high,” explained Agenyahu. “The Ethiopian Jews lived their Jewish life based on the Bible mostly, so lots of our traditional food is really related to how our forefathers from biblical times used to eat.” The Ethiopian Jewish community today, she added, sees special value in keeping the culinary tradition as close as possible to its origins.

Dabo is round, crumbly and a tad bit sweet, similar to the Yemenite-Jewish overnight sabbath bread kubaneh. In Ethiopia the bread was baked in a round clay pot over embers in a fire pit in the ground. It was wrapped in banana leaves to prevent it from sticking to the pot and to keep the bread moist. Upon moving to Israel, Ethiopian Jews changed their baking technique. Now the bread is baked on a burner or even in the oven, and the bread is wrapped in lettuce leaves. “They basically invented their own parchment paper,” said Agenyahu, who simply uses parchment paper.

Dabo was always considered a festive bread, served on Shabbat and holidays, as opposed to the better-known injera flatbreads, which are used for everyday meals. “My favorite food to this day is Shabbat breakfast with dabo, curdled cream and chopped salad of green pepper, tomato, garlic and onion,” Agenyahu said.

To break the fast on Sigd, Ethiopian Jews feast on lamb or chicken stew with potatoes and eggs. In Ethiopia, these stews were served once a week and during holidays, since meat was scarce. 

Agenyahu moved to Israel at the age of 3, with her mother and older sister, during the 1984 Operation Moses, in which thousands of Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel. The family members walked for two weeks from Ethiopia to Sudan, where they spent a few months in a Red Cross refugee camp until the Mossad flew them to Israel. With no family in Israel, the mother and daughters settled in Haifa in a neighborhood with a mixed population of Arabs, Russian immigrants and Holocaust survivors. An older Ashkenazi neighbor treated Agenyahu as a granddaughter and made her borscht every day after school.  

In 2008 Israel recognized Sigd as a national holiday. Together with the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, Agenyahu was active in promoting the holiday and worked to organize the first Sigd event at the residence of then-president Shimon Peres. She also emceed the event.

Now, far from home, in Washington D.C., Agenyahu spoke today at a special Sigd event at the University of Maryland and will hold her own Sigd for friends and colleagues at her home.  

Sweet Ethiopian challah (Dabo)

Dabo was blessed by religious leaders and served during shabbat and holidays, and was considered a staple of Jewish Ethiopian Shabbat breakfasts. Pnina Agenyahu suggests crumbling the dabo into a bowl, add chopped salad, sour cream or cottage cheese, salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Adapted from Pnina Agenyahu.

Yields one challah

Ingredients:

 1/4 oz. (1 bag or 2 1/4 teaspoons) instant dry yeast (or 1 tablespoon active dry yeast)
1 cup lukewarm water
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/4 lb. (3 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon honey or sugar
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon baking powder

Directions:

1.    Dissolve yeast in 1/4 cup lukewarm water mixed with 1 teaspoon sugar, stir and let stand 5-10 minutes, until yeast foams vigorously. 
2.    Mix flour, honey and oil in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with dough hook. Add yeast and the rest of the water and knead for 2 minutes. Add salt and baking powder and continue to knead on medium-high speed for 5 minutes. If dough is too stiff, ad a couple of tablespoons of water at a time. Remove bowl from mixer, cover with plastic wrap and let stand in a warm place for 2-3 hours, until dough doubles in volume.
3.    Grease a tall oven-proof pot 7-8 inches in diameter, or layer it with parchment paper. Pour dough in, cover with towel and let stand for 30 minutes more until it rises again.
4.    Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Cover pot tightly with greased aluminum foil and top with a baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes. Now flip the pot over onto the baking sheet (so the challah is upside down) and bake for another 30 minutes. Remove challah from oven, flip challah out of the pot, let cool and serve warm or at room temperature.