Opinion |

How Israel Sold Out the Solemn Ethiopian Jewish Festival of Sigd

The Beta Israel steadfastly kept a pure form of Biblical Judaism in Ethiopia for generations. In Israel, their unique Sigd fast is now a folklore festival starring politicians studiously avoiding any mention of racism and police violence

Shalva Weil
Shalva Weil
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Israeli 'Kessim' or religious leaders of the Ethiopian Jewish community pray during the Sigd holiday marking the desire for their 'return to Jerusalem', as they celebrate from a hilltop in Jerusalem
Israeli 'Kessim' or religious leaders of the Ethiopian Jewish community pray during the Sigd holiday marking the desire for their 'return to Jerusalem', as they celebrate from a hilltop in JerusalemCredit: AFP
Shalva Weil
Shalva Weil

Thirteen years ago, the Knesset passed the "Sigd Law," declaring the centuries-old festival of Ethiopian Jews a national holiday, celebrated on the 29th of the Hebrew month of Heshvan.

Year by year, steadily, more non-Ethiopian Israelis visit the central Sigd site at Armon Hanatziv in Jerusalem, but the day is still far from being a holiday shared by all. Meanwhile, it has turned from a solemn fast into a political rally-cum-ethnic fair.

This year, the Sigd falls on Thursday, 4th November. The name "Sigd" originates in the word to prostrate or bow down, from a Semitic root in Geez, the Ethiopic language of prayer. It is similar to the Hebrew word lisgod, which means to bend the knee or worship.

The Sigd was celebrated in a ritual 50 day cycle after Yom Kippur or Astasreyo, reminiscent of the 50 days counted between Passover (Fasika) and Shavuot, the Harvest Festival, also known among the Beta Israel as Ba’ala Hames, the Festival of the Fifty.

At the Sigd, also known as the Fast of Supplication (mehlella), the kessotch (priests) recite verses from the books of Exodus, Isaiah, Ezra and Nehemiah, and Psalms, and chant prayers of thanksgiving. A key tract reflecting the major themes of the Sigd or repentance, purity, confession and worship comes from the Book of Nehemiah (9:1-3):

Ethiopian Jews pray during the 'Sigd' holiday at the Armon Hanatziv promenade overlooking Jerusalem's Old CityCredit: AP Photo/Oded Balilty

"….. the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth with earth on their heads. Those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all other foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their ancestors. And they stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession, and prostrating before the Lord their God."

Additional Sigd themes were longing for Jerusalem, the covenant between God and man, and an end to the exile.

In Ethiopia, the Beta Israel lived in different provinces in scattered villages, some of which were exclusively Beta Israel, and some of which were mixed with Christians, where there was no masgid (house of worship). On the Sigd, the Beta Israel would gather in a particular village, and ascend a high mountain, spending the day in worship, chanting mehellal (thansksgiving prayers) and reading from the Orit (Torah).

The Ethiopian Jews who came on Aliya in Operations Moses and Solomon (1984-5 and 1991) used to narrate how they would come to Ambober, a Beta Israel village in the Gondar region, and solemnly walk up the mountain behind the kessotch, who would chant prayers from the Mas-haf Kaddos (holy texts). By way of explanation, one man demonstrated how he used to ascend the mountain with a stone on the back of his neck and earth on his head in order to ask for atonement.

The Sigd fast was broken in the afternoon (they did not wait till sunset) by eating dabbo, a cake that is baked for this special occasion in a kind of slow-cooking process.

How many of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel can share these memories today? The fact is that as more and more Ethiopians are brought to Israel by Israel’s Minister of Immigrant Absorption, Pnina Tamano-Shata, herself a prominent member of the Beta Israel community, proportionately less and less Ethiopians in Israel actually know what the Sigd is or was. Today, the Beta Israel do not constitute the majority of Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

Ethiopian Jews onboard an Israel Air Force Boeing 707, during their transfer from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv, in 1991.Credit: PATRICK BAZ / AFP

It is years since the Jewish Agency declared that they had brought the last of Ethiopia’s Jews to Israel, and then continued to bring more and more people from Ethiopia to Israel, sometimes dubbed Felesmura/Falashmura.

Some of these had converted from Judaism to Christianity in the mid-nineteenth century, due to the persistence of Johann Martin Flad (1831-1915), a German Protestant missionary, and as a result of the activities of subsequent missionaries from different European countries. The so-called Falashmura did not observe Judaism in the same way as their relatives, the Beta Israel. Ostensibly Christians, who prayed in Church, ironically, they were also rejected by Orthodox Christian Ethiopians.

Other immigrants are simply Christians, who have managed to infiltrate or had ties to Beta Israel members already in Israel.

They may be reunifying with their families, but each immigration creates more people who will in the future have to be reunified.

Ethiopian Jews whose relatives remain in Ethiopia hold their pictures during a protest in Jerusalem calling on the Israeli government to bring their relatives to join them in IsraelCredit: AP Photo/Dan Balilty

The task of educators in Israel is thus twofold: to inform the Israeli public about the Sigd, and to teach Ethiopian-Israelis about the religion of the Beta Israel, who steadfastly refused to convert to Christianity and who kept a pure form of Biblical Judaism in Ethiopia for generations.

The transformation of the Sigd in Israel is blatant. In the late 1970s, the few Ethiopian Jews in Israel would ascend Mount Zion, praying as they did in Ethiopia. In the 1980s, the Beta Israel from Tigray province – where a terrible war is currently being waged, hunger is rampant, and thousands murdered – believed they should unite with the wider Jewish people and held the Sigd at the Western Wall. The Amharic-speaking Beta Israel opted for the Armon Hanatziv Promenade overlooking the Old City.

To this day, both Sigd celebrations are held simultaneously, but the one on the Promenade won out. Each year, politicians deliver speeches from the central stage making vain promises to the thousands of Ethiopian Jews, their captive audience, who are also praying in their hearts for an end to discrimination in Israel.

Lip-service to the religious customs of the Beta Israel serves to distract the public from the 'real' issues, like the continuing police brutality against Ethiopian Jewish youth, over-policing, educational underachievement, widespread employment discrimination, and the inadequate resolution of the Solomon Teka affair.

Protesters calling for justice in Solomon Teka's case outside the attorney general's home in Petah Tikva, in November 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani

Teka, a young Ethiopian Israeli, was shot and killed by an off-duty policeman. The policeman’s trial for negligent manslaughter is still ongoing, but he was reinstated by the Israel Police (and after protests was transferred to a fire department). Teka’s family have not yet been compensated.

Meanwhile, further along the Promenade, Ethiopian folklore thrives. People are selling books, photographs, discs, religious books, clothes and even food on a day that once used to be a fast. The Sigd is beginning to look like the Mimouna or any other Israeli ethnic festival or large gathering, complete with handicraft stalls, snacks and drinks. It is undergoing the ‘cultural flattening’ so familiar with other once unique Jewish ethnic groups.

Indeed, the folklorization of the Sigd is encouraged by Israelis, Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian alike: it contributes to the myth that the immigrants and the Israeli-born Ethiopian Jews are simply "one people," and serves to "prove" that the Sigd Law was a good idea. It may take quite a lot longer, however, till the festival is truly absorbed into the national calendar and part of most Israelis' festive observances.

Shalva Weil is a Senior Researcher at the Seymour Fox School of Education, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a past President of the Society for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry

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