by Shai Afsai (October 2013)
A qes surveys the worshippers during the Sigd holiday in Jerusalem. Photo credit – Gidon Agaza
For centuries, the Jews of Ethiopia, the Beta Israel (House of Israel), lived in almost complete isolation from other Jewish communities around the globe. In his Travels in Abyssinia, Joseph Halevy recounts that when he journeyed to Ethiopia in 1868 in order to meet some of the Beta Israel’s members, he had difficulty convincing them that although he was white, he was a Jew. Halevy tried to assure them that there were many other Jews in the world, who, as far as their skin-color, “could not be distinguished from the other inhabitants of their respective countries.”
During their prolonged isolation, the Beta Israel preserved and developed unique religious traditions not found in the rest of the Jewish world. One such tradition is the annual Sigd holiday, which normally occurs fifty days after Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and during which thousands of Ethiopian Jews from across Israel ascend to Jerusalem for prayer and study. Since 2008, the Sigd has been an official Israeli state holiday, though it continues to be celebrated mainly by the country’s Ethiopian Jews, who number about 130,000. This year, the holiday is celebrated on October 31.
A day of Torah learning, prayer, repentance, and prostration (sigd means prostration in Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopian liturgical language), the holiday commemorates and is modeled after the events described in the Book of Nehemiah, chapters 8-10. Following their return to the Land of Israel from the Babylonian exile, in the sixth century B.C.E, the Jews gathered in Jerusalem on Rosh Hashanah (New Year’s Day) and requested that Ezra the Scribe read to them from the Torah. Some three weeks later, the Judean community held a special gathering in Jerusalem, during which it recommitted itself to the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
As part of the Sigd, which begins with fasting and repentance, but concludes with a festive meal, the qessotch (i.e., priests, the traditional spiritual leaders of Ethiopian Jewry) read, translate, and expound upon portions of the Bible, and the assembled worshippers recommit to the Sinaitic covenant.
One of the many educational and cultural events taking place in Israel prior to last year’s celebration was at Ramat Gan’s Bar-Ilan University. On the eve of the Sigd, Qes Mula Zerihoon, who serves as the spiritual leader of the Beta Israel community in Kiryat Ekron, described the origins of the holiday to the university audience, comprised of many students and soldiers.
Qes Mula explained that in Ethiopia the Sigd was celebrated atop designated mountains. “When we climbed the mountain, we felt Jerusalem in our heart of hearts,” he said. “This deeply impacted our Judaism. Jews came from afar, two or three days on foot, on horses, and on mules, in order to have the chance to hear torah from the qessotch. The people learned and were strengthened.” Qes Mula stressed that the holiday should continue to be celebrated in Israel. “Just as this holiday guarded us in Ethiopia, we will continue to guard it in Israel, where there is no religious persecution and each person follows his religion.”
Qessotch gathered beneath a 'Welcome to the Sigd Holiday' banner written in Hebrew and Amharic.
Photo credit – Gidon Agaza
The principal gathering on the day of the Sigd takes place at the Armon Hanatziv Promenade, which overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem. Qessotch from all over Israel gather at the Promenade beneath colourful parasols, on a platform draped by the flags of Israel and Jerusalem. Many dress all in white. Others wear gold, purple, or black cloaks adorned with large Stars of David.
Under a “Welcome to the Sigd Holiday” banner written in Hebrew and Amharic, the qessotch chant prayers in Ge’ez, praising God and asking for forgiveness and blessings. Biblical passages telling of the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai and the return of the Jews to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile are read by the qessotch in Ge’ez and then translated into Amharic. (Though it is studied by the qessotch and used in religious contexts, most Ethiopian Jews are not conversant in Ge’ez, while Amharic remains the first language of many in the community.)
The holiday’s colourful pageantry draws many photographers from around the country to the Promenade, but Yosef Hadane, the Chief Rabbi of the Ethiopian community, stresses that “[t]his is not just an event. This is an entirely pure day, a day of prayer.”
At times, the qessotch gathered on the flag-draped platform sway as they chant, and are accompanied by rhythmic drumming. Women, dressed in white, raise their hands in supplication, and bow and prostrate, pressing their foreheads to the ground. When the qessotch descend from the platform at the conclusion of the services, they are quickly enveloped by the worshippers, who accompany them with ululation, applause, and trumpet blasts to a nearby tent set up at the Promenade, there to break the fast communally following the repentance and renewal of the covenant.
One of the few Ethiopian-Israeli photographers at last year’s Sigd celebration was Gidon Agaza, who has been attending Sigd festivals in Israel for thirteen years. “Each and every year that I come, I am moved anew to see mothers praying from their hearts,” said Agaza. “I have a large archive of Sigd celebrations. I need these photographs in order to explain to people about the Ethiopian community and its traditions.”
Like Qes Mula, Rabbi Hadane considers it vital that the holiday continue to be celebrated now that Ethiopian Jewry has at long last arrived in Israel. “Our forefathers in Ethiopia always prayed to return to Jerusalem and always prayed in the direction of Jerusalem,” he said. “We are here, but . . . the vast majority of the Jewish nation is still in the diaspora, and this day and these prayers are very important for ingathering the exiles . . . Therefore, I would suggest that Jews in Israel and the rest of the world adopt this holiday.”
Shai Afsai lives in Providence. His article “Jews, Freemasons, and Religious Accommodation: Rhode Island’s Redwood Lodge and the Congregation of the Sons of Israel and David” appears in Rhode Island History 71 (2013).
Photos by Gidon Agaza.
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