Judaism: Judaism in Northeast Africa

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The Bēta Esraʾēl (Falāshā), or Beta Israel, formed an ethnic group that numbered around thirty thousand and resided in Northwest Ethiopia. Whereas some scholars and the Bēta Esraʾēl themselves contend that their religion was essentially an archaic form of Judaism, others view it as primarily Ethiopian in its origins, form, and content. Although the first of these hypotheses cannot be totally excluded, it is possible to demonstrate that numerous elements of the Bēta Esraʾēl religion, including its literature, liturgy, and clerical hierarchy, developed in Ethiopia after the fourteenth century. During the twentieth century Ethiopian Judaism ceased to exist in its customary form. Contacts with representatives of world Jewry led to changes in Ethiopia in the indigenous tradition, and the emigration to Israel of virtually all practicing Bēta Esraʾēl put an end to Jewish communal life in Ethiopia.

Religious Life in Ethiopia

The belief system of the Bēta Esraʾēl had at its core the belief in one God, the Lord of Israel. Both angels and demons, as well as hostile spirits known as zar, also figured prominently in their cosmology. The Bēta Esraʾēl did not believe divine intervention to be a regular occurrence; however, the judgment of souls after death forms one of the major themes in their literature. They also believed in a final judgment at the end of days.

The clerical structure of the Bēta Esraʾēl, which in the past included monks, priests, deacons, and clerics known as dabtarotch, showed a marked resemblance to that of their Christian neighbors. From the middle of the fifteenth century until the end of the nineteenth century, monks were the principal religious leaders of the Bēta Esraʾēl. The decline and virtual disappearance of monasticism during the twentieth century appears to be related to a disastrous famine (18881892) and criticisms from both Christian missionaries and representatives of world Jewry.

The Bēta Esraʾēl priesthood was not hereditary, nor was it limited to a particular family or clan. Priests recited prayers during the week and on the Sabbath and holidays. They also performed sacrifices and officiated at rites of passage, such as circumcisions, naming ceremonies, funerals, and memorials for the dead. Every Bēta Esraʾēl had a priest who was his or her confessor. During his training, a candidate for the priesthood served as a deacon. In this position he assisted in prayers, carried firewood and water, and cared for animals destined for sacrifice. He also learned to read and write, studied the Bible and other texts, and familiarized himself with the liturgy and ritual practice. A dabtarā (plural dabtarotch ) was an unordained or defrocked cleric who assisted the in the liturgy. Dabtarotch were often skilled in the performance of sacred music and not only copied religious texts but also wrote charms. During the twentieth century the dabtarotch practically disappeared.

Bēta Esraʾēl religious life was centered around the prayer house (şalota bēt ), also called a masgid (from the root sagada, "to bow"). Prayers were recited on all holidays and at major stages in the life cycle of the individual. The Bēta Esraʾēl also brought offerings of bread and beer to the prayer house on Sabbaths and other festivals. Another major feature of religious practice was the performance of sacrifices (qwerbān ). During the twentieth century, however, there was a sharp decline in the frequency of sacrifice due to both economic distress and criticism voiced by foreign representatives of Judaism and Christianity.

For the computation of feasts (baʿāl) and fasts (şom), the Bēta Esraʾēl used a lunar calendar composed alternately of thirty or twenty-nine days. Although this calendar drew from written sources, including the Pentateuch, Enoch, and Jubilees, there was no written calendar. The following are the most important Bēta Esraʾēl holidays and fasts.

Sanbat (Sabbath) observance is one of the major themes of Bēta Esraʾēl literature, and it holds a central place in their religious life. Sabbath observance was particularly strict: no work was done, no fires were lit (including Sabbath candles), no food was cooked, and no journey could be undertaken. Sexual relations were also forbidden. The Bēta Esraʾēl treated every seventh Sabbath with particular respect and viewed it as a day particularly suited for confession and the absolution of sins.

Most of the annual holidays observed by the Bēta Esraʾēl are based on biblical precedents and have parallels in the celebrations of other Jewish communities. These include Fāsikā in commemoration of the exodus from Egypt; Berhān Sharaqa, which marked the New Year; Astasreyo, which was similar to Yom Kippur; and Baʿāla Maşallat, coinciding with Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). The holiday of Māʿrar (harvest), which corresponds to Pentecost, was celebrated on the twelfth day of the third month, seven weeks after the last day of Fāsikā. Another Māʿrar was celebrated in the ninth month, to better coincide with the actual harvest in the Ethiopian agricultural cycle. Although the Bēta Esraʾēl did not celebrate Purim, they did observe the fast of Esther (Şoma Astēr) in commemoration of Esther 4:16. Prior to the twentieth century Jewish festivals such as Simat Torah, anukkah, Lag ba-ʿOmer, the fast of Gedaliah, and Tu bʾshvat were not observed.

Sigd is a unique pilgrimage festival celebrated by the Bēta Esraʾēl on the twenty-ninth day of the eighth month. Some associate the holiday with the renewal of the covenant during the period of Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezr. 810), and passages from these texts were part of the holiday liturgy. However, scriptural texts concerning the revelation at Sinai and the Decalogue were also read.

Traditionally the Bēta Esraʾēl observed a number of monthly celebrations. The first day of each month was celebrated in keeping with biblical custom. The tenth, twelfth, fifteenth, and twenty-ninth of each month served as monthly reminders of Astasreyo, Mārʿar, Fāsikā, and Sigd. During the last decades of the twentieth century the observance of these holidays lapsed in Ethiopia.

Ritual purity played a central role in Bēta Esraʾēl observances both in the regulation of internal communal relations and the definition of the community's differences from its Christian neighbors. The Bēta Esraʾēl were particularly devoted to the laws that governed female purity during menstruation and after giving birth. According to Bēta Esraʾēl practice, a menstruating woman left her house and entered a menstrual hut, where she remained for seven days. This hut was located at the edge of her village, and only her children and other women, who brought her food, were allowed to enter it. Even when the observance of other purity laws began to decline, these rituals were maintained with a special tenacity.

Circumcision for Bēta Esraʾēl boys took place on the eighth day after birth. After the circumcision, the mother and the infant entered the birth hut, where they remained for thirty-nine days. Female circumcision was practiced by the Bēta Esraʾēl in Ethiopia, although the custom appears to have been in decline throughout the twentieth century. Unlike male circumcision, this ritual had no fixed day and minimal religious content. Female circumcision was only performed by women. Two weeks after the birth of a girl, the mother and child entered the birth hut, where they remained for sixty-six days. Forty days after the birth of a boy and eighty days after the birth of a girl, the mother and child ended their isolation. A priest gave the baby its name and immersed it in water. The Ethiopic text known as the Book of the Disciples (Ardeʿet) was read as part of this ceremony.

The Bēta Esraʾēl believed it to be of the utmost importance that the dead receive a proper burial and be properly commemorated. When a person felt death approaching, he or she offered a final confession to his or her spiritual guardian. Priests recited psalms and prayers of absolution at the funeral. For seven days after the funeral, close kin of the deceased abstained from work. On the seventh day, a sheep or goat was sacrificed, and a feast was prepared. A commemoration ceremony was also observed on the anniversary of the death.


Any consideration of Bēta Esraʾēl literature must begin with biblical literature. Their version of the Old Testament, known as the Orit, is identical to that of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It also included such apocryphal and pseudepigraphical works as Tobit, Judith, Ben Sira, and most importantly Enoch and Jubilees. The Bēta Esraʾēl were not familiar with the Talmud or later rabbinic literature; however, they possessed a number of noncanonical works. One large group that includes The Death of Moses, The Death of Aron, and the testaments of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob relates the deaths of biblical figures. The Disciples contains Moses' secret teachings to his disciples (the leaders of the twelve tribes). The Conversation of Moses contains a dialogue between Moses and God in which the divine essence and the punishment of the dead are explicated. The importance of the Sabbath forms the focus of The Commandments of the Sabbath, The Teachings of the Sabbath, and much of the homiletic work Abba Elijah. The fate of the soul after death is yet another central theme of Bēta Esraʾēl literature and is discussed in The Book of Angels, Apocalypse of Baruch, and Gorgoryos.

Almost without exception the literature of the Bēta Esraʾēl did not originate within their community, nor did it reach them directly through Jewish channels. Rather, the majority of Ethiopian "Jewish" texts reached the Bēta Esraʾēl through the mediation of Ethiopian Christian sources after the fourteenth century.

Changes in the Twentieth Century

Although Bēta Esraʾēl religious practice developed and evolved throughout its history, changes became particularly obvious during the twentieth century as a result of contact with representatives of world Jewry. The arrival in Ethiopia in 1904 of Jacques (Yaʾacov) Faitlovitch marked a turning point in the relationship between the Bēta Esraʾēl and the outside Jewish world. Faitlovitch's introduction of external Jewish elements began a process that has continued into the twenty-first century. Following the establishment of the state of Israel, many Bēta Esraʾēl villages were exposed to aspects of external Jewry, including Hebrew prayers, anukkah, Purim, and the lighting of candles on the eve of the Sabbath. Elements of "normative" Jewish practice, such as the use of Torah scrolls, began to be introduced in the celebration of Sigd.

Although contact with representatives of world Jewry brought about certain changes in Bēta Esraʾēl belief and ritual in Ethiopia, these pale in comparison to the changes that occurred following the arrival of Bēta Esraʾēl in Israel beginning in 1977. Bēta Esraʾēl clergy in Israel were not allowed to retain their clerical status and lost the right to perform rituals such as weddings, circumcisions, or funerals. Moreover the resettlement of immigrants with no regard for previous village residence inevitably resulted in a disruption of previous ties between priests and their followers. Most priests, however, continue to perform some religious duties and to participate in ritual gatherings. A small number of younger priests have undertaken studies that enable them, at least in theory, to exercise some formal religious functions, and some priests are among the Ethiopians who have been trained as rabbis. Ethiopian synagogues have been established in a small number of communities, but these are the exception rather than the rule.

Ethiopian traditions of ritual purity have also weakened seriously since their arrival in Israel. Israeli authorities made a conscious decision not to facilitate the observance of menstrual separation. The comparatively late age of marriage of Ethiopian women in Israel, as well as their unprecedented presence in the educational system and workforce, are further factors that serve to discourage traditional menstrual observances. Although it is still possible for women to observe the days of separation after the birth of a child, this custom has changed dramatically. Most Ethiopians visit a woman after she gives birth, and some will kiss and touch a postpartum woman and her baby. Purification and naming ceremonies, forty or eighty days after birth, remain popular.

Most Bēta Esraʾēl holidays that parallel pan-Jewish observances have been assimilated to their non-Ethiopian equivalents in Israel. Sigd continues to be celebrated in Israel with a central national ceremony being conducted in Jerusalem. In the spring of every year, on the day that celebrates the Israeli reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, the Ethiopian community holds a ceremony in memory of those who perished in an attempt reach Israel.

The pressures on Ethiopian immigrants to adopt lifestyles similar to those of either their religious or secular Israeli neighbors have led to a large-scale abandonment of Ethiopian customs and practices. It appears unlikely that much more than remnants and scattered elements of Ethiopian Judaism will survive beyond the first decades of the twenty-first century.


Aescoly, Aaron Z., ed. Recueil de textes Falachas: Introduction, textes éthiopiens. Paris, 1951. Geez religious texts with a French translation.

Halévy, Joseph, ed. and trans. Teʾezaza Sanbat: Commandements du Sabbat. Paris, 1902. The first major edition of Bēta Esraʾēl texts translated from Geez into French.

Kaplan, Steven. Les Falāshās. Turnhout, Belgium, 1990. A general survey discussing history, religion, and society, with selected texts in French translation.

Kaplan, Steven, and Hagar Salamon. "Ethiopian Immigrants in Israel: Experience and Prospects." Jewish Policy Research Report 1 (1998).

Leslau, Wolf. Coutumes et croyances des Falachas. Paris, 1957. An important survey of Bēta Esraʾēl religious life.

Leslau, Wolf, ed. and trans. Falasha Anthology. New Haven, Conn., 1951. A translation of Geez literature into English with an ethnographic introduction.

Quirin, James A. The Evolution of the Ethiopian Jews: A History of the Beta Israel (Falasha) to 1920. Philadelphia, 1992. A comprehensive history.

Salamon, Hagar. The Hyena People: Ethiopian Jews in Christian Ethiopia. Los Angeles, 1999. A reconstruction of Jewish life in Ethiopia based on interviews conducted in Israel.

Shelemay, Kay Kaufman. Music, Ritual, and Falasha History. East Lansing, Mich., 1986. A major study tracing the links between Christian monasticism and Bēta Esraʾēl liturgy.

Ullendorff, Edward. Ethiopia and the Bible. London, 1968. A classic work on the impact of the Bible on Ethiopian culture.

Steven Kaplan (2005)

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