views updated May 17 2018


Also known as 'Kayla,' or Beta Israel, a native Jewish sect of ethiopia. Various theories have been proposed about the origin of the Falashas, who are physically and linguistically related to the tribe of the Agaw. According to one tradition, its ancestry traces to Menelik I, son of King Solomon of Israel, and the Queen of Sheba. Some scholars place the date of the sect's origin before the second century b.c., largely because the Ethiopian Jews are unfamiliar with either the Babylonian or Palestinian Talmud. Their Bible is written in an archaic Semitic language known as Ge'ez (the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Coptic Church), and of the Hebrew Scriptures they are most familiar with the Pentateuch. Ethiopian Jews refer to their sect as "Beta Israel" (House of Israel) and consider the name "Falasha," which is Amharic for "exiles" or "landless ones," a derogatory term.

The religion of the Ethiopian Jews is a modified form of Mosaic Judaism generally unaffected by postbiblical developments. They retain animal sacrifice. They celebrate scriptural and nonscriptural feast days, although the latter are not the same as those celebrated by Jews elsewhere. Their calendar contains the principal Jewish holidays beside several feasts and fast days of their own. One of the sect's nonscriptural feast days, for example, is the Commemoration of Abraham. The Sabbath regulations of Beta Israel are stringent. Members of the sect observe biblical dietary laws, but not the postbiblical rabbinic regulations concerning distinctions between meat and dairy foods. Monogamy is practiced, marriage at a very early age is rare, and marriage outside the religious community is forbidden.

Their religious life, centered in synagogue worship, consists in the recitation of prayers and the reading of the Torah. The chief functionary in each village is the high priest, who is assisted by priests of lower rank. The community appoints their priests, who are not regarded as descended from aaron. There are also monks who live alone or in monasteries, isolated from the other people (Falashas). rabbis do not exist in the sect.

Until the mid-1980s Ethiopian Jews segregated themselves either in separate villages or in separate quarters in Christian or Islamic towns, in the mountain region of Semen, north of Lake Tana (the source of Blue Nile). They were skilled in agriculture, masonry, pottery, ironworking and weaving. Under the Emperor Haile Selassie I, a few rose to positions of prominence in education and government, but reports of persecution followed the emperor's ouster in 1974. More than 12,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel from late 1984 to early 1985, when the Ethiopian government halted the program. The airlift resumed in 1989, and about 3,500 Falashas immigrated to Israel in 1990. In May 1991, the Israeli government evacuated nearly all of the more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews remaining in Ethiopia.

Bibliography: s. kaplan, Fils dAbraham: Les Falashas (Belgium 1990). s. kaplan, "'Falasha' Religion: Ancient Judaism or Evolving Ethiopian Tradition?" Jewish Quarterly Review 79 (1988) 4965. d. kessler, The Falashas: A Short History of the Ethiopian Jews (London 1996). s. d. messing, The Story of the Falashas: "Black Jews" of Ethiopia (Yale 1982). t. parfitt and e. trevisan semi, eds., The Beta Israel in Ethiopia and Israel: Studies on Ethiopian Jews (London 1999). l. rapoport, Les Falashas d'Ethiopie (Paris 1983). s. sandmel, "Jews, Christians and the Future: What May We Hope For," in d. j. fasching, ed., The Jewish People in Christian Preaching (Lewiston, NY 1984) 89104.

[k. hruby/

t. w. fesuh]


views updated May 14 2018

Falashas. Jews of Ethiopian origin. The Falashas themselves claim to be descended from Menelik, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10. 1–13). Most experts believe they belong to the Agau family of tribes to whom Judaism spread from S. Arabia. They call themselves ‘Beta Esrael’ (House of Israel) and live in their own separate villages, the best known of which are near the town of Gondar. They keep the ritual food law of the Pentateuch; they circumcise their sons on the eighth day; they observe the Sabbath and Day of Atonement, and they offer sacrifice and eat unleavened bread (mazzah) during the Passover season. Their precise personal status as Jews is still in some dispute among the Israeli religious establishment. In 1985, many Ethiopians demonstrated in Jerusalem against the Chief Rabbi, who had demanded symbolic conversion for those among them who wished to marry—because of doubts about their divorce procedures and personal status. The insistence on symbolic recircumcision was withdrawn, but not ritual immersion.


views updated May 23 2018


Term that comes from the Amharic word falâsi, meaning exiles, strangers. It designates black Jews settled in Ethiopia, who, according to Biblical tradition, are the descendents of followers of Menelik (heir of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba) to Ethiopia. Therefore, the Falashas would belong to the tribe of Dan, exiled to Cush in 722 b.c.e. According to some scholars, Falashas are descended from Himyarite proselytes who converted the indigenous inhabitants of the mountains of Ethiopia. Other hypotheses take the Falashas for Abyssinians converted in the second century c.e. by missionaries from the Jewish communities of Egypt. The word Falasha having a pejorative connotation, the latter prefer to be called "sons of the house of Israel" (Bene Beta Israel, in Hebrew).

Toward the end of the 1960s, the Falashas became the scapegoats of great feudal lords in Ethiopia, who had been ruined through the central government's confiscation of their lands. In 1973, Israel's chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, recognized the Falashas as "full" Jews, thereby enabling them to benefit from the "right of return." In October 1981, at the funeral ceremonies of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin discussed the fate of the Ethiopian Falashas with Sudanese President Jaafar al-Nimeiry. Between 1982 and 1983, a few hundred Falashas succeeded in leaving Ethiopia for Sudan. From there, through Operation Brothers, the Israelis were able to slip them secretly into Israel. Between 1984 and 1994, the Israeli authorities recommenced two such operations, called Solomon and Moses, with the participation of the U.S. ambassador to Sudan, Hume Horan, and others. In the end, nearly 22,000 Falashas were able to go to Israel between 1984 and 1991.


views updated Jun 08 2018

Falashas Ethnic group of black Jews in Ethiopia, probably descended from early converts to Judaism. Their form of religion relies solely on observance of the Old Testament. Israel acknowledged them as Jews in 1975, and, suffering discrimination at home, many migrated to Israel. During the early 1980s, there were c.30,000 Falashas living in Ethiopia, but amid the war and famine that ensued, thousands were airlifted to Israel.