ETHNONYMS: Beta Esráel (self-name), Esráelotch, Felasha, Kayla
Identification. The Falasha are a northern Ethiopian highland population of Jewish belief. They are one of the dozens of small ethnic minorities in Ethiopia and have been recognized as a "nationality" in the Ethiopian constitution of 1986. More than half of this community emigrated to Israel during the late 1970s and 1980s.
Location. The traditional Falasha area lies on the central Ethiopian plateau, its elevation mostly above 2,000 meters. Roughly between 12°30′ and 14°30′ N and 37°00′ and 38°10′ E, it is located north of Gonder town, reaching up to the Tekeze River, east into western Welo (near Sequote village, and into the Shire area of Tigray Region (west of Aksum town). On the plateau, average daytime temperatures are between 16° C and 27-35° C in the dry season (from October to June, with a "small rainy season" from February to March) and slightly lower in the rainy season (May to September). Nights are cold, with temperatures around -18° C, especially in the Semyen area. Despite the "rainy season" (Keremt), rain is notoriously unreliable, and crop production is often precarious. In addition, the northern highlands have much suffered from erosion and soil deterioration. Part of the Falasha area was hard hit by the drought and famines of 1984-1985 and after.
Demography. In 1976 a voluntary-agency worker in the Falasha area conducted a census that reckoned the total number of Falasha as 28,189. This was before any emigration had taken place. The Falasha nowadays number around 30,000 to 40,000 persons, almost half of them residing in Israel. Since the start of the move to Israel, more inhabitants of the Falasha region in Ethiopia have, predictably, identified themselves as "Beta Esráel" or as being of Beta Esráel descent. They form only a tiny ethnoreligious minority within Ethiopia.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Falasha speak the Semitic languages of the majority population of their areas: Amharic and Tegreñña respectively. In the Middle Ages, and partly up to the mid-nineteenth century, they spoke Agew, a Cushitic language of the original inhabitants of the Ethiopian plateau, before the arrival of Semitic speakers of Ge'ez, Tegreñña, and Amharic, from the north. In the 1950s, owing to the emerging ties of the Falasha with Israel, some Hebrew was introduced by young teachers trained in Israel. In Israel the Falasha retain Amharic and Tegreñña among themselves, but also learn Hebrew.
History and Cultural Relations
The history and origins of the Falasha (the "Black Jews of Ethiopia") is one of the perennial subjects of scholarly and popular debate. Their Jewish beliefs (different in kind and liturgical form from "normative" Talmudic Judaism) suggest a priori an ancient link with the land of Israel and the Israelites, the popular idea being that their ancestors migrated to Ethiopia in the time of King Solomon's kingdom (e.g., as a group of highborn assistants and teachers who accompanied Menilek, who was—according to Ethiopian ecclesiastical tradition—the son of Solomon and the queen of Sheba [i.e., Ethiopia], back to Aksum from Jerusalem). The historical basis of the legend—and of various others positing an ancient link of the Falasha with the Israelites of old—is, of course, very tenuous. Indeed, recent research into the liturgical music of the Beta Esráel points to a close relationship with the Ethiopian Christian tradition, to the extent that the former has, to a significant degree, been shaped by the latter. Occasional references to "Jews" or "Israelites" in various religious and historical documents cannot be assumed to refer to the Falasha as a long-established Jewish community in Ethiopia. Deserving of more serious consideration are the accounts of medieval travelers, who mention a country where Jews lived independently in mountain fortresses, fighting with Christian emperors and defending their faith (Kaplan 1988). Even on the basis of these reports, however, one cannot conclude that the Falasha existed as a clearly identifiable Jewish population in the Ethiopian highlands, at least not before the fourteenth century. For the subsequent period, however, there are more data on groups of rebellious "Jews" (Ge'ez: Ayhud) who resisted the encroaching Christian kings trying to force them into submission and convert them to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. The Falasha indeed became the historic enemies (together with the Muslims) of the Ethiopian medieval emperors, certainly from the time of Ishaq (r. 1413-1438) up to that of Susneyos (r. 1607-1632). The former started a war of conquest and conversion in the area where a Judaic people or, as the Ethiopian royal chronicles often state, "former Christians, people like Jews" lived (i.e., in the area north of present-day Gonder). As a result of this war, the Beta Esráel/Falasha lost their title to land. They became an inferior "caste," cultivating only land owned by Christians and gradually taking up crafts as additional means of livelihood. They became the blacksmiths, weavers, and potters of their area, often despised and shunned by landholding Amhara-Tigray. The corollary of this division of labor, based on conquest and religious difference, was the emergence of a "supernatural" boundary: the Falasha were often accused of possessing magical powers and the evil eye (Amharic: buda ). In the course of the centuries, the Beta Esráel continued to fight wars to retain their independence from Ethiopian kings, who demanded political submission and tribute (Quirin 1977). Periods of relative peace (under sixteenth-century emperors Galawdewos and Fasilades) were followed by fierce battles, for example, during the reigns of kings Baede Maryam (1468-1478), Serse Dengel (1563-1597), and Susneyos. It was Susneyos who rooted out any semblance of autonomy of the Beta Esráel area and started an intensive conversion campaign. After the 1620s, the Beta Esráel became a virtually powerless minority, at the bottom end of the social hierarchy of traditional feudalist Ethiopia, and their numbers dwindled. A period of renewed interest from Western travelers and scholars was initiated by a visit of the French-Jewish Orientalist J. Halévy (1868), who prepared a report for the Jewish Alliance Israelite Universelle asking for moral, religious, and educational support for these "forgotten Jews." From that time on, albeit with ups and downs, growing Jewish interest in the Falasha and growing identification of the Beta Esráel with world Jewry and, later, the state of Israel led to a decisive rapprochement between the Beta Esráel and the Jewish people and, ultimately, to the emigration movement of recent years. The immediate causes of this movement were the sociopolitical upheaval after the Revolution of 1974 and the threats of drought and famine. The flight itself, which claimed the lives of an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Beta Esráel, included weeks of dangerous trekking through drought- and hunger-stricken enemy territory toward refugee camps in eastern Sudan. An airlift from Sudan beginning in November 1984 and lasting until April 1985 brought many thousands to Israel, but an equal number remained in Ethiopia; thus, a truncated community continues to live in the Welo and Gonder administrative regions, in some thirty-six villages. Virtually all the Falasha in Tigray have been able to leave. Many Falasha who stayed in Ethiopia wish to go to Israel to join their relatives. Negotiations on emigration of the community were resumed after the silent rapprochement between Israel and Ethiopia in 1989 (and the restoration of various forms of assistance given by Israel to Ethiopia). In Israel, a new phase of the history of the Beta Esráel (simply identifying themselves as "Ethiopian Jews") has begun, bringing with it profound social, religious, and cultural changes challenging traditional life-styles, ideas, and norms of this once rather neglected rural Ethiopian minority (see Ashkenazi and Weingrod 1987).
Although much has been made of the Jewish belief and character of the Falasha, in a broad cultural sense (linguistically, ethnically, socially), they are primarily "Ethiopian" in character (i.e., their outlook, way of life, and economic and social organization are predominantly similar to those of the Highland Amhara-Tigray). Their Judaic tradition, however, has always stimulated a sense of separate identity, which was "reproduced" by the ethnic division of labor, supernatural beliefs, and religious differences. These elements have somewhat eroded since the Revolution because both the traditional socioeconomic stratification and superstitious beliefs were actively discouraged by the revolutionary authorities, who also denigrated traditional artisanry.
The Falasha traditionally lived in scattered hamlets or villages in the northern Ethiopian countryside, some in all-Falasha villages, others in mixed villages, in which Amhara-Tigray Christians and (in Tigray) Muslims also lived. Although family groups (married sons of a man often chose to reside in the same village) often lived together in one area, the hamlets or villages had no clear kinship basis, the Falasha population being fairly mobile geographically. A married couple and their children inhabited the common highland tukul (a hut constructed of wood, straw, mud, and dried cow dung). A village had an average population of 150 to 200 persons. Before the 1960s, very few Falasha lived in towns like Gonder or Asmara (those who did, did so mainly for proximity to schools). Only in the 1960s and 1970s did some Falasha traders and laborers move to the larger villages and towns, but, especially after 1974-1975, many young men left their villages for a few years of national service in the Ethiopian army. Some became teachers, medical assistants in clinics, or clerical workers. In Israel, where Falasha, as new immigrants without resources, necessarily live in a state of dependency on government agencies, most are settled in "development towns," often in clusters of relatives and friends. Virtually none live in rural settlements. After the first years of their "absorption process," guided by state agencies, they may, if they are able to find jobs and housing, move to cities in the center of the country.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. In Ethiopia, the Falasha were (and are) subsistence farmers and artisans (blacksmiths and potters). In the traditional prerevolutionary social order, they were tenant-peasants, eking out a living on land owned by the Amhara-Tigray; only a few Falasha families retained land rights given to their ancestors in the days of kings Fasilades and Galawdewos (sixteenth century). The main crops were the indigenous Ethiopian cereal téff (Eragrostis téff ), wheat, maize, beans, and chickpeas. They also cultivated garden crops, such as spices, oilseeds, onions, and cabbage. Surpluses were marketed in the regional markets in small quantities. Livestock (cattle, sheep, goats, chickens) were raised in very small numbers. In their cultivation system (i.e., the use of ox-drawn plows and the rotation of crops), the Falasha hardly differed from the Amhara-Tigray peasants; however, their standard of living was usually lower. After the revolution of 1974, the traditional landholding system was abolished. Peasants were entitled to receive up to ten hectares for cultivation, within the framework of the new peasant associations. (All land was nationalized after the Land Proclamation Act of April 1975.) This ended the overt social inequality and exploitation of the peasants, although it did not immediately solve all problems or lead to a rise in living standards. In one village (Weleqa, near Gonder town), women earned some cash income from the sale of small black clay figures for the tourist market. This product was first introduced in the 1930s and has no traditional base whatsoever in Falasha culture. The Falasha were also well known in northwestern Ethiopia as a caste of artisans: potters and blacksmiths (and, less commonly, weavers). Because of imports of cheap iron tools and cooking utensils, however, the Falasha have been forced to subsist more and more on agriculture and some small-scale trade, which has also grown markedly. In Israel, the occupational structure of the Falasha/Ethiopian Jewish community is completely altered. Settled in urban areas, they are trained as skilled or semiskilled workers and find employment in industry, in offices, or as agricultural wage laborers. Very few have been able to set up independent private businesses. The young people, having completed high school or other training courses, quickly attain a much higher educational standard than the previous generation, improving their position in the job market.
Industrial Arts. Apart from craft work (see "Subsistence and Commercial Activities"), the Falasha had no forms of industrial art. In Israel, the women have retained and developed the production of traditional colorful basketry, although now with cotton thread instead of the tough and durable Ethiopian reeds.
Trade. In Ethiopia, the Falasha traded their surplus agricultural products at the regional open-air markets, which were held at fixed weekly intervals. There they also sold their pottery wares and iron tools. Some Falasha blacksmiths were noted for their repair work on old guns (like Männlicher, Fusil Gras, Albin, and so forth).
Division of Labor. Traditionally, the Falasha have been plow agriculturists. Men do most of the work in the fields (i.e., plowing, sowing, weeding, and harvesting—the last on a collective, mutual-help basis). Men also do the blacksmithing, weaving, and building. Women cultivate the gardens, perform the domestic tasks (preparing food, cleaning, taking care of children), draw water, and supply firewood. In addition, they produce pottery for domestic use and for sale. They also sell products in the markets. In the 1960s some Falasha men went to work as laborers in Addis Ababa and Asmara, and as sailors in Mesewa, but labor migration in general has always been insignificant. In Israel, the social structure of the Falasha community being entirely different, women are, in a way, becoming more dependent both within the household and in a wider social sense, as wage laborers competing with others in a tough job market.
Land Tenure. Before 1974, the Falasha were landless peasants paying heavy annual tributes to Amhara-Tigray landlords. Only a few Falasha had customary land-use rights. They were essentially a caste, "appended" to the Ethiopian "feudalist" system. In the Tigray region, however, many Falasha did own land. Following the introduction of wide-ranging land reform after 1975, the Falasha worked their own parcels of land within the framework of "peasant associations," which were collective communities designed to develop into full-fledged producers' cooperatives. In most of these peasant associations, Falasha lived together with the Amhara peasants on a more equal footing than they previously did, although the old fears about the Falasha possessing the evil eye are still not completely eradicated. There are also indications that religious differences and the Falasha's known desire to move to Israel continue to cause occasional friction.
Kinship, Marriage, and Family
Kinship. Although not organized in larger entities like corporative descent groups, lineages, or clans, the Falasha lived in a kinship universe where the nuclear family (beteseb ) was the basic unit. In most respects, the Falasha resemble the Amhara-Tigray among whom they lived. Their kinship terminology is also that of the Amhara and the Tigray, an Eskimo-type bilateral terminology. As the Falasha in general did not own land, lineal-descent consciousness is less important among them than among the Amhara-Tigray, who often appealed to ambilineal descent lines to claim their rights to a particular piece of land. It is, therefore, impossible to speak of "lineages" among the Falasha, as among the Amhara. They have extensive knowledge of wider family ties—and thus of who is a Falasha/Beta Esráel. There are no fictive-kin relationships among them, although informal "adoption" is common.
Marriage. The Falasha traditionally showed group endogamy. Marrying a Christian—although not an infrequent occurrence—was actively discouraged because of traditionally strong religious boundaries in matters of food taboos, ritual purity, and so forth. The Falasha, like the Amhara, say they do not marry relatives "within the seventh degree." The marriageable age for girls ranges from 14 to 20, for boys from 18 to 28—another similarity with the Amhara-Tigray. Great value was attached to virginity: traditionally, a bride who was not a virgin on her wedding day could be returned to her parents and might be cast out from the community. Nowadays these rules have changed. Also, girls have demanded the right to choose their own partners, instead of following their parents' preference. There is also a tendency to delay the age of marriage. The rate of divorce is relatively high, and almost all adults marry more than once. (This pattern shows little change in Israel.) Settlement after marriage has been basically neolocal, depending on the preference of the male; however, most married couples remain in the village of the husband's parents for the first years after marriage.
Domestic Unit. The basic domestic unit is the nuclear family (the Falasha being monogamous)—the unit of production and consumption. Parents or married brothers and sisters may live in the same village, in separate compounds. There is mutual assistance between kin-related units, but one cannot speak of extended families in the accepted sense of the word. Widows or widowers often go to live with the eldest married son.
Inheritance. As there are few things to inherit—some cattle, utensils, tools, jewelry—there are no clearly defined rules of inheritance. If, in the "feudal" past, a family had rist (land-use) rights, these were transferred to the oldest son. Cash or personal belongings of the deceased would be divided among the surviving spouse and children in mutual agreement.
Socialization. In rural Ethiopian society, elder persons were respected and obeyed. Children are directed by their parents, grandparents, and village leaders. Agricultural and other skills are learned by imitation. Children, depending upon their age, are assigned specific tasks, such as herding animals, fetching wood and water, or guarding crops. Corporal punishment was an accepted means of disciplining and enforcing obedience. Primary-school education (common in most villages after the Revolution) has given the children more leverage (i.e., has led to a more "autonomous" attitude toward their seniors).
The majority of Falasha belong to the peasant class (the bottom of the Ethiopian social ladder), but some are teachers, medical dressers, or government workers. In Israel, the Falasha, in accordance with their level of education and vocational training, have become part of the working class and a minority in the middle class.
Political Organization. In the Middle Ages, the Falasha were probably organized in fairly autonomous chiefdoms. In the early seventeenth century they lost all local political autonomy and became subordinate to the authority of emperor and landlords. Community affairs, disputes, and petty crime were handled by their village elders and priests. Formerly, they had local village representatives to the imperial authorities, but in the twentieth century this representation has been lost. After 1974, the Falasha were, like other rural Ethiopians, subject to—and part of—the peasant-association structures.
Social Control. In the small-scale village society of the Falasha, family honor, the normative authority of elders, and ethnoreligious-group traditions were the basis of social control. The Falasha were usually reluctant to submit cases of offense to non-Falasha courts. In postrevolutionary conditions, more appeals were made to the courts of the peasant associations and those of the awraja (province).
Conflict. Since the emergence of the Falasha/Beta Esráel on the historical scene in the fourteenth century, their relations with the dominant Amhara-Tigray have been tense and full of violent conflicts. Even when there were long periods of peace, cooperation, and incorporation of the Falasha into Amhara society, there remained a latent tension (religious difference, the evil-eye syndrome, social-status difference; Abbink 1987). Conflicts arising from Falasha being accused of possessing the evil eye continue to occur.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs and Practices. The most remarkable aspect of Falasha culture is their peculiar form of non-Talmudic Judaism, developed in isolation from the main currents of Jewish religious thought. They believe in the God of Israel; the Old Testament commandments are their guidelines. The Falasha celebrate most festivals and fasts mentioned in the Torah, observe food taboos, and offer sacrifices, for example, on Easter (Fasika). Circumcision is carried out on the eighth day after birth, and the sabbath is closely observed. The Falasha Holy Book is the Ethiopian Bible (in Ge'ez), without the New Testament but with some Ethiopian Apocryphals. Their prayer service, prayer texts, and other religious books appear to be heavily influenced by medieval Ethiopian Christian sources. There is no clear evidence of a Hebrew tradition and of independent Jewish influence on the formation of Falasha Judaism. Some religious holidays of the Falasha are not marked by other Jews, and the Falasha traditionally did not celebrate post-Exilic festivals such as Hanukkah and Purim. Religious leadership was provided by "monks" and priests. These monks have disappeared since the late 1960s, but the priests still function as liturgical and community leaders. Since the mid-twentieth century, Falasha Judaism has been much influenced by Talmudic Judaism; religious practices not in accordance with it have, for the most part, been abandoned. In Israel, the priests are retrained as spiritual leaders. They learn rabbinical law, but few attain the status of rabbi. After arrival in Israel, Falasha immigrants are familiarized with the basics of Talmudic religious law. It is the requirement of a symbolic "conversion" that has caused the most problems in Falasha social adaptation in Israel. In addition to their Judaic belief, the Falasha traditionally shared the common Ethiopian beliefs in supernatural forces and spirits. They also consult magicians; some Falasha were themselves famous magicians, who were also revered by Christians.
Arts. Expressive arts are poorly developed among the Falasha. Except for simple decoration of pots and clothes, there are no well-developed art forms. Women used to decorate their faces and arms with tattoo patterns, like Amhara-Tigray women. There are Falasha musicians, who play the common Ethiopian instruments such as krar, masänqo, and washint, but most of their songs and dances follow the style and form of those of the Amhara-Tigray. Unique to a certain degree is their liturgical music, performed by priests during parts of the prayer service, but even this is heavily influenced by Ethiopian Christian liturgical traditions (Shelemay 1986). Medicine. The Falasha had recourse to the spectrum of Ethiopian traditional healers, some of whom were practitoners of magic. There is also a general knowledge of the medicinal qualities of a variety of highland plants. In some villages, clinics were established, first by voluntary agencies interested in the Falasha, later by the government. Health care, is, however, far from adequate.
Death and Afterlife. The Falasha believe, in accordance with the tenets of the Bible, in life after death, and that the dead will be resurrected at the end of days. Burial takes place as soon as possible, even before all relatives may have arrived. Death is the strongest source of ritual pollution of living persons. Those having touched the corpse must remain in isolation for several days before rejoining the community. Eulogies on the deceased are given by various relatives on the day of the funeral or before. There is no particular veneration of the dead, as there is no clear idea of "lineage solidarity." Commemorative gatherings in honor of the dead person are held one week, one month, and one year after the burial.
Abbink, J. (1987). "A Socio-Structural Analysis of the Beta Esráel as an 'Infamous' Group in Traditional Ethiopia." Sociologus 37:140-154.
Abbink, J. (1990). "L'énigme de l'ethnogenèse des Beta Esráel: Une analyse anthropo-historique de leurs mytholégendes." Cahiers d'Études Africaines 28.
Ashkenazi, M., and A. Weingrod, eds. (1987). Ethiopian Jews and Israel. New Brunswick and Oxford: Transaction Books.
Kaplan, S. (1985a). "The Beta Israel (Falasha) in the Ethiopian Context." Israel Social Science Research 3(1-2): 9-27. Reprinted in Ashkenazi Wingrod 1987.
Kaplan, S. (1985b). "The Falasha and the Stephanite: An Episode from 'Gadla Gabra Masih'." Bulletin of the School of (Mental and African Studies 48:279-282.
Kaplan, S. (1988). "Some Hebrew Sources of the Beta Israel (Falasha)." In Proceeding of the VIIIth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa, 1984, edited by Taddesse Beyene. Vol. 1, 199-208. Addis Ababa: Institute of Ethiopian Studies; Huntingdon, U.K.: ELM Publications; Frankfurt am Main: Frobenius Institut.
Quirin, J. A. (1977). "The Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopian History: Caste Formation and Culture Change, 1270-1868." Ph.D. thesis, University of Minnesota (Minneapolis). Available on Xerox University Microfilms.
Shelemay, K. Kaufman (1986). Music, Ritual, and Falasha History. East Lansing: Michigan State University, African Studies Center.
Shelemay, K. Kaufman (1988). "Historical Ethnomusicology: Reconstructing Falasha Liturgical History." Ethnomusicology 24:233-258.
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The name is Amharic, and means literally ‘exile, immigrant’.
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