Theology of Ethiopian Jews

by Evan Centanni

As Jews from around the world have converged in Israel over the last century, people from many different cultures and varieties of Judaism have been learning to live together. Perhaps one of the most distinct groups is the Beta Israel, or Ethiopian Jews, who practiced their own version of the religion in Ethiopia for many centuries before many of them moved to Israel in recent decades.

Background

The Ethiopian Jews are said to have been in Ethiopia for more than 2,000 years, though how they got there is a question lost to history. One theory claims they originated from the lost ancient Israelite Dan tribe. Another theory claims they are the descendants of King Solomon and Queen Sheba. Once they arrived in Ethiopia, they faced religious persecution in the largely Christian country for many centuries. Since 1975, most Ethiopian Jews have moved to Israel--many of them during two major airlift operations conducted by the Israeli government. Today there are more than 80,000 Ethiopian-born Jews in Israel.

Beliefs

Ethiopian Judaism follows the Hebrew Bible, though its version is written in Ge'ez, an ancient language of Ethiopia. Unlike most other Jewish groups, Ethiopian Jews do not have any version of the Torah or other texts describing Jewish traditional law. Because of this, their religion has been described as "pure Mosaism," meaning their beliefs and laws come directly from the teachings of Moses (for example, the Ten Commandments).

Sabbath

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, Ethiopian Jews personify the Sabbath as "an angel placed over the sun and the rain," who was created before heaven and earth and will go first to Jerusalem when the Messiah comes. They follow a strict observation of the Sabbath, spending Friday night in the synagogue and then praying and eating there on Saturday morning. During the Sabbath, lighting fires and crossing rivers are forbidden.

Festivals

Unlike most other followers of Judaism, the Ethiopian Jews do not traditionally celebrate the holidays of Purim or Hanukkah. However, they do observe Passover, historically eating a special type of bread and slaughtering a sacrificial lamb. They also have a Harvest Festival in the autumn and celebrate New Year's Day as the "Festival of Shoferot." Ethiopian Judaism involves fasting several times a month in honor of Passover, the Day of Atonement and the angel Michael.

Ceremonies

In addition to the sacrificial lamb for Passover, Ethiopian Judaism also calls for many other offerings to God--more than is called for by the Bible, according to religious scholars. Observers of traditional Ethiopian Judaism in Ethiopia reported that ceremonies were conducted with incense and music from the sistrum, a type of ancient musical instrument. They also reported when one of the community dies, the body is buried without a coffin in a stone-lined grave, and mourners must stay by the grave lamenting for seven days before the soul of the departed person can move on from the Valley of Death.

About the Author

Evan Centanni specializes in world cultures and human geography. He grew up in Oregon, but has since lived in two other countries and traveled to many more. Centanni is editor of Political Geography Now at www.polgeonow.com. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies and linguistics from the University of Oregon.

Photo Credits

  • Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Images News/Getty Images