The History of Ethiopian Jewry
Piecing together legends and stories.
A Jewish community in Ethiopia--the Beta Israel (House of Israel)--has existed for at least 15 centuries.
Because of low literacy levels, a tendency to rely on oral traditions, and nomadic lifestyles among most Ethiopians prior to the 20th century, historic material about this community is scant and unreliable. However, a tentative story can be pieced together from written records of Ethiopian rulers as well as testimony from the Beta Israel themselves.
Origins of the Community
Most likely, the Beta Israel arrived in Ethiopia between the first and sixth centuries, coming as merchants or artisans from various countries in the region.
Scholars once believed that during the Middle Ages the Beta Israel were a homogeneous group living under unified, autonomous Jewish rule. Yet new discoveries have shown that the truth is far more complex. It seems the Ethiopian Jewish community was for the most part fragmented both physically and religiously, with each Beta Israel village appointing its own spiritual and secular leaders. There was little contact between Beta Israel communities, and usually no overarching leadership uniting them.
Sometimes the Beta Israel were treated well by the Ethiopian monarchy, but at other times they suffered persecution. Many fellow Ethiopians refer to the Beta Israel as falasha (a derogatory term meaning outsider), In 1624, the ruling king's army captured many Ethiopian Jews, forced them to be baptized, and denied them the right to own land. According to local legend, some members of the Beta Israel chose suicide over conversion.
Since the Beta Israel community existed in isolation from other Jewish communities around the world, they developed a unique set of religious practices--in some ways quite different from what is typically considered "Jewish."
For example, an order of Ethiopian Jewish monks was founded in the 15th century to strengthen the community's religious identity and resist Christian influence. This monastic movement introduced an organized approach to religious practice, creating new religious literature and prayers, and adopting laws of ritual purity.
Historians learned about the community's religious life in the 19th century from the writings of Joseph Halevy, a French Jew who visited the area in 1867. He provided the first eyewitness account of Beta Israel life from a European Jewish perspective.
Halevy described a community that followed legal sections in the Hebrew Bible and observed laws of purity surrounding menstruation, birth, and death. They observed Shabbat and believed in values such as respecting elders, receiving guests, and visiting mourners. They referred to the Torah as Orit (possibly from the Aramaic term for the Torah, Oraita), and kept their Torah scrolls covered in colorful cloths in houses of prayer or in the homes of one of the kessim (priests).
Like today in Israel, Ethiopian Jews celebrated Sigd, a festival which commemorates the giving of the Torah. On this holiday, community members would fast, climb the highest mountain in the area, and listen to the kessim chant passages of the Hebrew Bible, particularly the Book of Nehemiah. In the afternoon they would descend, break their fast, and rejoice in their renewed acceptance of the Orit.