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Women in Ethiopian Society

Beta Israel women in Ethiopian villages were inactive in public and were in charge of the domestic sphere.

In different periods in Beta Israel history, women were attributed great power, and reified, as in the case of Queen Judith. Prior to immigrating to Israel, Beta Israel women in Ethiopian villages were inactive in public and were in charge of the domestic sphere.

Ethiopian Jews: Background

Almost all researchers, including those who maintain that the Ethiopian Jews did not exist in Ethiopia until the Middle Ages, admit that Jews have lived in Ethiopia from early times. Some say that the Beta Israel are descended from the union of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba; other theories refer to them variously as descendants of Yemenite Jews, Agaus (an Ethiopic indigenous people), Jews who went down to Egypt and wandered south, or even an outgrowth of Jews who inhabited the garrison at Elephantine.

Women’s Occupations

Although the Beta Israel reigned supreme in Ethiopia for several generations and succeeded in subjugating their Christian neighbors, by the seventeenth century they had become a powerless minority with little or no rights to land. From the seventeenth century on, the Beta Israel women worked as artists and decorators in Christian churches.

By the nineteenth century, the Beta Israel had taken up stigmatized craft occupationsThe men became blacksmiths and weavers and the women became potters, a low-status profession associated with fire and danger and with the belief that the Falashas were buda, supernatural beings who disguised themselves as humans during the day and at night became hyenas that could attack humans. “Falasha pottery,” which is still famous in the Wolleka village in the Gondar region, became a major industry and Beta Israel women selling pots and statuettes attracted many tourists, particularly from the 1970s to the 1990s.

The Beta Israel in Ethiopia tended to live in scattered villages located on hilltops near streams. It was women’s job to haul water to their homes in earthenware jugs strapped to their backs. Women were in charge of the domestic sphere, baking the basic bread (enjera) on an open hearth, which they also stoked to gain warmth. They prepared the stew (wat), commonly made of lentils and chicken or meat, to go with the enjera. The meal was often accompanied by a type of home brew (talla) made of hops, other grains, and water and fermented in containers made by women. Food was stored in baskets made of rushes from local plants, dried in the sun and twisted into coils. Women spent time weaving these brightly colored baskets, which could also be used to serve food, if the basket was flat-topped. Preparation of coffee was also the province of women, who washed and roasted the raw coffee beans before grinding them manually in a mortar. They brewed the coffee in a pot over the fire and served it in small cups to guests, primarily females, who dropped in to drink coffee and exchange gossip.

Women looked after young children. A mother would strap the smallest baby on her back, while drawing water from the stream or cooking. Young boys stayed with her in the home until they joined their fathers in the field; young girls were expected to help their mothers and take care of the younger children until the age of marriage, around first menstruation.

The Purity of Women

For the Beta Israel, as for many others, the purity of women and their blood signified womanhood and the pulse of life as it revolved around sexual relations and the renewal of male-female relations.

The Bible states:

When a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be unclean for seven days, as in the period of her impurity through menstruation…. The woman shall wait for thirty-three days because her blood requires purification; she shall touch nothing that is holy, and shall not enter the sanctuary till her days of purification are completed. If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean for fourteen days as for her menstruation and shall wait for sixty-six days because her blood requires purification.

Leviticus 12:1–6

The Beta Israel of Ethiopia observed this tenet in strict fashion, precisely following the Torah commandment, isolating the woman in a hut of childbirth (yara gojos/ ye-margam gogo) for forty days after the birth of a boy and eighty days after the birth of a girl.

In Leviticus, it is further written:

When a woman has a discharge of blood, her impurity shall last for seven days; anyone who touches her shall be unclean till evening. Everything in which she lies or sits during her impurity shall be unclean.

(Leviticus 15:19–20)

In Ethiopia, every woman belonging to the Beta Israel spent approximately a week in a special menstruating hut (ye-margam gogo/ye-dam gogo/ye-dam bet), where she was prohibited by virtue of her impure blood from coming into contact with people who were in a pure state.

She was thus isolated for the length of time of her menstrual period and could share the hut only with other menstruating women. Since her impurity was contaminating, she was not allowed to dine or spend time with pure people, least of all her husband, who could resume sexual relations with her only after she had purified herself in the river. A series of stones surrounded the menstruating hut, separating the impure women from other members of the village.

In many villages, the hut was situated almost outside the village, on the peripheries between conquered, civilized space (the village) and the unknown, the wilds, the unconquerable space (the outside). However, in the village of Wolleka near Gondar, the menstruating hut was situated on the hill in the center of the village, far away from the view of passing tourists buying “Falasha pottery” but nevertheless in center-stage as far as the villagers were concerned. It was marked off by stones surrounding the hut in circular fashion, and little children would push food on ceramic plates inside the circle, which would then be taken by the menstruating women. Although Faitlovitch and other Westerners, as well as Ethiopian pupils who had studied in the West, tried to persuade the Beta Israel women not to observe the purity laws according to the Biblical precepts and tried to encourage them to come in line with Jews elsewhere, Beta Israel women in Ethiopia kept these rules strictly until their immigration to Israel, and often thereafter.

Contact with the Western World

The Beta Israel had little contact with the Western world before the nineteenth century. Protestant missionaries from the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews succeeded in converting some Beta Israel to Christianity. In 1867, Prof. Joseph Halevy (1827-1917), a Semitic scholar from the Sorbonne in Paris, met with the Beta Israel in Ethiopia. In a detailed report in 1877 to the Alliance Israelite Universelle, Halevy described the religious practices of his co-religionists, who had not been exposed to the Oral Law, and recommended steps to improve their socio-economic conditions; no action, however, was taken.

Click here to read more about Ethiopian Jewish women in Israeli society following mass immigration to Israel.

Reprinted from the Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

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