During the 1980s, the Jews of Ethiopia began leaving Africa for Israel in the thousands, and at present very few remain in Ethiopia. Their emigration to Israel has involved many challenges, including having to transition from village life to life in a more technologically advanced society and becoming an ethnic minority. In addition, Ethiopian Jews also practiced a form of Judaism that was unfamiliar to most of their coreligionists.
Among Ethiopian Jewry’s unique traditions is the Sigd, an annual holiday which will be celebrated this year on October 31. On that day, thousands of Ethiopian Jews from across Israel will ascend to Jerusalem, primarily to the Armon Hanatziv Promenade that overlooks the Old City. Since 2008, the Sigd has been an official Israeli state holiday, though it continues to be celebrated mainly by the country’s Jewish community from Ethiopia, which now numbers about 130,000.
On the morning preceding last year’s Sigd celebration, I visited the apartment of one of the oldest qessotch – priests who are the traditional spiritual leaders of Jews from Ethiopia – in Israel. Born in the Gondar district of Ethiopia, seventy-nine-year-old Qes Emaha Negat moved to Israel in 1991, and now lives in the seaside city of Netanya. Clothed entirely in white, his head wrapped in a white turban, and speaking Hebrew and Amharic, Qes Emaha recounted the biblical events in which the Sigd is rooted.
Sigd means “prostration” or “bowing down” in Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopian liturgical language. The holiday commemorates, and is patterned after, events described in chapters 8 and 9 of the Biblical Book of Nehemiah, which recounts how the Jews who returned to the Land of Israel from Babylon in the 6th century B.C.E., gathered in Jerusalem and publically recommitted themselves to the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
One of the first worshipers I encountered in Jerusalem on the morning of the Sigd celebration was Adgo Salehu. Dressed in white and draped in a red, yellow and green sash, Salehu arrived early at the Armon Hanatziv Promenade, where he located a prime spot to situate his tripod-mounted video camera and record the celebration. On finding out that I had traveled from the United States to participate in the holiday, he smiled broadly. “This day of prayer must not be only for the Jews from Ethiopia, but for the whole nation,” Salehu said. “It is important that the Sigd holiday develops and expands, and that more people join in its celebration.”
During the Sigd, dozens of qessotch assemble at the Armon Hanatziv Promenade on a specially constructed platform adorned with the flags of Israel and Jerusalem. Some are dressed all in white; others wear cloaks of embroidered gold, blue, purple or black, adorned with large Stars of David. In addition to multi-colored parasols, the qessotch carry fly whisks and walking sticks, all three items representing their honored position. Behind them, the stone walls of the Old City glimmer in the sunlight.
Beneath a “Welcome to the Sigd Holiday” banner written in Hebrew and Amharic, the qessotch chant prayers in the ancient Ge’ez and Agaw languages. Biblical passages, including those describing the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai and the renewal of the covenant by the Jews who returned from the Babylonian exile, are read to the congregation in Ge’ez, and then translated into Amharic, the first language of many members of the Jewish community from Ethiopia.
By the afternoon, the hours of worship and study at the Armon Hanatziv Promenade build to a religious crescendo. The tone of the Sigd chanting becomes increasingly joyous, and the qessotch sway, accompanied by rhythmic drumming. Women raise their hands, ululate, and prostrate, pressing their foreheads to the ground.
When the qessotch descend from their platform at the conclusion of the services, they are quickly surrounded by hundreds of congregants, who accompany them with jubilant cries, applause, and trumpet blasts to a nearby tent, there to break the fast communally following the annual renewal of the covenant.
“I would suggest that Jews in Israel and the rest of the world adopt this holiday,” Rabbi Hadane, the chief rabbi of the Jewish community from Ethiopia, said to me outside the tent. “Our forefathers in Ethiopia always prayed to return to Jerusalem and always prayed in the direction of Jerusalem. We are here, but the vast majority of the Jewish nation is still in the diaspora, and this day and these prayers are very important for ingathering the exiles.”
Shai Afsai (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Providence.
Editor’s note: In November 2012, Shai Afsai made a pilgrimage to Israel to celebrate and learn about the Sigd holiday. His visit was reported in the Dec. 7 issue of The Jewish Voice & Herald. He plans a return trip later this month.