JERUSALEM, Israel – This year I was fortunate to make a second pilgrimage to Israel in order to celebrate the annual Sigd holiday of Ethiopian Jewry and to study with several qessotch, the priests who are its traditional spiritual leaders.
The Sigd, which took place on October 31, commemorates and is based on the renewal of the covenant between God and the Jewish people that followed the return of the Jews to the land of Israel from the Babylonian exile, as described in the biblical book of Nehemiah.
During the holiday, thousands of Ethiopian Jews from across Israel gather at Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv Promenade, which overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem. The Sigd services are conducted there by the qessotch, who chant prayers and praises in the ancient Ethiopian Ge’ez and Agau languages.
In addition, the qessotch read selections from the Bible, including passages describing the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai and the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile. The passages are first read aloud from handwritten Ge’ez texts and are then translated into Amharic for the benefit of the congregation, as that is the first language of many Ethiopian Jews.
“Sigd” means bowing or prostration in Ge’ez, and the service includes frequent bowing and prostration on the part of worshipers.
Among those attending this year’s Sigd celebration was the newly appointed Rishon Lezion, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef. His father, the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who was a Sephardi Chief Rabbi, passed away on October 7, at the age of 93.
The late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was considered a great supporter and friend of Ethiopian Jews, having issued rabbinic rulings that paved the way for their mass aliyah to the state of Israel and reiterated that they are Jews according to halakhah (Jewish religious law).
When it was announced that Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef had arrived at the Armon Hanatziv Promenade, a ripple of ululations spread through the crowd of worshipers, and people rose as a sign of respect upon seeing him.
Wearing the traditional hat and embroidered robe of a Rishon Lezion, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef joined the qessotch on the platform from which they conduct the Sigd services, and offered his greetings.
“I wish to bless you on the occasion of your holiday,” he told the worshipers. “There is nothing greater than that there be unity in the nation of Israel. Thank God, we have merited that there be an ingathering of exiles … . For two thousand years we longed for this thing … . Thank God, there are now over six million Jews in the Land of Israel.”
Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef used the occasion to remember his late father. “I wish to mention my father, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who issued the rabbinic ruling that the Jews of Ethiopia are Jews in every sense, basing himself on the words of the Radbaz (Rabbi David ben Shelomo ibn Zimra) and Rabbi (Yaakov) Castro and others,” the Sephardi Chief Rabbi said.
He explained that his father had issued that historic ruling “in order to safeguard the Judaism of the nation of Israel and the uniqueness of the nation of Israel.” Chief Rabbi Yosef then urged the qessotch to continue laboring for Judaism and the Torah, and to “strengthen your entire holy congregation.”
Other speakers at the Sigd celebration included two new Knesset (Israeli parliament) members from the Ethiopian Jewish community: Penina Tamanu-Shata, who is Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, and Shimon Solomon.
“I am proud and moved to be standing before you … on the Sigd holiday, a holiday that symbolizes for us the renewal of the covenant and our love for the Land (of Israel) … which is the undisputed home of all of us,” MK Tamanu-Shata said.
She also took the opportunity to remember the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. “I wish to express sorrow about the death of the Gadol Hador Ovadia Yosef. There are many things I could say about Maran,” she continued, referring to the rabbi by one of his popular titles. She noted that “he treaded where others did not tread” and that among other bold moves, “he is the one who ruled unequivocally … that the Jews of Ethiopia are Jews in every sense.”
In his address, MK Shimon Solomon suggested that the Sigd holiday has three primary functions: to safeguard Jewish identity and assure that Jews remain distinct from gentiles; to safeguard the Jewish way of life; and to bring about peace in the home and between friends.
“The Sigd is my answer to those who question our Jewishness,” MK Solomon declared.
Rabbi Yosef Hadane, the Chief Rabbi of the Ethiopian community, stressed the significance and historical context of the Sigd in his speech. “This day is important for us, the Jews from Ethiopia, as well as for the entire nation of Israel, as all of Israel are responsible for one another,” he said.
The rabbi recounted that in Ethiopia the practice was for Jews to gather and ascend a mountain during the Sigd, to pray, and afterwards to return to the synagogue.
“Why don’t we pray in the synagogue? Why do we climb a mountain?” Rabbi Hadane asked.
He explained that the Sigd practice of worshiping outdoors, on a mountain, is connected to the original receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
“We celebrate in commemoration of Ezra and Nehemiah,” the rabbi said, describing how the Jews in the land of Israel had forgotten much of the Torah and intermingled with the local non-Jewish population as a result of the Babylonian exile, but that when Ezra arrived he reorganized the community “so that all will be according to the ways of Moses and Israel.” As a result, the Jewish community repented and recommitted itself to the covenant with God in Jerusalem.
“Gentlemen,” Rabbi Hadane said, returning to his point about why the holiday is celebrated atop a mountain, “the acceptance of the Torah at that time was similar to the acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai,” and each year that covenant is renewed during the Sigd.
As the Sigd has a strong element of repentance, it is also a fast day. Following the services, the worshipers joyously escorted the qessotch to a specially erected tent at the Armon Hanatziv Promenade, in which the fast was broken. The aroma of loaves of dabo bread wafted from the tent. After traditional celebratory Ethiopian dancing, the qessotch recited blessings and then passed out bread to the people crowded within, and the Sigd ceremony at the Promenade concluded.
As during last year’s pilgrimage, I visited the Netanya home of Qes Emaha Negat, one of the oldest qessotch in Israel, in order to consult with him. This time, we were joined by my brother Amir Afsai, and by Qes Emaha’s son, Efraim Negat. Among the topics the qes talked about was the importance of maintaining Ethiopian Jewry’s unique religious heritage in the state of Israel, including the Sigd celebration.
“The Sigd isn’t something that the community formed there (in Ethiopia). It was instituted here, in Jerusalem, after the return from the Babylonian exile,” Qes Emaha said. “So our community safeguarded it, to strengthen Judaism, and kept it for 2,500 years. We don’t understand why the rest of the Jewish nation didn’t maintain it. And now we want the entire Jewish nation to safeguard this heritage.”
Editor’s note: Shai Afsai (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Providence resident. Ilene Perlman (perlmanida@com) resides in Boston. The two traveled to Israel in late October and early November to document the Sigd celebration there.
Shai Afsai’s article “The Sigd: From Ethiopia to Israel” will be published in “CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly” in 2014. Text from that forthcoming article currently accompanies a photographic exhibit of the same name about the Sigd, which Afsai put together with the Is-raeli Shaliach (Emissary) to Rhode Island, Matan Graff. The exhibit, which includes photographs of the Sigd celebration in Ethiopia taken by Ilene Perlman in the 1980s, is now being shown in Maryland.