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Interior of the Shivat Zion synagogue of Ethiopian Jews, Ramla, Israel, 2019
Shaphardi Nusach (Sephardi rite).
Levi Eshkol street, Ramla
Photo: Michael Strimban
The Oster Visual Documentation Center, ANU – Museum of the Jewish People

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21374398
Image Purchase: For more details about image purchasing Click here, make sure you have the photo ID number (as appear above)
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Ethiopia

ኢትዮጵያ 

የኢትዮጵያ ፌዴራላዊ ዴሞክራሲያዊ ሪፐብሊክ - Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
Formerly known as Abyssinia
A state in north-east Africa.

21st Century

In 2018 most Jews of Ethiopia lived in Addis Ababa, the capital city of the country. The social and religious activities took place at a compound that included a synagogue, a vocational training center, and other facilities.

 

HISTORY

The Jews of Ethiopia, the community of Beta Israel, are called by their neighbours Falashas. The name Falashas is derived from the root Falash in the Ge’ez language, the ancient Ethiopian language, which signifies to emigrate, to wander, i.e. exiles.

Ethnologists believe that they originate from the Agau tribes, who were part of the ancient inhabitants of Ethiopia. Part of the Agau tribes converted to Judaism by influence of Jews who came from southern Arabia or from upper Egypt, or by influence of Jews who were already then living in Ethiopia.

Among the Jews of Ethiopia themselves there are a number of traditions concerning their origin. One of the traditions refers to Jews who arrived in Ethiopia from Egypt, another claims that they originate from the Jews who came to Ethiopia after the destruction of the First Temple, and the most current one asserts that they are descendants of the notables of Jerusalem who accompanied to his country Menelik the first, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Early Jewish sources, Eldad Hadani in the 9th century, Benjamin of Tudela in the 12th century, Elijah of Ferrara in the 15th century, are scant and lack historical foundation. More accurate information is found in the Ethiopian annals, according to which Judaism was widespread in the Axum Kingdom which was founded in the 2nd century by Semitic immigrants from southern Arabia. In the 4th century, under the influence of Byzantine Rome, Christianity became the religion of the country and the elements which remained faithful to Judaism were persecuted. The Jews retreated from the coastal region into the inner mountains north of Lake Tana, in the region of Semyen. They were reinforced by Jewish captives of a military campaign that was waged in the area in 525, and the social group that was called Falashas thus integrated into a strong independent kingdom. The Falashas played an active role in the uprising against the rulers of Axum and the Christian church. According to Ethiopian tradition, the rebels were led by a Jewish Queen named Esther.

The persecution of the Jews in Ethiopia intensified in the 13th-16th centuries and many were forcibly baptized. The Ehtiopian chronicles relate their courage and loyalty to their faith. The Jews suffered heavy casualties but continued to keep their independence. In the first half of the 17th century, when a further uprising of the Agau tribes against King Suaneyos, which the Jews supported, was suppressed, the king attacked the Jewish kingdom and destroyed their forts. The remnants who refused to baptize were murdered, among them their King Gideon, and their independence was permanently lost. In the course of time they were permitted to return to their religion, but their lot was one of suffering and degradation. Many converted to Christianity and were no longer mentioned in the history of Ethiopia. No written documentation of the independent period of the Jews of Ethiopia is available.

It seems that in the Middle Ages there was no contact between the Jews of Ethiopia and world Jewry. Portuguese sources of the 17th century mention a Viennese Jew by the name of Solomon who reached Ethiopia with holy books. At the end of the 18th century their existence was revealed in a book of the Scottish traveller James Brues. In the 19th century the Protestant mission that was active among them, provided news of the Jews of Ethiopia.

In the Jewish press began to appear articles calling for action to save the Jews of Ethiopia from the Christian missionary activity. On the background of the interest shown by the Jews in the west in the fate of the Jews of Ethiopia, the anthropologist Joseph Halevy was sent to Ethiopia in 1867 by the Alliance Israelite Universelle organisation. He confirmed the existence of Jews in Ethiopia. Thanks to his influence and with the support of Baron Rothschild, one of his disciples, Jacques Faitlovitch, went to Ethiopia in 1905 and encouraged practical activity. He organized pro-Falasha activity for returning them back to Judaism and founded mobile schools that went from village to village. A boarding school for Jewish children was opened in Addis Ababa, and they were encouraged to continue their studies in Europe and in Eretz Israel. Some of them were later appointed to public posts and during the Italian occupation they proved their loyalty to the king. But the missionary activity went on and the converts continued to live side by side with those who kept their religion.

Until the beginning of the 20th century most of the Jews of Ethiopia were living in the mountainous regions of north-west Ethiopia, particularly north of Lake Tana. On the whole, they lived in their own villages. In mixed villages their huts formed a separate unit. In the town of Gondar, for instance, a river separated the two communities and when the Jews returned from the Christian zone they dipped in the river. Their isolation from the Jewish world caused them to abandon some of their original customs and to adopt customs of the land.

The exposure to modern ways which infiltrated into Ethiopia during the rule of Haile Selassie was hardly felt in the mountainous regions. The men worked the land as tenants and many worked as builders in the towns. Most of the artisans in Ethiopia were Jewish tinsmiths, silversmiths and goldsmiths, blacksmiths and potters. Religious precepts (kosher food, no travelling on Saturdays) prevented them from joining caravans of merchants and they sold their products only in the nearby areas. The women engaged in pottery, weaving and basketwork. Under the influence of tourism they began making clay statuettes with Jewish symbols. By encouragement of the Ethiopian ministry of tourism, the women organized themselves in a cooperative.

The difficult living conditions, the persecutions, the baptizing to Christianity, caused a steady demographic decline in numbers. At the beginning of the 18th century the Scottish traveller James Brues estimated the number of Jews in Ethiopia at 100,000, in the middle of the 19th century a missionary mentioned a figure of 500,000 and at the beginning of the 20th century Faitlovitch talked of 50.000. In 1971 their number was estimated to be around 25,000.

Their Judaism is connected to the period prior to the Mishna and Talmud and is based on the Bible in the Ge’ez language and on pseudepigrapha that were adopted as sacred texts, the most important being the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilees. The center of religious life was the mesgid (synagogue), where the Jews of Ethiopia spent most of the time on Sabbaths and festivals, and where in addition to prayers they ate their meals in common, sang and danced. The observance of the Sabbath was very strict, the duties of saving life and circumcision were considered as overriding the Sabbath laws. The Book of the Precepts of the Sabbath is originally Ethiopian and is attributed to the monk Aba Zabra who lived in the 15th century.

Their religious leaders, the priests, considered themselves as descendants of Aaron. The festivals were determined according to a calendar different from the Ethiopian civil calendar and close to the Jewish calendar. Hanukkah and Purim and certain religious practices were unknown to them, but they had certain additional festival and fast days.

Their belief in the coming of the Messiah of the House of David led to an attempt to reach Eretz Israel. In 1862, at the time of King Theodore, a theological debate caused the Jews of Ethiopia to abandon their communities and turn to go to Jerusalem. The miracles which they expected did not take place, many died on the way, and the remainder returned to their villages.

The establishment of the State of Israel brought about great excitement, and groups of young people arrived in Israel to learn Hebrew. The Chief Rabbinate refused at that time to recognize them as Jews.

The contact with the outside Jewish world made a mark also in the religious field. In 1957, a calendar, in which the festivals appeared in their Hebrew names and an Amharic transcription, was distributed in Beta Esrael villages. The members of the communities then began to call the festivals by their Hebrew names, and included also Hanukkah. The prayer place began to be called Bet Kenesset (synagogue) and its design was changed. They put on prayer shawls (tallit) and the younger people prayed in Hebrew. The Seder night was added to the ceremonies of Passover.

The youth who had been trained in Israel returned to the villages and taught Hebrew and prayers. The Jewish Agency financed the building of synagogues at the villages, where Hebrew and Jewish customs were taught.

In 1973 Rabbi Obadiah declared the Jews of Ethiopia as descendants of the Tribe of Dan and called for their redemption. They were flown to Israel in two secret air lifts. In the first, Operation Moses in the years 1983-1985, nearly 20,000 of them were brought to Israel. In the second, Operation Solomon at the end of May 1991, another 14,087 Ethiopian Jews were air-lifted to Israel. Another 4,000, who failed to reach the assembly center in Addis Ababa in time, were flown in subsequent months.

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Interior of the Shivat Zion Synagogue, Ramla, Israel, 2019

Interior of the Shivat Zion synagogue of Ethiopian Jews, Ramla, Israel, 2019
Shaphardi Nusach (Sephardi rite).
Levi Eshkol street, Ramla
Photo: Michael Strimban
The Oster Visual Documentation Center, ANU – Museum of the Jewish People

Image Purchase: For more details about image purchasing Click here, make sure you have the photo ID number (as appear above)

Ethiopia

Ethiopia

ኢትዮጵያ 

የኢትዮጵያ ፌዴራላዊ ዴሞክራሲያዊ ሪፐብሊክ - Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
Formerly known as Abyssinia
A state in north-east Africa.

21st Century

In 2018 most Jews of Ethiopia lived in Addis Ababa, the capital city of the country. The social and religious activities took place at a compound that included a synagogue, a vocational training center, and other facilities.

 

HISTORY

The Jews of Ethiopia, the community of Beta Israel, are called by their neighbours Falashas. The name Falashas is derived from the root Falash in the Ge’ez language, the ancient Ethiopian language, which signifies to emigrate, to wander, i.e. exiles.

Ethnologists believe that they originate from the Agau tribes, who were part of the ancient inhabitants of Ethiopia. Part of the Agau tribes converted to Judaism by influence of Jews who came from southern Arabia or from upper Egypt, or by influence of Jews who were already then living in Ethiopia.

Among the Jews of Ethiopia themselves there are a number of traditions concerning their origin. One of the traditions refers to Jews who arrived in Ethiopia from Egypt, another claims that they originate from the Jews who came to Ethiopia after the destruction of the First Temple, and the most current one asserts that they are descendants of the notables of Jerusalem who accompanied to his country Menelik the first, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Early Jewish sources, Eldad Hadani in the 9th century, Benjamin of Tudela in the 12th century, Elijah of Ferrara in the 15th century, are scant and lack historical foundation. More accurate information is found in the Ethiopian annals, according to which Judaism was widespread in the Axum Kingdom which was founded in the 2nd century by Semitic immigrants from southern Arabia. In the 4th century, under the influence of Byzantine Rome, Christianity became the religion of the country and the elements which remained faithful to Judaism were persecuted. The Jews retreated from the coastal region into the inner mountains north of Lake Tana, in the region of Semyen. They were reinforced by Jewish captives of a military campaign that was waged in the area in 525, and the social group that was called Falashas thus integrated into a strong independent kingdom. The Falashas played an active role in the uprising against the rulers of Axum and the Christian church. According to Ethiopian tradition, the rebels were led by a Jewish Queen named Esther.

The persecution of the Jews in Ethiopia intensified in the 13th-16th centuries and many were forcibly baptized. The Ehtiopian chronicles relate their courage and loyalty to their faith. The Jews suffered heavy casualties but continued to keep their independence. In the first half of the 17th century, when a further uprising of the Agau tribes against King Suaneyos, which the Jews supported, was suppressed, the king attacked the Jewish kingdom and destroyed their forts. The remnants who refused to baptize were murdered, among them their King Gideon, and their independence was permanently lost. In the course of time they were permitted to return to their religion, but their lot was one of suffering and degradation. Many converted to Christianity and were no longer mentioned in the history of Ethiopia. No written documentation of the independent period of the Jews of Ethiopia is available.

It seems that in the Middle Ages there was no contact between the Jews of Ethiopia and world Jewry. Portuguese sources of the 17th century mention a Viennese Jew by the name of Solomon who reached Ethiopia with holy books. At the end of the 18th century their existence was revealed in a book of the Scottish traveller James Brues. In the 19th century the Protestant mission that was active among them, provided news of the Jews of Ethiopia.

In the Jewish press began to appear articles calling for action to save the Jews of Ethiopia from the Christian missionary activity. On the background of the interest shown by the Jews in the west in the fate of the Jews of Ethiopia, the anthropologist Joseph Halevy was sent to Ethiopia in 1867 by the Alliance Israelite Universelle organisation. He confirmed the existence of Jews in Ethiopia. Thanks to his influence and with the support of Baron Rothschild, one of his disciples, Jacques Faitlovitch, went to Ethiopia in 1905 and encouraged practical activity. He organized pro-Falasha activity for returning them back to Judaism and founded mobile schools that went from village to village. A boarding school for Jewish children was opened in Addis Ababa, and they were encouraged to continue their studies in Europe and in Eretz Israel. Some of them were later appointed to public posts and during the Italian occupation they proved their loyalty to the king. But the missionary activity went on and the converts continued to live side by side with those who kept their religion.

Until the beginning of the 20th century most of the Jews of Ethiopia were living in the mountainous regions of north-west Ethiopia, particularly north of Lake Tana. On the whole, they lived in their own villages. In mixed villages their huts formed a separate unit. In the town of Gondar, for instance, a river separated the two communities and when the Jews returned from the Christian zone they dipped in the river. Their isolation from the Jewish world caused them to abandon some of their original customs and to adopt customs of the land.

The exposure to modern ways which infiltrated into Ethiopia during the rule of Haile Selassie was hardly felt in the mountainous regions. The men worked the land as tenants and many worked as builders in the towns. Most of the artisans in Ethiopia were Jewish tinsmiths, silversmiths and goldsmiths, blacksmiths and potters. Religious precepts (kosher food, no travelling on Saturdays) prevented them from joining caravans of merchants and they sold their products only in the nearby areas. The women engaged in pottery, weaving and basketwork. Under the influence of tourism they began making clay statuettes with Jewish symbols. By encouragement of the Ethiopian ministry of tourism, the women organized themselves in a cooperative.

The difficult living conditions, the persecutions, the baptizing to Christianity, caused a steady demographic decline in numbers. At the beginning of the 18th century the Scottish traveller James Brues estimated the number of Jews in Ethiopia at 100,000, in the middle of the 19th century a missionary mentioned a figure of 500,000 and at the beginning of the 20th century Faitlovitch talked of 50.000. In 1971 their number was estimated to be around 25,000.

Their Judaism is connected to the period prior to the Mishna and Talmud and is based on the Bible in the Ge’ez language and on pseudepigrapha that were adopted as sacred texts, the most important being the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilees. The center of religious life was the mesgid (synagogue), where the Jews of Ethiopia spent most of the time on Sabbaths and festivals, and where in addition to prayers they ate their meals in common, sang and danced. The observance of the Sabbath was very strict, the duties of saving life and circumcision were considered as overriding the Sabbath laws. The Book of the Precepts of the Sabbath is originally Ethiopian and is attributed to the monk Aba Zabra who lived in the 15th century.

Their religious leaders, the priests, considered themselves as descendants of Aaron. The festivals were determined according to a calendar different from the Ethiopian civil calendar and close to the Jewish calendar. Hanukkah and Purim and certain religious practices were unknown to them, but they had certain additional festival and fast days.

Their belief in the coming of the Messiah of the House of David led to an attempt to reach Eretz Israel. In 1862, at the time of King Theodore, a theological debate caused the Jews of Ethiopia to abandon their communities and turn to go to Jerusalem. The miracles which they expected did not take place, many died on the way, and the remainder returned to their villages.

The establishment of the State of Israel brought about great excitement, and groups of young people arrived in Israel to learn Hebrew. The Chief Rabbinate refused at that time to recognize them as Jews.

The contact with the outside Jewish world made a mark also in the religious field. In 1957, a calendar, in which the festivals appeared in their Hebrew names and an Amharic transcription, was distributed in Beta Esrael villages. The members of the communities then began to call the festivals by their Hebrew names, and included also Hanukkah. The prayer place began to be called Bet Kenesset (synagogue) and its design was changed. They put on prayer shawls (tallit) and the younger people prayed in Hebrew. The Seder night was added to the ceremonies of Passover.

The youth who had been trained in Israel returned to the villages and taught Hebrew and prayers. The Jewish Agency financed the building of synagogues at the villages, where Hebrew and Jewish customs were taught.

In 1973 Rabbi Obadiah declared the Jews of Ethiopia as descendants of the Tribe of Dan and called for their redemption. They were flown to Israel in two secret air lifts. In the first, Operation Moses in the years 1983-1985, nearly 20,000 of them were brought to Israel. In the second, Operation Solomon at the end of May 1991, another 14,087 Ethiopian Jews were air-lifted to Israel. Another 4,000, who failed to reach the assembly center in Addis Ababa in time, were flown in subsequent months.