Origins of Ethiopia’s Black Jews

by Rev. Thomas W. Goodhue
photos by Ilene Perlman

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Living in a remote mountainous region of northwestern Ethiopia, an area which until recently could be reached only on foot or on horseback, are black Jews who call themselves Kayla or Beta-Israel, “the House of Israel.” They observe the Sabbath as indicated in the Torah, eat only kosher food, pray in straw-roofed synagogues, and use only unleavened bread during the seven days of Passover. Yet they also offer animals in sacrifice and have priests and deacons appointed by the community. Their neighbors call them Falashas, which means strangers, wanderers, or exiles.

No one knows for certain how Judaism reached this part of Africa, though today the Chief Rabbis of both the Ashkenazi and the Sephardic Jews recognize these indigenous Ethiopians, members of the Agau ethnic group, as authentic Jews. Still, many theories abound on how the Jewish faith came to these Agau tribes. Though some tend to sound far-fetched, these speculations are based on Judaic history, Scripture, and religious observance.

Some theorists trace the Ethiopian Jews’ origins to the Exodus from Egypt, claiming that a band of Hebrews headed south rather than across the Sinai desert, ending up in Ethiopia, the land of Moses’ Cushite (Ethiopian, perhaps) wife mentioned in Numbers 12:1.

Nineteenth-century Christian missionaries found that this group celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Passover; they also slaughtered a lamb at Passover and knew only the first five books of the Bible and some “apocryphal” books excluded from Hebrew Scripture by Talmudic rabbis because of their doubtful authenticity.

It is hard to imagine how the customs of Beta-Israel could so closely resemble pre-Talmudic Judaism in Palestine if this group’s origins were at the time of the Exodus. Instead, most scholars suspect that the patterns of kosher food and Sabbath observance were formed later in the Holy Land.

Another theory traces the origins of Judaism in Ethiopia to when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E. Ten of the twelve tribes of Israel were carried off into captivity by the Assyrians, or at least the leaders of these tribes became captives. What became of these “lost tribes” is not clear.

A medieval legend about a ninth-century traveler connects the lost tribes with Ethiopia. Eldad ha-Dani claimed to be from the tribe of Dan and said the Danites had fled Israel before the Assyrian conquest along with the tribes of Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. He said they eventually settled in Ethiopia in 681 B.C.E., but only the Danites had survived. This theory was accepted by the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovaida Yosef.

Eldad actually traveled to Tunisia in the ninth century and described the dietary ritual observed by Jews in another country. Still, this evidence is suspect because little is known about which country he was describing. The ritual he told about differs in many ways from that which later explorers found among Ethiopian Jews.

Another theory argues that Beta-Israel, once a mighty warrior nation, descends from the Jewish colonists at Elephantine Island in the Nile near the southern frontier of Egypt, near modernday Aswan. These colonists probably were first brought to the island as mercenary soldiers, perhaps as early as the seventh or eighth century B.C.E. The end of the colony, like its beginning, is not known.

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Tags: Ethiopia Jews Ethiopian Jews