The Beta Israel, as the Ethiopian Jews are known, hold that they are descendants of the tribe of Dan. The traditions telling of their arrival to Ethiopia range from the times of Moses to King Solomon & the Queen of Sheba to the splitting of the Kingdom in ancient Israel. Although they were mentioned by travelers at various points, it wasn’t until the late 20th century that more had become known about Ethiopian Jews after they had arrived in Israel.
Ethiopian Jews had a form of Judaism that showed traces of halakhic Judaism yet was very different from most Jewish Rabbinic communities today. They had lost Hebrew, and have a language known only by the priests, in which they would learn and spread Jewish knowledge. They had a form of Shabbat and many of the holidays, but no festivals established after the first Temple period – in other words, no mention of Purim or Chanukah.
One of the most notable aspects of the Ethiopian Jewish experience is the Sigd festival celebrated 50 days after Yom Kippur. The holiday is unique to the Beta Israel. Following the traditions of Yom Kippur, the festival is meant as a day of fasting, purity and renewal. However, it is not meant to mimic Yom Kippur, but rather enhance upon that experience. If Yom Kippur is a day of personal introspection, Sigd is meant as a time for communal reflection.
With preparations being done the week before and celebrations often being carried out for a couple of days after, the main event is on the 29th of Heshvan. Those who lived in smaller villages would stay by family members in the larger villages so that during Sigd they could all be together. The qessotch would choose a high point upon which the community would ascend and prepare by placing stones in a circle with a special table to hold the holy books in the center, at the top of the chosen mountain.
On the 29th of Heshvan (a month that in most of the Jewish world is known as mar Heshvan, or bitter Heshvan, as it is a month without holidays) the Beta Israel would wake up early, dip in the river and dress in holiday clothes. The qessotch would take the Orit (Torah) from the ark and carry it to the mountain. (Qessotch were not necessarily kohanim; rather they can be thought of as the equivalent to rabbis as they were the most learned in their communities.) The rest of the community would likewise ascend the mountain, carrying holy books or stones on their heads. According to some the stones represent the tablets given at Mt. Sinai.
At the top of the mountain, the qessotch would unravel the Orit and the high priest would enter the circle of stones. As with the fasting, this is reminiscent of the traditions of Yom Kippur as during the times of the Temple, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies. He would then read texts that included Exodus 19-20 (ceremony Mount Sinai) and Nehemia 8 (Covenant Ceremony). The holy texts are called “Mashafa Kadus” by the Beta Israel.
Both texts remind that the traditions of the Sigd have Biblical references. Where Moses went to the top of the mountain, Mt. Sinai, from which the community heard holy texts, the Beta Israel perform a similar ritual during this holiday. Similarly, the community would atone for their sins after the texts were read, and bow before God, just as the Jewish people did in the times of Ezra and Nehemia. Sigd revolves around the renewal of the covenant, just as the covenant was renewed in Nehemia 8.
"וַיְבָרֶךְ עֶזְרָא אֶת יְהוָה הָאֱלֹהִים הַגָּדוֹל וַיַּעֲנוּ כָל הָעָם אָמֵן אָמֵן בְּמֹעַל יְדֵיהֶם וַיִּקְּדוּ וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲוֻּ לַיהוָה אַפַּיִם אָרְצָה." נחמיה ח:ו
“And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. And all the people answered: 'Amen, Amen,’ with the lifting up of their hands; and they bowed their heads and fell down before the LORD with their faces to the ground.” Nehemia 8:6
In fact, this element is so significant in the holiday that the name itself refers to it. Sigd in its Semitic root means prostration.
At the end of the ceremony, the Beta Israel would blow trumpets and declare "לשנה הבאה בירושלים", for their desire to celebrate in Jerusalem next year. The qessotch would bless the crowd and distribute dabbo, a special bread, and talla, a type of beer, to the community. They would then descend the mountain, dancing and singing along the way.
There are a couple of traditions as to when this holiday was established. On the one hand, it is held that it was established in the sixth century BCE as a day of thanks following a civil war between local Christian and Jewish factions. Another tradition dates it to the fifteenth century, established as an attempt to counter the Christian influence on the local Jewish community.
When the Beta Israel arrived in Israel, there was debate over whether to continue the celebration as they had finally arrived to the Holy Land. It was decided that as long as the Temple is not built, they would continue. The community, however, was split as to where to perform the celebrations. A majority continue to do so on a high point in the landscape, most notably the Armon Hanetziv promenade in Jerusalem, from which one can see the Western Wall. A smaller percentage, mainly those from the Tigray Province in Ethiopia celebrate at the Western Wall itself.
In 2008, Israel recognized Sigd as a national holiday. This became a sign of further integration of the Ethiopian experience into the larger Jewish experience. The largest celebration of Sigd in Israel today is at Armon Hanetziv, where state dignitaries join – including the president and prime minister. Today the festival is kept more symbolically, with individuals fasting until midday. However, the ascension with the Orit and the reading of the texts is still done before a crowd of Ethiopians as well as Jews of other origins.
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