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Jewish Journal

What is Ethiopean Judaism?

by Julie G Fax

September 18, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Kess Hadane

Kess Hadane

Kess Hadane wears a deep blue velvet cape richly embroidered with gold and a white turban. But under the cape is the conventional white shirt and dark pants, and that might be more indicative of Kess Hadane's ardently assimiliationist philosophy.

"There is no need of keeping the traditions that we had back in Ethiopia. We want to create one nation, one people," the kess, a combination priest/rabbi, said through an interpreter. "We have to associate with the culture here and some of our traditions will be eliminated in the process."

Hadane, the head of the Ethiopian community in Beit Shemesh, was one of the first kessoch (plural of kess) reached by Western Jews in the 1950s, and that, said Shoshana Ben-Dor, a scholar of Ethiopian culture, may explain his extremist positions, which are not widely shared.

"There were a few kessoch like him who were convinced that the best way for Ethiopian Jews to be accepted by the world at large was to be as much like or to simply become normative Jews and to a great extent to abandon their own traditional practice," said Ben-Dor, Israel director of the North American Coalition on Ethiopian Jewry and part of team that is attempting to document the music and text of Ethiopian prayer.

A few organizations are working to maintain the 2,000-year-old traditions, but Israel has been so successful in acculturating the community -- whether to mainstream Orthodoxy or more likely to secularism -- that many traditions are being kept only by a handful of the elderly.

Ethiopian Jewish literature and traditions predate the Rabbinic Judaism that became normative after the destruction of the Second Temple.

The Ethiopian Torah, the Orit, is written in Geíez, an ancient Semitic language, and is widely believed to be a translation of a Greek translation of the Bible. The Orit contains the Five Books of Moses, as well as the Prophets, some of the Writings, and additional works not in the Western canon.

While the broad strokes of Ethiopian Judaism is similar to normative Judaism -- no work or fire on Shabbat, ritual slaughter for kashrut, matzah on Pesach and fasting on Yom Kippur -- the details often diverge.

Their adherence to the laws purity in Ethiopia was rigorous, with Jewish villages always situated near a stream for ritual bathing, with a special hut for menstruating women.

Ethiopian prayers are rich and complex, with distinct services not only for weekdays, holidays and Shabbat, but a cycle of seven Shabbatot with distinct elements for each Shabbat.

Ethiopians celebrated all the Biblical holidays in addition to other holy days, such as the Sigd, a fast day when the entire community commemorated Sinai by going with the kess up a mountain, where portions of the Torah and the book of Ezra were read -- a festival still celebrated in Israel today. On certain holy days, the kess brought sacrifices on behalf of the village.

They were ardent Zionists, longing for a return to the Holy Temple, which many believed to be still standing.

Ironically, their return to the body of world Jewry may mean the demise of their unique traditions.

"When looking at the younger generation, a lot of them, even though they feel its important to retain their identity, have very limited knowledge of the traditions," said Ben-Dor."And then you have many who identify as Israelis either by becoming involved in normative Judaism in Israel, or by just abandoning all religious practice.

For More Information:
The Jewish Virtual Library: www.us-israel.org
Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews: www.iaej.co.il
North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry: www.nacoej.org
United Jewish Communities: www.ujc.org

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