Closing Thoughts: Ancient Ethiopian Jewish Holiday Teaches Hope
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Closing Thoughts: Ancient Ethiopian Jewish Holiday Teaches Hope

The ancient holiday of Sigd, recently added to the Israeli national calendar, reminds us to embrace hope wholeheartedly.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder
Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder

According to former National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, hope is a sign of bravery. By this measure, Ethiopian Jews are some of the best models for courage, and the upcoming holiday of Sigd reminds us to embrace hope wholeheartedly.

Jews arrived in Ethiopia long ago, in biblical times. According to some, they are the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, possibly the Tribe of Dan. According to others, they are descended from the pairing of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Largely rural, the Jewish community in Ethiopia survived by farming the land. Over time, Ethiopian Jews grew nearly entirely disconnected from Jews in other countries, but always held fast to their commitment to Judaism. Like every Jewish community, they developed their own customs and language while adapting to many of the elements of local culture as well.

Among the unique elements of Ethiopian Jewish life, Sigd stands out. Historically, the holiday existed only on the Ethiopian Jewish calendar. Fifty days after Yom Kippur, on the 29th day of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan, Jews would come from all over to gather near the base of Mount Ambover in Gondar. In the morning, the community dressed in white, would climb the mountain with their religious leaders — the Kesim — and others carrying umbrellas to shade them from the sun.

Many Ethiopian Jews speak Amharic. Sigd comes from the Amharic word for worship or “to bow down.” Arriving at the top of the mountain, worshippers would prostrate themselves in prayer and read passages from the Orit, the first eight books of the Torah translated into Ge’ez. Fasting throughout, they would pray for forgiveness. When the prayers were done, the community would descend the mountain and gather for a feast, coming together in joy and fellowship.

Like many other Jewish communities, over many generations, Ethiopian Jews did experience periods of peace, though more often than not they faced persecution and attempts at conversion. Cut off from Jews in other lands, they did not default to the common Jewish path of migration in times of trouble. Despite their isolation, despite antisemitism, they did not lose hope.

One of the key themes of their prayers was a return to Jerusalem. These were Jews who did not know of the destruction of the First Temple, of the building and destruction of the Second Temple, or of the early days of the Zionist movement. Yet they continued to pray for return. Centuries passed and their hope did not waver.

It was this hope that spurred the courage of the Jews as they began their exodus from Ethiopia in the 1980s, traveling on foot through Sudan with the hope of finally reaching Jerusalem. They had to be brave to travel unlit desert paths at night, to confront bandits, to face down border patrols. They were fueled by hope.

Today, Sigd, which in 2021 will fall on Nov. 3 and 4, has joined other Jewish holidays on the Israeli national calendar. Ethiopian Jews have faced numerous challenges in their resettlement in Israel, but they have never stopped celebrating Sigd or campaigning for its broader acceptance.

This, too, is a sign of hope — a vision of Jewish life in which the traditions and blessings of Ethiopian Jews can and should be included in the calendar all Jews share. The Jewish month of Cheshvan has often been called mar, or bitter, because it lacked the holiday celebrations enjoyed during other months. Instead of dreading Marcheshvan, the bitter month, let all Jews join with our Ethiopian brothers and sisters to celebrate Sigd with courage and hope.

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