Beta Israel (Hebrew: בֵּיתֶא יִשְׂרָאֵל, Beyte (beyt) Yisrael; Ge’ez: ቤተ እስራኤል, Bēta ‘Isrā’ēl?, modernBēte ‘Isrā’ēl, EAE: “Betä Ǝsraʾel”, “House of Israel” or “Community of Israel”), also known as Ethiopian Jews (Hebrew: יְהוּדֵי אֶתְיוֹפְּיָה: Yehudey Etyopyah; Ge’ez: የኢትዮጵያ አይሁድዊ, ye-Ityoppya Ayhudi), are Jews that developed and lived for centuries in the area of Kingdom of Aksum and the Ethiopian Empire that is currently divided between Amhara and Tigray Regions of Ethiopia. Most of these peoples have emigrated to Israel since the late 20th century.
Beta Israel lived in northern and northwestern Ethiopia, in more than 500 small villages spread over a wide territory, alongside populations that were Muslim and predominantly Christian. Most of them were concentrated in the area around and to the north of Lake Tana, in the Gondar region among the Wolqayit, Shire and Tselemt, Dembia, Segelt, Quara, and Belesa.
The Beta Israel made renewed contacts with other Jewish communities in the later 20th century. After Halakhic and constitutional discussions, Israeli officials decided on March 14, 1977, that the Israeli Law of Return applied to the Beta Israel. The Israeli and American governments mounted aliyah operations to transport the people to Israel. These activities included Operation Brothers in Sudan between 1979 and 1990 (this includes the major operations Moses and Joshua), and in the 1990s from Addis Ababa (which includesOperation Solomon).
By the end of 2008, there were 119,300 people of Ethiopian descent in Israel, including nearly 81,000 people born in Ethiopia and about 38,500 native-born Israelis (about 32 percent of the community) with at least one parent born in Ethiopia.
First IDF ordnance officer of Ethiopian Jewish origin
Throughout its history, the community has been referred to by numerous names. According to tradition the name “Beta Israel” (literally “house of Israel” in Ge’ez) originated in the 4th century CE, when the community refused to convert to Christianity during the rule of Abreha and Atsbeha (identified with Se’azana and Ezana), the monarchs of the Kingdom of Aksum who embraced Christianity. This name contrasts with “Beta Kristiyan” (literally “house of Christianity”, referring to “church” in Ge’ez). It did not originally have negative connotations, and the community has since used Beta Israel as its official name. Since the 1980s, it has also become the official name used in the scholarly and scientific literature to refer to the community. The term Esra’elawi “Israelites“—which is related to the name Beta Israel—is also used by the community to refer to its members.
The name Ayhud “Jews” is rarely used in the community, as the Christians had used it as a derogatory term. The community has begun to use it only since strengthening ties with other Jewish communities in the 20th century. The term Ibrawi “Hebrew” was used to refer to the Chawa (free man) in the community, in contrast to Barya “slave”. The term Oritawi “Torah-true” was used to refer to the community members; since the 19th century it has been used in opposition to the term Falash Mura (converts).
The major derogatory term Falasha “landless, wanderers” was given to the community by the Emperor Yeshaq I in the 15th century. Zagwe, referring to the Agaw people of the Zagwe dynasty, among the original inhabitants of northwest Ethiopia, is considered derogatory since it incorrectly associates the community with the largely pagan Agaw.
A niddah hut (Mergem Gogo) at the Jewish village of Ambober
in northern Ethiopia, 1976.
Haymanot (Ge’ez: ሃይማኖት) is the colloquial term of the Jewish religion in the community.
Mäṣḥafä Kedus (Holy Scriptures) is the name for the religious literature. The language of the writings is Ge’ez, which is also the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It is the parent-language of modern Amharic and Tigrinya. The holiest book is the Orit (used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to denote the word “scripture”) which consists of the Octateuch: Five Books of Moses with Joshua, Judges and Ruth. The rest of the Bible has secondary importance. Sources are lacking on whether the Book of Lamentations is excluded from the canon, or whether it forms part of the Book of Jeremiah as it does in the Orthodox Tewahedo biblical canon.
Deuterocanonical books that also make up part of the canon are Sirach, Judith, Esdras 1 and 2,Meqabyan, Jubilees, Baruch 1 and 4, Tobit, Enoch, and the testaments of Abraham, Isaac, andJacob.
Important non-Biblical writings include: Nagara Muse (The Conversation of Moses), Mota Aaron (Death of Aharon), Mota Muse (Death of Moses), Te’ezaza Sanbat (Precepts of Sabbath), Arde’et(Students), Gorgorios, Mäṣḥafä Sa’atat (Book of Hours), Abba Elias (Father Elija), Mäṣḥafä Mäla’əkt (Book of Angels), Mäṣḥafä Kahan (Book of Priest), Dərsanä Abrəham Wäsara Bägabs(Homily on Abraham and Sarah in Egypt), Gadla Sosna (The Acts of Susanna) and Baqadāmi Gabra Egzi’abḥēr (In the Beginning God Created). Zëna Ayhud (Jews Story) and Fālasfā(Philosophers) are two books that are not considered sacred but have had great influence.
Ethiopian Jews were forbidden to eat the food of non-Jews. A Kahen eats only meat he has slaughtered himself, which his hosts prepare both for him and themselves. Beta Israel who broke these taboos were ostracized and had to undergo a purification process. Purification included fasting for one or more days, eating only uncooked chickpeas provided by the Kahen, and ritual purification before entering the village. Unlike other Ethiopians, the Beta Israel do not eat raw meat dishes such as kitfo or gored gored.
Calendar and holidays
The Beta Israel calendar is a lunar calendar of 12 months, each 29 or 30 days alternately. Every four years there is a leap year which added a full month (30 days). The calendar is a combination of the ancient calendar of Alexandrian Jewry, Book of Jubilees, Book of Enoch, Abu Shaker, and the Ge’ez calendar. The years are counted according to the counting of Kushta: “1571 to Jesus Christ, 7071 to the Gyptians and 6642 to the Hebrews”; according to this counting, the year 5771 (Hebrew: ה’תשע”א) in the Rabbinical Hebrew calendar is the year 7082 in this calendar.
Holidays in the Haymanot (religion) are divided into daily, monthly and annually. The annual holidays by month are:
- Nisan: ba’āl lisan (Nisan holiday – New Year) on 1, ṣomä fāsikā (Passover fast) on 14, fāsikā (Passover) between 15 – 21 and gadfat (grow fat) or buho (fermented dough) on 22.
- Iyar: another fāsikā (Second Passover – Pesach Sheni) between 15 – 21.
- Sivan: ṣomä mã’rar (Harvest fast) on 11 and mã’rar (Harvest – Shavuot) on 12.
- Tammuz: ṣomä tomos (Tammuz fast) between 1 – 10.
- Av: ṣomä ab (Av fast) between 1 – 17.
- Elul: awd amet (Year rotate) on 1, ṣomä lul (Elul fast) between 1 – 9, anākel astar’i (our atonement) on 10 and asartu wasamantu (eighteenth) on 28.
- Tishrei: ba’āl Matqe (blowing holiday – Zikhron Trua) on 1, astasreyo (Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur) on 10 and ba’āla maṣallat (Tabernacles holiday – Sukkot) between 15 – 21.
- Cheshvan: holiday for the day Moses saw the face of God on 1, holiday for the reception ofMoses by the Israelites on 10, fast on 12 and měhlělla (Supplication – Sigd) on 29.
- Kislev: another ṣomä mã’rar and mã’rar on 11 and 12 respectively.
- Tevet: ṣomä tibt (Tevet fast) between 1 – 10.
- Shevat: wamashi brobu on 1.
- Adar: ṣomä astēr (Fast of Esther – Ta’anit Ester) between 11 – 13.
Monthly holidays are mainly memorial days to the annual holiday, these are yačaraqā ba’āl (“new moon festival”) on the first day of every month, asärt (“ten”) on the tenth day to commemorate Yom Kippur, ‘asrã hulat (“twelve”) on the twelfth day to commemorate Shavuot, asrã ammest(“fifteen”) on the fifteenth day to commemorate Passover and Sukkot, and ṣomä mälěya a fast on the last day of every month. Daily holidays include the ṣomä säňňo (Monday fast), ṣomä amus(Thursday fast), ṣomä ‘arb (Friday fast) and the very holy Sanbat (Sabbath).
Many of the Beta Israel accounts of their own origins stress that they stem from the very ancient migration of some portion of the Tribe of Dan to Ethiopia, led it is said by sons of Moses, perhaps even at the time of the Exodus, or perhaps due to later crises in Judea, e.g., at the time of the split of the northern Kingdom of Israel from the southern Kingdom of Judah after the death of King Solomon or at the time of the Babylonian Exile. Other Beta Israel take as their basis the Christian account of Menelik‘s return to Ethiopia. Menelik is considered the first SolomonicEmperor of Ethiopia, and is traditionally believed to be the son of King Solomon of ancient Israel, and Makeda, ancient Queen of Sheba (in modern Ethiopia). Though all the available traditionscorrespond to recent interpretations, they reflect ancient convictions. According to Jon Abbink; three different versions are to be distinguished among the traditions which were recorded from the priests of the community.
Companions of Menelik from Jerusalem
By versions of this type, the Beta Israel expressed their belief that they were not necessarily descendants of King Solomon, but contemporaries of Solomon and Menelik, originating from the kingdom of Israel.
Migrants by the Egyptian route
According to these versions, the forefathers of the Beta Israel are supposed to have arrived in Ethiopia coming from the North, independently from Menelik and his company:
Kebra Nagast CLICK Link To Read it or save the link
39. How they made the Son of SOLOMON King
And they made ready the ointment of the oil of kingship, and the sounds of the large horn, and the small horn, and the flute and the pipes, and the harp and the drum filled the air; and the city resounded with cries of joy and gladness. And they brought the young man into the Holy of Holies, and he laid hold upon the horns of the altar, and sovereignty was given unto him by the mouth of ZADOK the priest, and by the mouth of JOAS (BENAIAH) the priest, the commander of the army of King SOLOMON, and he anointed him with the holy oil of the ointment of kingship. And he went out from the house of the Lord, and they called his name DAVID, for the name of a king came to him by the law. And they made him to ride upon the mule of King SOLOMON, and they led him round about the city, and said, “We have appointed thee from this moment”; and then they cried out to him, “Bâḥ [Long] live the royal father!” And there were some who said, “It is meet and right that thy dominion ofETHIOPIA shall be from the River of EGYPT to the west of the sun (i.e., to the setting sun); blessed be thy seed upon the earth!—and from SHOA to the east of INDIA, for thou wilt please [the people of these lands]. And the Lord God ofISRAEL shall be unto thee a guide, and the Tabernacle of the Law of God shall be with all that thou lookest upon. And all thine enemies and foes shall be overthrown before thee, and completion and finish shall be p. 54 unto thee and unto thy seed after thee; thou shalt judge many nations and none shall judge thee.” And again his father blessed him and said unto him, “The blessing of heaven and earth shall be thy blessing,” and all the congregation of ISRAEL said, “Amen.” And his father also said unto ZADOK the priest, “Make him to know and tell him concerning the judgment and decree of God which
The Ethiopian history described in the Kebra Nagast relates that Ethiopians are descendants of Israelite tribes who came to Ethiopia with Menelik I, alleged to be the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (or Makeda, in the legend) The legend relates that Menelik, as an adult, returned to his father in Jerusalem, and later resettled in Ethiopia. He took with him the Ark of the Covenant.
In the Bible there is no mention that the Queen of Sheba either married or had any sexual relations with King Solomon (although some identify her with the “black and beautiful” in Song of Songs1:5). Rather, the narrative records that she was impressed with Solomon’s wealth and wisdom, and they exchanged royal gifts, and then she returned to rule her people in Kush. However, the “royal gifts” are interpreted by some as sexual contact. The loss of the Ark is not mentioned in the Bible. Hezekiah later makes reference to the Ark in 2 Kings 19:15.
The Kebra Negast asserts that the Beta Israel are descended from a battalion of men of Judah who fled southward down the Arabian coastal lands from Judea after the breakup of the Kingdom of Israel into two kingdoms in the 10th century BCE (while King Rehoboam reigned over Judah).
Although the Kebra Nagast and some traditional Ethiopian histories have stated that Gudit (or “Yudit”, Judith; another name given her was “Esato”, Esther), a 10th-century usurping queen, was Jewish, some scholars consider that it is unlikely that this was the case. It is more likely, they say, that she was a pagan southerner or a usurping Christian Aksumite Queen. However, she clearly supported Jews, since she founded the Zagwe dynasty, who governed from around 937 to 1270 CE. According to the Kebra Nagast, Jewish, Christian and pagan kings ruled in harmony at that time. Furthermore, the Zagwe dynasty claimed legitimacy (according to the Kebra Nagast) by saying it was descended from Moses and his Ethiopian wife.
Most of the Beta Israel consider the Kebra Negast to be legend. As its name expresses, “Glory of Kings” (meaning the Christian Aksumite kings), it was written in the 14th century in large part to delegitimize the Zagwe dynasty, to promote instead a rival “Solomonic” claim to authentic Jewish Ethiopian antecedents, and to justify the Christian overthrow of the Zagwe by the “Solomonic” Aksumite dynasty, whose rulers are glorified. The writing of this polemic shows that criticisms of the Aksumite claims of authenticity were current in the 14th century, two centuries after they came to power. Many Beta Israel believe that they are descended from the tribe of Dan. Most reject the “Solomonic” and “Queen of Sheba” legends of the Aksumites.
Tribe of Dan
To prove the antiquity and authenticity of their claims, the Beta Israel cite the 9th-century CE testimony of Eldad ha-Dani (the Danite), from a time before the Zagwean dynasty was established. Eldad was a Jewish man of dark skin who appeared in Egypt and created a stir in that Jewish community (and elsewhere in the Mediterranean Jewish communities he visited) with claims that he had come from a Jewish kingdom of pastoralists far to the south. The only language Eldad spoke was a hitherto unknown dialect of Hebrew. Although he strictly followed the Mosaic commandments, his observance differed in some details from Rabbinic halakhah. Some observers thought that he might be a Karaite, although his practice also differed from theirs. He carried Hebrew books that supported his explanations of halakhah. He cited ancient authorities in the scholarly traditions of his own people.
Eldad said that the Jews of his own kingdom descended from the tribe of Dan (which included the Biblical war-hero Samson) who had fled the civil war in the Kingdom of Israel between Solomon’s son Rehoboam and Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and resettled in Egypt. From there they moved southwards up the Nile into Ethiopia. The Beta Israel say this confirms that they are descended from these Danites. Some Beta Israel, however, assert that their Danite origins go back to the time of Moses, when some Danites parted from other Jews right after the Exodus and moved south to Ethiopia. Eldad the Danite speaks of at least three waves of Jewish immigration into his region, creating other Jewish tribes and kingdoms. The earliest wave settled in a remote kingdom of the “tribe of Moses”: this was the strongest and most secure Jewish kingdom of all, with farming villages, cities and great wealth. Other Ethiopian Jews who appeared in the Mediterranean world over the succeeding centuries and persuaded rabbinic authorities there that they were of Jewish descent, and so could if slaves be ransomed by Jewish communities, join synagogues, marry other Jews, etc, also referred to the Mosaic and Danite origins of Ethiopian Jewry.The Mosaic claims of the Beta Israel, in any case, like those of the Zagwe dynasty, are ancient.
Other sources tell of many Jews who were brought as prisoners of war from ancient Israel byPtolemy I and settled on the border of his kingdom with Nubia (Sudan). Another tradition asserts that the Jews arrived either via the old district of Qwara in northwestern Ethiopia, or via the Atbara River, where the Nile tributaries flow into Sudan. Some accounts specify the route taken by their forefathers on their way upriver to the south from Egypt.
As mentioned above, the 9th-century Jewish traveler Eldad ha-Dani claimed the Beta Israel descended from the tribe of Dan. He also reported other Jewish kingdoms around his own or in East Africa during this time. His writings probably represent the first mention of the Beta Israel in Rabbinic literature. Despite some skeptical critics, his authenticity has been generally accepted in current scholarship. His descriptions were consistent and even the originally doubtful rabbis of his time were finally persuaded. Specific details may be uncertain; one critic has noted Eldad’s lack of detailed reference to Ethiopia’s geography and any Ethiopian language, although he claimed the area as his homeland.
Eldad’s was not the only medieval testimony about Jewish communities living far to the south of Egypt, which strengthens the credibility of his account. Obadiah ben Abraham Bartenura wrote in a letter from Jerusalem in 1488:
Reflecting the consistent assertions made by Ethiopian Jews they dealt with or knew of, after due investigation of their claims and their own Jewish behaviour, a number of Jewish legal authorities not only in modern times but also in previous centuries have ruled halakhically that the Beta Israel are indeed Jews, the descendants of the tribe of Dan, one of the Ten Lost Tribes. They believe that these people established a Jewish kingdom that lasted for hundreds of years. With the rise ofChristianity and later Islam, schisms arose and three kingdoms competed. Eventually, theChristian and Muslim Ethiopian kingdoms reduced the Jewish kingdom to a small impoverished section. The earliest authority to rule this way was David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra (1479–1573), who explains in a responsum concerning the status of a Beta Israel slave: