The Jewish community in Ethiopia — the Beta Israel (House of Israel) — has existed for about 15 centuries.
Due to low literacy levels, a tendency to rely on oral traditions, and nomadic lifestyles among most Ethiopians before the 20th century, historical material about this community is scant and unreliable. However, a tentative story can be put together from written records of Ethiopian rulers along with testimony from Beta Israel themselves.
Origins of the Community
Most likely, Beta Israel made their way to Ethiopia between the first and sixth centuries, coming as merchants or artisans from various countries within the region.
An Ethiopian Jewish family shortly after arriving in Israel in 2009. (Jewish Agency for Israel/Flickr)An Ethiopian Jewish family shortly after arriving in Israel in 09.
Scholars once believed that during the Middle Ages, Beta Israel was a homogeneous group living under unified, autonomous Jewish rule. Yet discoveries have shown the reality is much more complicated. It seems the Ethiopian Jewish community was, for the most part, fragmented both physically and religiously, with each Beta Israel village appointing its own spiritual and secular leaders. There was little contact between Beta Israel communities, and usually no overarching leadership uniting them.
Sometimes Beta Israel was treated well from the Ethiopian monarchy, but at other times they suffered persecution. Many fellow Ethiopians refer to Beta Israel as Falasha (a derogatory term meaning outsider), In 1624, the ruling king’s army captured many Ethiopian Jews, forced them to be able to be baptized, and denied them the right to own land. Based on local legend, some participants in Beta Israel chose suicide over conversion.
Because the Beta Israel community existed as an isolated condition from other Jewish communities around the world, they formed a unique set of ethical practices — in specific ways, quite different from what is usually considered “Jewish.” For instance, the online order of Ethiopian Jewish monks was founded in the 15th century to strengthen the community’s religious identity and resist Christian influence. This monastic movement introduced a systematic strategy to spiritual practice, creating new religious literature and prayers, and adopting laws of formality purity. Historians found out about the community’s religious life within the 19th century from the writings of Joseph Halevy, a French Jew who visited the world in 1867. He provided the first eyewitness account of Beta Israel’s life coming from a European Jewish perspective. However, Halevy described a residential area that followed legal sections in the Hebrew Bible and observed laws of purity surrounding menstruation, birth, and death. They observed Shabbat and believed in values, for instance, respecting elders, receiving guests, and visiting mourners. They referred to the Torah as Orit (possibly beginning with the Aramaic term for the Torah, Oraita), and kept their Torah scrolls contain colorful cloths in houses of prayer or the properties of 1 of the kessim (priests).
Ethiopian rabbis (Kessim) with the ceremony associated with a new spiritual leader in Ashkelon, Israel, in 2012. (Wikimedia Commons)Ethiopian rabbis (Kessim) at the tradition of a new spiritual leader in Ashkelon, Israel, in 2012. Like today in Israel, Ethiopian Jews celebrated Sigd, a festival that commemorates the giving of the Torah. On this holiday, community members would quick, climb the highest mountain within the area, and listen to the kessim chant passages of the Hebrew Bible, particularly the Book of Nehemiah. At the later part of the day, they might descend, break their fast, and rejoice in their renewed acceptance of the Orit.
Missionaries and Trying Times
At the time of Halevy’s report, perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing the Ethiopian Jewish community was European missionary activity. Although the community had frequently been provoked to convert by Ethiopian authorities, missionaries from abroad — with large-scale, organized missions — presented an even stronger threat.
European missionaries, well-versed in the Hebrew Bible, were educated and skilled in debate. Beta Israel’s clergy could not compete. By providing schools and Bibles written in the local language, Amharic, the missionaries challenged the community’s practice and faith.
On any range of occasions, Beta Israel’s monastic clergy tried to escape the missionaries’ influence by leading their communities to the Promised Land (Israel). More often than not, these journeys were disastrous. One particular attempt in 1862 ended in large-scale starvation and death.
Between 1882 and 1892, the regions of Ethiopia where Beta Israel lived experienced a famine that killed approximately one third to one half of Beta Israel.
This world Jewish Community
Halevy’s student, Jaques Faitlovitch, was the very first Jewish foreigner to operate in earnest on improving conditions regarding the Ethiopian Jewish community. Arriving for his first visit in 1904 and returning many times in subsequent years, Faitlovitch created tiny schools in Addis Ababa for Beta Israel members, hand-picked 25 young leaders for education abroad, and acted as an emissary concerning this world Jewish community.
Faitlovich secured two letters from rabbis abroad, acknowledging Beta Israel as fellow Jews. The very first letter, written in 1906, called Beta Israel, “our brethren, sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who live in Abyssinia” and “our flesh and blood.” The letter, which promised to help the community within its religious education, was signed by 44 world Jewish leaders, including the chief rabbis of London and Vienna and of course, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.
The next letter, from 1921, was written by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the revered Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Palestine. He called on the Jewish people worldwide to avoid wasting Beta Israel — “50,000 holy souls considering the house of Israel” — from “extinction and contamination.”
Faitlovich’s work towards behalf of the Beta Israel community arrived in a dramatic halt with the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-6. Under fascist rule, it became forbidden to experience Judaism in Ethiopia.
Some of Faitlovitch’s work was undeniably controversial — he made a schism dividing the young, westernized leaders he chose beginning with the elders of the rural communities. But, till the 1960s, no person but Faitlovitch took such a dedicated interest in the community, invested in it financially and educationally, and visited with such regularity. Moreover, it was the letters that Faitlovitch delivered to Ethiopia from Kook along with other contemporary Jewish leaders that allowed Beta Israel to cling to their dreams of returning to the Promised Land, and, decades later, for world Jewry to readily accept them.
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