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Photo Feature: Sigd, Holiday of Return and Longing

Each year, on the 29th day of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan, thousands of Ethiopian Jews gather overlooking the Temple Mount to observe an ancient holiday of yearning for Zion and the Torah.

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Ezra HaLevi, | updated: 10:34


The holiday is called Sigd (one syllable), which means prostration in Amharic and shares its root with the word for temple. The ceremony resembles the one held for the renewal of the Divine covenant by Ezra the Scribe during the Second Commonwealth, described in the Book of Nechemia.
"All the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the water gate; and they spoke unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded to Israel" (Nehemiah 8:1)

Prior to their immigration to Israel, the Beta Israel (meaning 'House of Israel') or Falashas (meaning ‘strangers,’ a term used by their non-Jewish neighbors in Africa) community would observe Sigd each year on mountaintops outside their villages. The Kessim, the community's rabbis and ritual leaders, would ascend the mountain, which was meant to represent Mount Sinai.

There, the double message of renewal of the Divine covenant and yearning for the return to Zion was expressed. During the celebration members of the community would fast, and read from the Orit (i.e., oraita, "Torah" in Aramaic), expressing their longing to return to Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. After the Kessim descended from the mountain, joyous celebrations would take place to welcome and accept the Torah anew.

Upon their arrival in Israel, the question of how to observe the holiday arose. On the one hand, the dream of return had been fulfilled, but on the other, the Temple is still missing and redemption has not yet arrived. In addition, the challenge of rejoining the Jewish people, with the evolution of the oral law in their absence, added extra significance to the Sigd tradition of annually renewing the commitment to the Torah as well.
"The Lord will bring back a remnant of his people...returning them to the land of Israel from Assyria, Lower Egypt, Upper Egypt, Ethiopia, Elam, Babylonia, Hamath, and all the distant coastlands" (Isaiah 11:11)

Now, Ethiopian Jews from all over Israel gather at Jerusalem's Armon HaNetziv Promenade, where a stage is erected and Kessim read passages and prayers in Ge’ez, the language reserved for scripture. Native-born Israelis and Amharic-speaking grandparents come together to observe the holiday. Some remember Sigd back in Ethiopia and others recount the event as though they were there, having been told of it by their parents and grandparents.
Young people sitting with friends on the Armon HaNetziv promenade

Absorption Minister Ze’ev Boim (Kadima) addressed the worshippers, expressing his hope that like the Moroccan holiday of Mimouna, which takes place immediately following Passover, Sigd would one day become a holiday in which all of Israel will take part.

Yaakov (Jejo) Tala manned a table down the promenade from the stage filled with tefillin, phylacteries, which he helped visitors place on their heads and forearms, with the blessings written out in both Hebrew and Amharic. “We are making great efforts to help the young generation understand the older generation – their traditions, heritage, and the depth of our unique Jewish traditions, while facilitating a return to mainstream Judaism at the same time,” he explains. “It is very difficult, but a holiday like Sigd embodies Beta Israel's traditions and they unite us with all of Israel.”
Yaakov (Jejo) Tala helps an IDF paratrooper don Tefilin.

The young man, a yeshiva student, says that a number of cultural forces compete for the minds of young Beta Israel men and women, who are not always given the oppurtunity to receive a Jewish education, even in the State of Israel.
A young man sells Ethiopian movies and Bob Marley T-Shirts reading: "Lion of Judah."

Tala says he agrees with Boim and hopes that Sigd can both add to the fabric of Jewish life in Israel, and maintain the exquisite nature of the Ethiopian Jewish narrative within that patchwork tapestry. “It is great to see Israelis joining in the celebration here. It really warms my heart,” he says.

On the stage, Kessim recite prayers as older women in the crowd close their eyes and hold their hands up toward Heaven. Large denomination shekel bills are handed up to the stage from the crowd for charity, and people scramble to get a handful of Jerusalem dirt being handed out by the elderly Kessim holding colorful umbrellas and wearing traditional garb.
Pilgrims greeting a Kess with kisses as he walks through the crowd
Pilgrims strain to receive Jerusalem soil from a Kess. They will save the dirt and use it to remind them of Jerusalem when praying in times of hardship.

Nesya Raanan was born in Israel, but she describes Sigd in Ethiopia as though she has observed it each year of her life. “It was awesome,” she says – catching herself. “What do I mean ‘It was awesome’ – I was never there – but I feel like I was.”
Nesya Raanan is part of the Society For the Protection of Nature in Israel in an area with many Beta Israel. She holds a poster encouraging young people to get involved in telling the story of Sigd.

Though she is wearing a shirt from the Society For the Protection of Nature in Israel and distributing information about protecting the environment, Raanan is more than happy to tell and retell the story of Sigd in the first person to anyone who asks. “Once the Kessim came down from the mountain,” she describes, “cows would be slaughtered and placed on the fire. Meanwhile, everybody would dance like crazy even though they were fasting, until the food was ready.”
Three young people prepare their equipment to document the observance of Sigd

Below the promenade, on a grassy area, young members of the Beta Israel community relax, sitting in groups and talking. Others dance wildly with members of the B’nei Akiva youth group, singing songs in Amharic and Hebrew. A large number of the young people are IDF soldiers, who received a dispensation from the army to ascend to Jerusalem for the holiday.
Beta Israel members of the IDF Navy, given the day off to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Dancing alternates between Hebrew and Amharic songs
Watching the dancing from above
A stand sells Ethiopian music alongside reproductions of old Beta Israel paintings of Jerusalem, the Temple and the Sigd holiday.

A booth was set up inviting people to study the meaning of the prayers recited by the Kessim during the holiday. The prayers are in Ge’ez, a language reserved for prayer and scripture and only understood by the Kessim. Manning the booth is Shoshana ben-Dor, an English-speaking woman who is not from the Beta Israel community but wears Ethiopian tradition dress and is a scholar in the realm of Ethiopian Jewry.

Young Ethiopians, enter the booth and Ben-Dor hands them Hebrew translations of selected prayers.

“Come, we shall bow down, pray, sing, bless and sanctify our Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth,” one prayer begins. “We shall bow within the sanctuary of Your Holy Temple, though we now bow in our hearts. All creations in the world will prostrate and thank You. Amen, Amen.”
Shoshana Ben-Dor offers to go over the Kessim's prayers with young members of the community unfamiliar with Ge'ez, the language used by the Kesim.

Young Ethiopian men and women stop by the entrance of the booth and Ben-Dor offers to go through the booklet with them. Many take her up on it. “I sat for an hour with one young man,” she said.

Ben-Dor worries about Minister Boim’s comments about popularizing the holiday. “If he means that Sigd should become just a day of revelry for Israeli society, then I think that would be a tragedy,” she says. “But if he shares my hope that all Jews be allowed to share and embrace this incredible tradition, which embodies the integration of the yearning for redemption and commitment to the Torah, then I agree with him 100 percent.”
"This is great. It reminds me of how I felt the first few months after my Aliyah (immigration to Israel) says Idan, who moved to Israel from the Former Soviet Union and now serves in the Yassam police force.
A community newspaper in the style of the Yediot Acharonot daily. The paper, a special holiday edition, features articles in Amharic and Hebrew.
"From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia, my worshipers, even the daughter of my dispersed people, will bring my offering" (Zephaniah 3:10)

(Photos: Josh Shamsi, Arutz-7 Photojournalist)