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Thousands Flock to Jerusalem for Traditional Festival of Sigd

Last week several thousand Ethiopian Jews gathered in Jerusalem for a celebration of the traditional holiday of Sigd.
By Debbie Berman
First Publish: 12/6/2005, 10:29 AM / Last Update: 12/6/2005, 12:30 PM

The holiday of Sigd was a fundamental element of the Jewish experience in Ethiopia. The holiday that falls on the 29th day of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan, exactly 50 days after Yom Kippur (similar to the 50-day cycle of the days of the Omer preceding the giving of the Torah), is dedicated to fasting and prayer, evoking the connection to Jerusalem and the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people.

According to Avraham Negousi, Director of the Ethiopian immigrant organization, South Wing to Zion, the Sigd celebration helped the Jewish community in the faraway exile of Ethiopia maintain their yearning to return to Zion.

Click here to listen to the interview with Avraham Negousi

The source of the holiday is in the book of Nehemiah when the exiled Jews prayed“ toward Jerusalem. The Ethiopian Jews prayed together 'Next year in Jerusalem'. The holiday was about connecting to the receiving of the Torah and the promise that one day we will reach Jerusalem," recalled Negousi.

In Ethiopia, Jews, while still fasting, set out during the morning hours of the day on a march to the peak of a nearby mountaintop, led by their spiritual leaders, Kessim, and carrying the traditional torah scrolls. Continued prayer and worship accompanied the ascent to the mountaintop where selected readings from the Torah were read in the language of Gaaz and then translated into the vernacular Amharit. In the afternoon the participants would descend to local villages where the fast was broken with joyous meals amidst festive dancing celebrations.

Last week's Sigd festivities were held in Jerusalem, where thousands of Israeli Ethiopian Jews gathered from across the country at the Armon Hanatziv promenade overlooking the Temple Mount. In attendance at the event were government representatives, Ethiopian community leaders and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, who commended the Ethiopian Jews' dedication to upholding their traditions. "It is amazing that after the long journey you made from Ethiopia to Jerusalem, you did not leave behind this glorious tradition," said Immigrant Absorption Minister Tzipi Livni.

Although the nature of the celebrations has changed since their arrival in Israel, Ethiopian leaders continue to maintain the importance of the Sigd holiday. "Once we came here we decided to continue this holiday on top of East Talpiot, toward the western wall, praying and thanking G-d for fulfilling his promise, for realizing our dream and giving us the opportunity to be in Jerusalem and also to pray for those left behind in Ethiopia to come and join us," Negousi stated.

Our dream is to be in the state of Israel and Jerusalem. Today more than 100,000 “Ethiopian Jews are proud citizens of Israel, however the Aliyah of Ethiopian Jewry is not completed. There are still 20,000 Jews in Ethiopia waiting to come to Israel to rejoin their brothers, parents and families," Negousi said, adding, "The government has decided to bring them to Israel by the end of 2007, but there is a government quota of only 300 a month. An agreement has been made to double the number to 600, but sadly this has not yet been implemented."

Negousi denied claims that many of those awaiting immigration to Israel are not halachically Jewish. "Rav Shlomo Amar visited in Ethiopia and declared that they are Jews without a doubt and they must be brought to Israel. Every Jewish community has passed through a different historical process. The Ethiopian Jewish community also went through difficulties including persecution and drought," Negousi explained.

Ethiopian leaders, including Negousi, remain optimistic about the future of their people among their Israeli peers. "Most of my community comes from remote areas so it is not easy for them to integrate into modern society and urbanization, but our community is doing well, we are going in the right direction," stated Negousi.

For Negousi the contemporary Sigd festivities resonate with deep spiritual meaning and offer an opportunity to express his appreciation that the dream of his people of returning to Zion has been realized. "Our fathers and grandfathers told us that we will go to Jerusalem. As a child I remember being told that the Prophets say that all the Jews will be returned to the Land of Israel. We love Israel and we love Jerusalem. Once a year thousands come to Jerusalem to say thank you," said Negousi.