On the twenty-ninth day of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan, 49 days after Yom Kippur, on a day which usually falls in November, a unique holiday called Sigd is observed by the Beta Israel, or the Ethiopian Jewish, community. Sigd is derived from a root word in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Ge'ez that refers to bowing down or prostrating oneself in worship.
Once, Ethiopia's Jews would ascend to the highest point near their homes on this day, look towards Jerusalem and pray. Today, thank God, the holiday is observed by a gathering of thousands in Jerusalem itself. First the Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews) engage in fasting, prayer, and public readings from the Torah and the early books of the Tanakh. Then, the fast is broken with food, dancing, and celebration.
But where did Sigd come from? And why should the rest of the Jewish world be aware of the observance and find relevance in it? After all, since the Ingathering of the Exiles to Israel, we all enjoy the Moroccan Jews' Mimouna and other ethnic Jewish groups' traditions.
There are different claims as to how Sigd came to be, as well as the origins of the Beta Israel community itself. Some traditions expand on the Tanakh account of the Queen of Sheba (Saba) meeting with King Solomon in Jerusalem. These accounts assert that together they had a son named Menelik I and brought early Judaism to the Sabaean Empire along with an alliance of trade and commerce. Other legends link the Ethiopian Jews to the tribe of Dan, especially after the Assyrian and Babylonian Exiles (and possibly before). And still other stories claim that an ancient kingdom or tribe in East Africa, such as the Himyars, converted to Judaism en masse thousands of years ago.
Regardless of which of these traditions is most accurate (or perhaps a combination thereof), a thriving Jewish community existed for millennia deep in the misty forested mountains of East Africa. Even great rabbis of antiquity like Rashi and the Radbaz attested to the existence of Jews in what is now Ethiopia and the surrounding areas. Although cut off and isolated from the rest of the Jewish world, the Beta Israel community fiercely maintained their status and identity Jews. pbserving Torah as they knew it.
And that's where Sigd comes in. For thousands of years the ruling Christian monarchs as well as commoners had viciously persecuted the Beta Israel community. And in some periods of history the Moslems oppressed them as well. Both groups, especially the Christians, sought to forcibly convert these African Jews.
However, the Beta Israel community firmly remained loyal to the Torah and their Judaism. Consequently, these Jews were driven deeper into the rugged mountains of present-day Ethiopia to avoid persecution and pressure to abandon their Jewish identity. At some point during that Christian persecution, the observance of Sigd developed. Kessim and other Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leaders began to retreat into the wilderness in order to pray for mercy and compassion from the Almighty in light of the ongoing persecution, as well as for strength and unity of the Beta Israel community to remain true to the Torah and reject any abandonment of Judaism.
During these occasions of fasting and prayer, the Ethiopian Jews would also appeal to the Most High to return to Jerusalem and the land of Israel. And within the last one hundred years, these Jews clinging to their heritage in the mountains of Africa finally returned to their homeland.
Sigd is relevant to all of the Jewish people because, as unique as the Beta Israel are in terms of culture, their story is undeniably part of the universal Jewish fabric.
Like the Sephardi Jews who were expelled from Spain and fled from the Inquisition, the Christian rulers in East Africa attempted to force the Ethiopian Jews to convert to Christianity or face unspeakable persecution. Despite the consequences, most refused and stubbornly maintained their Jewish identity. (The Falashmura group, who are not Beta Yisrael, did convert and many have now returned to Judaism).
Like the Ashkenazi Jews who were forced into ghettos and other insular communities, the Beta Israel's refusal to abandon their Jewish heritage resulted in them being driven to live in isolation in the mountains. And just like both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, the Ethiopian Jews persisted in spite of it all, and their Jewish spirit was likewise unbreakable.
My wife and I are fascinated by the history and culture of the Beta Israel community. So much so, in fact, that we wrote a novel for young people as well as adults called The Princess and the Warrior: Valor in Africa. The purpose of the book is to introduce the reader to the unique culture of the Ethiopian Jews while presenting a fictitious story loosely inspired by the traditions and legends of their origins. The ebook was just released today at several large online distributors in commemoration of Sigd. The more we understand the Ethiopian Jewish story, the more we feel that it needs to be told.
Besides the book launch, my wife and I also visited the Sigd ceremonies at the Armon HaNetziv promenade in Jerusalem. Countless Ethiopian Jews – along with a handful of other Jews – gathered together at the venue overlooking Jerusalem (in strict accordance with Tav Yarok procedures, of course). Solemn recitations of Torah and Tanakh passages as well as prayer could be heard mingled with inspirational speeches. Following that, the fast was broken and hundreds danced and sang for joy.
For thousands of years the Jews of Ethiopia had longed to return to the land of Israel and to live free of persecution with their Jewish brothers and sisters. Generation after generation had failed to see the realization of this dream. But finally in the past few decades the Beta Israel achieved their goal of several millennia and they arrived in Israel in an arduous and dangerous aliyah process, trekking through Sudan to the airport where Israel's planes awaited them, that claimed the lives of over four thousand Ethiopian Jews. And now thousands upon thousands of Jews from East Africa gather together every year in Jerusalem on Sigd.
My wife and I saw hundreds of people dancing with an indescribable joy and intensity. We saw thousands of families with broad beaming smiles – most wearing a combination of white traditional clothing with colorful trim and accessories. We saw a uniformed Ethiopian Jewish combat soldier in the IDF stoically clutching his M4 assault rifle, silhouetted in the bright sunlight with the overlook of Jerusalem behind him.
And perhaps our favorite: we saw a mother and a daughter standing side-by-side at the edge of the promenade, gazing out towards the city of Jerusalem and Har HaBeit, the Jewish Temple Mount.
We couldn't see her face. We couldn't hear what words – if any – were said.
Perhaps she was saying to her daughter, “We did it. After thousands of years we finally made it.” Or maybe she murmured a prayer to the Almighty that the Beit HaMikdash, the Jewish Temple, would be rebuilt. Or possibly she merely observed the view of Jerusalem, swelling with pride that such a beautiful and spiritual city was the capital of her homeland.
My wife and I stood behind her and her daughter and watched from a distance. Perhaps intrusively, we snapped a photo.
I turned to my wife and whispered, as if afraid to shatter the moment, “It doesn't matter where we come from in the world. This is what it means to be Am Yisrael. This is what it means to be Jewish.”
And that is what Sigd truly represents. It is yet another crucially important chapter of the universal Jewish story that we all share. It is a day to publicly manifest the innermost dimensions of our Jewish neshamah that we all share no matter what physical appearance we may have.
Ben Kerido is an IDF special forces reservist, a former US Department of Defense contractor, and a published author who writes, blogs, and podcasts for Lehavdil.com and who just released The Princess and the Warrior: Valor in Africa, a novel loosely inspired by the legendary origins of the Ethiopian Jewish community.