Beta Israel celebrate Sigd holiday

Israelis of Ethiopian descent celebrated the annual Sigd holiday in Jerusalem yesterday.

By Erin Viner

Jewish Israelis who immigrated from Ethiopia are collectively known as Beta Israel, meaning “House of Israel” or “Community of Israel.”

Origins of the Jewish presence in Ethiopia trace back at least 1,000 years. Many scholars believe they are either the descendants of the Lost Tribe of Dan or the Israelites who dispersed after being freed from bondage after the Exodus from Egypt.

“Sigd” means “prostration” in the ancient Ethiopian Semitic language of Ge’ez, and a derivative of the Aramaic word “Segd” as in ‘prostrating oneself in worship.’ Tradition holds that the unique festival dates back as early as the 6th century, held to symbolize acceptance of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible called the “Torah.” Some religious leaders believe that the holiday was once celebrated by all Jewish communities but later forgotten.

Israel officially recognized Sigd as a national holiday in 2008, and it is observed annually on 29 Cheshvan according to the Hebrew calendar.

The majority of Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel in the 20th century in several large clandestine operations.

So far this year, 1,589 new immigrants from Ethiopia were brought during the Operation Tzur led by the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration and The Jewish Agency, aimed at reuniting families after decades of being apart.

Today the community in the Jewish State numbers around 156,000, or nearly 7% of the entire population.

Large processions of the Beta Israel celebrate at the Armon HaNatziv Promenade overlooking Jerusalem, where a prayer service is held to renew the covenant between individuals with God, the community and society at large. Worshippers customarily wear flowing, white clothing.

Many Israeli schools invites Beta Israel members to discuss the meaning of the festival, as well as the history of Ethiopian Jews.

Dignitaries of the Beta Israel invited Israeli President Isaac Herzog to open the ceremony ahead of the main prayer service in Jerusalem, where he said he views Sigd as “a holiday of victory.”

“A national holiday that renews the covenant of the return to Zion and expresses, in large part, the realization of a great dream. For many years, at the center of this festival, as we know, was your intense longing for the Land of Israel, and first and foremost for Zion—for Jerusalem!” he said.

After saying that the Aliyah (immigration) of Ethiopian Jewry is “a story of bravery and active efforts,” President Herzog said it was important to underline that the “national mission for the best possible integration of Ethiopian Jews in their land has not ended.”

“It is a tremendous privilege” to “see the immense contribution of immigrants from Ethiopia wherever we look,” he added, pointing to “rising higher education rates, the number of officers and diversity of roles and elite units in which Ethiopian Jews serve in the IDF, and also the growing prominence of immigrants from Ethiopia and their descendants in public life in Israel.”

The Minister of Aliyah and Integration Pnina Tamano-Shata (Yesh Atid) was in Ethiopia. The attorney, journalist and politician became the first Ethiopian-born woman to be elected to the Knesset in 2013, but also the first Ethiopian-born minister in the history of the state. Current and former Beta Israel Members of Knesset include Adisu Massala (Labor, One Nation), Shlomo Molla (Knesset), Rabbi Mazor Bahaina (Shas), Alali Adamso (Likud), Shimon Solomon (Yesh Atid, Avraham Neguise (Likud) and Gadi Yavarkan (Likud).

“The Jewish People and Israeli society all have much to learn from the richness and deep-rooted connectedness that the wave of immigration from Ethiopia brought, much to learn in the spirit of ‘study leads to action,’” said President Herzog, citing the Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 40b, as he wished all those gathered “Chag Sigd Sameach (Happy Sigd Holiday in Hebrew).