ONE Magazine

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Behold an Israelite Indeed

The legacy of Solomon in one African nation.

The Portuguese and Spanish Jesuits who, inflamed with Catholic Reformation zeal, made the arduous journey to Ethiopia in the late 16th century discovered practices among the country’s devout Orthodox Christians that had Judaic qualities.

What the Jesuits had stumbled upon was a singular culture where traditions of Judaism and Christianity had mingled almost as far back as the roots of these faiths themselves. Developed in curious isolation as Ethiopia repelled colonization, this unique piety today continues in a highly distinctive form.

Steven Kaplan of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, an authority on the Jews of Ethiopia, said: “If you have an Ethiopian man called Zara Ibrahim who rests on the Sabbath, was circumcised at 8 days old, and who does not eat pork – there is about a 99 percent chance that he is [not Jewish but] a Christian.”

Jews and Ethiopian Christians still practice male circumcision on the eighth day; there are dietary restrictions that forbid the eating of pork and there are laws governing “clean” and “unclean” animals; there are regulations for ritual cleanliness among women, and Ethiopian Christians observe the Sabbath on Saturday as well as on Sunday.

Another tradition that has Judaic origins is the churching of a mother 40 or 80 days after delivering a boy or girl, and the baptism of the child at that time.

Additionally, churches are constructed with a threefold division – a closed sanctuary, or qeddeste-qeddusan; a sacred space where Scripture is proclaimed and the Eucharist distributed, or qeddest; and a choir, or qene mahelet, supposedly modeled on the Temple of Jerusalem.

Even today, one can regularly hear Ethiopian Christians say: Oritaweyan nen, (we are the people of the Law of Moses), referring to these Judaic practices.

But Ethiopia has traditionally been a land of legend, myth and mystery and the ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity of the country is startling. Surely, the Judaic inheritance in Ethiopian Christianity is more complex than a list of comparisons between the two traditions would show.

Yet it is precisely this mixing of the Judaic and Christian traditions that is one of the most remarkable features of Ethiopia’s civilization.

The Old and New Testaments and a number of apocryphal books unknown to other churches are used. Besides these, the “Kebra Nagast,” or the Glory of Kings, a 13th-century manuscript that retells the biblical story of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon, is used to lend support to the claims of a direct link to Solomon.

True or not, Ethiopians proclaim the queen as one of their own. According to an ancient legend, she conceived, by Solomon, a son in Jerusalem, Menelik, who became the head of a dynasty that ruled Ethiopia for almost 3,000 years. This dynasty ended in 1975 when Emperor Haile Selassie, the “Lion of Judah,” was deposed.

But the one tradition, whether legend or fact, that Ethiopia’s Christians hold to firmly is the belief that the Ark of the Covenant is enshrined at Axum, Ethiopia’s ancient capital. And it is the abiding belief that possession of this powerful physical link between Old and New Testaments is what gives Ethiopia’s Christians the authority to claim the legacy of Israel.

To understand how the Ark of the Covenant came to be in Ethiopia, it is necessary to look at the legend of the Queen of Sheba, or Makeda, as she is called.

Even if she were not Ethiopian, and historians cannot agree if she came from southern Arabia or even if she existed at all, what is important is that the Ethiopians are the descendants of a people who crossed the Red Sea, settled in the Horn of Africa and mixed with the local people.

The classic account of how the Ark, which contains the Ten Commandments, came to Ethiopia begins with Makeda’s having heard that King Solomon possessed great wisdom. She traveled to Jerusalem so she could learn how to more wisely govern her own people. When the Queen arrived, Solomon was captivated by her intelligence and beauty. He hoped to have a child by her to fill the earth with sons who would serve the God of Israel.

They did have a son, Menelik, and after he was a grown man he went to Jerusalem to meet his father. Solomon anointed him king of Ethiopia and instructed the sons of the elders of Israel to accompany Menelik back home. They took the Ark with them because, according to the Kebra Nagast, the Ark itself had decided to leave Jerusalem since the Jews had abandoned the faith that God had revealed to them.

The story works on two levels. First, it establishes the line of succession of the royal family from King Solomon and it confirms the physical presence of the Ark of the Covenant as an authoritative sign of the sanctity of the Ethiopian state.

Rooted in the Jewish tradition, no one is permitted to see the Ark except one monk who is appointed as its sole guardian. The great relic is kept in a chapel at the Church of Mary of Zion in Axum. There is little archaeological evidence to support that the Ark is in Ethiopia but so critical is the belief in the presence of the Ark that every church in Ethiopia has a tabot, or altar slab, that represents both Moses’ tablet and the Word of God it contains.

However, the historian Roderick Grierson warns against making too much of the Judaic practices that have survived in Ethiopian Christianity.

“There obviously needs to be a delicate balance if one is attempting to explain a culture that seems exotic to outsiders,” he wrote in “African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia.” “While one must create some sort of a bridge between the faiths, it is nevertheless essential that such a bridge remain firmly based in the experience of the tradition itself.”

While Ethiopia’s Christians have assimilated Judaic practices, there is today, and has been, a community that from all outward appearances lives as Orthodox Jews. These are the members of Beta Israel, also known as Ethiopian Jews, or Falasha, which translated from Ge’ez means “stranger” and is considered derogatory.

Many of the Beta Israel were airlifted to Israel in the 1980’s and 1990’s (around 50,000) but thousands remain, waiting to migrate. Many of these people represent descendants of converts to Christianity, or have married Christians but have come back to the Jewish fold.

Little is known about the early origins of the Beta Israel community, but it is widely accepted by historians that members adopted Judaism around the second or third centuries. There are claims that they are the lost tribe of Dan, while another explanation may be that they came from Yemen centuries ago. What is unique about Ethiopian Judaism is that it is based on the Torah and does not include rabbinical law, which never reached the isolated nation.

Just as Ethiopian Christians have adopted Judaic practices, the Beta Israel wear crosses on their foreheads and hands. They ordain priests, have orders of nuns and much of their worship contains fragments derived from the Christian liturgy.

As unusual as it is for the Beta Israel to lay claim to Christian signs and symbols, it is not unusual for Ethiopian Christians to claim the legacy of Israel. Universally, all Christians are grounded in the history and faith of Judaism, but in Ethiopia, the legacy of Israel evokes a powerful and influential national saga.

Believing they are descended from King Solomon himself and that God has been brought to Ethiopia in the Ark of the Covenant, the origins of the Judaic customs of Ethiopian Christians continue to provoke critical debate.

Holy Ghost Fathers Emmanuel Fritsch and Brendan Cogavin contributed to this article.

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