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Origins of Ethiopia’s Black Jews

In the mountains of Ethiopia, a group of Ethiopians have celebrated their Jewish heritage for centuries.

Ethiopian Jews – Living in a remote mountainous region of northwestern Ethiopia, an area which until recently could be reached only on foot or on horseback, are black Jews who call themselves Kayla or Beta-Israel, “the House of Israel.” They observe the Sabbath as indicated in the Torah, eat only kosher food, pray in straw-roofed synagogues, and use only unleavened bread during the seven days of Passover. Yet they also offer animals in sacrifice and have priests and deacons appointed by the community. Their neighbors call them Falashas, which means strangers, wanderers, or exiles.

No one knows for certain how Judaism reached this part of Africa, though today the Chief Rabbis of both the Ashkenazi and the Sephardic Jews recognize these indigenous Ethiopians, members of the Agau ethnic group, as authentic Jews. Still, many theories abound on how the Jewish faith came to these Agau tribes. Though some tend to sound far-fetched, these speculations are based on Judaic history, Scripture, and religious observance.

Some theorists trace the Ethiopian Jews’ origins to the Exodus from Egypt, claiming that a band of Hebrews headed south rather than across the Sinai desert, ending up in Ethiopia, the land of Moses’ Cushite (Ethiopian, perhaps) wife mentioned in Numbers 12:1.

Nineteenth-century Christian missionaries found that this group celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Passover; they also slaughtered a lamb at Passover and knew only the first five books of the Bible and some “apocryphal” books excluded from Hebrew Scripture by Talmudic rabbis because of their doubtful authenticity.

It is hard to imagine how the customs of Beta-Israel could so closely resemble pre-Talmudic Judaism in Palestine if this group’s origins were at the time of the Exodus. Instead, most scholars suspect that the patterns of kosher food and Sabbath observance were formed later in the Holy Land.

Another theory traces the origins of Judaism in Ethiopia to when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E. Ten of the twelve tribes of Israel were carried off into captivity by the Assyrians, or at least the leaders of these tribes became captives. What became of these “lost tribes” is not clear.

A medieval legend about a ninth-century traveler connects the lost tribes with Ethiopia. Eldad ha-Dani claimed to be from the tribe of Dan and said the Danites had fled Israel before the Assyrian conquest along with the tribes of Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. He said they eventually settled in Ethiopia in 681 B.C.E., but only the Danites had survived. This theory was accepted by the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovaida Yosef.

Eldad actually traveled to Tunisia in the ninth century and described the dietary ritual observed by Jews in another country. Still, this evidence is suspect because little is known about which country he was describing. The ritual he told about differs in many ways from that which later explorers found among Ethiopian Jews.

Another theory argues that Beta-Israel, once a mighty warrior nation, descends from the Jewish colonists at Elephantine Island in the Nile near the southern frontier of Egypt, near modernday Aswan. These colonists probably were first brought to the island as mercenary soldiers, perhaps as early as the seventh or eighth century B.C.E. The end of the colony, like its beginning, is not known.

The Elephantine colony, though, had its own temple in spite of the Mosaic law, and they worshipped other gods besides the God of Moses and Miriam. One has to wonder how, in spite of such impure origins, the Ethiopian Jews could have preserved for centuries a pure form of Mosaic Judaism and been able to recognize the few cases where they do differ from Mosaic practice, such as their adoption of monasticism in the fifteenth century. One might expect them to have built a temple in Ethiopia, too, or to worship the local gods. Some Jews may have reached Ethiopia by way of mercenary service in Egypt, but it is difficult to believe that these are the people who first brought Judaism to the Agau.

Another theory finds the beginnings of Beta-Israel with Jews who fled Palestine after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple by Nebuchadnezzar around 587 B.C.E., when the elite of Judah were deported to exile in Babylon, or after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

It is almost impossible that Jews were not in Ethiopia before 70 C.E. Clearly Ethiopian Jews knew nothing until recent years about either the Babylonian or Jerusalem Talmud. Their knowledge only of the earlier books of the Old Testament (until long after Christianity reached Ethiopia) and the fact that they do not celebrate such holidays as Purim suggest that they must have been cut off from the rest of Judaism much earlier.

Zephaniah 3:10 says, “From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my supplicants, the daughters of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering.” If this prophecy truly dates from around 630 B.C.E., as most scholars believe, then it would indicate that Zephaniah was aware of the presence of a Jewish community in East Africa long before the fall of the first Temple.

Other evidence hints at how Judaism reached the Agau. So much Jewish ritual and law are evident among non-Jewish Agau tribes and among Christians of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that Judaism must have been well-established in Ethiopia long before Christianity arrived around 330 C.E. Because the Bible was translated into the Ethiopian language Ge’ez from the Greek Septuagint (used in the Nile Valley) rather than from Hebrew (used in southern Arabia), and given the fact that Beta-Israel does not seem to have used much Hebrew for many centuries, Judaism seems to have reached Ethiopia not through Arabian Jews who crossed the Red Sea but rather through Egypt and the Sudan.

Speculation cannot exclude the possibility of more than one wave of Jewish settlement in Ethiopia. Henry Stern, who visited these people around 1860, proposed that early contact by Jewish traders and adventurers – echoed perhaps in the story of Solomon and Sheba – led to a small Jewish settlement in Ethiopia, one which grew after troubles in Palestine and Nebuchadnezzar’s victory. Later, Stern thought, other Jews might have taken refuge among Ethiopian Jews as Islam swept through other parts of East Africa.

The question still remains unanswered: How did Judaism first come to Ethiopians?

Most Ethiopians, both Christian and Jewish, claim to be descended from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, whose visit is mentioned in 1 Kings 1-13 and 2 Chronicles 9:1-12 and is elaborately celebrated in the national epic of Ethiopia Kebra Nagast (Glory of the Rulers), which dates between the sixth and fourteenth centuries of the Common Era.

Some of Kebra Nagast is certainly fanciful, but most scholars agree that the Biblical account of the Queen’s visit has some basis in fact, whether her realm was in Arabia or in Africa. Kebra Nagast’s reference to the Queen’s worship of the sun conforms to what we know about the theology of ancient Egypt and the similarity of Ethiopian and Egyptian culture in that era. We know that queens and queen-mothers had an unusually important position in Meroe, the ancient capital of Ethiopia, and sometimes ruled as regents for their sons. We know, too, that in the eighth century B.C.E. Ethiopia briefly became a major world power, conquering Egypt, establishing the 25th Dynasty, and sending ambassadors to Jerusalem to negotiate an alliance treaty with King Hezekiah against the Assyrians (Isaiah 18:1-6; 20:1-6; 37:8-20).

David Kessler, in his book The Falashas, speculates that Tirhaka, the newly-crowned Ethiopian Pharoah of Egypt, who had already brought his mother to Thebes for his coronation, may well have asked the queen-mother to lead the delegation to King Hezekiah, and this visit later came to be associated with the more charismatic King Solomon.

Perhaps we will never unravel the true history of these Jews of Ethiopia. From the tenth century Beta-Israel flourished with a realm of as many as a million people who were so completely cut off from the rest of Judaism that they thought they were the only Jews left in all the world. Long years of warfare in Ethiopia destroyed nearly all records of their early history. Time, though, has reconnected them with their fellow Jews. Their newly refound brethren have reached out to the famine-devastated Ethiopian Jews as their own kin, but the gap created by generations of separate culture is not easily overcome. Meanwhile, thousands of black Jews remain in the hills of Ethiopia, where they live out their ancient faith while struggling with the ongoing famine afflicting much of East Africa.

Thomas W. Goodhue is pastor of Island Park United Methodist Church on Long Island, New York.

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