ONE @ 50: Origins of Ethiopia’s Black Jews

In honor of ONE magazine’s 50th-anniversary year, the CNEWA blog series, ONE @ 50: From the Vault, aims to revive and explore the wealth of articles published in ONE magazine throughout its history. In the mountains of Ethiopia, a group of Ethiopians have celebrated their Jewish heritage for centuries. Learn more about this community in this article, originally published in Fall 1986.

Read an excerpt from “Origins of Ethiopia’s Black Jews” below, then read the full story.

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.

Read more.

Thomas W. Goodhue, a United Methodist minister, teaches at the Riverside Church Weekday School in New York City. He has written widely about the practice of footwashing.

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