Sigd, An Ancient Ethiopian Jewish Holiday
|Sigd in Jerusalem via Shuttersock|
An Anthropology Paper
Until the middle of the 20th century, the Beta Israel, an Ethiopian Jewish community, lived in Ethiopia for centuries in complete isolation and obscurity. "As famine and civil war ravaged Ethiopia in the late 1970s," (Ankel, 2020), and the community faced extreme hardship and persecution, the "Mossad was tasked with smuggling thousands of Jewish refugees from Ethiopia to Israel," (Ankel, 2020). The rescue operation, one of several led by Israel, made a global debut in the Netflix movie, Red Sea Diving Resort, starring Chris Evans and Michael Kenneth Williams. Sigd, an ancient Biblical holiday, is unique and central to Beta Israel's religious identity and Jewish life for two millennia in Ethiopia and Israel, where most of the community lives today.
The celebration of Sigd was inspired by the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem after being exiled to Babylon (today's Iraq) in the 6th century B.C., fifty years after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. The ceremony commemorating the return to Jerusalem is inscribed in Nehemiah's book, verse 8:5-6, in the Old Testament," And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. And all the people answered: 'Amen, Amen', with the lifting up of their hands; and they bowed their heads, and fell down before the Lord with their faces to the ground." The Sigd and its religious rituals are still celebrated today after the Beta Israel community immigrated to Israel with some modern variances.
Sigd in Gaez, a liturgical ancient Ethiopian language, means prostration, kneeling, and bowing in worship in front of G-D. The etymology and the root of Sigd (S.G.D.) in Gaez stems in antiquity from Aramaic, a Middle Eastern language. The root is similar to the word worship (sagad. סגד) in Hebrew, a Semitic language that evolved from Aramaic.
The holiday is celebrated fifty days after Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, on the 29th of the month of Cheshvan in the Hebrew lunar calendar, usually in November or December.
As further inscribed in the Bible," They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Torah of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God." (Nehemiah 9:1-3)
Sigd's essence is marked by the Kessim's (Qessim), high priests and spiritual leaders, pilgrimage to a mountain peak, ahead of the rest of the community, to set the holy scriptures on a table inside a circle marked with rocks. The circle symbolizes the, now destroyed, interior of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The rest of the community climbed to the summit following the religious leaders. All community members, praying, reciting verses and psalms from the Orit (Bible in Gaez), and Ezra and Nehemiah's books in the Bible. facing east, yearning, and wishing "Next Year in Jerusalem." The ascent commemorates and symbolizes the giving of the ten commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It marks an annual renewal of the community's covenant with G-D, as opposed to the individual covenant with G-D on Yom Kippur. The community confesses its sins and renews its vows, devotion, and rededication to G-d, the Torah (Old Testament), and the commandments.
Days before the Sigd, community members spread across some four hundred villages in the Amhara and Tigray mountainous regions of northwestern Ethiopia, would walk for miles to several pilgrimage sites to join in the celebrations. The festivities would start with a purification and cleansing ritual in a nearby stream or a river, and washing the clothes and wearing white garments. The priests would wear white turban-like head coverings and carry horsetail hair fly swatters with colorful umbrellas. Several carried massive rocks on their backs, in subservience in front of G-D and self-flagellation for their sins, as they climbed up the mountain.
The slaughtering of animals according to Kosher Jewish dietary laws, and preparing the meal for the feast for the end of the day-long fast, took place in the days leading to the Sigd. Meat was scarce and was served infrequently, on special occasions and holidays. The high priests would break the fast with Dabo, a unique round and tall, slightly sweet, leavened bread, at times spiced with cardamom, fenugreek, turmeric, and coriander, baked for the Sigd. "In Ethiopia the bread was baked in a round clay pot over embers in a fire pit in the ground. It was wrapped in banana leaves (or Klabo Tree leaves) to prevent it from sticking to the pot and to keep the bread moist. Upon moving to Israel, Ethiopian Jews changed their baking technique. Now the bread is baked on a burner or even in the oven, and the bread is wrapped in lettuce leaves," or "parchment paper" (Guttman, 2016).
The priests then pray over the bread, break it by hand into pieces and hand the bread to the rest of the community. The Sigd concludes with the sound of drums and trumpets, song, and dance as the community descends to the synagogue and an elaborate meal. The festive meal consists of injera, a traditional Ethiopian fermented spongy flatbread made of teff flour, gluten-free flour of tiny seeds of tall grasses indigenous to Ethiopia and Eritrea. Injera is served with authentic Ethiopian lamb or chicken stew with potatoes and eggs along with tella, an Ethiopian alcoholic beverage, similar to beer, traditionally made from teff and sorghum, and other local grains.
There are several theories to the origin of the Beta Israel. All of which are plausible as waves of Jews ending up in Ethiopia throughout the centuries. One theory of the Ethiopian Jews' origin claims that they are the descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (Ethiopia), around a thousand years B.C. (Harris, 2013) A second theory is that the Ethiopian Jews are the descendants of Dan, one of Israel's lost tribes. When the Israelites were exiled to Babylon (Iraq) after the destructions of the First Temple in Jerusalem, in 586 BC, the Beta Israel fled south through Egypt into Ethiopia. A third theory is that Jews from Yemen settled in Ethiopia, and some married into the Beta Israel community.
Throughout the centuries, the Beta Israel suffered religious oppression, famine, and persecution, which turned into a modern-day humanitarian crisis in the late 20th century.
Much like the Conversos, who were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition, some Beta Israel, known as Falash Murahs, were forced to convert to Ethiopian Christian Orthodoxy or chose to do so in self-preservation; many remained devout Jews in hiding. Falash Murah was used as a general term for the Beta Israel Ethiopian Jews, but the community in Israel fought it. The term was derogatory, with multiple meanings, "horse of the raven," the horse is the convert and raven the missionary, and it also means "cut off "or a "stranger." The converts left in Ethiopia are still called Falash Murah today.
Following Israel's independence in 1948, the community hoped to fulfill its dream of returning to Zion (Israel) and immigrating there. However, although the community was strictly following and preserving the Jewish holidays, Kosher laws, the Sabbath, and performed male circumcisions, Israel questioned Beta Israel's Jewish identity. Until a hundred and fifty years ago, when emissaries from the outside reached the community, the Beta Israel believed that they were the only surviving Jews in the world.
It took Israel until 1975 to recognize the Ethiopian Jews as Jewish and let them emigrate to Israel. By then, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, who believed he was the descendant of King Solomon and the Queen Sheba and had the Lion of Judah as an emblem and Star of David intertwined with crosses on his flag, was overthrown.
"In 1974, following a coup d'etat, Ethiopia came under the Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. Under Mariam's regime, anti-Semitism rose, and physical conditions worsened for the Beta Israel, with starvation across the country," (Winchester). Moshe Dayan's, then Israel's Minister of Defense, a slip of the tongue about an arms deal in exchange for letting the Ethiopian Jewish community evacuate to Israel caused an international incident. In order to preserve Ethiopia's relationships with the Arab states, Mariam severed diplomatic ties with Israel.
Over the next ten years, 20,000 Ethiopian Jews made the heroic thousands of miles several weeks long trek, often barefoot, to refugee camps across the border into Sudan. Together with Israeli officials, the Ethiopian Jewish community leaders devised a plan of rescue via several highly clandestine sea and airlift operations (Operation Brothers, Operation Moses and Operation Joshua later). Approximately 4,000 Ethiopian Jews lost their lives during the journey and in the camps due to exhaustion, famine, religious attacks, ambushes by bandits and military, and disease. In 1991, Mariam was said to be paid 35 million dollars before the last large scale airlift during Operation Solomon. "14,325 Beta Israel were airlifted to Israel in 36 hours on May 24 -25, 1991 amid political turmoil that forced Mariam to flee the country," (Winchester).
Today, only a few Beta Israel and several thousands of Falash Murah remain in Ethiopia, awaiting the community's airlift waiting to be reunited with their families in Israel.
Since the prophecy of "Next Year in Jerusalem" was fulfilled and the community's covenant with G-D was reaffirmed once the community moved back to the Holy Land, the reasons for celebrating the Sigd evolved.
In the first years of the Sigd celebrations in Jerusalem, it took on an added dimension of a protest. The religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem turned into a political demonstration as the community was frustrated with the absorption process, bureaucratic red tape, racism, police brutality, and socio-economic gap. Many of the elders in the community were illiterate. The younger generation, whether born in Ethiopia or Israel, on the one hand, scholastically tested lower than the average Israeli student. On the other hand, some made strides as elected officials, politicians and parliament members (Pnina Tamano-Shata, first government minister, absorption), diplomats, academics, artists, models, musicians (Eurovision 2020 Israel representative Eden Elene), business owners, and entrepreneurs. A mixed Ethiopian and Eastern European Israeli family is at the center of Nebsu, a comedy series, dealing brilliantly with race and cultural issues, now on its second season on prime time T.V.
Busloads of community members depart from different Israeli towns on their pilgrimage to celebrate Sigd in Jerusalem. The busses loaded with an arsenal of food to break the fast with at the end of the fast. The Sigd prayers, rituals, and breaking the fast with Dabo (Ethiopian bread) were at first celebrated at the Western Wall and then moved to Armon HaNatziv neighborhood promenade in Jerusalem overlooking breathtaking vistas of the Old City and Temple Mount. Community leaders and members are annually invited to a formal reception at the Presidential residence in Jerusalem that week. The President, politicians, and community dignitaries make appearances and speeches in addition to the Sigd's religious programming. A parallel Sigd religious celebration is conducted at the Western Wall. Community members visit the monument on Mt. Hertzl before or after the prayers conclude to commemorate their fallen brothers and sisters who did not make it to the Holy Land. The end of the holiday festivities are marked by urban cultural happenings of Ethiopian music concerts and dance performance across stages in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and several other locations around the country.
In 2008, the Sigd was added to the Hebrew calendar and the public school system's curriculum. It became an official national holiday in Israel. Making Sigd a national holiday taught in schools helps incorporate it as a part of Israeli culture. Celebrating the Sigd in schools and as a national holiday also helps reconnect Ethiopian Israeli youth to their roots and take pride in their heritage. Assimilation and integration while keeping the community's unique ethnic and religious rituals and identity is commonplace in Israel. The Ethiopian community organizations took a cue from the Moroccan Jewish community's Mimouna celebration when they applied for the Sigd holiday to be recognized as a national holiday. Mimouna is celebrated with many Moroccan sweets, and music, at the end of Passover, was added to the Hebrew calendar and became a national holiday popular with many Israelis across all ethnicities.
In the future, as the Beta Israel elders will no longer be around to carry on the tradition, and with over 42% of the estimated 150,000 (2018 Census) Beta Israel today being Israeli born, increasingly marrying outside the community, it is yet to be seen how the Sigd will evolve and carried forward.
Abusch-Magder, Ruth (November, 4, 2010). Eating the Fat' and 'Drinking the Sweet' on Sigd. The Forward. https://forward.com/food/132894/eating-the-fat-and-drinking-the-sweet-on-sigd/.
Ankel, Sophia (March, 15, 2020). Israel's elite Mossad unit set up a luxury diving resort in the 1980s as a front to smuggle Ethiopian Jews out of Sudan. Here's what it was like. Insider. https://www.insider.com/mossad-red-sea-resort-arous-ethiopian-jews-escape-photos-2020-3.
Guttman, Vered (December 1, 2016). The Biblical Roots of Ethiopian Blessed Bread. Haaretz. https://www.haaretz.com/food/the-biblical-roots-of-ethiopian-blessed-bread-1.5468802.
Harris, Emily (September, 1, 2013). Last Flight Of Ethiopia-To-Israel Jewish Migration Program. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2013/09/01/217356628/last-flight-of-ethiopia-to-israel-jewish-migration-program.
Mietkiewicz, Mark (November 6, 2018). The Festival of Sigd – Ethiopian Jews Fast and Feast, and Hold Their Umbrellas High. The Canadian Jewish News. https://www.cjnews.com/living-jewish/the-festival-of-sigd-ethiopian-jews-fast-and-feast-and-hold-their-umbrellas-high.
Population of Ethiopian Origin in Israel - A Collection of Statistics for the Sigd Holiday (November 5, 2018). Central Bureau of Statistics. https://www.cbs.gov.il/he/mediarelease/pages/2018/האוכלוסייה-ממוצא-אתיופי-בישראל-לקט-נתונים-לרגל-חג-הסיגד.aspx.
What is Sigd? My Jewish Learning. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/what-is-sigd/.
Winchester, Atira. Ethiopian Jews in Israel; Ancient traditions in a new Jewish state. My Jewish Learning. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/ethiopian-jews-in-israel/.