Israeli 'Kessim' or religious leaders of the Ethiopian Jewish community lead the prayers during the Sigd holiday marking the desire to
Israeli 'Kessim' or religious leaders of the Ethiopian Jewish community lead the prayers during the Sigd holiday marking the desire to "return to Jerusalem", as they celebrate from a hilltop in the holy city, on November 27, 2019. GALI TIBBON/AFP via Getty Images.

Ethiopian Jews Celebrate Sigd

Last week, thousands gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate.

Sigd, the Ethiopian-Jewish holiday, is celebrated on the 29th of Cheshvan, this year falling on the night of Nov. 26 and ending the next day. It commemorates receiving the Torah on Har Sinai and was inspired by the reacceptance of the Torah under Ezra’s authority during the Second Temple. Just as there are 50 days between Pesach and Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates God giving Moshe the Torah, there are 50 days between Yom Kippur and Sigd. Moreover, Sigd is celebrated after Yom Kippur to demonstrate the connection between the two holidays, as Yom Kippur is the day of personal atonement and Sigd is the day of communal atonement. 

Ethiopian Jews, also known as the Beta Israel, have observed Sigd for centuries in Ethiopia, where they would fast for one day and gather as community that morning to walk to the highest point of any mountain. Their rabbis, called the Kessim, would bring the Orit, the Ethiopian Torah written in the ancient language Geez, and would read from the Book of Nehemiah. Their day would conclude by returning to their village and dancing as they broke their fast.

Last week, after a day of fasting, thousands of Ethiopian Jews gathered in Jerusalem to the Haas Promenade facing the Old City. At the ceremony, they heard from their members of Knesset, Yuli Edelstein and Miri Regev, as well as a video message from President Rivlin.

Israeli women from the Ethiopian Jewish community pray during the Sigd holiday marking the desire to ‘return to Jerusalem’, as they celebrate from a hilltop in the holy city overlooking the Temple Mount, on November 27, 2019. GALI TIBBON/AFP via Getty Images

Despite the holiday’s primary focus being the Beta Israel’s desire to return to Jerusalem, the Beta Israel community continue their tradition even as many of them live in Israel. Kes Mentasnut Govze, a spiritual leader, characterized Sigd as a day to “pray to God as one people with one heart that we would reach Jerusalem the next year and that the Temple would be rebuilt.” Although they have already reached Jerusalem, they continue to celebrate this day since “We still have not built the Temple and we must be clean. If we go on the correct path, the path of the Torah, God will help us, we will build the Temple and bring the sacrifices.” The Beta Israel’s chief rabbi in Israel, Rabbi Reuven Wabshat, explained that they continued to observe Sigd even in Israel in order to maintain the “powerful heritage of Ethiopian Jewry,” and for all Israelis to come closer to understanding the Ethiopian Jews’ history. Govze added that Sigd “is celebrated in kindergartens, schools, in the army, in local authorities and the message is that this story is your story, it’s my story and the story of all Jews, whether from Europe or from Arab countries.” In July 2008, the Knesset made Sigd an official holiday by making work optional on that day and incorporating the holiday into the educational curriculum. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embraced Sigd, claiming it “expresses the covenant of the Ethiopian Jewish community with our freedom, our Torah and our land, and especially with Jerusalem. I salute your great devotion to maintaining Jewish identity in exile over so many generations.” He then announced on Tuesday, appealing to the wishes of the Ethiopian community in Israel, “We, in the government, passed a decision to formalize the status of the kessim… We will integrate them as spiritual leaders in the religious services framework.” The Israeli rabbinate will officially recognize Beta Israel laws and Kessim will be granted authority in rabbinic courts.

This recognition comes after a summer of intense conflict and riots following the death of Solomon Tekah, an Ethiopian-Israeli teenager who was shot by a police officer. The shooting raised claims of police brutality and brought attention to the discrimination and over-policing that the Ethiopian community faces. Even as tensions have persisted despite outcry from the Beta Israel community, the community has found a sense of victory and acceptance, especially after Netanyahu’s announcement regarding the change in the status of the Kessim, as Wabshat said, “The Sigd holiday can bring people to the understanding and recognition that Ethiopian Jews are of the same flesh as all Jews around the world, and when the state recognizes Sigd, as it has, it means that we can all be one people.”

Rachel Shohet is a senior at The Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.

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