Yes, Ethiopia harbours many things that people don’t know about it; both culturally and physically.
A lot of people gloss over Ethiopia as just another poor African country, perhaps at least recognising its interesting history.
Ethiopia was one of only two countries in Africa to avoid being colonised, fiercely fighting Italy twice to avoid the same fate as the rest of the country. Though the capital, Addis Ababa, was taken by the Italians for a few years, Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie persuaded the Allies to help liberate Italy during World War II, and succeeded.
Haile Selassie is now worshipped as the Messiah by followers of Rastafarianism.
Ethiopia has a much deeper history, though, than just avoiding colonialism. There are many important parts of Ethiopian history, such as the great Axum Kingdom, but there is one specific part about Ethiopia that not many know about…
Ethiopia, the fastest growing economy
in the entire world, has been an extremely important location for all three Abrahamic faiths, despite being located in east Africa!
A lot of people at least know that Ethiopia has a large and very unique Christian community, who follow the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (the country’s largest religion), and that Ethiopia also has a very large Muslim minority (making up over 40% of the country). Ethiopia has been a principal area for the history of both religions.
The Kingdom of Axum’s Christian ruler in present-day Ethiopia accepted Muslims, who Muhammad sent to Axum so that they could escape persecution in Mecca. This was the first recorded hijra (emigration) in Islamic history, and it led to both religions peacefully coexisting in the area for many centuries.
But, not as many people know about the Ethiopian Jews, and their interesting history.
Ethiopia has Africa’s oldest Jewish community. Though the vast majority have now made aliyah, emigration to Israel, where they make up nearly 2% of the population, a few thousand remain in Ethiopia. They are also known as Beta Israel.
According to some of the oral tradition of the Ethiopian Jews, they are descended from the sons of Moses in an exodus from Judea. Some instead say that it is the tribe of Dan, while others still say that they are descended from Menelik I’s procession when he returned to Ethiopia, using the Bible and Kebra Nagast to back this. This story is very interesting.
The Kebra Nagast, transcribed in the 14th century in present-day Ethiopia, describes how Queen Makeda of Ethiopia (the Queen of Sheba in Christianity) goes to Jerusalem and converts to Judaism after meeting with King Solomon. On her way back to Ethiopia, she gives birth to Solomon’s son, Menelik. Once he grows up, he goes to Jerusalem, where his father gives him the Ark of the Covenant to take back to Ethiopia with a large procession, including some of his other sons. This is how Judaism came to Ethiopia according to legend, and many Ethiopian Jews claim ancestry from Menelik.
Beta Israel did not have a major kingdom for themselves until the 4th century, when the Kingdom of Semien was founded in northwestern Ethiopia. This Kingdom lasted for over a millennium, only collapsing in 1632.
Throughout this long time in relative isolation from other Jewish communities, Ethiopian Jews formed a very unique culture unlike other Jewish areas. Because they branched off from other Jews very early on, traditionally…
- Ethiopian Jews do not celebrate Hannukah, nor Purim. They do, however, have their own holiday called Sigd.
- Ethiopian Jews may not break the Sabbath for any reason – even to save another life. Sex is also forbidden on the Sabbath.
- Ethiopian Jews do not light candles on Sabbath.
- Ethiopian Jews cut their hair and shave their beard if they are mourning, whereas other Jews refrain from doing this in mourning.
- Ethiopian Jewish women who are menstruating move outside of the city until they finish.
Perhaps some other minor Jewish sects follow some of these, but for the most part, these are practices unique to Ethiopian Jews.
Sometimes, especially because some Ethiopian Jews have Christian or Muslim family, some Jews have disputed whether Beta Israel is Jewish or not. Many Ethiopian Jews face discrimination in Israel
. Rabbis themselves have historically said that according to halakha, they are Jews, but this didn’t stop Ethiopian Jews from not being permitted to use Israel’s Law of Return until the late 1970s.
It is even more difficult for Falash Mura Jews of Ethiopia, who can trace their ancestry to Christians or Muslims, and not the original Beta Israel. These Ethiopian Jews could not make aliyah until 2003.
When, last year, Israel agreed to take in one thousand Falash Mura Jews, some members of Israel’s Knesset said
that if the Law of Return is opened up to Falash Mura, it can lead to people converting to Judaism just to take advantage of Israel’s good living conditions. Falash Mura Jews have to convert again when arriving in Israel, making it more difficult for them to emigrate.
Zeke Kornberg (יחזקאל קורנברג) has explained in the comments one particular reason that Ethiopian Jews have to convert again upon arriving in Israel.
Halacha demands that divorce be done through a Gett, a special divorce document. If the gett and divorce is not done properly, and the woman marries again and has children those children will be considered bastards under Jewish law – which means that they are prohibited, under Jewish law, from marrying most other Jews. To the best of my knowledge, in Ethiopian customs, women were divorced without a document, and simply by the husband telling to wife to return to her parents’ home – similar to the infamous “triple Talaq” customs of South Asian Muslims.
Rav Ovadiah Yosef decreed that Ethiopians are Jews and most Sephardic Rabbis went along with him. But many Ashkenazi Rabbis, who worried about the issue of bastardy of all Ethiopian Jews if they were recognized as Jewish, demanded that they convert, and therefore would be free to marry any Jew they wanted.
Ethiopians, of course, were very offended by the Ashkenazi position and demand that they convert despite living as Jews for hundreds if not thousands of years. They saw this as a clear case of discrimination and racism. But from the perspective of many Rabbis, this was a actually a necessary step to make sure that there would not be marriage discrimination in the future for Halachic reasons.
It needs to be noted that a lot of Jews are actually accepting of Ethiopian Jews, it is just a minority that is against them and doesn’t view them as real Jews. Here is a video where Israelis were asked whether they think that Ethiopian Jews are Jews or not:
Whatever the situation is, the Jews of Ethiopian are considered a “secret” according to some articles I found online, and I agree! They are a very unique . I hope that as time goes on, they are fully accepted by all Jews. It is sad that many are leaving Ethiopia, but they will be safer and have better lives in Israel. Their mark on Ethiopian history will remain anyways.
The beautiful country of Ethiopia is very unique and outstanding in its history and geography. Beta Israel and Falash Mura are just one part of this beautiful and diverse country.
In addition to the three Abrahamic faiths, Ethiopia is home to a thriving Bahá’í community, and many practice indigenous faiths, especially in the south. Ethiopia is one of the few parts of sub-Saharan Africa where it is uncommon to find indigenous faiths intertwining with Christianity or Islam, perhaps because of their long history there.
Truly, Ethiopia is a very special country.