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Notes from Limmud 2009

The Origins of the Beta Israel of Ethiopia: Raiders of the Lost Ark or Members of the Lost Tribes?

Dr Shalva Weil

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

The Ethiopian Jews are nowadays called Beta Israel. They used to be called "Falashas"; this is nowadays derogatory and they claim they always called themselves Beta Israel, but actually that's untrue: they used to call themselves Falashas. The Ge'ez word "falasha" is the same as פולש—someone who intrudes. They have also been known as Israelitosh, Kailo ("hyaena") by the Christians of Gondar, also "witches", to today.

How did Jews get to Ethiopia? And are they Jews? There are lots of fascinating theories, but no definite answers.

One of the easiest explanations is that they were Bnei Israel—Israelites—who stayed in Israel, and went up the Nile through Nubia to Ethiopia. According to the rabbinical authorities, there were some Jews who stayed in Ethiopia [read: Egypt?] and never left for the Promised Land.

A second theory: In 722 BCe, Shalmaneser king of Assyria took captives from the Kingdom of Israel (distinct from the Kingdom of Judah),

2 Kings 17:6 מלכים ב יז ו-יז ו
In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away into Assyria, and placed them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. בִּשְׁנַת הַתְּשִׁעִית לְהוֹשֵׁעַ לָכַד מֶלֶךְ־אַשּׁוּר אֶת־שֹׁמְרוֹן וַיֶּגֶל אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל אַשּׁוּרָה וַיֹּשֶׁב אוֹתָם בַּחְלַח וּבְחָבוֹר נְהַר גּוֹזָן וְעָרֵי מָדָי׃

His work was finished by Tiglath-Pileser, the next king of Assyria. The only tribes remaining afterwards were Judah, part of Benjamin and part of the tribe of Levi. [Plus, which everyone always forgets, ex-pats from the Kingdom of Israel who were living in the Kingdom of Judah. And what about the tribe of Simeon, which was surrounded by the territory of Judah?]

So, what happened to the ten tribes? We have archaeological evidence—ostraca—in Hebrew showing that they moved to Iraq; but what happened afterwards? R. Akiva said they will never return: they have been assimilated. Other people, including the prophet Ezekiel, says the Ten Tribes will be reunited with the remaining two tribes.

Throughout the ages, the tribe of Dan was associated with Ethiopia. In 1973, Ovadiah Yosef, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, issued a psak halacha that the Falashas are from the lost tribe of Dan. On the basis of this, the gates were opened for the Ethiopian Jews to come to live in Israel. Until then people had been debating whether the Ethiopian Jews had the right to come to the State of Israel.

There were lots of halachic problems. Yosef's responsum was a brilliant circumnvagiation of the issue: By calling them the lost tribe of Dan, he ruled that they are not Jews, but Israelites—and we can now bring them into the fold.

Two years later the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, R. Goren, accepted them too.

Yosef based himself on the precedent of the Radvaz in the sixteenth century. R. David ben Ibn Zimra, an Egyptian rabbis who had written two piskei halacha about Falashas. He'd said a Falasha slave was okay to marry a Jew because she was from the tribe of Dan.

This started the aliya to Israel.

The last emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie said he was the Lion of Judah. He didn't say he was of the lost tribes, but from Judah. On the basis of this he and the Ethiopian people claim some sort of closeness with the people of Israel. The Falashas themselves adopted the idea that they were connected to the Lion of Judah. And now that the Falashas are gone, some other Ethiopians have taken over their imagery and call themselves Falashas!

Now, the Ethiopian Jews themselves don't say they're from the lost Tribe of Dan. Another theory is that they're an offshoot of Elephantine Jewry [for an explanation of which see the linked article; I'm not taking further notes here. If you don't know about it, read this article: it's fascinating!]. The Elephantine Jews made sacrifices—and the Ethiopian Jews until today make sacrifices.

Now, Elephantine's already quite far south, on the First Cataract of the Nile. But, Elephantine is still eight hundred miles from Aksum, the ancient capital of Ethiopia, and 2000 miles to the Gondar area. Also, there's no direct mention of the Sabbath in the Elephantine papyri, and the Sabbath is one of the most important things in the Ethiopian community. They had a document called Te'ezaza which was all about the laws of the Sabbath. It depicts the Sabbath as a female. But their laws of the Sabbath are different to other communities; for example they outlaw marital relations on the Sabbath.

They also have other texts similar to midrashic stories. They also considered the Book of Jubilees very important. [Jubilees also outlaws marital relations on the Sabbath. But where did they learn about Jubilees from? It was written in Judaea around the time of the Hasmonean uprising. But even if Ethiopian Jewry was largely cut off from the Jewry of the rest of the world, it's not impossible that a little knowledge leaked across: Ethiopia's just across the Red Sea from Yemen, which was part of the rest of world Jewry.] They also had the Book of Maccabees, and there have been references to the Ethiopian Jews down through the years: Bartenura, for example, mentions them.

[I'm going to digress from the speaker here a bit to mention the book The Sign and the Seal, describing Graham Hancock's quest to discover what happened to the Ark of the Covenant. Hancock agrees with the Elephantine theory, and paints a picture of Ethiopian Christianity as containing a number of Israelite rituals that are not found in the rest of Christendom. He thinks that Ethiopian Christianity is not the result of missionaries converting a pagan population, but rather the mass conversion of a large Jewish population the best part of two thousand years ago.]

The other theory, of course, is that the Ethiopian Jews derived from the meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who came from Kush. Most of the theories suggest she was from Ethiopia.

[Picture of the Queen of Sheba, from a church in Ethopia, depicting her as Christian.] Christianity reached Ethiopia in the first century, but only took hold in the third century, when King Izzana of Aksum converted. They practice an Ethiopian form of Coptic Christianity. Ethiopia today is largely Christian, but Islam is getting more and more of a hold there.

The most famous legend in Ethiopia, produced in the fourteenth century, which is a chronicle of the kings. The story of the meeting of the queen of Sheba with Solomon is continued there after what we have in the Books of Kings and Chronicles. (From their point of view they don't even know what's written in our books.) They say she went back to Ethiopia and found she was pregnant. She had a son, called Menelik, who was born in Aksum. He became prince of Ethiopia. He was furious he was being brought up by his mum, a one-parent queen, and never knew his father, who anyway had another thousand wives.

So when he grew up he determined to go back to Israel to meet his father. Solomon didn't want to know anything about him. Menelik had come with his friends, and said how could he take revenge? So he decided to steal the most valuable thing in Solomon's life: The Ark of the Covenant. So he and his henchmen stole it and took it back to Ethiopia and put it in their church in Aksum.

Now everybody wants to come and see the church in question. Once a year they have a ceremony in which they take out their scriptures, cover it with scarves and parade it around.

Some of the Ethiopian Jews today claim descent from Menelik.

Both the Christian and Jewish Bibles are written in the extinct language of Ge'ez—there's no difference in the OT for them. There's some speculation as to whether it was translated from the Greek. They call it Orit (the same word as אורייתא, and cognate to "Torah"). It's bound as a book, not a scroll.

The Sigd festival is a festival no other Jewish community has. It's a fast fifty days after Yom Kippur. They take their Orit, cover it over with scarves and parade it around—exactly the same as the Christians. This year 20,000 people celebrated it in Jerusalem.

The earliest mention of the Ethiopian Jews is not until the fourteenth century; it's a reference to a group of felasseen who refused to convert to Christianity, but it's not certain that these were Jews. And some people think that the Falashas were Christians who Judaised in the fourteenth century, because their Judaism and Christianity are so similar:

Firstly, both are circumsized. Until recently the Christians celebrated the Sabbath on Saturday. Thirdly the churches have a tripartite division with a replica of the Ark (Sefer Torah) inside the Holy of Holies. The main difference is of course the belief in Jesus.

[I mentioned above the theory that the Christian community was the result of the mass conversion of a large Jewish community much earlier than the fourteenth century. And there is one opinion that holds that Queen Gudit, or Judith, who ruled Ethiopia in the tenth century, may have been Jewish, though not everyone agrees.]

Ethiopian Jews have unusual practices compared to all other forms of Judaism. They didn't have the Talmud; they had their own Oral Law. They observed laws of purity which they strictly observed according to what it says in Leviticus. No other Jewish community apart from the Indian keeps this. And there's a film of them from 1937 of them sprinkling ashes of a פרה אדומה.

In addition, they have a weird institution. They had monks, until just three or four years ago (when the last one died). The religious authority was not in the hands of rabbis or priests, but monks. According to the academics, it was the monks who in the fourteenth century who set up a Jewish sect and broke away from Christianity.

But even those who say that the Ethiopian Jews aren't Jews, say that Judaism got to Ethiopia before Christianity.

One last theory is that they're an offshoot of Yemenite Jewry, based on the fact their handiwork (suffet [sp?]) resembles Yemenite handiwork a bit (though not so refined).

The first genetic study, in the sixties, showed no relationship between Ethiopian Jews and other Jewish communities. Subsequent studies have not found any further connection.

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