Celebrate Sigd: An Ancient Ethiopian Jewish Holiday

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November 22, 2022

6 min read

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It’s time to try some Injera and Doro Wat, here’s why.

After the hectic pace of the High Holidays, we anticipate Hanukkah, the happy festival of lights. But, before we get to doughnuts and latkes, there’s a lesser-known but equally special holiday celebrated by the Jewish community in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Jews in Israel. It’s called Sigd and it is celebrated 50 days after Yom Kippur. This year it’s on November 23, 2022, the day before Thanksgiving in America.

A Short History of the Jews of Ethiopia

After the Romans destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusaelm in 70 C.E., many Jews were taken as slaves to the vast territory of the Roman Empire and others left the land wandering and broken. A group made its way through southern Israel, into the Sinai and then into Egypt, through modern-day Sudan and finally into Ethiopia. They settled in the Gondar region, which is in the northwest in the mountains.

I spoke to an incredible woman from the Beta Israel, the formal name of this community. Almaz Mayoma-Jano, 37, was a young girl when she arrived in Israel with her family in 1991. Almaz lives in Jerusalem and is the mom of a lively young boy. She works as a traditional dancer, bringing the spirit of the Beta Israel alive by performing the traditional dances. There is no school for this, Almaz learned from older women. The dances have been passed down from generation to generation.

Almaz explained that the community settled in villages separate from the general population and faithfully held on to their Jewish traditions, even putting their own spin on some practices. For example, instead of having separate Passover dishes, they would smash the plates, remix the clay and bake new dishes. Also, on Shabbat, people always wore sparkling white clothes to reflect the purity of Shabbat, and to show that they didn’t work in the fields on that day.

The Ethiopian Jews Came To Israel

The Beta Israel were cut off completely from world Jewry. Jacques Faïtlovitch from Lodz, Poland went to Paris in 1900 and studied Amharic. He heard about the Jews in Ethiopia, went to visit the community numerous times and after WW2 he persuaded the Jewish Agency to start assisting the community. When the Jewish Agency started activities the Beta Israel learned about the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel.

The Beta Israel waited patiently for the Israeli government to recognize their community and acknowledge that they were Jews. A Beta Israel rabbi is called a “qes” in Amharic. The plural is quessotch, in Hebrew it’s kessim. The rabbis serve as community leaders. When they saw that the Israeli government wasn’t being helpful, they told the people to start moving to the Jewish Agency compound in Gondar. En masse, they were a force that the Israeli government had to recognize. Since the early 1950s, The Jewish Agency has assisted more than 95,000 Ethiopians with their immigration to Israel.

Holiday of Sigd

Throughout their time in Gondar, these Jews yearned to return to Jerusalem as it was expressed by the prophets in the Torah. To affirm their connection to the Holy City, the community would gather on a hilltop 50 days after Yom Kippur. They turned towards Jerusalem and lifting their hands and voices, the Quessotch led them in song and prayer using Ge'ez, an ancient language, expressing their connection to and love for Jerusalem, their love for God and his Torah and their desire to return.

Almaz explained that as soon as the community landed in Israel, the Kessim decided to unify the community members who were now living in different cities by celebrating Sigd. Even though they are now living in Israel, they decided the holiday was still relevant because the Third Temple has never been restored. They lobbied the government and since 2008, Sigd is a legal holiday in Israel.

Sigd is a day of fasting, praying and then feasting. Sigd is from the Aramaic sged, which means prostration. Just as we prostrate during the prayers of Yom Kippur, the community prostrates at certain times during the prayers.

Source: Flickr

Today, community leaders organize buses to bring in people from all over Israel to the ceremony that is held on the Armon HaNatziv promenade which looks out over the Old City of Jerusalem and the site of the Temple Mount. The quessotch, dressed in white robes, with their heads wrapped in white turbans, hold colorful umbrellas for shade while some men clutch Torah scrolls. They stand with their hands outstretched and sing a series of prayers for about two hours. There's a very festive atmosphere, as people walk around and catch up with friends and relatives.

Various Israeli youth groups like Bnei Akiva attend. Almaz explained that Sigd has become a point of pride for Beta Israel youth, as Sigd showcases the lively, colorful community and all Jews are welcome to the ceremony. It started as an Ethiopian holiday, but it’s now a Jewish one.

Let’s Eat!

Celebrations mean food and drinks. The celebration begins with the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

Avraham, whose parents made aliyah from Ethiopia, told me that some elderly people fast until after the prayers are completed. He explained that a drink made from an herbal infusion was popular in Ethiopia, but that's been replaced by beer in Israel. Some also had Tej Honey Wine which is similar to mead.

The types of food available in Ethiopia were limited. Almaz said that lentils and injera were eaten daily, chicken was added on Shabbat, and a beef stew was eaten on holidays like Sigd.

Injera is a bread made from teff, a high-protein, gluten-free grain common in Ethiopia. It is the flatbread eaten at most meals. It is soft and spongy and it pairs perfectly with the lentils and stews of Ethiopian cuisine.

Traditionally, Injera takes at least 3 days to make and it is similar to making sourdough, but here is a recipe that’s faster and easier and a bit less spongy for your first foray into making your own injera. Get the recipe here.

Sigd is celebrated for an entire month leading up to the actual day, and it is an opportunity to raise Ethiopian Jewish visibility and educate Israeli Jews about Beta Israel customs.

Happy Sigd!

Image Source: Wikimedia

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