No Falashas – Ethiopian Diaspora

Black Judean NYHThe Black Jews
By Robert Shepherd

Origins of Abyssinian Jews

The early days of the Beta Israel (House of Israel) community in Abyssinia remain a mystery. There is no doubt that the roots of Judaism were influential in this part of Africa at a very early date –perhaps even as far back as the First Temple period. Since there are no factual data from those times, and given the Ethiopian Jews’ racial resemblance to native Ethiopians, various theories have been proposed concerning the origins of the community, based on superficial research of their traditions, customs and roots.

Many aspects of Ethiopian culture still show traces of Judaic influence. The Abyssinian Church is considered very close to ancient Judaism, with customs such as circumcision, a form of Sabbath observance, dietary laws similar to those found in the Tora, and other practices preserved in its doctrine. We know that before the spread of Christianity in the 4th century CE, the Mosaic faith was practiced in Abyssinia, alongside the idol worship which still remains widespread.

According to Ethiopia national legend, the founder of the royal dynasty, whose last monarch was Negus (Emperor) Haile Selassie –the symbolic and titular “Lion of Judah” –was the son of the Queen of Sheba (Makida, according to the legend) and King Solomon. The son, Menelik, as an educated adult, returned to his father in Jerusalem, and then resettled in Ethiopia together with many members of the Israelite tribes, including priests and Levites. He also smuggled the Ark of the Covenant and the Tablets of the Law out from Jerusalem, and brought them to Aksum, capital of ancient Abyssinia.

The Jews of Ethiopia do not generally accept this legend, and take it to be mere fabrication. However, this old tradition only strengthens what we know from other sources –that there was an early Jewish influence in Abyssinia.

A 9th-century tradition, based on the story of Eldad ha-Dani (the Danite), maintains that during the rift between Rehoboam, son of Solomon, and Jeroboam, son of Nebat –leaders of the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel respectively –the tribe of Dan chose not to be drawn into tribal disputes. To avoid the impending civil war they resettled in Egypt. Once there, the Danites continued southwards up the Nile to the historic Land of Cush (today in Sudan and Ethiopia) and found it to be rich in resources. Eldad ha-Dani himself was probably from this area. According to his report, members of the tribes of Naftali, Gad and Asher lived there together with the Danites, and he himself could trace his ancestry back to Dan, son of Jacob.

This tradition, which may have a certain Biblical basis, is also found in other medieval sources. Rabbi Obadiah of Bertinoro came across two Abyssinian Jewish prisoners of war in Egypt in the late 15th century and wrote that they claimed to be descended from the tribe of Dan. Rabbi David ben-Zimra (RaDBaZ) ruled in his 16th century responsa that the Jews of Ethiopia were unquestionably Danites who had settled in Abyssinia, possibly even before the Second Temple period. The tradition appears to have been widely held by the Jews of Abyssinia and the surrounding areas until recently, though this is no longer the case today.

At the time when the Ten Tribes were exiled to Assyria (during the reign of King Hosea, son of Elah of Israel, approximately one century before the First Temple was destroyed and Judah was exiled), the Prophet Isaiah prophesied the End of Days, when the dispersed people of Israel and Judah would be gathered in from their place of exile. Cush is one of the places mentioned.

And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord will set His hand again the second time to recover the remnant of His people, that shall remain from Assyria and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea. And He will set up an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the dispersed of Israel, and gather together the scattered of Judah from the four corners of the earth. (Isaiah 11:11-12)

The return of the people living “beyond the rivers of Abyssinia” to “the place of the name of the Lord of Hosts” is prophesied in detail in Isaiah 18:7 and Zephania 3:10. These sources are sufficient to demonstrate Jewish presence in Ethiopia towards the end of the First Temple period.

After the destruction of the First Temple, the Jewish community in Egypt expanded. Findings discovered at the beginning of this century in Yev (Elephantine) in southern Egypt on the Nile, near Aswan (the area of Biblical Pathros) indicate there were Jewish communities near the Sudanese border dating at least to the Return to Zion in the Persian period. The Jews of Yev, like those of Abyssinia, built a temple and performed sacrifices, but did not reject the sanctity of Jerusalem and its Temple. Similarly, Onias’ Temple, in Lower Egypt, dates from the Second Temple period. Other similarities in traditions and special customs support the evidence of a link between the ancient Egyptian Jews and those of Ethiopia.

Other sources tell of many Jews who were brought as prisoners of war from Eretz Israel by Ptolemy I (322-285 B.C.E.) and also settled on the border of his kingdom with Nubia (Sudan).

It can therefore be assumed that the Jewish communities in Pathros were destroyed and that the Jews headed south in search of a new place to live along the most convenient route –up the Nile via Sudan to its sources around Lake Tana in northwest Ethiopia. Ethiopian Jews live there to this day.

Another tradition handed down in the community from father to son asserts that they arrived either via the Quara district in western Ethiopia, or via the Guango River, where the Nile tributaries flow into Sudan. Some accounts even specify the route taken by the forefathers on their way upstream from Egypt.

These waves of exiles, each arriving in a different period, probably converted some of the native people, which could explain the physical resemblance between Ethiopian Jews and non-Jews. It should be made clear that Jewish sources do not regard external appearance and skin color as indicative of Jewishness in any way. Indeed, it is well known that Jews bear a resemblance to the Gentile populations of their various Diaspora surroundings.

Various scholars have provided other theories. Some view Beta Israel as descendants of the tribe of Agau, which converted to Judaism in ancient times. Others regard the community as descendants of converted Yemenite Arabs or of Yemenite Jews who were brought to Abyssinia during the Abyssinian rule of the Yemen and who intermarried with the Agau tribe in the early centuries of the Common Era. Some even consider Beta Israel a Gentile community with traces of Jewish tradition.

There are inconclusive theories, based chiefly on racial similarity and a superficial study of traditions, community customs and Hebrew sources.

In summary, it may be assumed that Jews reached Abyssinia as early as the last First Temple period, and that additional groups came after its destruction, and during the Second Temple period, via Egypt and the Nile. Converts, and perhaps even Jews from the Yemen, probably reinforced and increased the Jewish community, which was already established and exerting great influence in the regions surrounding Lake Tana.

One fact is clear from all the sources: The Falashas have always regarded themselves as Jews, believers in the Faith of Moses, exiled from Eretz Israel, and quite distinct from the native Gentiles. They were also regarded as such by the Christian, Muslim and idol-worshipping Ethiopian communities around them.

From the Historical Records of the Abyssinian Jewish Community

The history of Beta Israel in Ethiopia is fairly similar to that of other Jewish communities in the Diaspora. For many generations their foreignness made them targets for hostility, harsh legislation, forced conversion, persecution and even murder by their neighbors. The amazing fact that they survived so hostile an environment says much for the determination and will to exist which have empowered Jews everywhere to endure difficult times, through their devotion and praise of God’s name.

This is what Beta Israel has in common with other Diaspora Jewish communities. However, there are two features which distinguish the history of Beta Israel from those of other exiles.

First of all, Beta Israel has been completely isolated from the rest of the Jewish people, including those in neighboring Yemen and Egypt, for about 24,00 years. This is extremely significant and illustrates the uniqueness of the community. Of all Jewish communities which have survived to this day, Beta Israel is the one which most merits the description “lost” or “distant” tribe.

Secondly, the Jews of Ethiopia enjoyed a “golden” period of independence and rule. During the power struggles and wars of the Middle Ages, the Falashas were not an unfortunate minority persecuted by the rulers and native population. On the contrary, for centuries the Jews were a powerful force among the Abyssinian tribes. They apparently numbered in the hundreds of thousands; they fought and rebelled. They were even at times victorious and assumed power.

The Jews and their history in Abyssinia are first mentioned explicitly sometime around the 10th century. Around 960, the Falashas and the Agau tribes rebelled against the kings of Aksum (the dynasty of Menelik) and the dominant Christian religion. The uprising was led by a queen known as Judith or Esther, sometimes identified as “the Jewess”, leader of the Falashas. Judith set out to eradicate Christianity from the land, burning churches and monasteries and slaughtering monks and priests. Following here, a new royal dynasty, called the Zagwe, rose to power and ruled Abyssinia for about 350 years. Apparently the Ethiopian Jews enjoyed great influence under this regime.

The Menelik Dynasty resumed control in the latter half of the 13th century and launched war almost incessantly against the Falashas. The result was the effective loss of Falasha independence, with the final downfall of the Jews of Ethiopia sometime in the early 17th century.

In 1332, Emperor Amda Siyon (1314-1344) sent his military commander, Tzaga Chrisus, to attack the Falashas, who had risen against him in northern and western Abyssinia, as he pursued a holy war against the Muslims in the south and east. He repressed the Falashas cruelly and pushed them back to their strongholds in the Semyen Mounts.

Amda Siyon’s great-grandson, Negus Ishak (1414-1429), also fought the Falashas and built churches on the ruins of their synagogues. Twenty-four Abyssinian judges were dismissed for daring to protest against the evil done to the Jews.

Negus Za’ra Ya’kob (1434-1468) continued the persecutions and added the title “Exterminator of the Jews” to his name. His subjects were required to tie a strip of parchment to their foreheads bearing an inscription expressing their commitment to the Christian faith. Interestingly enough, however, Jewish influence grew during his reign. Contemporary Abyssinian chronicles tell of Jewish converts, including the son of the Negus himself, Abba Tzaga, who became a well-known and influential Jewish hermit and friend of Abba Tzabra, one of the community’s spiritual leaders.

The warfare and persecution continued, on and off, throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. Echoes of the wars spread far and wide. Jews in Mediterranean countries who heard of the battles or met Falasha prisoners of war offered for sale in slave markets, primarily in Egypt, believed that the strife might indicate the coming of the Messiah, since this event was supposed to be preceded by war between Jews and Christians.

During the reign of Negus Lebna Dengel (1508-1540) and his son Claudius (1540-1559), Muslim forces under Arab Emir Ehmed Garan, ruler of eastern Ethiopia and Somalia, conquered broad stretches of Ethiopia including Semyen and Dembia, where the Jews had settled. With the help of the Portuguese, who intervened in Abyssinia (at the time one of Portugal’s New World discoveries en route to India), Negus Claudius liberated his land from the Muslims and took revenge on the Falashas and their king, Yoram, whom he executed for aiding the Muslim enemy. The new Falasha King, Radi, went to war with Negus Minas (1559-1563); upon defeat, however, he was taken prisoner by Minas’ successor, Negus Sarsa-Dengel (1563-1597).

A detailed chronicle describes Sarsa-Dengel’s brutal wars against the Falashas, under the leadership of Kaleb, Radai’s brother, wherein the Jews were badly beaten. The Abyssinian chronicle describes Falasha acts of heroism at the very time when their downfall became increasingly clear.

The war between the Falashas and the king’s forces intensified. Kaleb’s forces employed the device of rolling stones upon their enemies so they could not climb the mountain; the king’s forces had to postpone their ascent accordingly. At the seventh hour, the king ordered them to fire cannon. The first volley felled Tzavarei Alama and a woman who had hidden under a tree. Kaleb and his men were fear-stricken at this, for it appeared to them that the thunder had fallen from the sky. Dob’a Siltan came down to them from the hill –he had encamped there to guard the narrow passage –the result being that the Falashas were encountered at once from left and right, from above and below …

This time half the Falashas fell by point of sword and arrow, throwing their souls to the valley as they fled. The beasts –bulls, camels, mules and donkeys –were also killed; none remained alive … For Abba Nevai it was complete annihilation; no man or woman either young or old, nor any animal was left standing.

In the early 17th century, during the reign of Negus Susenyos (1607-1632), the Falashas were still rebelling against the crown near the mountains of Semyen. Intent upon destroying the Falashas, the negus began to conquer their strongholds, slaughtering men, women and children as he proceeded. The Falasha King Gideon and large numbers of his supporters were massacred. The rebels were surrounded and faced laws requiring forced baptism. Many of them did convert to Christianity and were sold into slavery.

This period marked the end of the relative independence and self-government which the Jews of Abyssinia had enjoyed for many generations. They now faced years of suffering as a persecuted minority. They were no longer entitled to own land; their rights were taken away. They became despised, objects of scorn.

But even in those difficult times, the Jews of Abyssinia maintained Jewish tradition in their villages, and isolated themselves from Gentiles and Gentile customs.

They became progressively fewer in number, and were estimated at between 100,000 and 250,000 in the 19th century. Since they were poor and lacking in other resources, they had to make use of the holy writings of the Coptic Church.

European Christian missionaries first came to Ethiopia in the 17th century and attempted to convert the Jewish minority, whom they considered a suitable target for their activities, but it was only in the middle of the 19th century that Western European Protestant missionaries saw the fruits of these efforts. They invested a great deal of money and effort into renewing the campaign, and succeeded in converting many Ethiopian Jews to Christianity.

Form then on, with more European missionaries, travelers and researchers visiting Abyssinia, reports of the lost Jewish tribe began to reach Europe and world Jewry.

A sudden rage of Jewish Messianic fervor for Zion broke out among the Falashas, who were torn between the hostile regime of Negus Theodore (1855-1865) and Christian missionaries claiming that the Messiah (Jesus) had already brought the Gospel to the world. In 1862 six of the community’s kesoch (priests) with Abba Mahari at their head, led thousands from their villages, with absolutely no preparation, northwards to the Red Sea and Jerusalem. They believed that God would perform a miracle and divide the waters as He had during the Exodus.

This “revival” came to a bitter end when the convoy stopped close to Aksum in the Tigre district of northern Ethiopia. Many of the pilgrims had died of hunger and epidemics; the rest returned to their villages, only to find they had been destroyed while they were away.

It was at this time that Ethiopian Jewry first began to have contact with Jews from the rest of the world. Joseph Halevy, the first Alliance Israelite Universelle emissary, reached the Falasha villages in 1867-8.

The situation of the Ethiopian Jews worsened towards the end of the 19th century. By the turn of the century, their numbers were estimated at only 60,000. Many died from epidemics and famine. An invasion of Muslim Dervishes from Sudan in 1889 devastated parts of western Ethiopia and seriously harmed the Falasha villages. And many were converted by missionaries.

It was only at the beginning of this century that the Ethiopian Jewish community began to raise their hopes. This was largely due to the efforts of Dr. Jacques Faitlovitch, who felt a responsibility to act on behalf of the Jewish People as the savior of Ethiopian Jews. Through him, Ethiopian Jews sent letters to other Jews throughout the world and received encouraging answers expressing identification with them, which bolstered their morale and helped them to stand up to the relentless efforts of the missionaries.

In 1923, Dr. Faitlovitch opened a school in Addis Ababa for young Ethiopian Jews. During the first half of the century, he enrolled some 40 young Falashas in Jewish religious schools in Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany and Jerusalem. Although they returned to Ethiopia, only a few of them helped the community to benefit from their newly expanded knowledge of Judaism and the world in general.

Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia (1936-1941) brought Jewish activity to a halt, and the school in Addis Ababa was closed.

Since Ethiopian independence was restored, and in fact throughout most of this century, Ethiopian Jews have –at least according to the law –enjoyed equal rights. However, the native population has remained hostile to the community to the extent that even lives have been lost.

As progress spread through Ethiopia, young Jews began to move from the villages into the cities, in particular to Gondar and the surrounding area. Though younger members of the community moved away from their villages and thus from their tradition and began to assimilate, it must be emphasized that the Falashas in the villages have kept faithfully to their religious traditions.

The Jews of Ethiopia –estimated in 1983 at about 30,000 –have maintained their Jewish faith and religious love of Zion and the Holy Land. The birth of the State of Israel, and its subsequent contact with them made them more determined to protect what was left of the Jewish population from total assimilation.

It may be said that if this community –which is settling “en masse” in Israel today –had not been saved, the rest of the Jewish People might never had known of this wonderful “lost” tribe. However, the promise God made through his prophets that the Jews of Cush would return to Zion and to Jerusalem has not been broken; it is taking place before our eyes.

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One comment on “No Falashas – Ethiopian Diaspora

  1. I’ve always wondered if Blacks were ever of the Jewish faith. I grew up during the 50/60’s when that would seems strange. Although there are some Blacks who have converted I feel that many don’t want to convert due to being afraid as to what people might say. I find that reading this has help me understand/educate that yes there are Black Jews and that everyone regardless of their faith/background should be accepted for who they are. Thank you.

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