Prince Davis—Celebrating Sigd: An Ethiopian Jewish Tradition

By Prince Davis

On Sunday, November 25, my sons and I had the pleasure of celebrating the 9th Annual Sigd festival; this year held at Temple Emanu-El.

According to Ethiopian Jewish tradition, the Sigd holiday commemorates the acceptance of the Torah on Mt. Sinai and the reacceptance of the Torah during the time of Ezra the Scribe prior to the construction of the Second Temple and is celebrated 50 days after Yom Kippur, very similar to the 50 days traditionally counted between Passover and Shavuot. Sigd in Ge’ez (ancient Ethiopic) means “to prostrate oneself (in worship)”. During the festival, members of the Ethiopian Jewish community, properly known as “Beta Israel” (House of Israel), would walk in procession together to the highest point overlooking the city of Jerusalem. The Kessim, who are the spiritual leaders of the community, would recite parts the Orit, the Ethiopian Torah which is comprised of the Five Books of Moses, the writings of the Prophets, and other writings such as Song of Songs and Psalms. It is written in the ancient Ge’ez language, which is a Semitic language and the mother of modern-day Amharic, Tigrinya and Tigre languages spoken in Ethiopia. The Kessim read parts of the Orit, including the Book of Nehemiah. The Psalms are also read. The community recalls its ancient traditions and expresses its desire to return to Jerusalem. Later in the day, there’s a huge celebration with dancing, music and delicious food.

Sigd was officially recognized in 2008 as an Israeli national holiday and is celebrated by all.

The keynote speakers for the evening were Rabbi Yosef Hadana, former Chief Rabbi of the Ethiopian Jewish Community in Israel, Professor Ephraim Isaac, preeminent Princeton scholar of Semitic studies, Rabbi Dr. Sharon Shalom, author of the book “From Ethiopia to Sinai”, and Kes Menntessnout Eli Vanda from the community of Kiryat Gat in Israel. These distinguished gentlemen walked in procession to the stage beautifully chanting Ge’ez verses from the Bible and various liturgical hymns under stunningly colorful umbrellas typically used by the community’s religious leaders. They each gave very insightful presentations about the history and traditions of the Beta Israel. Did you know that the Bible was originally translated into seven languages before it reached Europe, one of them in ancient Ge’ez? It was also the oldest found on Earth! There were so many fascinating tidbits from the discussion, I can’t begin to write them all. After the presentation, we all sat down to partake in the delicious (and spicy!) traditional Ethiopian cuisine. There were fish, beef, chicken, and vegetarian dishes, served along with injera, which is a fermented sour flatbread. Injera is not simply bread, however. It’s also an eating utensil! After eating such delicious food, my sons and I were stuffed!

My sons told me how much they enjoyed the event and even made a few new friends. It was a nice reunion for me as well. I had not seen my friend Riki Mullu, the coordinator the evening’s event, in a long time. I also reconnected with Professor Isaac, from whom I’ve learned so much over the years. He speaks 17 languages! It was also a great opportunity to speak with Rabbi Hadana and gain insight into the issues still facing the Ethiopian community in Israel.

I would love to see more programming like the Sigd festival held at Emanu-El in the future. What a wonderful opportunity to come together as Jews from all backgrounds and celebrate our diversity. It’s important to pass on our amazing history to the next generation.

“Hine ma tov u’ma naim, shevet achim gam yachad.” Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity.