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The Ethiopians History - ההיסטוריה האתיופית

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The Ethiopians history

In the beginning:

The historical data concerning how a Jewish population first came to settle in Ethiopia is scant due to the lack of written records and the regional prevalence of oral traditions. There are, however, many theories, of which three are the most widely accepted:

1.     They may be the descendants of Menelik I, the fabled son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, as set down in the folkloric, biblical and aggadic Ethiopian Kebra Negast.

2.     The Ethiopian Jews are the descendants of the lost ancient Israelite tribe of Dan.

3.     They might be descendants of Jews who left Israel for Egypt following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE.

For thousands of years, Jews in Ethiopia maintained a strict pre-Talmudic biblical Judaism. They kept Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), the laws of ritual cleanliness, and observed the Jewish Sabbath and festivals. The Kesim (religious leaders) were respected as the rabbis of each community and presided over festival services in the ancient liturgical language of Ge'ez. They passed down Jewish tradition orally and maintained the Jewish books and torah scrolls that some communities had preserved in Ge'ez.


The legends about the origins of the Ethiopian Jews

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. Discoveries found 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.


Exile in Ethiopia

The Ethiopian Jews, also called the "Beta Israel" (House of Israel), termed "Falashas" (The Outsiders) by their neighbours, always would dreamt about be better then remember the hills of Jerusalem even as they lived in the mountains of Gondar. One of the core tenets of Ethiopian Jewish belief, prayer and day-to-day life was the desire to return to "Zion" - to once again look upon those hills. The journey from exile to redemption however, was one fraught with isolation and danger along the way.

Our story begins with the rise of Christianity in the 4th century. Conversion was forced upon the Jews of Ethiopia and those who maintained their faith and identity were persecuted, forcing them to withdraw to the mountainous region of Gondar. There they settled, built communities and lived for over 2000 years.

In the 10th Century the status of the Ethiopian Jews changed drastically with the rise of Queen Judith, who led them in a popular revolt that overthrew the Axum dynasty and sought to uproot Christianity throughout the land. A new royal dynasty was established and the Jews of Ethiopia held much influence for the next 350 years - often acting as a balance between Christian and Muslim groups in the land.

In 1270 the Axum dynasty returned to the throne once again, ushering in 400 years of tribal warfare and bloodshed. The end of that war in 1624 marked the end of Jewish freedom in Ethiopia. Jewish forces were defeated in a final battle by the Portuguese-backed Ethiopians and a long period of oppression began. Jewish captives were sold into slavery or forcibly baptised. Their lands were confiscated, their writings and religious books were burned and the practice of any form of Jewish religion was forbidden in Ethiopia.

Over the next couple of hundred years, despite some encounters with explorers and missionaries, the community remained fairly isolated. For centuries the world Jewish community remained unaware of the existence of Jews in the northern Ethiopian province of Gondar. Slowly however, recognition of Jews living in persecution in Ethiopia came to their attention.

In the 16th century, the Chief Rabbi of Egypt, Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Avi Zimra (Radbaz) proclaimed that in terms of Halachah (Jewish legal coda), the Ethiopian community was certainly Jewish. Throughout the nineteenth century, the majority of European Jewish authorities openly supported this assertion.

In 1908, the chief rabbis of 45 countries made a joint statement officially declaring their recognition. This proclamation was in largey due to the work of Professor Jaques Faitlovitch, who studied Amharic and Tigrinia at the Ecole des Hautes etudes in Paris under Professor Yosef Halevi. Halevi first visted the Ethiopian Jews in 1876. Upon his return to Europe he published a "Kol Korei," a cry to the world Jewish community to save the Ethiopian Jews. He also formed an organization called Kol Yisroel Chaverim ("All Israel are Friends"), which was to actively advocate on behalf of Ethiopian Jews for years to come.

Following Israeli independence the Jewish Agency began sending educational emissaries to organise Ethiopian Jewish "training groups" to travel to Israel to study Hebrew and Jewish studies and return to Ethiopia as teachers. By 1955 the first group had arrived in Kfar Batya. These operations continued for a number of years.

 Well into the twentieth century Ethiopian Jews were not allowed to own land in Ethiopia. Their neighbours treated them poorly and used them as scapegoats for any misfortune that arose. In the conflict following Haile Selassie's deposition in 1974, some 2,500 Jews were killed and 7,000 made homeless. By 1977 the situation had become so unbearable that groups of Jews began to flee, establishing refugee camps in Sudan. The exodus had begun, but those caught trying to leave Ethiopia were imprisoned and tortured. In the early 1980s, Jews caught travelling were charged and imprisoned, but still the exodus continued, bringing the number of Jews living in squalid refugee camps in Sudan to the hundreds.

In the early 1980s, the administration of Marxist-Leninist dictator Colonel Mengistu Mariam forbade the practice of Judaism and the teaching of Hebrew. Claiming that Hebrew was taught only as a preparation for emigrating to Israel, the government confiscated all Hebrew books, Jewish schools and synagogues were closed and Jewish students caught speaking to tourists were arrested and questioned. The Kessim (Jewish religious leaders) were routinely harassed by the government and Jews were often falsely imprisoned as "Zionist Spies." Forced conscription at the age of 12, the constant threat of war, famine, high infant mortality rates, and bad health care and conditions were additional factors that contributed to the precarious nature of the Ethiopian Jewish community's position.

Extreme famine wracked the Ethiopian economy during the 1980s and, do due increased attention in the West, Ethiopic received famine relief from Ethiopic both the United States and Israel. World Jewry prompted the government of Israel to apply pressure upon the Ethiopian government to release Ethiopian Jews.


 The Ethiopian culture

Language:

 

 

In Ethiopia there are more than sixty languages and dialects spoken.
The central languages are Amharic (official national language), Tigrit, and Oromo. In the regions where the Ethiopian Jews lived they spoke Amharic or Tigrit.
Those who came from the Tigri region spoke Tigrit and those who were living in
Gondar spoke Amharic.

The Kessim (religious leaders) and elders of the community also knew how to speak 'Geez'. Geez is an ancient Semitic language used exclusively in prayer.
Today in some of the institutes of higher learning Geez is taught in order to preserve the written and oral knowledge
of this ancient tongue.

The Amharic language is rich with proverbs and idioms allowing great insight into the traditional culture.

Music

The instruments that are commonly used in Ethiopian music are 'kevro'-drums, 'musinko'-similar to a violin, and 'karar'-similar to a guitar.

In the villages they preferred singing accompanied by the 'kevro' and the 'musinko'.

In more urban environments these instruments are used along with more modern musical instruments. Music plays a crucial role in the lives of the community at weddings and other gatherings
.

DRESS

 

 

Traditional Ethiopian clothing is made from pure cotton. Most of the gowns and dresses are white and are woven at home.

The traditional dress of an Ethiopian village woman is made up of three parts: 'kamis'-woven dress, 'meknat'-sash worn around the waist, and 'netela'-large cloak worn over the other two pieces.

The cotton is woven with many decorative colours and stripes and is distinguished by the intricate embroidery.

The women were traditionally responsible for preparing the cotton and embroidering designs, while the men actually wove the material.

HANDICRAFTS

Wickerwork:
Ethiopian women made a variety of items by winding bundles of palm leaves together. These pieces included colourful straws, allowing the creation of complicated and dynamic geometric designs.
Using this technique they would create: baskets, plates, 'mosav'-a table to serve 'injera'-traditional Ethiopian bread, Jewellery boxes, etc. Changes in wickerwork traditions occurred when coloured threads of cotton began to appear in the market. The women preferred these threads to the hard work of creating their own. In Israel today there are still many Ethiopian women practising this handicraft. 

Weaving:
Weaving was one of professions which was filled mainly by Jewish men in
Ethiopia. The principle product of this skill was cotton sheets.  

Smithery:
This was a profession that was filled only by Ethiopian Jewish men. Most of their products were tools for working in the fields, such as ploughs, sickles, hoes, etc.


Embroidery:
Much of Ethiopian traditional clothing is full of    hand-made embroidered patterns designed and created by the women in the community. In Israel, many Ethiopian women continue to create embroidered products for their families as well as for sale in the general marketplace. 

Pottery:
Pottery was made from clay found in the area. Stones were used to smooth and texture the pieces. The pottery was dried in the sun and then baked over an open flame. In this way they created cookware, storage containers and pitchers

 

FOOD

The most popular traditional food in Ethiopia is 'injera'-a type of spongy, thin bread made from 'tif' flour. 'Tif' is a small corn that grows in Ethiopia. Since the climate in Israel is not appropriate for growing 'tif', merchants bring 'tif' and sell it to the Ethiopian community in Israel.

Injera is usually eaten with sauce and meat, vegetables, beans, etc.

The sauce is called 'waat' and is well flavored and very spicy. A traditional Ethiopian meal is eaten only with fingers, silverware is not used.

Women make a drink in the house called 'tele'-a type of home-brewed beer or 'taj'-a sweet and sour drink made from honey.

Drinking 'buna, black coffee, includes a lengthy and significant social ritual. The ceremony includes heating the coffee beans, the smelling of the beans by all those present, grinding the beans, preparing the coffee, then pouring the coffee into small cups. Each person present is required to drink at least three cups. Relatives and neighbours are included in the ceremony and everyone discusses daily social issues. 


RELIGION

The central holy text of the Jews in Ethiopia was called the 'Orit'-Torah. The 'Orit' was the centre of their lives and religion.

The 'Orit' is made up of the Five Books of Moses, the Prophetic writings, and other writings such as Song of Songs and Psalms.

It is written in the ancient language-Geez. The 'Orit', wrapped in leather with colourful decorations, was always kept in a special place, in the Beit Knesset or in the home of one of the Kessim.

Ethiopian Jews lived according to the laws of the Torah, and kept many traditions directly connected to the written word of the Torah.
On Passover, for example, Ethiopian Jews slaughter a goat and offer presents to the Kessim. In their prayers they have always included visions of a peaceful
Jerusalem and a hope to arrive there one day.

SIDG

Sigd is an Amharic word meaning prostrating oneself.
On the 29th of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan, members of the Ethiopian Jewish community fasted.

They met in the morning and walked to the highest point on a mountain, the 'Kessim' came carrying the 'Orit'. The 'Kessim' recited parts of the 'Orit', including the Book of Nehemiah.
On that day, members of the community recited Psalms and remembered the Torah, its traditions, and their desire to return to
Jerusalem.

In the afternoon they descended to the village and broke their fast, danced, and rejoiced. This holiday symbolized the covenant in receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Sigd is still celebrated in
Israel today. The Ethiopian community comes from all over Israel to Jerusalem. The 'Kessim' recite the prayers while the community prays overlooking the old city of Jerusalem. The desire to return has been realised. 

 



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