Posted by: mmeazaw | July 15, 2010

Beta Israel

Beta Israel (Hebrew: בֵּיתֶא יִשְׂרָאֵל‎ – Beta Israel, Ge’ez: ቤተ እስራኤል – Bēta ‘Isrā’ēl, modern Bēte ‘Isrā’ēl, “Betä Əsraʾel”, “House of Israel”) also known as Ethiopian Jews (Hebrew: יְהוּדֵי ‏אֶ‏תְיוֹ‏פְּ‏יָ‏ה‎, Yehudei Atiopia, Ge’ez: “የኢትዮጵያ አይሁድዊ”, “ye-Ityoppya Ayhudi”, “the Jews of Ethiopia”), are the names of Jewish communities which lived in the area of Aksumite and Ethiopian empires (Habesh or Abyssinia), nowadays divided between Amhara and Tigray

Beta Israel lived in North and North-Western Ethiopia, in more than 500 small villages spread over a wide territory, among Muslim and predominantly Christian ruling populations. Most of them were concentrated in the area around Lake Tana and north of it, in the Tigre, Gonder and Wello regions, and among the Semien, Wolgait, Dembia, Segelt, Lasta, Quara, Belesa, and small numbers lived in the cities of Gonder and Addis Ababa.

—Hagar Salamon

Other terms by which the community have been known include Falasha (Ge’ez: “Exiles”), Buda (Ge’ez: “Evil eye”), Kayla (Agaw language spoken by them), Tebiban (“possessor of secret knowledge”), Attenkun (Ge’ez: “Don’t touch us”) which is considered derogatory
[5] and the Hebrew Habashim, associated with the non-Jews Habesha people (Abyssinians).

Nearly all of the Ethiopian Beta Israel community, comprising more than 120,000 people, reside in Israel under its Law of Return, which gives Jews and those with Jewish parents or grandparents, and all of their spouses, the right to settle in Israel and obtain citizenship. The Israeli government has mounted rescue operations, most notably during Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991), for their migration when civil war and famine threatened populations within Ethiopia. Some immigration has continued up through present day. Today 81,000 Ethiopian Israelis were born in Ethiopia, while 38,500 or 32% of the community are native born Israelis.[6]

The related Falasha Mura is the descendants of Beta Israel who converted to Christianity. Some are returning to the practices of Judaism, living in Falash Mura communities and observing halakha. Beta Israel spiritual leaders, including Chief Kes
Raphael Hadane have argued for the acceptance of the Falasha Mura as Jews. This claim has been a matter of controversy within Israeli society.



The Ethiopian history described in the Kebra Negast, or “Book of the Glory of Kings,” relates that Ethiopians are descendants of Israelite tribes who came to Ethiopia with Menelik I, alleged to be the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (or Makeda, in the legend) (see 1 Kings 10:1-13 and 2 Chronicles 9:1-12). The legend relates that Menelik, as an adult, returned to his father in Jerusalem, and then resettled in Ethiopia, and that he took with him the Ark of the Covenant.

In the Bible there is no mention that the Queen of Sheba either married or had any sexual relations with King Solomon; rather, the narrative records that she was impressed with his wealth and wisdom, and they exchanged royal gifts, and then she returned to rule her people in Kush. However, the “royal gifts” are interpreted by some as sexual contact. The loss of the Ark is also not mentioned in the Bible.

The Kebra Negast asserts that the Beta Israel are descended from a battalion of men of Judah who fled southwards down the Arabian coastal lands from Judea after the breakup of the united Kingdom of Israel into two kingdoms in the 10th century BCE (while King Rehoboam reigned over Judah).

Although the Kebra Nagast and some traditional Ethiopian histories have stated that Yodit (or “Gudit”), a tenth century usurping queen, was Jewish, it’s unlikely that this was the case. It is more likely that she was a pagan southerner[12] or a usurping Christian Aksumite Queen.[13]

Most of the Beta Israel consider the Kebra Negast legend to be a fabrication. Instead they believe, based on the ninth century stories of Eldad ha-Dani (the Danite), that the tribe of Dan attempted to avoid the civil war in the Kingdom of Israel between Solomon’s son Rehoboam and Jeroboam the son of Nebat, by resettling in Egypt. From there they moved southwards up the Nile into Ethiopia, and the Beta Israel are descended from these Danites.

Other sources tell of many Jews who were brought as prisoners of war from ancient Israel by Ptolemy I and also settled on the border of his kingdom with Nubia (Sudan). Another tradition handed down in the community from father to son asserts that they arrived either via the old district of Qwara in northwestern Ethiopia, or via the Atbara River, where the Nile tributaries flow into Sudan. Some accounts even specify the route taken by their forefathers on their way upstream from Egypt.[14]

Rabbinical views

Public appeal of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to save the Jews of Ethiopia, 1921, signed by Chief Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Jacob Meir.

The ninth century Jewish traveler Eldad ha-Dani claimed the Beta Israel descended from the tribe of Dan, claiming Jewish kingdoms around or in East Africa existed during this time. His writings may represent the first mention of the Beta Israel, but his accuracy is uncertain; scholars point to Eldad’s lack of firsthand knowledge of Ethiopia’s geography and any Ethiopian language, although he claimed the area as his homeland.[15]

Rabbi Ovadiah Yare of Bertinoro wrote in letter from Jerusalem in 1488:

I myself saw two of them in Egypt. They are dark-skinned… and one could not tell whether they keep the teaching of the Karaites, or of the Rabbis, for some of their practices resemble the Karaite teaching… but in other things they appear to follow the instruction of the Rabbis; and they say they are related to the tribe of Dan.[16]

Some Jewish
legal authorities have also asserted that the Beta Israel are the descendants of the tribe of Dan, one of the Ten Lost Tribes. In their view, these people established a Jewish kingdom that lasted for hundreds of years. With the rise of Christianity and later Islam, schisms arose and three kingdoms competed. Eventually, the Christian and Muslim Ethiopian kingdoms reduced the Jewish kingdom to a small impoverished section. The earliest authority to rule this way was the Radbaz (Rabbi David ben Zimra, 1479–1573). Radbaz explains in a responsum concerning the status of a Beta Israel slave:

But those Jews who come from the land of Cush are without doubt from the tribe of Dan, and since they did not have in their midst sages who were masters of the tradition, they clung to the simple meaning of the Scriptures. If they had been taught, however, they would not be irreverent towards the words of our sages, so their status is comparable to a Jewish infant taken captive by non-Jews … And even if you say that the matter is in doubt, it is a commandment to redeem them.[17]

In 1973 Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, then the Chief Sephardic Rabbi, based on the Radbaz and other accounts, ruled that the Beta Israel were Jews and should be brought to Israel. He was later joined by a number of other authorities who made similar rulings, including the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Shlomo Goren.[18]

Other notable poskim, from non-Zionist
Ashkenazi circles, placed a halakhic
safek (doubt) over the Jewishness of the Beta Israel. Such dissenting voices include rabbis Elazar Shach, Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, and Moshe Feinstein.[19][20] Similar doubts were raised within the same circles towards Bene Israel Jews,[21], and Russian immigrants to Israel in the 1990s.

In the 1970s and early 80s the Beta Israel were forced to undergo a modified conversion ceremony involving immersion in a ritual bath, a declaration accepting Rabbinic law, and, for men, a “symbolic recircumcision”.[22] Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira later waived the “symbolic recircumcision” demand, which is only required when the halakhic doubt is significant.[23] More recently Chief Rabbi
Shlomo Amar has ruled that descendants of Ethiopian Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity are “unquestionably Jews in every respect”.[24] With the consent of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Amar ruled that it is forbidden to question the Jewishness of this community, pejoratively called Falashmura.[25]

At present, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel requires ritual immersion prior to marriage, from Jews of Ethiopian or any other ancestry alike.[26][27]

[edit] DNA evidence

A 1999 study by Lucotte and Smets studied the DNA of 38 unrelated Beta Israel males living in Israel and 104 Ethiopians living in regions located north of Addis Ababa and concluded that “the distinctiveness of the Y-chromosome haplotype distribution of the Beta-Israel from conventional Jewish populations and their relatively greater similarity in haplotype profile to non-Jewish Ethiopians are consistent with the view that the Beta Israel people descended from ancient inhabitants of Ethiopia and not the Levant.”[28][29] This study confirmed the findings of a 1991 study by Zoossmann-Disken et al..[30] A 2000 study by Hammer et al. of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes of Jewish and non-Jewish groups suggested that “paternal gene pools of Jewish communities from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East descended from a common Middle Eastern ancestral population,” with the exception of the Beta Israel, who were “affiliated more closely with non-Beta Israel (non-Falasha) Ethiopians and other East Africans.”[31]

A 2001 study by the Department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University found a possible genetic similarity between 11 Ethiopian Falashas and 4 Yemenite Jews who took part in the testing. The differentiation statistic and genetic distances for the 11 Ethiopian Falashas and 4 Yemenite Jews tested were quite low, among the smallest of comparisons involving either of these populations. The 4 Yemenite Jews from this study may be descendants of reverse migrants of African origin who crossed Ethiopia to Yemen. The study result suggests gene flow between Ethiopia and Yemen as a possible explanation for the closeness. The study also suggests that the gene flow between Ethiopian and Yemenite Jewish populations may not have been direct, but instead could have been between Jewish and non-Jewish populations of both regions.[32]

A 2002 study of Mitochondrial DNA (which is passed through only maternal lineage to both men and women) by Thomas et al. showed that the most common mtDNA type found among the Ethiopian Falasha sample was present only in Somalia. This further supported the view that all Ethiopian Beta-Israel(Falashas) were of local or Ethiopian origin.[33]

[edit] Scholarly view

In the past, secular scholars were divided on the origins of the Beta Israel; whether they were the descendants of an Israelite tribe, or converted by Jews living in Yemen, or by the Jewish community in southern Egypt at Elephantine.[34] In the 1930s Jones and Monro argues that the chief Semitic languages of Ethiopia may suggest an antiquity of Judaism in Ethiopia. “There still remains the curious circumstance that a number of Abyssinian words connected with religion, such as the words for Hell, idol, Easter, purification, and alms– are of Hebrew origin. These words must have been derived directly from a Jewish source, for the Abyssinian Church knows the scriptures only in a Ge’ez version made from the Septuagint.”[35]
Richard Pankhurst summarized the various theories offered about their origins as of 1950 that the first members of this community were

(1) converted Agaws, (2) Jewish immigrants who intermarried with Agaws, (3) immigrant Yemeni Arabs who had converted to Judaism, (4) immigrant Yemeni Jews, (5) Jews from Egypt, and (6) successive waves of Yemeni Jews. Traditional Ethiopian savants, on the one hand, have declared that ‘We were Jews before we were Christians’, while more recent, well-documented, Ethiopian hypotheses, notably by two Ethiopian scholars, Dr Taddesse Tamrat and Dr Getachew Haile… put much greater emphasis on the manner in which Christians over the years converted to the Falasha faith, thus showing that the Falashas were culturally an Ethiopian sect, made up of ethnic Ethiopians.[36]

According to Menachem Waldman, a major wave of immigration from the Kingdom of Judah to present-day Ethiopia dates back to the Assyrian Siege of Jerusalem, in the beginning of the 7th century BC. Rabbinic accounts of the siege assert that only about 110,000 Judeans remained in Jerusalem under King Hezekiah‘s command, whereas about 130,000 Judeans led by Shebna had joined Sennacherib‘s campaign against Tirhakah, king of Kush. Sennacherib’s campaign failed and Shebna’s army was lost “at the mountains of darkness”, suggestively identified with Semien Mountains.[37] This account is supported by the letter of Aristeas (13), which also describes several later occasions in which Judean armies were sent against Ethiopian forces. According to Jacqueline Pirenne, numerous Sabaeans crossed over the Red Sea to Ethiopia to escape from the Assyrians, who had devastated the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. She further states that a second major wave of Sabaeans crossed over to Ethiopia in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE to escape Nebuchadnezzar. This wave also included Jews fleeing from the Babylonian takeover of Judah.[38]

In 1987 Steven Kaplan stated:

Although we don’t have a single fine ethnographic research on Beta Israel, and the recent history of this tribe has received almost no attention by researchers, every one who writes about the Jews of Ethiopia feels obliged to contribute his share to the ongoing debate about their origin. Politicians and journalists, Rabbis and political activists, not a single one of them withstood the temptation to play the role of the historian and invent a solution for this riddle.[39]

Richard Pankhurst stated in 1992 “The early origins of the Falashas are shrouded in mystery, and, for lack of documentation, will probably remain so for ever.”[36]

By 1994 modern scholars of Ethiopian history and Ethiopian Jews generally supported one of two conflicting hypotheses, as outlined by Kaplan:[40]

An ancient Jewish origin of the Beta Israel, as well as some ancient Jewish traditions later conserved by the Ethiopian Church. Kaplan lists Simon D. Messing, David Shlush, Michael Corinaldi, Menachem Waldman, Menachem Elon and David Kessler as supporters of this hypothesis.[40]

A late ethnogenesis of the Beta Israel between the 14th to 16th Centuries, from a sect of Ethiopian Christians who took on Biblical practices, and came to see themselves as Jews. Steven Kaplan lists himself along with G.J. Abbink, Kay K. Shelemay, Taddesse Tamrat and James A. Quirin as supporters of this hypothesis. Quirin differs from his fellow researchers in the weight he assigns to an ancient Jewish element that the Beta Israel have conserved.[40]

Paul B. Henze supported the latter view in his 2000 work Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia:

These groups came into conflict with the military colonies and Christian missions which were the main instruments of the extension southward of the Ethiopian state. They may have been joined by dissidents or rebelling northern Christians who felt their interpretation of ritual, sacred texts and traditions of art represented a more ancient Israelite connection than Orthodox Monophysite Christianity itself. The Beta Israel can thus be understood as a manifestation of the kind of rebellious archaism that has often come to the surface in Christianity — e.g. Russian Old Believers and German
Old Lutherans. Assertion of Jewish derivation, they felt, provided them with a stronger claim to legitimacy than their Christian enemies.[41]



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s