Monday, November 16, 2009

Sigd, The Ethiopian Holiday

While most of the Jews of Ethiopia--the Beta Israel, as the Ethiopian community is properly called--have made aliyah and rejoined the global Jewish community, they have their own unique customs and traditions.

One of the most important of these traditions is the holiday of Sigd, which is celebrated on the 29th of Cheshvan (today). Sigd is an Amharic (a Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia) word meaning “to prostrate oneself,” but it is also related to the Amharic word for Temple.

Sigd celebrates the acceptance of the Torah. There are some who believe that it began in the 15th century, when the Kessim (priests) gathered the Beta Israel in order to strengthen their faith after they had suffered a period of great persecution. The Kessim were inspired by the Book of Nehemiah’s description of how the people who had returned from Babylon after 70 years of exile dedicated themselves to follow the ways of God: “All the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the Water Gate [of the Temple]; and they spoke to Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which God had commanded to Israel” (Nehemiah 8:1).

In Ethiopia, the Beta Israel would gather on mountaintops outside their villages. In Israel today (where Sigd is a recognized legal holiday), they gather in Jerusalem in a place from where the Temple Mount can be seen. The day begins with fasting but ends in feasting. During the day, Psalms are recited, the Orit (the Torah and holy books written in ancient Geez, an ancient Semitic language used exclusively in prayer) is read publicly, monetary pledges are fulfilled, and a general celebration takes place.

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