The Importance of Celebrating the Ethiopian Jewish Holiday of Sigd
Today, there are more than 135,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel. The Ethiopian Jewish community, also known as Beta Israel (House of Israel), has been an often-overlooked and misunderstood community within Israel — and many Jews (and non-Jews) living in the Diaspora know very little about the dynamic traditions and history of these Jews. This lack of awareness is slowly changing, arguably due to the exposure of the unique Ethiopian Jewish holiday called Sigd.
In 2008, the Knesset declared Sigd a national holiday in Israel, and over the years, many Israelis have started to embrace and join the celebration of this holiday that for thousands of years was observed exclusively by the Ethiopian Jewish community. In a recent interview with the Eshkolot organization, Deputy Public Security Minister Gadi Yevarkan encouraged all Jews to celebrate Sigd when he said, “The chief rabbis and anyone who deals with the issue of Israeli and historical Jewish identity, should understand that this holiday is a holiday of the people of Israel.”
The name of the holiday is derived from the Hebrew word for prostration, “sigda.” Sigd takes place 50 days after Yom Kippur, which is the 29th of the Jewish month of Cheshvan. The holiday recognizes the Jewish covenant with G-d created by receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai and the Torah’s re-acceptance upon returning to Judah from exile in 538 BCE led by Ezra the Scribe before the construction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
The importance of educating people about the rich history of the Ethiopian Jewish community cannot be understated, especially in the context of diversity among Jews and the definite need for greater unity. Naftali Aklum, an Ethiopian Jew, who made aliyah on his mother’s back when he was six months old and was one of the first families to escape Ethiopia via Sudan in 1984, uses his voice and his compelling story to spread the word to educate people about the Ethiopian Jewish community.
During a November 13, 2020 webinar co-sponsored by the Atlanta Israel Coalition and Herut North America, Aklum gave a brief history of the Jews in Ethiopia. The main part of the event was Aklum describing the riveting details about the harrowing journey his family, as well as thousands of other Ethiopian Jews, took by foot to flee a famine-ridden and politically dangerous Ethiopia through Sudan to make aliyah to Israel. Aklum was also a consultant for the 2019 action movie The Red Sea Diving Resort, which recounts how the mission to rescue Ethiopian Jews, known as “Operation Moses” came to be because his older brother, Ferede Yazezow Aklum Z”L, was among the first people to make the journey, and he went back and forth dozens of times risking his life on rescue missions. The film can be found on Netflix.
Aklum continued by describing some of the fascinating traditions that the Ethiopian Jews observed during Sigd when they were still living in Ethiopia. They would dress in all-white clothing and follow their spiritual leaders of the community, called kesim, who would carry the Torah as they climbed up to a high mountain and faced Jerusalem to intensely pray and become closer to G-d. This was not a joyous or happy day, but a day of fasting, Torah, and prayers to return “Home to Israel.”
Thousands of years later, once their prayers were answered and they were blessed to live in Israel, they now consider Sigd to be a joyous holiday. Still dressing in all-white clothing and carrying brightly colored umbrellas as the kesim did back in Ethiopia, they now celebrate that G-d brought them home to Zion. Today, Ethiopian Jewish leaders are striving to make Sigd a holiday for all Jews to celebrate, with prayers to bring peace and unity to the Jewish people as they have seen first-hand, that in unity there is strength.
Aklum emphasized that one of the main problems that makes it difficult for unity to grow is that “we don’t know enough about each other.” His mission is to educate people about the story of the Ethiopian Jews as well as to promote pride in Jewish identity. He recounts his experience going back to his village in Ethiopia as an adult, and he said that the experience made him realize who he is.
He says, “I’m Jewish, I’m Israeli, and I’m a black man. When you take all those identities within you and create a strong identity, you know you’re worth something, and then people will look at you the way you see yourself.” Aklum stressed that it is important that everyone take part in spreading his message to their children, to their families, and to friends, because only when we educate people, will we begin to see change and unify as a people.
Atlanta Israel Coalition’s Founding Executive Director, Cheryl Feingold Dorchinsky, said, “Naftali’s presentation was so inspiring because he was passing on a message of pride, of tradition and connecting to people, some who are struggling with their identities. [We are] proud to provide a vehicle to pass on his message because together our voices are louder, our light shines brighter, and we can be a greater force for good within our communities and across the globe.”
Lisa Koenig is the East Coast director of Herut of Herut North America’s US division.