Fifty days after Yom Kippur, the Ethiopian Jewish community celebrates Sigd, where they commemorate the giving of the Torah and express their yearning for Israel.
Today, more than 135,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, where Sigd has been recognized as a state holiday since 2008. But for hundreds of years, the Ethiopian Jewish community, known as Beta Israel, lived in isolation from other Jewish communities. This resulted in a distinct Jewish community that developed its own customs and traditions, including the celebration of Sigd.
This year, Sigd, which means “prostration” in an ancient Ethiopian liturgical language, began the evening of Nov. 15 and ended the evening of Nov. 16.
Rabbi Sharon Zaude Shalom, who serves in an Ashkenazi congregation in Kiryat Gan in Israel, joined the Macks Center for Jewish Education for a virtual talk on Nov. 15 about the Beta Israel community, his personal story of immigration to Israel and Sigd. During the talk, he noted some of the customs of the Beta Israel that differentiate it from other Jewish communities. At the heart of some of these differences, he explained, is that the Beta Israel don’t have the Talmud, so their Jewish practice is based on the Torah. As a result, women in their community can perform brit milahs, as Tziporah, Moses’ wife, did in the Torah, and they eat chicken with milk, as they do not include chicken in the Torah’s prohibition against eating meat cooked in its mother’s milk.
Shalom recalled how in Ethiopia, for the holiday of Sigd, all the Beta Israel would gather together, dress in white clothing and go up to the mountain, where they read scriptures and prayed. After the service, they returned to the village and had a feast.
Beginning in the late ‘70s, though primarily in 1984 and 1991, multiple missions brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
“We left everything because we were Jewish, and we were [Zionists] and we read the Torah,” Shalom said.
Shalom immigrated to Israel on his own as a child. He walked on foot from Ethiopia to Sudan, and from there, he, along with other Ethiopian Jews, traveled to Israel. It was a treacherous journey, and many Beta Israel died along the way. Shortly after his arrival, he was told his parents had died. He lived for several years as an orphan before finding out that information had been incorrect. His family joined him in Israel.
The Beta Israel in Israel now comes together in Jerusalem to celebrate Sigd.
The talk with Shalom was one of three programs the Macks Center held around the holiday. Another, for families with young children, was an activity kit with a PJ Library book on Ethiopian Jewry, a kosher Ethiopian treat and more. The center also put on a teen program, where the Baltimore Shinshinim, Israeli high school graduates who volunteer in Jewish communities, spoke with Haim Hizkias, an Israeli teen of Ethiopian descent.
This last program, explained Zina Segal, director of the Global People Education department at the Macks Center, is connected to what started the center’s initiative to spotlight Sigd. The Israeli teen, Hizkias, was originally supposed to join the Shinshinim in Baltimore, where the Macks Center had planned on doing some programming to educate the community on Ethiopian Jewry. In the end, Hizkias didn’t wind up coming to Baltimore, and the Macks Center held these other programs instead.
The Shinshinim Hub, and its director, Smadar Haika-Fox, came up with the idea for these programs.
“Nowadays, diversity in general and diversity within the Jewish community is a big topic, and I think interest in Sigd, as part of Jewish Ethiopian heritage, is part of this interest,” Segal said.