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Sigd in Ethiopia & Israel

Today’s participant blog post comes from Rachel Lieberman, a current participant in the Yahel Social Change Program. Rachel’s group is living, learning and volunteering in Rishon LeZion, Israel for 9 months this year


One of the most fascinating and difficult parts of Israel is that there is a common religion and nationality for 80% of the civilians, Judaism, but thousands of years in diaspora has led to multiple cultures, languages, and ways to practice Judaism. The desire to keep traditional practices while also being part of the larger Israeli society and being accepted by the Rabbinate in Israel, has caused difficulties for the Ethiopian-Israeli community. Sigd, a Jewish holiday traditionally observed in Ethiopia, provides an opportunity to glimpse the current state of affairs for Ethiopian-Israelis.

Sigd in Ethiopia

Sigd, celebrated fifty days after Yom Kippur, is biblically sourced in the book of Nehemiah. The holiday has several meanings. It recalls the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, renewal of the covenant, and recognition of collective repentance (as Yom Kippur is individual repentance). In Ethiopia, it also served as a community gathering and renewal to stay committed to Judaism and mitzvot, despite great hardships. There was also an emphasis on the hope to return to Jerusalem.

Jews return from worshipping atop a mountain in Ethiopia.

Sigd was greatly anticipated in Ethiopia. People travelled to central villages, which could often take several days. In the morning on Sigd, the community would ascend a mountain while fasting. The two reasons is that Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah and a high place is considered sacred. The day would begin with prayers - which included prayer for Jerusalem and the desire to bow down before God in Jerusalem. The prayers were conducted in the sacred language of Ge’ez and translated to the spoken language of Amharic or Tigrinya. At the end of prayers, everyone would say the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem”, the same phrase that is said at the end of the seder during Passover.

In the evening, everyone would descend the mountain in great joy and break the fast with a festive communal meal. One emphasis of the communal meal is that everyone attended it so that no one would go hungry.

Sigd in Israel

The Kessim (religious leaders) are located under the tent and are leading the prayers. The area of prayer is very small and crowded.

In 2008, the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) legislated the Sigd Law which made Sigd a national holiday. Sigd is categorized as an “optional holiday” which means that individuals are allowed to miss work or school without being penalized. While the recognition of Sigd as a holiday is a step towards accepting different traditions by the Israeli government, it is still not given the same recognition as other holidays. The hope by many Ethiopian-Israeli leaders is for Sigd to become an important part of the Jewish holiday cycle and observed by the wider Jewish community.

Currently, Sigd provides a day for the Israeli society to learn about the Ethiopian-Israeli community in schools and community centers. For example, the night before Sigd, there was a community celebration held at the matnas (community center) in Ramat Eliyahu. The event was geared towards family to appreciate the culture they came from or to learn about another culture in Israel’s society. There was food, kessim (religious leaders), learning workshops, and a concert. The event was fun and drew a great crowd. The emphasis was not religious, but cultural.

On Sigd, there are multiple celebrations held throughout the country with the largest one in Jerusalem. Many older members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community still celebrate Sigd the traditional way by praying with the Kessim in the traditional Ge’ez and then breaking the fast with a communal meal and celebration. The majority of Ethiopian-Israelis do not celebrate Sigd the traditional way. Many simply do not observe the holiday or many go to their local community gatherings or travel to Jerusalem and use the holiday as a chance to reconnect with friends and celebrate their culture and heritage.

Rishonikim with a local community member on the way to Jerusalem

Yahel’s Trip to Jerusalem for Sigd

As a group, we had the opportunity to attend Sigd in Jerusalem. While it was interesting to experience the holiday, the prayer area was too crowded, so we could not see the kessim or hear the prayer. The majority of my experience was walking around the area and observing the different groups of people who came to the Sigd.

When we arrived, there were thousands of people there. There was a large presence of older Ethiopian-Israelis who were dressed in traditional white clothing and were fasting and praying.

There were younger generations of Ethiopian-Israelis who commemorated their heritage and identity by attending the Sigd. Many did not seem to subscribe the same meaning to the holiday as the older generations. There were also members of the greater Israeli society, teenagers in youth groups and children on field trips, that came to see another tradition of Judaism.

Overall, the experience was interesting. The way Sigd was celebrated in Ethiopia is very different than the way it is now celebrated in Israel. Over the coming years and decades, it appears that Sigd may transition into a cultural holiday and move away from the religious significance. It will be interesting to see how the Sigd develops and changes in the next 10, 20, and 50 years.

2016 Yahelnikim with former Gedera coordinator

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