Religious Practices

(From: The Religious Background of Beta Israel, Shoshana Ben-Dor, 1988)

The most important and holiest book for the Beta Israel community is the Orit, or Torah. The word Orit refers to the five books of the Torah, though the book itself includes all of the biblical writings translated into Ge’ez. The Orit is kept in a special place in the synagogue or in the home of one of the Kessim, wrapped in a leather binding and colorful fabrics. Ethiopian Jews live according to the laws of the Torah, as written, demonstrated by their special traditions such as the way they observe the Passover Seder.

In their prayers the yearning for peace in Jerusalem and desire to return to Zion are often expressed. The Book of Nehemiah is seen as a Halachic source. Some of the Beta Israel customs differ from those derived from external writings. There are those who connect this with the lengthy separation from the rest of world Jewry. Others note the similarities between these customs and those common among Jewish sects at the time of the Second Temple.

There are even certain similarities to early rabbinic Halacha, even though there is no doubt that Jews in Ethiopia were not familiar with the Mishnah and Gemarah. Similarities to early Halacha relate to matters of purity and impurity, the prayer order, and the approach to the Book of Nehemiah.

Yet there are differences between Beta Israel traditions and rabbinic Halacha. For example, Ethiopian Jews do not have a rabbinic-halachic collection of writings, nor Talit (prayer shawl) or Tefillin. There are differences in the laws of kashrut, marriage and divorce laws, and prayer order. In short, many believe that Ethiopian Jewish traditions replicate those of ancient Judaism. Others emphasize the external influences, such as that of Christianity, on the Beta Israel traditions. In any case, Beta Israel has highly developed religious feelings and beliefs.