For generations, Ethiopian Jews dreamed of the return to Zion in order to reunite with their fellow Jews. The Sigd is a special day of prayer and fasting for atonement, a day of togetherness for the Beta Israel community and above all an expression of the longing for Zion.
The Sigd ceremony is a reminder of the renewal of God’s covenant with his people, as carried out by Ezra and Nehemiah, upon return to Zion from exile in Babylon. The ceremony is reminiscent of Ezra and Nehemiah’s actions as they bowed to God in order to express their remorse and renew their covenant with God when they reached Zion, at the time of the Sukkot holiday. The holiday’s name– Sigd – comes from the word for worship or prostration. Its date – the 29th of Cheshvan – is 50 days after Yom Kippur, just as Shavuot, the harvest holiday, is 50 days after Passover. Since Shavuot is planting season in Ethiopia, and in order to upholdthe mitzvah of the first fruits, Jews in Ethiopia established a “second Shavuot” seven weeks after Yom Kippur and during the harvest time in Ethiopia. Hence, the Sigd is associated with Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shavuot.
In Ethiopia, the Sigd ceremony was held on a tall mountain. In the morning the Kessim (religious leaders) would carry the Orit (Torah) up the mountain, followed by the community members in a long parade. Some carried rocks, symbolizing their submission to God and commemorating the destruction of the Temple. On the mountaintop, led by the Kessim, the community prayed to God for forgiveness, health and prosperity. They also prayed for the rebuilding of the Temple, and the return of the Jewish people to Zion, expressing their own longing and the desire to reach Jerusalem.
After the prayers, the Kessim led the people in a festive parade, accompanied by blowing horns, and returned “Orit” to the house of prayer. Then a festive meal took place, accompanied by song and dance.
Despite the fact that most Jews of Ethiopian origin now live in Israel, the community continues to celebrate the Sigd. The holiday is an annual gathering for the community, connecting young and old to their roots and culture. The main Sigd celebration takes place in Jerusalem. Most gather at the Armon HaNatziv promenade, while others pray at the Western Wall in the Old City. A number of Kessim carry the Orit in a colorful parade and lead the community in prayer. Public officials also attend and address the participants. Many preserve the custom of fasting until the afternoon.
With time, the younger generation is losing touch with the traditions of Ethiopian Jews and many no longer speak Amharic. IAEJ, together with other community organizations, works with the Ministry of Education in order to preserve the Sigd tradition as part of the cultural mosaic of the Jewish people.
The above description was prepared with the generous assistance of Shoshana Ben-Dor, Director, NACOEJ Israel.