An Ethiopian Jewish Holiday
The Sigd – Yearning for Zion
For generations Ethiopian Jews dreamt of returning to the Land of Israel and being reunited with the rest of the Jewish people. The Sigd holiday was celebrated as a day of fasting, repenting for sins and above all beseeching God to return the Jewish people to Jerusalem. The holiday's rituals are meant to remind celebrants of the renewal of the covenant by Ezra during the Return to Zion from the Babylonian Exile in the 6th cent. B.C.E
The word Sigd literally means prostration, in reference to the way Ezra, Nehemiah and their followers repented and bowed when reaffirming the covenant during the Return to Zion and, similarly, at the conclusion of Sigd prayers. In the past, the Sigd was also called Mechalala, meaning forgiveness, like the Hebrew word Mechila.
Ethiopian Jewry – Beta Yisrael Origins
There are several versions regarding how Jews the exact origins of Ethiopian Jewry, who call themselves Beta Yisrael. Former Israeli Chief Sephardic Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef cited a medieval Egyptian Jewish legal source which claims that Ethiopian Jews are descended from the lost tribe of Dan. This is the opinion held by Ethiopian Jews themselves. Other theories propose that Ethiopian Jews are descended from Ethiopian Jewish immigrants from Egypt or Yemen. Others say they are descended from the union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Ezra and Nehemiah – The "First Sigd"
The Sigd is derived from the renewal of the covenant performed by Ezra and Nehemiah during the Return to Zion from the Babylonian Exile in the 5-6th cent. B.C.E:
And on the twenty-fourth day of this month the children of Israel assembled with fasting and with sackcloth and earth on them. And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers…and read the Torah…and prostrated themselves.
The text above indicates that the practice of renewing the covenant, as commemorated by the Sigd, was of great importance as an act of Jewish nation building.
The Date of the Sigd
The Sigd is held each year on the 29th day of the Hebrew month of Heshvan 50 days after Yom Kippur.
This date differs from the day that Ezra and Nehemiah gathered the people together. The elders of the Ethiopian Jewish community claim that the Sigd was originally connected to Shavuot, the holiday on which the Torah was given and the Jewish people were commanded: "And on the day of first fruits you shall bring a new meal offering to the Lord" – A renewal of the covenant.
Shavuot is held at the time of the grain harvest in Israel, according to Leviticus seven weeks after the beginning of Passover. Because harvest times in Ethiopia are different than in Israel, the holiday was postponed until the month of Heshvan, when grain ripens in Northeast Africa. The precise date of the Sigd is set by counting 50 days from Yom Kippur, instead of Passover.
Sigd Celebrations in Ethiopia
In Ethiopia the entire Jewish community would fast on the Sigd. In the morning hours, the kaisim (Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leaders) would carry the Orit (the Torah written in the ancient Ethiopian language Ge'ez) up a high mountain followed by a long processionof the entire community.Ascending the mountain symbolized Moses going up Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah.
When the procession reached the highest peak, the kaisim would chant special holiday prayers and read passages from the Bible, describing the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people in the Book of Numbers; the "first Sigd" in the Book of Nehemiah; and selections from Ezra, Kings, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel and Psalms.
On the mountain top Sigd prayers are chanted in the open air and in the shade of trees. Most of the prayers are based on Ezra's prayer during the "first Sigd", together with additional prayers composed by the Beta Yisrael community. The prayers are for the welfare of the Ethiopian Jewish community and the rest of the Jewish people, the rebuilding of the Temple and for the return of the entire Jewish people to Jerusalem and the Land of Israel.
Festive Meal, Singing and Dancing
At the conclusion of the prayer ceremony, the most respected kais would address the entire community assembled on the mountain top and the Orit would be placed in the Tzolet Beit or synagogue.
A festive meal would then be held with singing and dancing. Before the meal would begin, a kais would cut the Dabu - A special bread traditionally eaten at the Sigd. Dabu symbolizes the meal or bread offering in the Temple in Jerusalem.
For the breakfast meal, priests (kohanim) would slaughter bulls and families would prepare refreshments and host guests, before returning home the following day.
The Sigd in Israel
Although most Ethiopian Jews now live in Israel, the community continues to celebrate the Sigd. In Israel the Sigd has become a major yearly gathering of the entire Ethiopian-Israeli community and provides an opportunity to connect with Ethiopian Jewish roots and culture.
The Sigd is celebrated by a mass pilgrimage to Jerusalem by Ethiopian-Israelis, young and old. Most of the community meets at the De Haas Promenade in Armon Hanatziv. Others gather at the Western Wall. The kaisim of different local communities lead colorful processions bearing the Orit and a central prayer service is held. Many members of the community still fast until the afternoon when the dabu is eaten.
As the Ethiopian-Israeli community continues to integrate into general Israeli society, its youth are beginning to lose their connection to the Amharic language and Ethiopian Jewish tradition. Today IAEJ, in partnership with other Ethiopian Jewish organizations, is searching for ways to preserve the Sigd by working closely with the Israeli education system as part of the multicultural heritage of the Jewish people.
If you would like to see Sigd celebrations, we recommend coming to the Haas Promenade in Armon Hanatziv, Jerusalem on the29th day of the Hebrew month of Heshvan (50 days after Yom Kippur)
Recipe for Dabu
1 kilo/2 pounds of flour
100 grams/6 ounces yeast
1 teaspoon of salt
1 tablespoon of sugar
1 cup of water
Mix and stir until into a thick, sticky dough.
Wait 30 minutes until it rises.
Place on a round aluminum foil pan
(In Ethiopia it was wrapped in leaves of the klabo tree, covered in coals and buried in the ground overnight).
Bake in the oven at 180 C for 40 minutes.
Remove from the oven and serve.