Special to the JTA the Shabbat of Ethiopian Jews
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Special to the JTA the Shabbat of Ethiopian Jews

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It is late Friday afternoon. In the villages of Ethiopia, the Jews knew that Shabbat had begun when a man’s shadow measured 12 paces under the setting sun.

In Safed in northern Israel, the time has been calculated long before, printed in the morning newspapers, announced over radio during the day, and finally signalled with a long steady blast on the air-raid siren as the day fades.

Safed’s houses of prayer fill slowly: the 16th century building in Safed’s old city in which Rabbi Yosef Karo worked and prayed; the synagogue where one memorable day 400 years ago Rabbi Isaac Luria is said to have summoned Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David to read from the Torah; the Hasidic congregations founded late last century; the synagogues started by immigrants who settled in Safed after the State was established — Hungarians, Rumanians and Poles, Moroccans and Tunisians; and, the newest synagogue of them all, the Ethiopian synagogue, only six months old, in the basement of one of Safed’s three absorption centers for Ethiopian Jews.


Men sit on one side in jeans, sweaters and sneakers donated by Safed residents, skullcaps on their heads. The women, especially the older of them, are mostly in traditional dress, wrapped in large white woven shawls. Infants with big dark eyes are strapped to the backs of girls scarcely beyond their early teens, or quietly nursing at the breast.

Concentration is absolute. One of the dozen Israelis there is leading the service. Each word is read slowly, aloud, the whole room chanting together.

Yaffa is II years old. At a swift glance from her mother, she has given up her seat to one of the adults, and stands clutching her prayer-book, her thin finger tracing each word as it is read. “Here?” she asks, every few lines. “Is it here?”

Yaffa began learning Hebrew when she arrived in Israel five months ago. She reads enough to follow, and speaks enough to tell you about herself. She comes from the village of Ambovar, in the Gondar, she says. She came to Israel with her mother, sister and brother. They walked a long way. Her father is dead.


Yaffa’s younger sister stands next to her. She is also called Yaffa. The Jewish Agency official who helped the girls choose their Hebrew names did not realize they were sisters when they both opted for Yaffa.

Shabbat prayer services — the only prayers permitted the Jews in Ethiopia — were different, says the girls’ mother, Shoshana. The village would gather in the synagogue, a grass hut with a Star of David on top, at sundown. Their “kes” or priest would intone the prayers in the ancient Ethiopian tongue, punctuated with fervent “amens” from the congregation.

Jews in Ethiopia were all observant, says 16-year-old Shmuel, visiting the family in the Safed absorption center for the weekend from the residential Youth Aliya village where he has been studying for the past year. If they lapsed in their religious practice, they would leave the villages and were no longer Jews. It was a shock to discover white-skinned Jews in Israel who do not keep Shabbat, he says.

“Shabbat is the Ethiopian Jews’ most strictly held observance,” says Richard Sivan, a British-born high school chemistry teacher who lives in Safed and comes weekly to the absorption center for Friday night services — usually bringing three or four of his five daughters with him.


“So Shabbat seemed a good place to start making contact with these people from another time and place. What the Jews of Israel and Ethiopia have in common is our identity as Jews. They’re here because they’re Jewish,” Sivan said.

The Friday night prayer service is coming to an end. Shmuel, who is now studying in an integrated class with Israelis at school, is invited to recite the Kiddush. He reads the Hebrew blessings confidently, then sips the wine — looking quickly away from his mother’s beam of pride.

The room breaks into song, and some of the men and children begin to dance. They sing “Am Yisrael Hai” (“The People of Israel Live.”)

Two Ethiopian children join Sivan, his wife Hilary and their daughters far Shabbat lunch the next day. Their mother has also been invited but, explains Noga, the elder of the two children, she had a dream last night. She dreamed about Noga’s father and two elder brothers in Ethiopia, with whom they have had no contact for almost a year. It was a bad dream, says Noga, and she decided not to come.


Noga and her four-year-old brother are, like all the Ethiopian Jewish children whom II-year-old Avigail Sivan has met, “much better behaved than us Israeli kids.”

They sit at the table, their eyes on the family to see what silverware to take, and when and how to use it. The meal begins with melon. Noga insists that she feed her brother, so he will not spill food on the tablecloth or on his Israeli clothes. The two visitors speak when spoken to, smile a lot, and take in everything with their eyes.

Next comes chicken and salads. The Sivans are observant Jews. They do not cook on Shabbat, and the chicken has been kept warm in the oven since before Shabbat, the previous day. Noga takes a careful mouthful — and spits it out in alarm. She gets up from the table in embarrassment and confusion. “We can’t eat this,” she says.

The problem is unravelled. Noga has never eaten hot food on Shabbat. The Torah, which Ethiopian Jewry carried with them to the source of the blue Nile where they lived for 2,000 years, says that no fire is allowed on the holy day — and so for two millenia, Ethiopian Jews have shunned heat and light on Shabbat.


But, long after Ethiopian Jewry became separated from the Jewish world, the oral law that Jewish tradition believes God gave to Moses along with the Torah — amplifying and explaining the Torah’s commands — was set down in the collection of writing

She accepts the explanation. She goes into the kitchen to see the oven still burning and returns to the table. She is 12 years old, but she has nonethetess walked hundreds of miles at risk of imprisonment or death, with her brother on her back, hungry and afraid, to reach Israel.

In the months that she has been in the Jewish State, she has adapted to indoor plumbing and electric lights, staircases and stone apartment dwellings, cars and supermarkets, Hebrew and Western clothing, shoes and schooling.

If Israel says that there is a new book called the Talmud, which alters the 2,000-year-old-customs of the Jewish villages of Ethiopia, she will adapt to that as well.

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