Contrary to popular belief, the Jews of Ethiopia are descendants neither of the exiled tribe of Dan nor of a mythical union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, according to a new book by a Hebrew University scholar.
Rather, Professor Steven Kaplan believes the Jews of Ethiopia probably had their origin in an Ethiopian ethnic group sometime between the 14th and 16th centuries.
Kaplan considers the community in the wider context of Ethiopian history in “The Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopia: From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century,” published by New York University Press.
The New York-born author is chairman of the Hebrew University’s department of African studies.
Kaplan says his purpose is not to question the Jewishness of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, since their religious status as Jews was determined by rabbinical authorities 400 years ago.
He believes Jews did indeed come to Ethiopia from Eretz Yisrael via the Arabian Peninsula in the first and second centuries of the Common Era, and that they exerted a lingering cultural influence, including the introduction of Hebrew and Aramaic elements into the ancient Ethiopian language, Geez.
But although traces of their cultural imprint survived even after the arrival of Christianity in the fourth century C.E., they left no Jewish community as such, says Kaplan.
It is only in the Middle Ages – sometime between the 14th and 16th centuries, writes Kaplan – that references arise of a separate group standing apart from other Ethiopians, whose beliefs and rituals did not contain Christian elements.
This was a period of self-definition within Ethiopia generally, says Kaplan, in which each group expressed itself in distinctive religious concepts and practices.
The Beta Israel, or House of Israel, as they came to call themselves, were one of four such groups that can be identified, and the only ones who retained the biblical elements of early Ethiopian beliefs without expressly Christian motifs.
These people, who coalesced into an identifiable, self-ruled group in northwestern Ethiopia, developed their own religious ideology, practices and institutions, which incorporated monotheism, ritual purity, distinctive holidays and a unique prayer liturgy.
Their 20 sacred books of the Apocrypha reached them mainly through the Ethiopian Church and were translated into Geez from Arabic only in the Middle Ages, says Kaplan.
Although the name “Jew” (“Ayhud” in Geez) was applied to this group of people, Kaplan notes that it can also be found in medieval Ethiopian sources as a derogatory term for heretic or deviant elements.
Even the term “Falasha” was used generically to designate a group of people who did not own land. The word “falasi” in Geez means a landless person or wanderer.
According to Wolf Leslau in the introduction to “Falasha Anthology” (edited by Julian Obermann, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1951), among the oldest testimonies to the existence of Jews in Ethiopia are the reports of Jewish travelers like Eldad Haddani (ninth century), Benjamin of Tudela (12th century), Elijah of Ferrara (15th century)” and others.
“Most of these accounts report things of legendary character that lack historical basis, and are presumably based on hearsay,” wrote Leslau, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Los Angeles and at Brandeis University.
Ethiopia, he wrote, “was supposed to be the habitat of the Ten Tribes, This idea excited the curiosity of travelers who vaguely related that there were Jews living in Ethiopia or that Jews had come thither from other countries,” wrote Leslau. Therefore, he wrote, “their historical origins and racial affinities present many difficult problems.”
It was only in the mid-19th century that the Beta Israel first had contact with European Jews and learned of rabbinic Judaism, including Hebrew prayers, traditional Jewish holidays and other practices.