Ethiopian Jews (or Falasha) are an ethnolinguistic group of Jews who lived in northern and northwestern Ethiopia in the Lake Tana region.
Then they returned, in the early 1980s, to their historical homeland of Israel. The word “Falasha” means newcomers or immigrants in the Ge’ez language that was common in the Kingdom of Aksum. There is also another name for the community of Ethiopian Jews: Beta Israel, which means “the house of Israel” in Hebrew.
The exact date of origin of Falasha in Ethiopia is unknown. However, a story tells that Menelik I was the descendant of the Solomon dynasty reigning in Ethiopia. Local Christians and Ethiopian Jews believe in that story. He was called “nguse negest”, which is translated as “king of kings”. He was the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. After Menelik was proclaimed king, he went to his homeland in the south of the Arabian Peninsula. At the same time, part of the colony of the Sabaean Kingdom was in Ethiopia. Twelve elders and Azariah, the son of the chief priest Zadok, accompanied Menelik. Falasha people consider themselves descendants of these eminent inhabitants of Jerusalem.
Agriculture and handicrafts have always been the main spheres of activity of Ethiopian Jews. The list of handicrafts is very wide and includes weaving, spinning, pottery, blacksmithing and jewelry activities. The Falasha diet contains grains, cereals, tefa, dagussa, durra, onions, and garlic. They have never eaten raw meat.
Ethiopian Jews outwardly do not differ from the indigenous population (Amhara). Due to the mixing of the features of the Hamites and the Semites, the representatives of the community have a developed significant differences in skin color and facial features.
The Agaw of languages Kaila and Kvara are indigenous to the group, although now Kaila is a disappearing language and only elderly immigrants know it. All Jews in Ethiopia spoke Amhara, the official language of the country. However, only Ge’ez is used in the services. Polygamy is not generally accepted and marriage is widespread at a more mature age. Priests and debtara bring up children. Cemeteries are located outside of residential areas. At burial sites, tombstones are set without inscriptions. The funeral rite is called the trizna (translated as “funeral feast”).
According to scientific theories, the Falasha people belong to Kushites – peoples living in East Africa and Agau tribes. There are several theories of the spread of the Jewish religion within these tribes. The first theory suggests that Judaism was spread by the Jews of Southern Arabia. The other theory suggests that it originated in Egypt. There is also an assumption that it was facilitated by Jews who settled in Ethiopia and became integrated over time. Judaism was very widespread in northern Ethiopia even before the fourth and fifth centuries, when the Kingdom of Aksum became Christian. It is presumed that this was the reason for the persecution of the adherents of Judaism. The Jewish prisoners were settled in the Simien region and this fact strengthened Judaism as a religion among the indigenous population. As a result, the Beta Israel community was formed, becoming a part of the people leading its history from the times of the ancient Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum.
Falasha people did not come from the local population who became Yahudi during the first centuries of our era, rather it is the result of the transformation and improvement of one of the branches of Ethiopian Christianity, on which Judaism had a stronger impact than the mainstream of the Coptic Church (Monophysitism).
The basis of the Beta Israel worldview is a religious teaching that combines the Old Testament Jewish, Christian and Pan-Ethiopian directions. Thus it is one of the varieties of non-Talmudic Judaism.
The 20th century saw the disappearance of monasticism among the Jews of Beta Israel. Subsequently, the priests called kessoh (or kahenat) took a leading role in the spiritual leadership of the Ethiopian Jews. Religious rituals, sacrificial ceremonies and general leadership of the community were their main activities. As the literacy of people was low, the Kesohs became the keepers of all the rituals and religious traditions of the people. Religious holidays and the calendar of fasts are the same as for other Jews, except for the lengthening of fasts during certain periods. The canons of purity are strictly observed and people with a different faith are not allowed to attend. The Sabbath is revered especially diligently.
Marriage is allowed for the clergy, but some monks lead a reclusive lifestyle far from society. They independently engage in their way of life and restrict the contact with other peoples. The most revered among them is called “abuna”. He lives in the Kuara region and is a recognized leader. During the day, the monks conduct nine services. According to ancient beliefs, very old hermits used to throw themselves into the abyss, because the book of Enoch (one of the most significant Apocrypha of the Old Testament) says that people who are eaten by animals or birds are not subject to condemnation.
The Christian religion has significantly influenced the regular services. A religious building is a temple (called a masjid), unlike synagogues among Jews. The group of ministers at the temple includes priests, deacons and dabtar which is a special man. The Pentateuch is a mandatory attribute on the throne. To fumigate the room, a censer is used, and a percussion instrument (sistrum) provides the sound accompaniment. When reading the scriptures, the Ethiopian language is used followed by a translation into the local dialect. Hymns are also sung in the local dialect. During the service, only ministers enter the temple, and the congregation remains in the courtyard territory. Similarly, with Ethiopian Christians, the ministers wear white turbans on their heads. Indeed, some of the rites of Ethiopian Jews resemble Christian sacraments. For example, baptism, penance, and communion. Infant baptism of boys is performed on the fortieth day, and girls are baptized on the eightieth day. Well-read sages of the Falasha explain this by the need to purify the mother by the day of naming the child. Confession ends with eating bread as a sacrifice for sins.
When using Christian books, the Falasha omit only what goes against their worldview, while giving these points their own different interpretation. Apocrypha and Gnostic writings are also used by the clergy. There are books about patriarchs and prophets, which, by analogy with Christian ones, have the same name – “exploits”. Christianity had a significant impact on the fact that the Falasha carry out the religious call of angels and they name their twelve patriarchs apostles. Christians in Ethiopia consider the Falasha to be immigrants from Jerusalem.
In the 20th century, there were only about five hundred settlements, the main areas of residence being Simien, Dembia, Sekelt, Volkayet, Lasta, Kuara, the cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa and the provinces of Tigray and Gondar. At the moment, Gondar is the Amhara region. During that period, the population of the community was approximately forty-five thousand people.
Currently there is a repatriation process (aliyah), which means the return of Jews to their historical homeland in Israel, as established by the Israeli “Law of Return”. At the end of the 20th century, many of Falasha had begun to relocate to Israel. Exceptionally small and isolated communities, such as the Kuara Jews remain in Ethiopia.