Beta Israel

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Template:Ethnic group The Beta Israel (or "House of Israel"), known by outsiders by the term Falasha ("exiles" or "strangers"), a term that they consider to be pejorative, are Jews of Ethiopian origin. Under the provisions of Israel's "Law of Return" (1950), over 90,000 (over 80%) of them have emigrated to Israel, most notably during Operation Moses and Operation Solomon, but also continuing until the present time. The related Falash Mura are Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity in the past, but have since returned to Judaism.


Ethiopian enclave

Template:ClearrightTemplate:Jew The Beta Israel, also known as Chabashim, come from a Jewish enclave in the Ethiopian highlands that had little contact with other Jewish communities until the 1860s. One of the earliest dated references to the Beta Israel in Ethiopian literature is in the Glorious Victories of Amda Seyon (trans. G.W.B. Huntingford [Oxford: Clarendon Press], p. 61), which mentions a revolt in the province of Begemder by "the renegades who are like Jews" in the year 1332.

The isolation of the Beta Israel was reported by an explorer James Bruce, who published his Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in Edinburgh in 1790. But in 1860 a Jewish convert to Christianity traveled to Ethiopia in order to attempt to convert the Beta Israel to Christianity. Popularly touted as a "lost" tribe, the Beta Israel at first found many cultural barriers to assimilating in Israel.

It should be noted that there are many descendants of Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity who are now returning to the practice of Judaism. This group of people are known as the Falash Mura. The Falash Mura in recent years have abandonded Christianity in favor of Judaism and are eligible to immigrate to the Jewish state of Israel as a result. Although nobody knows for certain what the exact population is of the Falash Mura in Ethiopia many say it is roughly 20,000-26,000 individuals. However, recently some reporters and other travelers in remote regions of Ethiopia have noted that they have found entire villages where people claim they are Jewish or are Falash Mura (Jews who have been practicing Christianity). In Achefar, a region in Ethiopia, roughly 1,000-2,000 families of Beta Israel were found. However, as of now, they have not petitioned to immigrate to the Jewish state. Yet there are estimates that there are other such regions in Ethiopia with significant Jewish enclaves, raising the total Jewish population to perhaps well over 50,000 people. Israel has approved the immigration of the Falash Mura at 300 a month although the Ethiopian Jewish community and their supporters have been petitioning to increase this to 600 a month in order to prevent the spread of disease and malnourishment amongst the Jews still waiting in Ethiopia.

Religious traditions

The holiest work is the Torah—Orit (i.e., oraita, "Tora" in Aramaic). All the holy writings, including the Torah, are handwritten on parchment pages that are assembled into a book rather than a scroll. The rest of the Prophets and the Hagiographa are of secondary importance.

Outside the Biblical canon, a number of the external writings—the books of Hanoch, Jubilees, Baruch and the books of Ezra—are held sacred as well.

The basic wording of Beta Israel Biblical writings was passed down apparently through the ancient Greek translations like the Septuagint, which incorporates some of the Apocrypha as well.

The Beta Israel possess several other books, among these other books are the Arde'et (The Book of the Disciples), Acts of Moses, Apocalypse of Gorgorios, Meddrash Abba Elija, and biographies of the nation's forebears: Gadla Adam, Gadla Avraham, Gadla Ishak, Gadla Ya'kov, Gadla Moshe, Gadla Aaron, Nagara Musye, Mota Musye.

Image:Women at kotel.jpg

A book of special importance for the leaders of the community is one dealing with the Shabbat and its precepts—Te'ezaza Sanbat (Precepts of the Sabbath). The leaders of the Beta Israel also read liturgical works including weekday services, Shabbat and Festival prayers, and the wordings of the various blessings: Sefer Cahen deals with priestly functions, while Sefer Sa'atat (Book of the Hours) applies to weekdays and Shabbat. [1]

The Beta Israel have an interesting holiday Sigd, on the 29th of Cheshvan, which is unique to them. It celebrates the giving of the Torah and the days of the return from exile in Babylonia to Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah.


The Beta Israel once spoke Qwara and Kayla, both closely-related Cushitic language, but now they speak Amharic, a Semitic language. Their liturgical language is Ge'ez; since the 1950s Hebrew has been taught in schools. They consider the term "Falasha" pejorative, and today they prefer the term "Beta Israel" for themselves.


Image:Balankab.jpg After the rise of Christianity in Ethiopia in the fourth century, the Jews who refused to convert were persecuted and withdrew to the mountainous Gondar region where they made their homes ever since. In the tenth century, a queen by the name of Yodit (or Judith) or Gudit, rose against the Kingdom of Aksum, overthrew the emperor of Ethiopia and sought to eradicate Christianity throughout the country. Ethiopian tradition has it that she was a Jewish queen, but the appelation could have simply meant that she was pagan, as she is believed to be from the south. Later, with the establishment of a new royal dynasty, the Jews of Ethiopia enjoyed great influence for some 350 years, often acting as the balance of power between the Muslims and Christian forces.

In 1270 the Axum dynasty returned to the throne of Ethiopia once again, ushering in 400 years of tribal warfare and bloodshed. The end of that war in 1624 marked the end of Jewish freedom in Ethiopia. Jewish forces were defeated in a final battle by the Portuguese-backed Ethiopians and a long period of oppression began. Jewish captives were sold into slavery or forcibly baptized. Their lands were confiscated, their writings and religious books were burned and the practice of any form of Jewish religion was forbidden in Ethiopia. Image:Ethiopian Jewish woman.jpg Over the next two hundred years, despite some encounters with explorers and missionaries, the Jewish community remained fairly isolated. For centuries, the world's Jewish community remained unaware of the existence of Jews in the northern Ethiopian province of Gondar. Slowly however, recognition of Jews living in persecution in Ethiopia came to their attention.

In the 16th century, the Chief Rabbi of Egypt, Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Avi Zimra (Radbaz) proclaimed that in terms of Halakha (Jewish legal code), the Ethiopian community was certainly Jewish. Throughout the 19th century, the majority of European Jewish authorities openly supported this assertion.

In 1908, the chief rabbis of 45 countries made a joint statement officially declaring that Ethiopian Jews were indeed Jewish. This proclamation was in large part due to the work of Professor Jaques Faitlovitch, who studied Amharic and Tigrinya at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris under Professor Yosef Halevi. Halevi first visited the Ethiopian Jews in 1876. Upon his return to Europe, he published a "Kol Korei," a cry to the world Jewish community to save the Ethiopian Jews. He also formed an organization called Kol Yisroel Chaverim ("All Israel are Friends"), which was to actively advocate on behalf of Ethiopian Jews for years to come.

Israel intervenes

The Israeli government officially accepted the Beta Israel as Jews in 1975; Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin obtained clear rulings from Chief Sefardi Rabbi Ovadia Yosef that they were legitimate descendants of the lost tribes. They were however required to undergo pro forma halakhic conversions to Judaism, as is done in all cases of doubt, however slight.

Beginning in 1984, Israeli-led Operation Moses began transporting Ethiopian Jews to Israel. It came to an abrupt halt in 1985, though, leaving many of the Beta Israel still in Ethiopia. It was not until 1990 that the governments of Israel and Ethiopia came to an agreement that would allow the remaining Beta Israel a chance to migrate to Israel. In 1991, however, the political and economic stability of Ethiopia deteriorated as rebels mounted attacks against and eventually won over the capital city of Addis Ababa. Worried about the fate of the Beta Israel during the transition period, the Israeli government along with several private groups prepared to covertly continue along with the migration. With El Al obtaining a special provision to fly on Shabbat (because of pikuach nefesh), on Friday, May 24, Operation Solomon began. Over the course of 36 hours, a total of 34 El Al passenger planes, with their seats removed to maximize passenger capacity, flew 14,325 Ethiopian Jews non-stop to Israel.


Traditions of the Beta Israel

The Ethiopian legend described in the Kebra Negast relates that Ethiopians are descendants of Israelite tribes who came to Ethiopia with Menelik I, alleged to be the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (or Makeda, in the legend). The legend relates that Menelik, as an adult, returned to his father in Jerusalem, and then resettled in Ethiopia, and that he took with him the Ark of the Covenant. In the Bible there is no mention that the Queen of Sheba either married or had any sexual relations with King Solomon; rather, the narrative records that she was impressed with his wealth and wisdom, and they exchanged royal gifts, and then she returned to rule her people in Kush. However, the "royal gifts" are interpreted by some as sexual contact. The loss of the Ark is also not mentioned in the Bible.

However, most of the Beta Israel consider the Kebra Negast legend to be a fabrication. Instead they believe, based on the 9th century stories of Eldad ha-Dani (the Danite), that the tribe of Dan attempted to avoid the civil war in the Kingdom of Israel between Solomon's son Rehoboam and Jeroboam the son of Nebat, by resettling in Egypt. From there they moved southwards up the Nile into Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian Jews are descended from these Danites. This tradition was made known to Rabbi Ovadiah Yare of Bertinoro who wrote a letter from Jerusalem in 1488:

I myself saw two of them in Egypt. They are dark-skinned...and one could not tell whether they keep the teaching of the Karaites, or of the Rabbis, for some of their practices resemble the Karaite teaching...but in other things they appear to follow the instruction of the Rabbis; and they say they are related to the tribe of Dan (Avraham Ya'ari, Igrot Eretz Yisrael, Ramat Gan 1971).

Other sources tell of many Jews who were brought as prisoners of war from Eretz Israel by Ptolemy I and also settled on the border of his kingdom with Nubia (Sudan). Another tradition handed down in the community from father to son asserts that they arrived either via the old district of Qwara in northwestern Ethiopia, or via the Atbara River, where the Nile tributaries flow into Sudan. Some accounts even specify the route taken by their forefathers on their way upstream from Egypt. [2]

Rabbinical views

Some Jewish 'halakhic' authorities have asserted that the Beta Israel are the descendants of the tribe of Dan, one of the Ten Lost Tribes. This is supported by the medieval traveller Eldad ha-Dani. In their view, these people established a Jewish kingdom that lasted for hundreds of years. With the rise of Christianity and later Islam, schisms arose and three kingdoms competed. Eventually, the Christian and Muslim Ethiopian kingdoms reduced the Jewish kingdom to a small impoverished section. The earliest authority to rule this way was the Radbaz (Rabbi David ben Zimra, 1462–1572). Radbaz explains in a responsum concerning the status of a Beta Israel slave:

But those Jews who come from the land of Cush are without doubt from the tribe of Dan, and since they did not have in their midst sages who were masters of the tradition, they clung to the simple meaning of the Scriptures. If they had been taught, however, they would not be irreverent towards the words of our sages, so their status is comparable to a Jewish infant taken captive by non-Jews … And even if you say that the matter is in doubt, it is a commandment to redeem them (Responsum of the Radbaz on the Falasha Slave, Part 7. No. 5, cited in Corinaldi, 1998: 196)

Other 'halakhic' authorities have maintained that the Jewishness of the Beta Israel is seriously suspect. Authorities who have also ruled this way, include Rabbis Moshe Feinstein, Elazar Shach, Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, and Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.

In either case, some modern rabbinical authorities require the Beta Israel to undergo shortened conversions as a religious precaution. Among those who carry the latter opinion, however, conversion is no mere formality if an Ethiopian Jew wishes to be accepted within other Jewish communities.

DNA evidence

Gerard Lucotte and Pierre Smets in Human Biology (vol 71, December 1999, pp. 989–993) [3] studied the DNA of 38 unrelated Beta Israel males living in Israel and 104 Ethiopians living in regions located north of Addis Ababa and concluded that "the distinctiveness of the Y-chromosome haplotype distribution of Beta Israel Jews from conventional Jewish populations and their relatively greater similarity in haplotype profile to non-Jewish Ethiopians are consistent with the view that the Beta Israel people descended from ancient inhabitants of Ethiopia who converted to Judaism." [4] This study confirms the findings of an earlier study by Avshalom Zoossmann-Disken, A. Ticher, I. Hakim, Z. Goldwitch, A. Rubinstein, and Batsheva Bonné-Tamir titled "Genetic affinities of Ethiopian Jews," published in Israel Journal of Medical Sciences 27:245 (1991).[5]. A study of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes of Jewish and non-Jewish groups titled Jewish and Middle Eastern non-Jewish populations share a common pool of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June, 2000 suggested that "paternal gene pools of Jewish communities from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East descended from a common Middle Eastern ancestral population," with the exception of the Beta Israel, who were "affiliated more closely with non-Jewish Ethiopians and other North Africans." [6]. These Y-chromosome studies only speak to the paternal lineage (some ethnic groups are a product of one maternal lineage and a different paternal lineage, see Métis people (Canada)), but a study of the Mitochondrial DNA [7] (which is passed only along the maternal lineage) shows that the most common mtDNA type found among the Ethiopian Jewish sample was present elsewhere only in Somalia, furthering the view of most that Ethiopian Jews are of local (Ethiopian) origin.

However, a study performed by the Department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University did find a possible genetic similarity between 11 Ethiopian Jews and 4 Yemenite Jews who took part in the testing. The differentiation statistic and genetic distances for the 11 Ethiopian Jews and 4 Yemenite Jews tested were quite low, among the smallest of comparisons that involved either of these populations. Ethiopian Jewish Y-Chromosomal haplotype are often present in Yemenite and other Jewish populations, but analysis of Y-Chromosomal haplotype frequencies does not indicate a close relationship between Ethiopian Jewish groups. It is possible that the 4 Yemenite Jews from this study may be descendents of reverse migrants of African origin, who crossed Ethiopia to Yemen. The result from this study suggests that gene flow between Ethiopia and Yemen as a possible explanation. The study also suggests that the gene flow between Ethiopian and Yemenite Jewish populations may not have been direct, but instead could have been between Jewish and non-Jewish populations of both regions. [8]

Scholarly view

In the past secular scholars were divided on the origins of the Beta Israel; whether they were the descendents of an Israelite tribe, or converted by Jews living in Yemen, or by the Jewish community in southern Egypt (Elephantine). Some have conjectured, based on references in the Bible, that they could be remnants of an ancient Jewish community in the region. For example in the Book of Isaiah the author prophesies that "the Lord will bring back a remnant of his people...returning them to the land of Israel from Assyria, Lower Egypt, Upper Egypt, Ethiopia, Elam, Babylonia, Hamath, and all the distant coastlands" (Isaiah 11:11). In the Book of Zephaniah it is also prophesied that "from beyond the rivers of Ethiopia, my worshipers, even the daughter of my dispersed people, will bring my offering" (Zephaniah 3:10). Both books are believed to have been written during the 8th and 7th century B.C.E.

Christian view

Modern scholars of Ethiopian history and Ethiopian Jews, such as James Quirin, Steve Kaplan, Kay Shelemay, and Harold Marcus, consider the Beta Israel to be a native group of Ethiopian Christians, who took on Biblical practices, and came to see themselves as Jews. As Paul B. Henze explains in his Layers of Time (Palgrave, 2000):

These groups came into conflict with the military colonies and Christian missions which were the main instruments of the extension southward of the Ethiopian state. They may have been joined by dissidents or rebelling northern Christians who felt their interpretation of ritual, sacred texts and traditions of art represented a more ancient Israelite connection than Orthodox Monophysite Christianity itself. The Beta Israel can thus be understood as a manifestation of the kind of rebellious archaism that has often come to the surface in Christianity -- e.g. Russian Old Believers and German Old Lutherans. Assertion of Jewish derivation, they felt, provided them with a stronger claim to legitimacy than their Christian enemies. (p. 55)

In fiction

Operation Moses was the subject of an Israeli-French film titled Va, Vis et Deviens (Go, Live and Become), directed by Romanian-born Radu Mihaileanu. The film is based on an Ethiopian Christian child whose mother forces him to pass off as Jew so he can emigrate to Israel along with the Jews in order to escape famine that is looming in Ethiopia. The film went on to get the 2005 best film award at the Copenhagen International Film Festival.


See also


  • Kaplan, Steve The Beta Israel (Falasha in Ethiopia: from Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century). New York University Press, re-issue edition, 1994. ISBN 0814746640
  • Marcus, Harold G. A History of Ethiopia. University of California Press, updated edition, 2002. ISBN 0520224795
  • Quirin, James. The Evolution of the Ethiopian Jews: A History of the Beta Israel (Falasha) to 1920. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. ISBN 0812231163
  • Shelemay, Kay Kaufman. Music, Ritual, and Falasha History. Michigan State University Press; 1989. ISBN 0870132741

External links

de:Äthiopische Juden es:Beta Israel fr:Falashas he:ביתא ישראל nl:Beta Israël pl:Falasze pt:Beta Israel ru:Фалаша fi:Beta Israel tr:İsrail Evi