April 16, 2013
"When the Queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relationship to the L-d, she came to test Solomon with hard questions ...... Solomon answered all her questions - nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her. When the Queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon ..... she was overwhelmed."
This account in the First Book of Kings chapter 10, verses 1-13 offers a strong clue to the start of Jewish life in Ethiopia. It hints at the Queen of Sheba converting to Judaism and having an affair with King Solomon. Ethiopian legend takes up the story and tells of the Queen of Sheba giving birth to Solomon's son Menelek. At the age of 20 Menelek learned about his father and wished to visit him. He travelled to Jerusalem where his father was delighted with him and he spent three years there. Eventually it was time to return to his country, accompanied by 1,000 men from each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The intriguing twist to the legend is that they brought with them the Ark of the Covenant which they spirited out of the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem and which is said to be preserved to this day in a church in Axum, giving rise to the stories of the 'lost Ark' and the 'Holy Grail'.
Whether or not the legend is true it is clear that there was a strong Jewish influence in Ethiopia from very early times, almost certainly before the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. By the time Christianity came to Ethiopia in the 3rd century, Ethiopians kept the Sabbath (on Saturday), observed laws of ritual purity and dietary restrictions similar to Jewish law and circumcision of males at 8 days old. To the present day Ethiopians feel themselves connected to the People of Israel and their last Emperor Haile Selassie, who believed he was descended from King Solomon, was proud to adopt the title of 'Lion of Judah'.
Jewish sources from Isaiah to medieval times speak of Jews in the land of Cush, which is usually associated with Ethiopia. In the 19th century they were re-discovered and became known as Falashas - a demeaning term meaning 'dispossessed', which was a reference to Jewish tribes having been forced off their lands by Christian prejudice centuries before. They therefore prefer to be known as Beta Israel. They lived in great poverty in the remote Gondar province, some 350 miles from Addis Ababa near the Sudanese border. They lived largely apart from their Christian neighbours and followed laws and customs that were recognisably Jewish, but pre-Rabbinic, as a result of their origins having pre-dated the oral tradition before becoming isolated from the rest of the Jewish world. In the 1970s a political campaign began for the Beta Israel to be recognised as Jews and resettled in Israel. The story is too long to relate here, but it is a remarkable and epic tale which culminated in most of them being flown to Israel in the secret airlifts known as Operation Moses and Operation Solomon in 1984 and 1991.
When the opportunity arose to visit Ethiopia in February this year on a trip led by Rabbi Chaim Weiner, I could not resist. The sights extend well beyond Jewish interest, and in particular the classical sites of the Axumite Empire in Lalibela, Axum itself and a later dynasty in Gondar. It is hardly known to us, but in the 3rd century the Axumites ruled one of the four greatest empires in the world at that time and its links extended to China, Persia and Rome. The Axumite empire lasted from 100 to 940 CE (rather longer than the British Empire).
Finally we reached the former Beta Israel area in Gondar, now deserted, but the dirt poor villages and simple cemeteries spoke of Jewish life in times past. We had the unique experience of Shabbat in the Jewish Agency compound with the last Jews of Gondar, known as the Falashe Mura. They have survived forcible (in some cases voluntary) conversion to Christianity but have returned to Judaism and were finally recognised as Jews after another long campaign. I don't know what they made of my British-style haftara at the Shabbat morning service, but as I read the concluding blessing Rachem al Zion, "have mercy on Zion, for it is the home of our life", it was hard not to feel emotion.
As anyone who has visited Israel knows, the Ethiopian Jews, who now number 100,000, are making their distinctive mark. They are a fine looking people (not limited to this year's Miss Israel, an orphan who made aliyah at the age of 12). The comparison between their dire poverty in the land of their birth and their renewal in Israel could not be any greater.
At least one intriguing question remains - are the Beta Israel Jewish, or could they be the descendants of local tribes who had been influenced by Jewish customs hundreds or even thousands of years ago ? We shall never know, but it does not matter, since they are recognised as Jewish by the religious authorities in Israel and elsewhere. They are a mysterious and fascinating part of the miraculous rebirth of the Jewish people in the land of Israel.
That is something to reflect on in this week of Israel’s 65th Yom Ha’atzmaut. Isaiah’s prophecy that our people scattered in Ethiopia and other distant lands would be returned to Israel has come true in our lifetime.
This is a cross-post from the Board of Deputies website at http://www.bod.org.uk/live/content.php?Item_ID=130&Blog_ID=832