Out of Africa: the story of a modern exodus

Rabbi Menachem Waldman on what lies behind his new Haggadah dedicated to Ethiopian Jewry


The narratives of the Jews from Ethiopia have been, until recently, an unopened treasure chest of lore and tradition. Their unique heritage has no parallel in any other community, but is gradually fading as they assimilate into Israeli society. While there are few initiatives that have documented Ethiopian Jewish heritage, none of them have done so as comprehensively as The Koren Ethiopian Haggada.

Until the Ethiopian Jewish community fled Ethiopia, their history and heritage were passed down orally, generation to generation. The community have myriad Jewish traditions that are based primarily on the written Torah, accompanied by oral commentaries and holy texts and prayers, written in Ge'ez, an ancient Ethiopian language. Isolated for generations from other Jewish communities around the world, they developed a religious practice that lacked all connection to rabbinic legal tradition. They preserved the main principles of faith such as the belief in God, the oneness of God and the chosenness of the people of Israel; however, their religious practices are unique.

The Haggadah beautifully details the Passover holiday or Pasika, as it was observed in Ethiopia. Festivities began from the new moon of the month of Nisan, which traditionally marked the start of the calendar year (as written in the Torah: "This month shall be to you the beginning of months"). At that time, the kessim (priests) blessed the congregation and addressed the community about the upcoming Passover holiday and its necessary preparations.

As the holiday approached, the community undertook preparations including choosing a young, male lamb to serve as the Passover sacrifice. Punctilious steps were taken to cleanse the homes and surroundings from chametz, including cheeses, processed grains, alcoholic beverages or anything left overnight. Clothing was thoroughly washed and people cleansed themselves by ritual bath.

Matzah (known as kita) was prepared from wheat flour or kernels of tef (a type of grain used in traditional Ethiopian bread), rice or chickpeas. The matzot were prepared quickly and diligently, by mixing water with flour and salt, and poured on to a flat, clay pan which rested on fiery coals. The matzot were consumed soon after they were baked so as to not leave any leftovers for the next day.

As for Seder night, the priests and elders gathered the congregation and relayed the Passover story without a prescribed text. After sharing stories related to the Exodus from Egypt, the women and children returned to their homes, as the adult men accompanied the priest to pray in the synagogue. Throughout the night, they would thank God for redeeming His people from Egypt and offer special prayers.

The Koren Ethiopian Haggada also details the Ethiopian Jewry's own exodus story. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the political situation in Ethiopia was dire. The ruling regime prohibited practising Judaism and learning Hebrew, and imprisoned leaders of the Jewish community for being "Zionist spies". With forced army conscription, famine, violence, and horrendous health conditions, the plight of the Jews of Ethiopia gained worldwide attention and the Israeli government began to plan covert operations to rescue them.

Thousands of Ethiopian Jews fled from Ethiopia on a painstaking desert trek through the Sudan. Approximately 4,000 people died along the way; souls departed in forgotten places with no sign or testament to their passing except for the stories told by the survivors. Israel's "Operation Moses", which took place during a six-week period in 1984, airlifted approximately 7,000 Ethiopian Jews from the Sudan to Israel. Once the media broke the story, Arab countries pressured Sudan to halt the airlift, which separated many families. Seven years later, in 1991, Israel undertook Operation Solomon, which evacuated another 14,000 Ethiopian Jews, bringing them to begin new lives in Israel.

Their arrival in Israel meant a new chapter in the story of Ethiopian Jewry, but challenged the foundations of their culture. The transition from a primitive, rural environment to modern living was remarkably different and challenged the community's traditional lifestyle. Out of 130,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel today, almost half were born in Israel and have adapted to Israeli society. Since little of the rich heritage of Ethiopian Jewry was documented, the culture is fading, with few attempts at preserving it, and now stands at high risk of being lost.

The Ethiopian Jewish narrative should be remembered and its culture celebrated. This Haggadah helps us to do so.

Rabbi Menachem Waldman is a representative of the Chief Rabbi of Israel's Committee on Ethiopian Jewry

Last updated: 3:02pm, April 27 2012