University’s mission to preserve unique Ethiopian Bible heritage

New Tel Aviv University course will explore oral traditions of Ethiopian Jews


It is an oddity of Chanukah that we do not read the book which tells the story of the heroic recapture of the Temple, the Book of Maccabees. Preserved in Greek, the rabbis excluded the First and Second Book of Maccabees from the biblical canon, although they were incorporated into some Christian Bibles as part of the Apocrypha.

But it is not the case that the books were sidelined by all Jews. They remain part of scripture for one Jewish community, the Beta Israel of Ethiopia. Which is ironic because the post-biblical festival of Chanukah never reached Ethiopian Jewry. Instead, they commemorated the events of the Books of the Maccabees by holding a fast for the man who triggered the Jewish revolt, the High Priest Matisyahu.

Ethiopian Jews took their Bible from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the ancient Hebrew texts begun in Alexandria in the early third century BCE and probably completed more than a hundred years later. The Septuagint was translated by the Ethiopian Church into the ancient language of Ge’ez and the Jews bought their manuscripts from the Christians.

For Ethiopian Jews, the core text is the Orit, a word derived from the Aramaic oraita, Torah, which consists not only of the Five Books of the Torah but also Joshua, Judges and Ruth. But the name may also be used for the larger biblical corpus, which includes apocryphal books such as Maccabees, another story that came to be given a Chanukah association, Judith, and Jubilees.

Ge’ez was known only to the spiritual leaders of the Ethiopian Jews, the kesim. So when they read from the Orit on Shabbat, they would translate into a language ordinary folk could understand like Amharic and elaborate on the reading in a sermon.

In the ancient Middle East, when many Jews could no longer understand Hebrew, the Torah reading would be translated into Aramaic and rabbis creatively interpreted the biblical stories. From that came the literature we know as Targum and Midrash. Many of us grew up as children with stories of biblical characters, such as Abraham smashing his father’s idols, that only later did we grasp were not actually in the Torah text itself.

But among the Ethiopian Jews the practice of translation and exposition remained largely oral. Now Tel Aviv University’s department of biblical studies has launched a pioneering new course, the Orit Guardians MA, to research these unique traditions and conserve them for future generations.

“Both the translation and the sermon were not recorded in writing,” said the course founder, Professor Dalit Rom-Shiloni. “So this is where we come in. We want to know what the kes has done with the text.”

There have been academic studies of the liturgy and the religious observances of the Ethiopian Jews. While they may not have had access to the Talmud, they developed their own halachah; their Shabbat rule-book, the Te’ezaza Sanbat, shows the influence of the Book of Jubilees.

But the subject matter of the Orit Guardians is a step into “the unknown” for Professor Dalit Rom-Shiloni. “These oral traditions were not investigated by biblical scholars.”

While her earlier scholarly training included the study of Ge’ez, it is not her specialist area. The key fieldworkers are the first tranche of five Ethiopian Israelis students, all in their 30s and 40s and all born in Ethiopia — the youngest arriving in Israel aged three and five.

It is they who will have access to the kesim and conduct the interviews.

“I will do my best to train the students but they will have to do the study,” said Professor Rom-Shiloni. “I am not going to be able to do it for them.”

The transplantation of most of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel has threatened to disrupt the transmission of their traditions. Young Ethiopians were sent to mainstream religious schools to be absorbed into what were considered the standard forms of Judaism. “And as every immigrant community that came to Israel, they wanted to be more Israeli than Israelis,” said the professor.

“At a certain age, they realised they had a different tradition that is not part of the general Orthodox rabbinate Jewish custom and they are very much interested in it.”

The impetus for revival is coming particularly from the “middle” generation, those aged from 25 to 50. “This is the community very much interested in going back to their heritage.”

As one of her students, Adissa Kassa, 33, from Netivot, reflected about his yeshivah high school days in a recent blog, “I devoted my time to Jewish studies, but I always felt that I had nothing to bring from my own tradition. Something always seemed to be missing.”

Another student, Tejitu Asfawu Daniel, 39, is the mother of eight and wife of a trainee kes.

There is one other student from a non-Ethiopian background on the course. Professor Rom-Shiloni has also engaged an Ethiopian Israeli research assistant to help arrange the corpus of Shabbat Orit readings used in the community. The chair of the steering committee for the Orit Guardians MA is a British biblical scholar who made aliyah some years ago, Diana Lipton.

With the project still in its first semester, Professor Rom-Shiloni said, “I do not know what will be the result. I hope, and I have enough information to think, that we are going to get very new, original studies.”

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