One of the many unique religious traditions developed and preserved by the Jews of Ethiopia — the Beta Israel (House of Israel) — is the annual Sigd holiday, which normally occurs fifty days after Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), on the twenty-ninth of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan. Since 2008, the Sigd has been an official Israeli state holiday, though it continues to be celebrated mainly by the country’s Jewish community from Ethiopia, which numbers upwards of 130,000.
According to Qes Semai Elias, the director of the Council of kohanim of the Ethiopian Jews in Israel, which represents the qessotch (i.e., kohanim or priests), the traditional religious leaders of Jews from Ethiopia, “Our next ambition in connection with the holiday is to claim a worthy place for it among the Jewish holidays of the Hebrew calendar, and to thus impart to the month of Marcheshvan, which is otherwise devoid of holidays, our own festive contribution.”
Sigd means “prostration” or “bowing down” in Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopian liturgical language. The holiday commemorates and is patterned after the events described in the Book of Nehemiah. It is related there that following the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile to the Land of Israel, in the 6th century B.C.E, they gathered in Jerusalem on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishre (Rosh Hashanah) and requested that Ezra the Scribe read to them from the Torah:
“So on the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Torah before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand… Ezra praised the Lord, the great God, and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!’ Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” (Nehemiah 8:2-6)
In addition to that Rosh Hashanah gathering, the Book of Nehemiah recounts another Jerusalem assembly that took place several weeks later, on the twenty-fourth of Tishre. That second assembly culminated in the Judean community publicly recommitting itself to the covenant between God and the Jewish people:
“On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Torah of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God.” (Nehemiah 9:1-3)
Those two ancient Jerusalem assemblies, on Rosh Hashanah and on the twenty-fourth of Tishre, are the Sigd’s blueprint. Reading, translating, and expounding upon portions of the Bible, as well as the lifting of hands in prayer, and prostration, are features of the day. And as on that twenty-fourth of Tishre gathering, the Sigd also involves fasting and a communal confessing of sins, as well as re-acceptance of the Torah.
Mula Zerihoon, a 41-year-old Ethiopian-born qes ordained in Israel, explains that one of the Sigd’s central themes is the Jewish longing to return to Jerusalem. In Ethiopia, he recalls, the Sigd was celebrated atop mountains. “When we climbed the mountain, we felt Jerusalem in our heart of hearts. This deeply impacted our Judaism. Jews came from afar, two or three days on foot, on horses, and on mules, in order to have the chance to hear Torah from the qessotch. The people learned and were strengthened.”
In Israel the Sigd’s theme of Jewish unity continues, with Jews from other communities being welcomed to celebrate. On the day of the Sigd thousands of Ethiopian Jews from across Israel ascend to Jerusalem, primarily to the Armon Hanatziv Promenade that overlooks the Old City. Dozens of qessotch assemble there under multicolored parasols, on a platform adorned with the flags of Israel and Jerusalem.
Beneath a “Welcome to the Sigd Holiday” banner written in Hebrew and Amharic, the qessotch chant prayers in the ancient Ethiopian languages of Ge’ez and Agaw, praising God and beseeching forgiveness and blessings for the Jewish people. Biblical passages describing the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai and the return of the Jews to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile are read to the congregation in Ge’ez, and then translated into Amharic, the first language of many members of the Jewish community from Ethiopia.
When the qessotch descend from the platform at the conclusion of the services, they are quickly surrounded by hundreds of congregants, who accompany them with ululation, applause, trumpet blasts, and dancing to a nearby tent, there to break the fast communally following the repentance and renewal of the covenant.
The above is taken from Shai Afsai’s article “The Sigd: From Ethiopia to Israel,” which was published in the Fall 2014 issue of CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly. (To order the CCAR Journal, visit ccarpress.org.) The text also accompanies a traveling exhibit of the same name, containing photographs of Sigd celebrations. The exhibit was conceived by Shai Afsai and Israeli emissary to Rhode Island Matan Graff, with the endorsement of Qes Semai Elias, the director of the Council of kohanim of the Ethiopian Jews in Israel.