Ethiopian Jewry, No Longer a Lost Tribe

I read with outrage and dismay the recent report of racism –masquerading as Halacha -against Ethiopian Jews at the Barkan Winery. According to the report first published by the Public broadcaster Kan (Link to the Hebrew Video) and now being shared through many news outlets (Times of Israel), the management of the winery will no longer allow their Ethiopian Jewish employees to come in contact with the wine or partake in any part of the wine-making process. All of this due to the fact that Barkan Winery wishes to be under the Kosher supervision of the “Eidah HaCharadit” Kashrut organization and to expand their market to consumers of “Eidah HaCharadit” products.

This is not the time nor place to debate or discuss the intricacies of kosher law and Halacha as it applies to wine. For anyone curious and interested in this topic, I urge you to take the time to read some insightful material from Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo on this matter (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). However, this is precisely the time and place for us all to take an unequivocal stance against the racist and bigoted actions of the “Eidah HaCharadit” and their stance to our Ethiopian Jewish brothers and sisters.

The first recorded mention of the origins of Ethiopian Jewry appears during the 9th Century, when Eldad HaDani makes his way through the Jewish communities of Iraq and North Africa. He relates to those he encounters the tradition passed down from father to son, that the Jews of Ethiopia are descendants of the exiled tribe of Dan (Sefer Eldad HaDani pg. 25-26). Shortly after his visit to the town of Kairouan, Tunisia, the community sends a letter to Rav Tzemach Goan of Sura regarding the reliability of Eldad HaDani’s account. Rav Tzemach Goan answers that the authenticity of the encounter and the Halachot which Eldad related can be completely relied upon ( Kitvi Avraham Epstein pg. 3-9). Additionally, both the great Italian scholar Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura (1445-1550) and the Radbaz, Rabbi David ben Zimra (1479-1573) were unequivocal in their stance regarding the authenticity of “Jewishness” of the Ethiopian community (Igrot Eretz Yisrael, pg.88, Responsa Radbaz, volume 7:5).

With the exception of a few additional responsa which discuss this topic, until the late 1800’s very little was known of the Ethiopian Jewish community and contact with them was extremely minimal. However, this changed with the arrival of two Ethiopian Jews, Daniel Ben Hananiah and his son Moshe, to Jerusalem in 1855. They brought word of increased Christian missionary activity among the Jewish tribes in the region and made a strong personal impression upon the Chief Rabbi in Jerusalem at the time, Rabbi Chaim David Chazan. This relationship led to an exchange of letters between Rabbi Chazan and the leaders of the Ethiopian Jewish community, where they expressed their yearning for Zion and their fears of the missionary activities taking place around them (Even Sapir, Vol.2 pg. 29-31).

With the publishing of this correspondence in Jewish journals throughout Eastern Europe, the plight of Ethiopian Jewry was brought to the minds and hearts of their Jewish brothers. In 1864, Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer (1820-1899) began organizing relief efforts and assistance for Ethiopian Jewry. He writes in one of his letters on the subject that “there burns within me a flame of desire to help my people. My heart tells me that I must shoulder this holy burden, to consider and plan…how to start this thing, and I must stand at the head of this great project” (Igrot Rav Azriel Hildesheimer, pg 32-33). Later on that same year, Rabbi Hildesheimer authored a public appeal on this issue addressed to “all our brethren Israel.” He writes as follows:

For many years, every Jew has been horrified by the news from Africa; the cry of a quarter-million of our brethren of Israel in the land of Kush has resounded in our ears. In the course of our exile, they have been nearly completely cut off from our holy religion, with only the twenty-four books of the Bible and the holidays to remind them that they had come out of Zion…I well know that every Jewish heart will be filled with anger to hear these things [increased missionary activity], for all Jews are responsible for each other…I say it is time to speak and time to act for the Lord (HaMevaser 4:44)

After many setbacks, in 1867 the hard work of Rabbi Hildesheimer finally bore fruit and a mission was led to Ethiopia under the patronage of the Alliance Israelite. However, inactivity followed for the next 40 years, and only in 1907 was another mission attempted by Dr. Jacques Faitlovicth (Wikipedia).

During this time, the lauded first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Pre-State Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) also took part in renewed efforts to reach out to the Jewish community in Ethiopia. In a letter written in 1912 regarding Rabbi Samuel Hirsch Margulies’ request to send a teacher to the community, Rav Kook writes: “With all my heart I desire to join those who are performing this mitzvah, to aid you in all your efforts to assist these remote brothers of ours…to save them from extermination”(Igrot HaRaya 2:432)

Undoubtedly, there is much more that can and should be written on the history of the Ethiopian Jewish community; their yearning for Zion, their struggles to reach the promised land and the challenges that they have uniquely faced since moving to Israel. However, regarding the specific topic at hand -“Jewishness”- I would like to conclude with the opinion of the late Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Ovadya Yosef (1920-2013):

I have therefore come to the conclusion that the Falashas (Ethiopian Jews) are the descendants of the tribes of Israel who have emigrated southwards to Kush. There can be no doubt that the authorities who declared them from amongst the tribe of Dan investigated and examined the evidence thoroughly and reached this conclusion on the basis of the most reliable testimony and evidence. I too…have investigated and examined this matter thoroughly after the leaders of the community approached me…I have decided that, in my humble opinion, the Falashas are Jews who must be saved from assimilation. We should further their immigration to the Land, educate them in the way of our holy Torah and include them in the building of the holy land. Thus “the children shall return to their borders”( Shu”t Yabia Omer Even HaEzer 8:11).

Today’s news story exemplifies that, unfortunately, some still reject and deny a treasured and undeniably authentic part of our People. It would behoove them to take a moment to pause, reflect, and rest on the shoulders of Torah giants who have already embraced the Ethiopian community as our own.

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator. He is a Lieutenant in the IDF reserves where he serves as a battalion Rabbi, and is the author of the book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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