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Kessim (religious leaders) of the Ethiopian Jewish community pray during Sigd, Jerusalem, 2007Gali Tibbon/AFP via Getty Images
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Ethiopian Jews and Their Sacred Scripture

The African Jewish holy books that the rabbis never read

Yaacov Gonchel
February 01, 2023
Gali Tibbon/AFP via Getty Images
Kessim (religious leaders) of the Ethiopian Jewish community pray during Sigd, Jerusalem, 2007Gali Tibbon/AFP via Getty Images

If someone knows one thing about Ethiopian Jews, it is likely to be that what is known as “the Oral Torah” is absent from their bookshelves and praxis. One searches in vain for those rabbinic interpretations of the Written Torah and traditions that have defined Judaism outside of Ethiopia for at least two millennia. Rabbi David Ibn Zimra (1479-1573), chief rabbi of Egypt, tried to account for this by placing Ethiopian Jewry into the framework of the limited Jewish history that he knew:

[They are] Israelites from the tribe of Dan, apparently of the sect of Zadok and Boethius, who are called scripturalists (qara’in), for they do not know the Oral Torah, and they do not light candles on Friday night. … (Responsa Radbaz, 4:219)

Yet Ibn Zimra was very far from the mark. To understand the history of the Beta Israel, it pays to first review the basic account of the formation of Rabbinic Judaism, with which it is often contrasted.

When the Jews of Roman Palestine lost their political and religious independence with the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai wrought profound changes within Judaism. Religious authority and leadership were transferred from the Kohanim to the Sages; the sacrificial rites of the collective gave way to the private devotion of the individual; the focus of the people shifted from the Temple in Jerusalem to the study halls of the Galilee. The crowning achievement of Rabbi Yohanan’s labors, and of that era more generally, was the establishment of Torah scholars as the new leadership. In his academy, the halachic teachings recited and taught would come to make up the earliest stratum of a very large body of literature later termed “the Oral Torah.”

While the Oral Torah often blurs the lines between scriptural interpretation and criticism, the Sages claim a Sinaitic basis for the Oral Torah—it is all licensed by God Himself. Furthermore, the Talmud everywhere seeks to ground its interpretations and binding authority in scripture itself, further solidifying the connection between the Oral and Written Torahs. This is so effective that the Oral Torah in the form of the Talmud, rather than the Written Torah, has long been the starting point for determining Torah law on a matter.

Yet the waves made in Yavne evidently sank into the sands of the Sahara, never to reach Ethiopia. Instead of the ancient Sage licensed to interpret the Torah and produce new laws, or the modern rabbi ordained on account of his knowledge, the supreme religious authority of Ethiopian Jews was known in Tigrinya as bahtawi (Amharic: melokse)—a kind of high priest. Each bahtawi lived in solitude, apart from the community, because he followed an extreme regimen of ritual purity. A bahtawi “declared” the public ritually impure—so much so that physical contact with one of its members required purificatory immersion. Living alone, the bahtawi did not raise a family, enabling him to spend his days immersed in prayer and the study of Holy Writ (the corpus of which will be defined below). This class of holy hermits constituted the supreme religious authority, and their word was final. (The last bahtawi died years ago in Israel.)

The bahtawi ordained the aqhshti (Amharic: qesim), essentially Kohanim (kahenat), who had families and lived among the people. These local religious leaders were the living repositories of the law. Therefore, whenever doubts or questions arose among the people about religious practice or theology, they brought their queries to the aqhshti. If the aqhshti did not have an answer or did not feel themselves sufficiently qualified to provide one, they would turn to the bahtawi.

Although we cannot cover all of Ethiopian Jewish life, let us take the ever-present observance of purity laws as a way of understanding the texture of the lived faith that Jews practiced in Ethiopia. The entire community observed very strict laws of ritual purity, even under the most difficult of circumstances. For example, after childbirth the mother had to live outside her house in an enda tsigyat (Amharic: mergem gojo), a special hut surrounded by stones designated for this purpose. The length of her stay depended on the sex of the child and followed the first five verses of Leviticus 12—40 days for a boy and 80 for a girl. It was not the lot only of women to be barred from the home due to impurity, however. Men who had a seminal emission or contracted a different kind of impurity were subjected to the same rigorous demands.

The pinnacle of the observance of the biblical purity laws in Ethiopia was the use of the ashes of a red heifer to purify those ritually defiled by a corpse. This is not to say that the entire body of purity law was biblical—at times, the touch of non-Jews was considered capable of transmitting impurity, something not found in the Pentateuch. On the whole, however, for Ethiopian Jews, these strict laws rooted in the Bible were synonymous with Judaism, and they shaped their lives literally from birth.

What texts did the bahtawi and aqhshti learn and teach the people? The early Italian maskil Samuel David Luzzatto (1800-65), whose interest in the matter was piqued by his son Filosseno (1829-54), posed this very question to a bahtawi named Abba Yitzhak, who in response compiled a list of 62 books sacred to Ethiopian Jews (others have a slightly higher count). The omission of rabbinic literature remains striking, but of further interest is the commingling of scriptural books that form part of the rabbinically authorized canon with those deemed “external books.” For Ethiopian Jews, some of the latter are considered especially sacred and beloved. Before turning to this literature, however, a few words must be said about its language and form.

Like other diasporic communities, at some point Ethiopian Jewry lost their Hebrew. Whether they retained books written in literary Hebrew cannot be answered definitively. Whereas in Babylonia of the Talmudic period the Jews adopted Aramaic, Ethiopian Jews wrote their sacred literature in Ge’ez, a South Semitic language they considered holy. Ge’ez shares a significant portion of its lexicon with Hebrew and other Semitic languages. (The texts of the Ethiopian Church are likewise written in Ge’ez and have a similar status.) There is no question that the early translators of the Bible into Ge’ez possessed mastery of Hebrew, but the language was only rediscovered by Ethiopian Jews at the end of the 19th century, with the appearance of European Jews.

Ge’ez itself, which is Old Tigrinya, is no longer spoken by any of the dozens of ethnic groups that comprise Ethiopia. Tigrinya in its modern dialects, though, is the most widely spoken language in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Since Ge’ez is not a living language, very few people, aside from the aqhshti and bahtawi (as well as the clergy of the Ethiopian Church), understand it. This accounts for the near-exclusive focus of academic scholars on ethnography and sociology in their study of Ethiopian Jews, and their relative neglect of Ethiopian literature. The great scholars of this field have been solitary luminaries, such as the 19th-century German scholar August Dillmann (1823-94), a devout Christian who did not intentionally train his gaze on Ethiopian Jewry but published literary studies and editions of classical Ge’ez literature. He even composed a grammar of Ge’ez and a Latin lexicon of the language. Yosef Halévy (1827-1917) was the first serious scholar of Ethiopian Jewry in the modern period, and he published and even partly translated Jewish scripture written in Ge’ez. Another prominent, more recent scholar of Ethiopian literature was Wolf Leslau (1906-2006). He translated some of it into English and, like Dillmann, had an impressive command of Ge’ez, to the extent that he even published an English-Ge’ez dictionary.

Until quite recently, the entire religious literature of Ethiopian Jewry was written in manuscript codices. In Ethiopia, the familiar Torah scroll therefore took the form of a book. The parchment was prepared from kosher ruminants, and the ink used was typically black. A Torah in my family’s possession for generations has a few rubricated lines opening each book of scripture, and chapter numbers are also marked with red ink. In most cases the codices are kept in bespoke leather cases.

Now onto the texts themselves.

In the view of Ethiopian Jews, the Bible is not subject to the judgment and criticism of human reason, and the midrashic hermeneutic cannot generate new, binding norms.

The holiest text for the Beta Israel is also the foundational book of Judaism writ large: the Torah. It is called the Orit, reminiscent of the Aramaic word for the Torah, Orayta. However, instead of the “canonical” Pentateuch that consists of five books, Ethiopian Jewry has an Octateuch: the five books of Moses plus Joshua, Judges, and Ruth. The inclusion of Ruth reflects the decision to place it in the same period as Judges, corresponding to its opening line: “In the days when the judges judged” (Ruth 1:1). This diverges from the traditional Jewish grouping of Ruth with the other four “scrolls” (megillot): Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther.

Unlike the Pentateuch, the Orit was not read in public on a weekly basis. The aqhshti would read passages to the community on the Sabbath and holidays, which were timely or intended to strengthen specific observances. Still, the average Jew knew the text of the Orit well.

Interestingly, other books, some not even included in the rabbinic Tanakh, fared even better. The Dawit, the name for Psalms based on the traditional attribution to King David, was probably the best-known book among Ethiopian Jews. The entire book was typically recited in memory of the deceased, and religious education (for those who took that path) began with its study. The bulk of prayers recited by Ethiopian Jewry are from the Dawit.

The Book of Baruch, which lies outside the rabbinic canon, was also very beloved by the people. In the story, Jeremiah prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem, whereupon his disciple Baruch prays that God does not make him witness it. His prayer is accepted, and he miraculously falls into a deep sleep as the walls are breached and God’s abode goes up in flames. Perhaps Ethiopian Jews loved this book because it centers around Jerusalem, and therefore represented their yearnings to return from exile to the land of their forefathers, with which they had lost contact.

The Book of Jubilees, also not included in the rabbinic canon, is a midrashic work that covers the story cycles in Genesis through nearly the first half of Exodus. The events depicted follow cycles of 49 years or jubilees, from which the book gets its title. In its retelling of events, it supplies details and episodes not found in the biblical books themselves. For example, it lists the names of the wives of Cain, Abel, Seth, and many other progenitors of humankind. It accuses the generation of the flood of cannibalism and paints their punishment in a different light. Jubilees provides an entire story to explain the enigmatic verse “Haran died in the lifetime (‘al penei) of his father Terah“ (Genesis 11:28), according to which he perished trying to save his father’s idols from a fire Abraham set in the middle of the night. This provides a psychological explanation for why Abraham treated Haran’s son Lot like his own. One can now grasp why Abraham, at a distinct numerical disadvantage and with the odds heavily stacked against him, took on four mighty kings to rescue Lot from captivity. Beyond filling in crucial details and events, the book also offers reasons for certain commandments, and attributes the observance of holidays like Shavuot to pre-Sinaitic figures like Noah.

A number of other books (or their equivalents) that the rabbis excluded from their canon include the Book of Ben-Sira, which is quoted sparingly by the Talmud; the three books of Meqabyan, a history of the Maccabean revolt; the Book of Tobit, about a father and son living in the Assyrian exile; and the Book of Judith.

Owing to the special status of the Sabbath among Ethiopian Jews, which prohibits not only physical labor but other activities and attitudes, the book T’ezaze senvet (Commandments of the Sabbath) had a special place in their hearts. The book is mostly of a midrashic character. It begins with the creation narrative, proceeding day by day. It then turns to the creation of man and the resulting creation of Gehenna.

As the story goes, to create man the angels needed to retrieve soil from the land of dudalem and bring it to God. The first two angels failed to complete their mission because the earth refused to comply. The third angel was arrogant, knowing he could carry out his charge, and he in fact did so. However, along the way God’s name was desecrated, and the angel was turned into fire as a punishment. Banished from heaven, this angel became Gehenna, which swallows up the sinners of mankind.

Other homilies in this book resemble some found in rabbinic literature. For example, the Sabbath requests that sinners not be punished on it in hell, and they receive a daylong reprieve. The book also prohibits certain actions on the Sabbath that do not appear in the Torah, and whose parallels in Rabbinic Judaism are only rabbinically prohibited: traveling on a boat, engaging in business, and fasting. Marital relations are forbidden on the Sabbath, contrary to rabbinic encouragement of it.

A relatively brief midrashic work that is rich in moral instruction is Mote muse (The Death of Moses). It focuses on the last day of Moses’ life on earth, when the Angel of Death, for whom he waits every Friday, finally comes for him. He says goodbye to his mother, wife, and children, and expresses concern for their welfare to God, who reassures him that He will take care of them.

I cannot survey the rest of the minor works listed by Abba Yitzchak, but rest assured that the Ethiopian Jewish library has many more books, such as the Book of Enoch, none of which have received their proper scholarly due.

The homiletical works listed above differ from those of Rabbinic Judaism in that they do not exegete scripture verse by verse, and are, in the main, concerned with theological and moral concerns rather than ritual or legal ones. As we saw above, in many cases these compositions fill gaps in the text in order to explain it, whereas rabbinic midrash often reads the text in ways that create gaps between the plain sense of the text and its interpretation.

In the view of Ethiopian Jews, the Bible is not subject to the judgment and criticism of human reason, and the midrashic hermeneutic cannot generate new, binding norms. The text may not be ripped from its context and reinterpreted; following the long tradition of prophetic exhortations, the legacy from Sinai must be observed as is. Thus, for example, did Ethiopian Jews continue to bring the paschal sacrifice and paint their doorposts with its blood long after the destruction of the Temple.

Yet like the heirs of Rabbinic Judaism, Ethiopian Jews have a series of laws and practices that do not appear in the Orit. These include Sigd (the annual renewal of the covenant between Israel and God), the Fast of Esther, and extreme customs of mourning for the Temple. Unlike Rabbinic Judaism, which anchors the extrabiblical in the Pentateuch by way of midrash, Ethiopian Jewry has a tradition that all of these practices date to the biblical period. The Beta Israel therefore consider themselves to observe the unchanging heritage of the biblical era. Although their old way of life is no longer possible in Israel, where both the people and rabbinate are oriented toward Rabbinic Judaism, their literature carries the spirit of the prophetic age into the 21st century.

The author would like to dedicate this article to the memory of his father, Dejen Iyasu Gonchel, and his mother, Hiwot Melkei.

This article was translated by Daniel Tabak.

Yaacov Gonchel descends from a long line of bahtawi, the esteemed custodians of the Torah and leaders of Ethiopian Jewry. He studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut and Bet Moriah in Beersheba, and holds an LLM and a master’s degree in Jewish philosophy from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.