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The Festival of Sigd – Ethiopian Jews fast and feast, and hold their umbrellas high

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An Ethiopian Jew celebrates the holiday of Sigd (Wikimedia Commons photo)

Purim. Pesach .Chanukah. Sukkot. Sigd.

Sigd?

Sigd is a festival that has been celebrated by Ethiopian Jews for centuries but was virtually unknown elsewhere until their mass immigration from Ethiopia to Israel during the second half of the 20th century. The festival is observed on the 29th of Heshvan, 50 days after Yom Kippur (similar to how Shavuot occurs 50 days after Pesach) This year, Sigd falls on Nov. 7.

But beyond its historic roots, the festival of Sigd is a point of pride for Israel’s Ethiopian community and their hope to have an impact on the general culture of Israel’s Jews.

Israel Celebrates Ethiopian Jewish Holiday

The word “Sigd” means bowing or prostration in Ge’ez, the Ethiopian liturgical language and is related to the Hebrew word for mosque, misgad. It is a day of learning, prayer, repentance and fasting, reminiscent of the ceremony led by Ezra the Scribe when the Jews returned from Babylon to build the Second Temple.

“The children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackcloth … and they stood up in their place, and read in the book of the Law of the Lord their God a quarter of the day; and another quarter they confessed, and prostrated themselves.”(Nehemiah 9:1-3)

Israeli Qes (spiritual leader) Mula Zerihoon says that in Ethiopia Sigd was celebrated atop designated mountains. “When we climbed the mountain, we felt Jerusalem in our heart of hearts,” he said. “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 Qessim. The people learned and were strengthened.”

Sigd Festival Jerusalem 2014

Nowadays, thousands of Ethiopian Israelis gather at Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv Promenade which overlooks the Temple Mount. There the Qessim are dressed in their traditional robes, and carry the Torah scrolls while holding brightly ornamented umbrellas. They recite prayers of blessing and forgiveness, and passages telling of the return of the Jews to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile.

I had goose bumps,” Orly Sahalo told the Jerusalem Post. “I saw all the women dressed in white, lifting their hands, and the Qessim using their instruments,” the drums and trumpets accompanying the prayers, “just as it is written in the Bible.”

Shoshana Ben-Dor believes that Sigd “brings together elements that exist in several Jewish holidays in a way that no other Jewish holiday does. It has themes of repentance and forgiveness found in the High Holidays. “It has the mourning for Jerusalem found in Tisha B’av and the return to Zion found in Yom Ha’atzmaut. And it has the covenant and the giving of the Torah, which are found in Shavuot.”

Sigd celebration in Beersheva

The half-day fast is broken with a challah-style bread called dabo (pronounced DAH-boh.) It used to be made by wrapping the dough in klabo tree leaves, then covered by coals and buried and cooked overnight. Nowadays it is baked on a burner or in an oven. The recipe at forward.com spices it with cardamom, fenugreek, turmeric and coriander. Dabo can be enjoyed with traditional Ethiopian Cheese Spread, Berbere Fish or Brussels Sprouts and Potatoes and Mustard Seeds.

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In 2008, the Knesset passed the Sigd Festival Law and has then added the day to the official list of state holidays. Members of the Ethiopian community hope these initiatives will demonstrate that their community has a great deal to contribute to Israeli life. Until now, it’s been mostly a one-way street with Ethiopians expected to absorb Israeli culture.

“This holiday will have a continuation,” said Orly Sahalo, who was “moved to see the Qessim distributing handfuls of Jerusalem soil to the worshipers. People are able to take a piece of Jerusalem home with them, just as in Ethiopia they were able to take home soil from the mountain on which the Sigd was held.”