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Time for a “new” Jewish holiday

"Funny, you don't look Jewish" is not funny. We need to change the perceptions of what it means to look, and do, Jewish.

Ethiopian Jews pray during the 'Sigd' holiday in Jerusalem, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. The prayer is performed by Ethiopian Jews every year to celebrate the biblical union between the Jewish people and God. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

I know that you have not been keeping count, so I have been doing it for you.

You’re welcome.

Several days ago, was the 29th day of Cheshvan, which happens to be exactly fifty days after Yom Kippur.

You will forgive yourselves for not knowing this. Most Jews do not.

But, the 29th of Cheshvan is a Jewish holiday – the festival of Sigd, an Ethiopian Jewish festival.

“Sigd” means “prostration” in Ge’ez, an ancient Ethiopian liturgical language. Since 2008, Sigd has been recognized as a state holiday in Israel. 

So, what’s the story with Sigd?

On one level, it is a festival about the accepting of the Torah.

One another level, it is a day of yearning for the land of Israel and the ancient Temple.

An Ethiopian Jew named Shula Mola remembers:

I have a powerful memory of my last Sigd in Ethiopia in November 1983. Sigd celebrates our connection to Jerusalem; the entire village would go up the nearby mountain—men, women, and children—dressed in our best festive clothes for a day of fasting and prayer. The Kessoch, our religious leaders, read verses from the Torah and prayed for a return to Zion.

On another level, the day is a communal day of memory of the dead — yizkor.

Once again, Shula Mola speaks:

On this day we also prayed for the release of the souls of the dead, sprinkling grains of wheat for birds to eat so they would fly our prayers to heaven. The holiday of Sigd is not only a gathering of the living, but also a day to remember and be reunited with those that have passed.

And on another level, it is about something deeper. According to Ethiopian Jewish tradition, Sigd is the day on which God first revealed himself to Moses.

Why should American Jews – all American Jews, of all races — be paying attention to this holiday?

First, it testifies to the diversity of the Jewish people. 

Once upon a time, we called Ethiopian Jews “falashas” — landless people, strangers. Ethiopian Jews hate that term. They vastly prefer Beta Yisrael, “the house of Israel.”

What are the origins of the Ethiopian Jews? Take your pick of explanations.

One legend says that the tribe began out of the intimate encounter between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Another opinion is that they are descended from the ancient tribe of Dan.

But, whatever their origins, their Judaism is idiosyncratic. It originated and developed at a time before the rabbinic period, and therefore, their customs are both ancient and, from the point of view of Jews who follow the customs of the ancient rabbis, unusual.

Then came the 1980s. In the midst of the civil war in Ethiopia, the state of Israel rescued the Jews of Ethiopia in Operation Moses, and brought them to Israel.

The poet Dan­ny Adamsu, in the song ​“Mem­o­ry, How Much Pow­er Has the Spir­it,” described the jour­ney from Ethiopia to the land of Israel:

No right, no left. Straight. Just north. Walk­ing and walk­ing, march­ing brotherhood.

Dis­tricts, vil­lages, and families.

There are no days, only nights

Eat a lit­tle, strong spirit

We are walk­ing, the water is gone, and the food is gone.

Desert, the earth is hot, deter­mined to arrive.

The Jews of Ethiopian have struggled in Israel. It has rarely been easy. Today, they are a major cultural force. Such figures as Idan Raichel, Avior Malasa, and Hagit Yaso, have made Ethiopian Jewish music into one of the most popular streams in Israeli culture.

So, to mention Sigd is to expand the circle of Jewish memory, and to enlarge our picture of who we are as a people.

That brings me to the second reason for mentioning this seemingly obscure holiday. It is to bear witness to the necessary diversity – not only of world Jewry – but of American Jewry as well.

This is what we learned from the 2021 Pew study. 92% of Jewish American adults identify as non-Hispanic White, while 8% identify with other racial or ethnic categories. Among Jews ages 18 to 29, however, the percentage who identify as a race or ethnicity other than non-Hispanic White rises to 15%.

17% of Jews live in households in which at least one child or adult is Black, Hispanic, Asian, some other non-White race or ethnicity, or multiracial. 

And yet, several years ago, in a previous congregation, I had an encounter with a religious school student of mixed race. He came to me with a textbook that we used in religious school. He opened the book, and he started flipping through its pages, pointing to the illustrations of Jews and Jewish family life.

His question haunted me. “You know, Rabbi, when I look through these books, I have a question. Why don’t I see anyone who looks like me?”

He was right.

But, there is a third reason why Sigd is important. It is because it is a holiday that is unlike anything else in the Jewish calendar.

Go through that calendar.

  • Rosh Ha Shanah: the creation of humanity.
  • Yom Kippur: we, as a people, confess our sins.
  • Sukkot: we, as a people, wandered in the wilderness.
  • Hanukkah: we, as a people, fought back against the Syrian Greeks.
  • Purim: we, as a people, fought back against the Persians.
  • Pesach: we, as a people, left Egypt. Shavuot: we, as a people, stood at Sinai.

Consider, as well, the modern spring holidays: Yom Ha Shoah: we, as a people, confront our destruction. Yom Ha Atzmaut: we, as a people, declared our sovereignty in the land of Israel.

What do you notice? Every holiday is about the Jewish collective. It is the story of what we do as a people.

But, Sigd is about something else. It is about Moses’ personal encounter with God at the burning bush.

It was a solitary encounter with God, in the middle of the wilderness – at a place that would be the location of the event at Sinai, where the entire people would meet God.

Sigd adds something to the Jewish palate: the idea that while our communal experience of God is central to our story, we need our individual encounters with God, as well.

Judaism is a faith of a people. But, it is also the faith of persons, of individuals, of something happening within our individual neshamas (souls).

It took Sigd to remind us of that, and perhaps that is why we might add it to our communal calendar. So that we remember that we all stood at Sinai — not only as a people, but as individuals in search of God.

For that reason, I am grateful that there is the holiday of Sigd.

I believe that all Jews, and all of Judaism, would be enriched if it were to find a permanent place on our calendar.

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