Celebrating Sigd: The Ultimate Zionist Festival

Young Ethiopian Israeli women at Sigd festival TOI

For most Jews around the world, the 29th of Cheshvan is not a particularly noteworthy day. But for Jews from Ethiopia, this date has long been observed as one of their main holidays, Sigd–a day celebrating their connection to Jerusalem and commitment to Jewish unity—you might say it’s the ultimate Zionist holiday.

In 2008, the Knesset finally recognized Sigd as a national holiday, and ever since then, more and more non-Ethiopian Israelis have been celebrating Sigd in Jerusalem.

Sigd prayers facing the Temple Mount

Today at the Tayelet–the Sherover-Haas Promenade in southern Jerusalem, tens of thousands came to observe the colorful holiday–along with a healthy number of “white” photographers to document the festivities.

For the 120,000 who emigrated from Ethiopia during past decades, the 29th of Cheshvan is a combination fast day, day of thanksgiving and gathering of the clan.

Kessim under their colorful umbrellas. “Welcome to the Sigd festival”

Dozens of kessim (Ethiopian Jewish religious leaders) cut an elegant path through the crowds at the Tayelet. Swathed in simple white robes, tallitot draped over their narrow shoulders, the kessim are accompanied by an entourage that includes an escort holding a colorful umbrella over each of their heads.

The older Ethiopian women are clothed in their distinctive white dresses adorned with colorful hand embroidered trim. Shoulders cloaked in white shawls, heads covered with colorful head scarves, take part in the prayer service marking Sigd here in the holy city.

Prior to their mass aliya, generations of Ethiopian Jews yearned for Zion and expressed their longing in the annual Sigd festival. Jews would walk for days to arrive at a mountaintop where thousands would join in prayer and listen to Torah readings.

Following the afternoon prayers and the blowing of the shofar, the community would descend from the mountain to partake of a festive meal. The holiday has its origins in the time of the prophet Nehemiah, when the entire Jewish community assembled in Jerusalem for a day of fasting and confession. The day also commemorates the covenant between God and the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai.

For many young Ethiopian Jews now living in Israel, the mountain top Sigd exists only as a story recounted by their parents.

From the promenade there’s a clear view of the Temple Mount, and that’s where the kessim set up on a huge dais with microphones magnifying their solemn prayer chants over the crowd.

Mingling with the colorful costumes and umbrellas of the elders, are the khaki, green and white uniforms of dozens of young Ethiopian men and women serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

Younger teens, largely ignoring the hours of religious chanting of the elders, are socializing and decked out in a variety of trendy clothing on this festive day with overcast skies.

One kes tells me that Sigd was essentially a way of remembering Jerusalem and strengthening Jews in a difficult galut (Diaspora) situation. But the holiday is just as relevant today. “We missed Jerusalem for thousands of years,” Rav Yosef notes. “Today, in Jerusalem, we celebrate…but just as we say ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ at the Passover seder, so too at Sigd we pray for a rebuilt Jerusalem.”

Amongst the crowd that grows by the minute as more and more buses disgorge Ethiopians from all over the country are one or two “mixed” couples. Representatives of all the major youth movements in their signature white or blue shirts have a prominent presence and consist of many teens of Ethiopian origin who mingle comfortably with everyone.

Ten days from now, some American Jewish immigrants will gather to celebrate Thanksgiving in Jerusalem—you can be sure it won’t be nearly as well-attended, meaningful or colorful as today’s Sigd commemoration.

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