Ethiopian Rosh Hashanah blends ancient customs with yearning for aliyah to Jerusalem
Despite relative isolation from their Jewish brethren around the world for millennia, Ethiopian Jews have shared a dream — to celebrate Rosh Hashanah “next year in Jerusalem.”
Though they are different in many ways, the Jewish New Year festivities in Ethiopia bear many similarities to the holiday’s observance in the broader diaspora.
Limor Malessa and five of her siblings were born and raised in a small Ethiopian village near the Jewish community of Gondar. She left the village when she was 13; she, her parents, and her five siblings all went to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, in anticipation of making aliyah. Israel is the promised land to which Ethiopian Jews have longed to return for thousands of years. They did not know that the temple in Jerusalem long since been had destroyed. (Gaps in access to modern technology and their distance from other Jewish communities meant that up until about 20 years ago, many Ethiopian Jews lacked basic knowledge about major episodes in Jewish history.)
In 1991, when she was 15, Malessa and her family officially made aliyah. Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, smuggled the family out of Addis Ababa, taking them to the Jewish homeland by way of Italy.
The family arrived in Israel just a month before the Mossad conducted a massive clandestine airlift operation, dubbed “Operation Solomon,” which saw some 14,000 Ethiopian Jews secretly airlifted out of Ethiopia in 36 hours, aboard 35 nonstop flights to Israel.
Malessa now has lived in Israel for more than 30 years, building a family of eight children in the city of Ashdod and becoming thoroughly integrated into Israeli society.
Because her home village in Ethiopia was smaller than most other Jewish Ethiopian towns, not many “kessim” — elder religious leaders with knowledge of oral Jewish law and the equivalent of rabbis — lived there. This “would make my childhood memories of Rosh Hashanah less vivid than of those who grew up with many kessim in their villages,” Malessa said in Ethiopian-accented Hebrew.
The Ethiopian villagers were entirely dependent on the verbally disseminated wisdom of the elders, who were the only people in the village able to read Jewish texts written in the ancient Ge’ez dialect.
“The kessim would instruct everyone in the villages on how to prepare for the holiday,” Malessa said. “Villages that had more religious leaders would have a much deeper understanding of the holiday and its laws.
In Amharic, which is rooted in the Ge’ez dialect and is the official language of Ethiopia, Rosh Hashanah is called “Brenha Serkan,” which essentially means “the rising of the dawn,” she said. In keeping with the meaning of holiday’s name, the kessim “would rise before dawn on the holy day, to begin the first prayer service of the day before sunrise,” she added.
In Ethiopia, Rosh Hashanah was — and still is — observed during the course of one day, although the rest of the Jewish diaspora and Israel observe it for two days. The Ethiopian Rosh Hashanah is comprised of three prayer services: before dawn, in the afternoon, and in the evening. There are four prayer services in the broader Jewish world for Rosh Hashanah, and none begin before sunrise.
“The holiday also has another name, ‘Zikir,’ which is similar to the Hebrew word for remember, ‘zachor,’” Malessa said.
As is done in other diaspora Jewish communities, “everyone in the village wears new clean white clothes” for Zikir, she said, and it is “also customary for affluent people in the village to have very large feasts and invite others in the village to join in the festivities.” The meals are meant to remind people of the day’s holiness, and to “make sure that during the holiday not a single Jew is left without food and enjoyment,” according to Malessa.
“People serve lamb — the most expensive meat available — and have special meals to observe the mitzvah of feeding their Jewish brothers and sisters,” she said.
Malessa’s mother, Esther Lakau, who lives in the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon, said she “remembers hearing the kessim sound the shofar on the holiday.
“Everyone in the village prepared the food for the holiday a day in advance,” she continued. “The kessim would read from the holy scripts in Ge’ez and tell the history of the Jewish people. They would speak of Abraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, our great patriarchs and matriarchs, and the lessons we could learn from them in the present.
“Most importantly, the kessim would emphasize our long-held aspiration to celebrate Rosh Hashanah ‘next year in Jerusalem.’”