Falashas

Doctrines Falasha (Ethiopic for "stranger") is the term by which the Jews of Ethiopia are commonly known: they refer to themselves as Beta Isra'el "House of Israel", never as aihud "Jews". Most have now left Ethiopia and live in Israel. Their religious beliefs and practices are in many respects so different from orthodoxy that their Jewishness was often questioned. They were entirely ignorant of the Mishnah and Talmud tradition (see above). They had no knowledge of Hebrew: prayers and readings from scripture were in Ge'ez, which is also the sacred language of Ethiopian Christians, nor did they observe rabbinic customs concerning the mezuzah and phylacteries. They did observe ritual and dietary laws with great zeal, although these did not include the rabbinic prohibition of eating meat and milk at the same meal. They also kept the sabbath very strictly. Like the Samaritans, they celebrated the Passover by sacrificing a lamb on the 14th Nisan. They did not celebrate Purim, however, or (like the Karaites) the popular festival of Hanukkah.
In common with other religious groups, including Christians, they practised male and female circumcision on the eighth day after birth: the operation was performed by a woman. The Falasha synagogue, known as a masjid ("mosque"), had an altar outside the east door, and a woman's court to the south. Male priests known as kohanim officiated in worship, accompanied by the rattling of sistra and the burning of incense. The study of the Bible, especially the Psalms, was led by debteras "scribes". Among original Falasha works, written in Ge'ez and of unknown date and authorship, are the Commandments of the Sabbath, the Book of Abba Elijah, the Apocalypse of Gorgorios, the Apocalypse of Ezra and the Death of Moses.

History The origin of the Falashas is unknown. According to their own tradition they are descended from followers of Menelek, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who brought the "ark of the covenant" from Jerusalem to Ethiopia in the tenth century BCE. Others claim they go back to the Assyrian destruction of Samaria and Judah in the eighth century BCE and the subsequent emigration. More likely they are the result of the gradual infiltration of Jewish and Christian elements into South Arabia and East Africa during the first Christian centuries. Only one thing is certain: they broke away from mainstream Judaism before the Mishnah was completed c 200 CE, and it may be significant that they commemorate with a fast the destruction of the First Temple, that is in 586BCE, but not the Second in 70 CE.
The subsequent history of the Falasha communities in Ethiopia is punctuated by periods of oppression by the Christian authorities, occasional rebellion, and, in one or two cases, conversion to Christianity. They retained their distinctive identity, however, down to the present century. In the 1970s they attracted support from American Jews and, with Israeli military assistance, were gradually rescued from Ethiopia, a country devastated by famine and civil war. More than 8000 reached Israel covertly in 1984, 14,000 in a spectacular 24-hour operation in May 1991 known as "Operation Solomon", and the last 4000 in 1992. They were recognized as Jews first by the Sephardi Chief Rabbi in 1973, and then by the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in 1975. There continue to be difficulties in relation to marriage and legitimacy, however, and occasional suspicions of racist attitudes towards this most recent group of new immigrants to Israel.

Symbols The Falashas employ the same symbols as other Jewish traditions. However, like other Ethiopians they believe in the power of charms, amulets and incantations.

Adherents A small number remain in Ethiopia, while the majority, about 10,000, are now settled in Israel.

Headquarters/
Main Centre
 Jewish Community, PO Box 50, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia