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BETA ISRAEL (Falashas)
BETA ISRAEL, ethnic group in Ethiopia which claims to be of Jewish origin and which is attached to a form of the Jewish religion based on the Bible, certain books of the Apocrypha, and other post-biblical Scripture; living in the provinces surrounding and to the north of Lake Tana. The Beta Israel, as the group calls itself, were known until recently by others as the Falashas, a term regarded by the group as one of contempt.
The History of the Beta Israel
According to the tradition of the Beta Israel, they originated from the notables of Jerusalem who accompanied Menelik, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, when he returned to his country. According to scientific theories, they are of Hamitic (Cushitic) origin and belong to the Agau family of tribes which already formed a part of the Ethiopian population prior to the settlement of the Semitic tribes who arrived from southern Arabia. Judaism was spread among them by Jews living in southern Arabia, but it may have reached them through Egypt or even from Jews permanently living in Ethiopia. It appears that in time these Jews assimilated into the local population. Ethiopian chronicles show that Judaism was widespread before the conversion to Christianity of the Axum dynasty during the fourth century. It is thought that after this the elements which remained faithful to Judaism were persecuted and compelled to retreat from the coastal region into the mountains north of Lake Tana. They concentrated themselves in this region and lived in political independence under their own rulers. Jewish captives whom the negus (Amharic, "king," the title of the sovereign of Ethiopia) Kaleb brought back after his military campaign in 525 against Joseph Dhu Nuwas, king of Himyar, were settled in the region of Semyen and reinforced the population which followed the Jewish religion. It appears that the population known as Beta Israel was thus formed. They played an active role in the uprising of the Agau tribes against the Axum dynasty in the tenth century. According to Ethiopian tradition, there was even a queen by the name of Judith (or Esther) who led the rebels in deposing the negus and vented their anger against the Christians, their churches, and their monasteries. However, the Zague dynasty—of Agau origin—which came to power in Ethiopia as a result of the rebellion was again a Christian one and its devout kings restored Christianity to its former importance. In 1270 under the influence of the Church, one of the descendants of the ancient Axum dynasty, which claimed its descent from King Solomon, was restored to the throne. The kings of the "old-new" dynasty decided to bring an end to the independence of the Beta Israel because they could not rely on their loyalty in their war against the Muslim kingdoms on the southeastern border of Ethiopia which threatened its existence. Amda Siyon (1314–1344) suppressed a revolt of the Beta Israel and Ishaq (1412–1427) succeeded in defeating them. He erected numerous churches in Wogara and Dembea, regions inhabited by the Beta Israel, which proves that many of them converted or were compelled to do so. The negus Zara Yakob (1434–1468) gave himself the title of "Exterminator of the Jews," even though it appears that his success in the war against the Beta Israel at Semyen was very limited. His son BaLda Maryam (1468–1478) organized a massacre of the Beta Israel. During his reign many of them were forcibly baptized but continued to practice Judaism in secret. These forced converts later became a problem for the Ethiopian Church and the negus Naod (1494–1508) was compelled to act against them. During the reign of the negus Lebna Dengel (1508–1540) there was a bitter struggle between the Ethiopians and the Muslims, who conquered almost all of the country. At first, the Beta Israel under the leadership of their king, Gideon, and his wife Judith (names which were common among the kings of the Beta Israel), joined forces with the Muslims and even participated in the pursuit of the fleeing negus. However, when the Muslims arrived in the region of Begemdir (Begemder) and devastated it, the Beta Israel rejoined the forces of the negus. They were defeated together with the Ethiopian army and the royal couple was taken prisoner by the Muslims. The account of these wars even reached the ears of the kabbalists in Safed. Abraham Halevi Beruchim, a disciple of R. Isaac Luria, mentions them in his Iggeret Sod ha-Ge'ullah ("Epistle on the Secret of the Redemption"). It appears that the negus Claudius (1540–1559) was generally on good terms with the Beta Israel. The war against them was was renewed with greater vigor during the reign of the negus Minas (1559–1563) and his son Sar\a-Dengel (1563–1597). After some preliminary successes, the Beta Israel were defeated during the years 1580–83 and suffered heavy losses. The Ethiopian chronicle praises their bravery and their devotion to their religion. In spite of the massive massacre in these wars, the strength of the Beta Israel was not completely broken. When the Agau tribes rose in rebellion during the reign of the negus Susenyos (1607–1632), the Beta Israel, under the leadership of their king Gideon, participated in the revolt. After he had subdued the other rebels, the negus directed the whole of his power against the Beta Israel. He conquered their fortresses, and men, women, and children were killed. The negus promised the remaining Beta Israel that they could return in peace to their villages if they laid down their arms. After a short while, however, the negus broke his promise and presented them with the alternative of conversion or death. In the great massacre perpetrated against those who refused to accept baptism King Gideon lost his life. Many Beta Israel were sold as slaves. The death penalty was decreed against those who continued to observe Jewish customs. These events marked the end of Beta Israel independence. Their lands were confiscated and they were compelled to till them as lessees. In the course of time they were authorized to return to their former religion. There were no further wars, but from then on suffering and degradation were the lot of the Beta Israel. In spite of this, the Beta Israel retained their distinctiveness, even though the Protestant missionaries who were active among them during the 19th century obtained a certain degree of success. The condition of the Beta Israel was somewhat improved at the beginning of the 20th century as a result of the activities of Jacques Fastlovitch, who returned to Ethiopia on many occasions after his first visit in 1904; he intervened on their behalf with the negus Menelik II (1889–1913). The "Pro-Falasha Committees," which were founded on his initiative (see below), opened mobile schools which traveled from village to village and a boarding school in Addis Ababa, and also enabled young Beta Israel to study in Europe and Erez Israel. Some of them were appointed to important government positions as the result of the education thus acquired. At the time of the Italian occupation (1936–1941) these Beta Israel proved their loyalty to the emperor, Negus Haile Selassie. After the liberation of Ethiopia, the life of the Beta Israel, like that of the general population, resumed its former course, and it is so far unclear to what extent they have been affected by the accelerated modernization efforts of the negus.
The Jews of Ethiopia call themselves Beta Israel (“House of Israel). The term ‘falasha’ is derived, however, from the root falasa in the Ge'ez language (which resembles the root Slp in Hebrew) which signifies "to emigrate," "to wander." Falasyan (falasi in the singular) in the Ge'ez language or falasha in Amharic, i.e., "exiles," is the name used by the Ethiopians in referring to them; they also call them kaila (an Agau word whose meaning is unknown) and ayehud ("Jews"). Their exact numbers are unknown. At the beginning of the 18th century the Scottish traveler James Bruce estimated them at 100,000, while the missionary Henry Stern speaks of a quarter of a million in the middle of the 19th century. At the beginning of the 20th century Fastlovitch claimed that they numbered 50,000, while according to R. Haim Nahoum, who was in Ethiopia some time later, only about 7,000 souls remained. In 1949 Wolf Leslau estimated that they numbered between 15,000 and 20,000. It is assumed that in 1969 their number was approximately 25,000–30,000.
In general, the outward appearance of the Beta Israel is similar to that of the Amhara, even though one cannot speak of a homogeneous Beta Israel type. As a result of the intermingling of Hamitic and Semitic bloods, there are differences in the coloring of the skin and the facial features, which at times tend toward the Agau type and at others toward the Semitic type found in Oriental Jews. An anthropological study has not yet been carried out. HalMvy, Fastlovitch, and Rathjens stressed their closeness to the Semitic type and considered the Beta Israel to be the descendents of Jews who lived in Ethiopia in ancient times and intermarried with proselytes whom they introduced into the Jewish religion. Stern even emphasized their great resemblance to the Jews of Europe and the differences between the Beta Israel and the Ethiopians. On the other hand, Rohlfs insists on the complete similarity between them and the Ethiopians. Rosen, Hayyim Nahum, and others utterly deny their Semitic origin. W. Leslau and E. Ullendorff are also inclined to consider them Agaus who were converted to Judaism.
The Beta Israel are to be found mainly in the north of Ethiopia, in the region which lies between the Takkaze River on the north and the east, Lake Tana and the Blue Nile on the south, and the Sudanese border on the west. They live in their own villages which are rather small, the most important and best known of which are situated in the vicinity of the town Gondar. In Gondar itself there is also a small Beta Israel population which is concentrated in a separate quarter. The Beta Israel village is usually to be found at the summit of a hill in the proximity of a river. It consists of a number of round huts covered over with conical straw roofs (Amharic tukul); one of the huts serves as a synagogue (mesgid). The Beta Israel are mainly engaged in agriculture. However, since they do not own their own land, they work as lessees who hand over the major part of their produce to the landowners. In addition to this, the Beta Israel (both men and women) engage in various crafts: pottery, spinning, weaving, basketry, and as blacksmiths and goldsmiths. Many of them work in the construction trades in the towns, even in regions which are distant from their villages. In fact, the Beta Israel form the craftsman class of Ethiopia. Their clothing does not differ from that of the Ethiopians. The men wear cotton trousers which are wide above the knees and tight from the knees to the ankles; they also wear a rectangular sheet (Amharic shama), which they wrap around themselves in various ways. The women wear a long dress which reaches down to the ankles and they wrap themselves from above with the shama. The priests wear a headdress, while the other Beta Israel go bareheaded.
The Beta Israel do not eat raw meat like the other Ethiopians and they observe the pentateuchal laws concerning the ritually clean and unclean animals and the purging of the sinew of the femoral vein. Shehitah is carried out by a priest and the Beta Israel do not eat meat slaughtered by Christians. They wash their hands before partaking of food and recite blessings before and after. The Beta Israel family is a monogamous one in which husband and wife enjoy equal rights. The age at marriage usually ranges between 20 and 30 for the men and 15 and 20 for the women. When after lengthy negotiations the families of the couple have reached agreement on the material conditions, the priest celebrates the marriage and the bride is led to the house of the bridegroom in a festive procession. The wedding lasts a whole week. During the month of Nisan and the rainy season (July–September) marriages are not solemnized. Divorce is rare and only adultery is recognized as a justification for it. Family life is usually exemplary. It is for this reason that the Beta Israel are not affected by the venereal diseases which are widespread in Ethiopia. In addition to the circumcision of their sons, which takes place on the eighth day after birth—according to the pentateuchal prescription—the circumcision of daughters is also customary among them, as it is in most parts of Africa. There is no fixed date for the circumcision of girls and it is always carried out by women. The parents show much concern for the education of their children. In almost every village there is a school where the dabtara (reader, assistant to the priest who has studied sacred texts but has not been ordained into the priesthood) teaches the children the prayers, the Pentateuch, and the Book of Psalms in the Ge'ez language, as well as the reading and writing of Amharic. As a result of the activities of Fastlovitch and his pupils, and later emissaries of the Jewish Agency, the teaching of Hebrew has also spread to a certain extent. The Beta Israel is also accustomed to confess occasionally before the priest, at least toward the end of his days. The dead are buried on the day of death or the day after (with the exception of the Sabbath and the Day of Atonement). After the funeral the family observes seven days of mourning. On the seventh day a remembrance meal (tazkar) is held, as well as at the end of the year. The observance of the tazkar is the duty of the heirs; negligence of it is considered a grave sin, since the fate of the soul of the departed is dependent on the observation of this precept.
The Beta Israel are noteworthy for their industry, their honesty, and their cleanliness. Because of their regular ritual immersions, the Ethiopians say that they smell of water. So far as is possible the Beta Israel abstain from touching strangers. After each such contact they must immerse themselves in order to be purified. The Beta Israel who live in Gondar, and inevitably come into contact with their Christian neighbors, are considered unclean by their coreligionists of the villages. As of the 1960s, the traditional Beta Israel way of life has only been preserved in the outlying regions such as Semyen and Quara. Changes have naturally taken place in the localities where the influence of modern civilization has been introduced. Relations with Jews from the exterior, especially from Israel, have also brought about changes.
As already said, the Beta Israel consider themselves as part of the Jewish people, both in their origin and faith. The religion is based on the Bible, which they possess in the Ge'ez language in the same translation as that adopted by the Ethiopian Church; it includes, in addition to the 24 books of the Bible, a number of Apocryphal books (e.g., Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Ben Sira, I and II Maccabees, and the Book of Baruch). In addition to these they consider the books of Enoch and Jubilees sacred texts. The Talmud did not reach the Beta Israel, but some traditions which correspond with those of the Gemara and the Midrash are to be found in their writings. The Beta Israel have priests (Cah#n, pl. Cah#nat) who claim descent from Aaron. In practice, however, every Beta Israel who is of good character and is from a respected family can assume the priestly functions if he is well versed in the prayers and the Bible. In every region the priests elect a high priest from their midst; he then becomes the spiritual leader of the community and is empowered to ordain candidates into the priesthood. In all religious affairs the priest is assisted by the dabtara. The Beta Israel also have monks and nuns who live in abstinence and consecrate the whole of their lives to the service of the Creator. Some of them live together in monasteries, while others live in seclusion in the deserts or in the vicinity of the villages. The simple folk have the greatest respect for these monks.
The center of religious life is the mesgid ("synagogue"), which is found in every village. It is in most cases a round tukul, but there also are some square stone structures. The synagogue is usually divided into two halls, one of which is known as "the holy of holies." It is there that the Pentateuch (which is written by hand on parchment, not in the form of a scroll but as a book) is kept and only the priest or the dabtara may enter this spot. In the courtyard of the synagogue there is a stone altar for the offering of the paschal sacrifice. It appears that formerly sacrifices were also offered on the new moons and on other occasions. In the mesgid seven prayer services are held daily (cf. Ps. 119: 164), but most Beta Israel content themselves with the participation in the morning and evening prayers. In prayers the Ge'ez language is employed. On the Sabbath and festivals most of the day is spent in prayer at the mesgid, with pauses for meals in common, and on the festivals (not on the Sabbath) for singing and dancing. The sanctity of the Sabbath is rigorously observed by the Beta Israel. Work ceases on Friday at midday when all purify themselves by immersion and the wearing of their Sabbath clothes. The lighting of candles or the kindling of fire, the drawing of water, going beyond the limits of the village, and sexual intercourse are forbidden on the Sabbath. From Ethiopian sources it also appears that in ancient times the Beta Israel observed the Sabbath rest even when in war and only fought when attacked. In the mesgid a section of the Torah is read in Ge'ez and it is then explained in Amharic. Every seventh Sabbath, from the first Sabbath of the month of Nisan onward, is known as Lengeta Sanbat (also as yasnabat sanbat, i.e., the Sabbath of Sabbaths) and is celebrated with additional ceremony.
The Beta Israel determine their festivals by means of a calendar which differs from the Ethiopian civil calendar and resembles the Jewish one: the year consists of 12 months of 29 and 30 days alternately; every fourth year is a leap year; the year begins from Nisan. The Beta Israel celebrate the new moons and the Jewish festivals as prescribed in the Pentateuch.
On Passover they offer up the paschal sacrifice and eat unleavened bread (Amharic kita) for seven days. Shavuot is celebrated on the 50th day after the last day of Passover. The first of the month of Tishri, which is the Jewish New Year, is known by them as Berhan Sarak ("The Light Shone"). The sounding of the shofar is not customary with them. On Tishri 10 the Beta Israel observe the fast of the Day of Atonement (Astasreyo = "The Pardon"), and from the 15th to the 20th of the month the festival of Sukkot. They do not, however, sit in the sukkah or take the lulav and etrog. In addition to these the Beta Israel have a number of special festivals and numerous fast days. The fast of the month of Av to commemorate the destruction of the Temple is observed from the first to the 17th of the month. The Fast of Esther is observed twice by the Beta Israel, during the months of Kislev and Shevat, but Purim does not exist with them.
The Beta Israel pay meticulous attention to the laws of uncleanness and purity. Their wives stay in a special hut on the outskirts of the village during the days of their menstruation and they only return to their homes after having purified themselves by immersion. A special hut is also prepared for women in confinement. The uncleanness lasts for 40 days if a male child is born and 80 days if it is a female child (cf. Lev. 12). Upon the conclusion of her days of uncleanness, the woman shaves off the hair of her head, immerses herself, and washes her clothes before returning to her home, while the custom is to burn the confinement hut.
The Beta Israel firmly believe in an only God, the God of Israel, who has chosen His people and who will send the Messiah to redeem them and return them to the Holy Land. On several occasions prophets arose among the Beta Israel who announced the coming of the Messiah and caused messianic movements. During the reign of Emperor Theodore II, in 1862, such an episode was responsible for the disaster which overtook a large group of Beta Israel who attempted to reach Erez Israel by foot. Most of them died on the way and the remainder returned, broken and destitute.
The Beta Israel believe in the World to Come and the Resurrection of the Dead. In their writings there are detailed descriptions of the reward which awaits the righteous in the Garden of Eden and the chastisements which await the wicked. Ullendorff saw in the Judaism of the Beta Israel a queer fusion of pagan, Jewish, and Christian beliefs and practices. On the other hand, Joseph HalMvy and other researchers were deeply impressed by their Jewish consciousness. Fastlovitch, who considered them ethnologically to be of Jewish descent, attempted to bring them nearer to traditional Judaism and to persuade them to abandon customs which were foreign to it. This activity was renewed in the 1950s by emissaries of the Jewish Agency. Once they became acquainted with traditional Judaism, the Beta Israel showed a considerable measure of interest and readiness to abide by it.
Today most of the Beta Israel speak Amharic, which is the official language of Ethiopia. The minority which lives beyond the Takkaze River to the north, in Tigre, and in Eritrea, speaks Tigrinya. Their literature, however, is entirely written in Ge'ez, the classical Ethiopian language which is to this day the holy language of the Ethiopian Church. Their prayers were also written in this language. The Bible is read in Ge'ez; it is a translation which was made not from the original Hebrew text but from the Septuagint. This is also the translation accepted by the Ethiopian Church, and there is no evidence as to whether the Beta Israel ever possessed a different version which was closer to the original. In the past the Beta Israel spoke various dialects of Agau, which belongs to the Hamitic (Cushitic) family of languages. With the exception of some outlying localities in Quara and Semyen, where one can still find Agau-speaking Beta Israel, the remainder have almost entirely forgotten their former language. Even the Agau words and phrases which have been included in their prayers in Ge'ez are no longer understood by all. These remnants suggest that Agau was the language employed in prayer by the Beta Israel before their adoption of Ge'ez. It is customary to recite certain blessings and prayers in Agau, including the Grace after Meals. No information is available regarding any ancient translation into Agau of part of the Pentateuch or the other books of the Bible. It is also impossible to ascertain whether the knowledge of Hebrew or Aramaic was ever widespread among the Beta Israel. The use of words which have been borrowed from these languages, such as Masia ("Messiah"), mizvat ("charity"), Sanbat ("Sabbath"), siol ("abyss"), Saitan ("Satan"), Zabaot, Elohe, Orit ("the Torah"), and many others, cannot serve as a proof because these words also appear in the Ge'ez Christian literature and it is difficult to decide whether the Ethiopians borrowed them from the Beta Israel or the reverse. The same applies to the names of months, such as Nisan, Av, and Tammuz. However, there are some words, such as safur (shofar), gadol, El Shaddai, goyyim, and Torah, which appear only in Falasha texts. The Portuguese Jesuits of the 17th century asserted that in their day the Beta Israel possessed the Bible in Hebrew and knew a faulty Hebrew. According to one tradition which is mentioned by Filosseno Luzzatto, the last king of the Beta Israel—during the reign of the negus Susenios—burnt their books before his death. Another tradition, reported by Gobat, says that the Beta Israel hid all their Hebrew books in the town of Gondar so that they would not fall into the hands of their enemies. In all these tales there is difficulty in distinguishing between fact and legend.
The literature of the Beta Israel consists of a small number of works in Ge'ez, which are circulated among them in manuscript. Some of these are employed in the ritual for various occasions. They also have some works which are to be found among the Ethiopian Christians in a slightly or vastly different version. Here the question arises whether these are to be considered Falasha writings adopted by the Christians or vice versa. Externally the manuscripts of the Beta Israel and the Christians differ in that those of the former open with the blessing: "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, the God of all spirit and flesh," while the introductory formula of the Christians is: "In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the One God." The Bible including Apocrypha and the Books of Enoch and Jubilees are common to both the Beta Israel and the Christians. In their present form there is no doubt that the Beta Israel received them from the Christians. The book Te'ezaza Sanbat ("Precepts of the Sabbath") is an original Falasha work. It is a collection of the laws of the Sabbath (according to the Book of Jubilees) and legends on the creation of man, the Garden of Eden, the Sabbath, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and others. The Sabbath is described as a heavenly queen who intervenes with God in favor of those who honor her and is even concerned that a day of rest be given to those living in Gahanam ("Hell"). The Beta Israel attribute this book to Aba Zabra, a monk who was the contemporary of the negus Zara Yakob (15th cent.). This work does not exist in a Christian version, but some parts of it have been introduced, with slight changes and naturally without mention of the source, into a Christian work entitled Dersana Sanbat ("The Sermon on the Sabbath"), which praises the "Christian Sabbath," that is, Sunday.
The work Abba Elias ("Father Elijah") appears to be the sermon of a Falasha monk by the name of Elias (his date is unknown) on the Sabbath, the Ten Commandments, and the vanity of a life of pleasure. The Christians introduced verses of the New Testament into this work and the Beta Israel, who were unfamiliar with the New Testament, were unaware of this and continued to copy the work in this hybrid form. The "Book of Angels" is a description of the fate of the soul after death, when the Angel of Light and the Angel of Darkness struggle for its possession. The Falasha Book of Baruch, which differs from that of the Ethiopian Bible and the other texts of the "Book of Baruch" in Greek and Syrian, appears to be a Falasha adaptation of a Christian work. The book relates how the angel Sutuel showed Baruch in a vision the Celestial Jerusalem, all the divisions of Hell, and the End of Days. Gorgorios is a description of the journey made by Gorgorios (probably a Falasha monk of the 14th century) with the guidance of the angel Michael to the Garden of Eden and to Hell. It is possible that this book, like Baruch, is merely a Falasha adaptation of a Christian work. The Testament of Abraham is the story of the death of Abraham. The Beta Israel read this book on the occasions of the remembrance (tazkar) ceremonies, as well as on the festival of Tazkar Avraham, the anniversary of the death of Abraham. Mota Musye ("The Death of Moses") is the story of the last day of Moses. There is also a corresponding book, Mota Aron ("The Death of Aaron"), which describes the last day of Aaron. However, this last book is a Falasha adaptation of a Christian-Syrian sermon which was translated from Arabic into Ge'ez. Arde'et ("The Book of the Disciples") exists in two versions, the Falasha and the Christian, but it appears that the Falasha version is the original. The Beta Israel read it as a part of the prayers of the Lengeta Sanbat. These texts were published in recent times in Ge'ez, after the manuscripts were brought from Ethiopia, and were also translated into various languages. Some of the prayers of the Beta Israel have also been published. However, many of them are still preserved in manuscript in libraries or with the Beta Israel. In addition to these works, there are also texts which have not yet been published, such as those in the Fastlovitch Library in Tel Aviv, "The Testament of Isaac," "The Testament of Jacob," Wedasye Tebab ("The Praises of Wisdom"), Nagara Musye ("The Words of Moses"), Gadla Sosna ("The Story of Susanna"), and others. It may be assumed that there are still more unknown works in other libraries and in the hands of the Beta Israel. It appears that all the books of the Beta Israel were written before the loss of their independence.
Only fragmentary information is available on this subject. The folk songs of the Beta Israel have not been collected. Mention has already been made above of the tradition on the origin of the Beta Israel from the Jews who accompanied Menelik, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, when he came from Jerusalem to Ethiopia. Since the Ethiopians themselves, especially the royal dynasty, claim the same origin, the Beta Israel added a story which was recorded by Gobat: on his way Menelik crossed a river on the Sabbath with the Holy Ark which he had stolen from the Temple. Some of his followers crossed over with him and from that time he and his sinful companions became Christians, while the other followers who observed the Sabbath became the fathers of the Beta Israel. The Holy Ark was indeed placed in Axum, but the Christians have not gained by it. It is only when a Falasha approaches it that the wall is opened up and remains thus until he has prostrated himself before the Holy Ark. Of the ancient saints whose lives the Beta Israel recall, the most popular is the 15th-century monk Aba Zabra. He attracted many Christians to Judaism and even converted one of the sons of the negus Zara Yakob. He did not die, but was taken by God to an unknown place when the negus came to seize him. Fastlovitch collected dozens of stories in Amharic, but this collection has not yet been published. It also includes stories which belong to the Ethiopian treasury of folklore, as well as others which are common to other African nations. In some of them, however, the singularity of the Beta Israel and their pride in it can be clearly discerned.
Many Beta Israel are blacksmiths, as in Yemen where it came to be a Jewish occupation. Blacksmiths were looked upon as sorcerers. The Ethiopians and even some of the Beta Israel suspected them of changing themselves into hyenas at night and preying upon people. This belief resulted in bloodshed on more than one occasion. The Beta Israel themselves believe, as indeed do all the Ethiopians, in spirits (zar) which can overpower people, especially women. They also engage in sorcery, not with the intent of causing harm to their neighbors but rather in order to heal the sick, to foretell the future, to discover lost or stolen objects or animals, to bring down rain, or to prevent the falling of hail, and the like. The Beta Israel like the Ethiopians have magic prayers and various sorts of charms and invocations in which an abundance of strange names of angels and spirits and numerous appellations of God are employed in order to heal or prevent diseases, to undo spells, or to forestall the dangers of the evil eye. In the war against the evil eye and the diseases wrought by it, the Beta Israel use amulets—strips of parchment on which magic prayers have been written. These strips are rolled up and inserted into leather containers which are worn around the neck or on the left arm. The amulets are at times adorned with colored drawings of symbolic or magic significance. The Falasha potters manufacture, in addition to utensils, clay statuettes of animals, especially bullocks. Today these are decorative objects which are for sale, but it is possible that in former times they were connected with fertility rites.
The History of the Research on the Beta Israel
Benjamin of Tudela, the 12th-century traveler, was not in Ethiopia himself but heard of the Ethiopian Jews. His account of them is, however, confused (M. N. Adler (ed.), Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela (1909), 67–68). His contemporary, the Arab geographer Idr<s<, only knew that there were some Jews living along one of the tributaries of the Nile (he obviously referred to the Takkaze). The first Europeans to come into contact with the Beta Israel were the Portuguese. One of the members of the expedition to Ethiopia, Miguel de Castanhoso (mid-16th century), in his book on his travels told of the role played by the Beta Israel in the war. Other details on the Beta Israel, their faith, and their history have come down in the books of the Portuguese and Spanish Jesuits who were active during the 16th and 17th centuries in spreading the Roman Catholic faith in Ethiopia. The German orientalist Ludolf (1624–1704) did not visit Ethiopia but he learned many important details on the Beta Israel from the learned Ethiopian monk, Aba Gregorios, and included them in his history of Ethiopia. James Bruce, who traveled through Ethiopia from 1770 to 1772, also recorded interesting facts in his work Travels to Discover the Sources of the Nile 1768–72 (1804). Two French scholars, the brothers D'Abbadie, stayed in Ethiopia from 1837 to 1848. Antoine D'Abbadie became very much interested in the Beta Israel, gathered information from them, and acquired some of their manuscripts. The essay which he published concerning them in a French newspaper in 1845, prompted Filosseno Luzzatto to turn to him with a request for more precise details. These details supplied Luzzatto with the material for his MMmoire sur lefs Juis d' Abyssinie ou Falashas (in Archives IsraMlites, 12–15, 1851–54).
In addition to the Jews, some Protestant missionaries also showed an interest in the Beta Israel. The first of these was the Swiss clergyman Samuel Gobat (who later became Protestant bishop in Jerusalem), who arrived in Ethiopia in 1826. He was followed by other missionaries, some of whom were Jewish apostates. While propagating Christianity, the missionaries gathered much information on the Beta Israel, their way of life, and their faith. Their works have become most important sources. The decisive turn in the study of the Beta Israel occurred in 1867, when the French Jewish orientalist Joseph HalMvy was sent to Ethiopia. He gathered a wealth of information and manuscripts and also brought back two Beta Israel youths with him. His enterprise was continued by his disciple Jacques Fastlovitch, who first visited Ethiopia in 1904. In the eyes of Faslovitch the Beta Israel were Jews in the full sense of the word and his principal objective was to bring material and spiritual relief to them, as well as to renew their bond with the Jewish people. While engaged in this "missionary" activity, Fastlovitch also gathered extensive material and many manuscripts during his numerous and prolonged visits, which were only interrupted by the Italian connquest. W. Leslau and E. Ullendorff (see above) have done valuable research into the literature and ethnic origin of the Beta Israel in recent years.
Relations with Jewry and Israel
Greek authors from the second century B.C.E. to the fourth century C.E. mention a Jewish population living in Ethiopia on the Red Sea coast, and it may be assumed that this information also reached the Jews of the Hellenistic world. In the ninth century Eldad ha-Dani told of the "Ten Tribes" and their leaders, while he himself, according to his words, was a member of the tribe of Dan which lived in the land of Havilah (cf. Gen. 10:7). Some claim that Eldad was a member of the Beta Israel, but it is possible that he merely heard of the existence of a Jewish kingdom in Ethiopia and built up his tales on this element. During the 15th century this information assumed a more concrete form. Elijah of Ferrara knew of a Jewish state in Ethiopia and of its war with the Christians. Obadiah of Bertinoro (late 15th century) saw some Beta Israel in Egypt. R. David b. Zimra (Rad-Ba-Z, 16th century) considered the Beta Israel from the halakhic aspect. In his opinion they were obviously from the tribe of Dan (see below). The renewed interest in the Beta Israel at the beginning of the 19th century has already been mentioned. While the Jews contented themselves with literary-scientific activities, the Protestant mission set out on an energetic campaign, publicizing its successes throughout the world. This situation moved R. Azriel (Israel) Hildesheimer to issue a manifesto in 1864, in which he called for immediate action in order to save a Jewish tribe from the hands of the mission. As a result of public pressure, the Alliance IsraMlite Universelle decided to send Joseph HalMvy to Ethiopia in 1867 in order to investigate the situation. His conclusions were considered unreliable and the Alliance refrained from any further action. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that some tangible relationship was achieved between the Beta Israel and the Jewish people, as a result of the travels and untiring activity of Fastlovitch. The "Pro-Falasha Committee," set up by Fastlovitch and whose activities centered in Italy, Germany, the United States (after World War I), and Palestine (after World War II), brought some spiritual and cultural relief to the Beta Israel; it was also instrumental in the creating of friendly relations between them and world Jewry. After an interruption of activities due to World War II, the establishment of the State of Israel caused a great awakening among the Beta Israel. Urged on by Fastlovitch, the Jewish Agency accepted them into its care. A group of boys and girls was brought to Israel in order to study Hebrew and receive a Jewish education. A teachers seminary was also opened in Asmara (Eritrea), as well as schools for children in several villages. The project of bringing the Beta Israel to Israel, however, was not favorably viewed by the authorities responsible for immigration policies.
Leadership and Communal Organization Among the Beta Israel (Falasha): An Historical Study
Although Beta Israel (formerly known as Falashas), the Jews of Ethiopia, have long fascinated scholars, many features of their history remain little known and inadequately studied. This article seeks to present a survey of the political history of the Beta Israel from earliest time until the Ethiopian revolution of 1974. It seeks to reveal the dynamic character of Beta Israel society and the manner in which patterns of leadership changed throughout the group's recorded history. Special attention is given to the competing claims concerning different types of leadership: secular/religious; traditional/modernizing; externally/internally selected.
EARLY HISTORY AND LEGENDS
Given the dearth of reliable historical material concerning the earliest Jews in and Jewish influences on Ethiopia, it is virtually impossible to offer any detailed analysis of their political structure. Nevertheless, a number of tentative generalizations can be offered which shed some light on the character of their communal organization. On the basis of the available evidence it does not appear likely that the earliest Jews entered Ethiopia in a single united group. It seems far more probable that they arrived in the country in small groups alongside other non-Jewish merchants, settlers, soldiers, etc. In a similar fashion, since Judaized elements could have entered Ethiopia from Arabia at any time from the 1st to the 6th century, there appears to be no reason to confine the entry of Jewish elements to a single brief period. Finally, the widespread impact of Jewish practices and influences on Ethiopian culture is only understandable if we assume that the Jewish immigrants did not live in isolation from their neighbors.1
While a number of scholars have claimed that the introduction of Christianity to Ethiopia in the 4th country led to the persecution of local Jews, there is no direct evidence to support this.2
In fact, it appears unlikely that the earliest Christian emperors had either the political mandate or the religious zeal to pursue such a policy. A strong possibility does exist, however, that the 6th-century Ethiopian emperor Kaleb, who sent troops to punish the Judaized Arabian ruler Yusuf Dhu Nuwas, may also have taken action against the Jews of the Aksumite (Ethiopian) kingdom. It is most interesting to note that during his reign we hear for the first time of the Semien region (later a Falasha stronghold) as "that country [to which] the King of the Aksumites exiles anyone whom he has sentenced to be banished."3
None of the sources on the period between the 6th and 13th centuries is of sufficient historicity to permit anything more than the most tentative of conclusions. This is particularly the case with regard to the legendary "Falasha queen" Judith (Gudit). While Bruce and Rathjens treated stories concerning this ruler with considerable enthusiasm, Conti Rossini and Ullendorff have more soberly concluded that they "possess no basis in historical fact."4 Even if the existence of a medieval queen is conceded, there is little evidence that she was a Jewess, much less a Falasha. Certainly, no Jewish dynasty ruled Ethiopia in this period. In the Hebrew sources for this period, neither Eldad ha-Dani nor Benjamin of Tudela appears to possess any first-hand knowledge concerning Ethiopia. Clearly we must wait for the "Early Solomonic" period in Ethiopian history (from 1270 onward) before we encounter any truly reliable sources on the Beta Israel polity.
WAR AND ADAPTATION 1270–1632
The year 1270 marks a turning point in Ethiopian history. In that year a new dynasty which traced its descent to King Solomon and to the ancient Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum came to power. Once these "Solomonic" Kings had consolidated their rule in the traditionally Christian areas of Ethiopia, they set out to impose their hegemony on all of the independent peoples of the Ethiopian highlands. Beginning with the reign of Amda Siyon (1314–1344) almost all these kings were to a greater or lesser extent concerned with the political subjugation of the Judaized population in the regions of Semien, Woggara, and Dambiya. In the middle of the 16th century, after the Ethiopian Christians had (with Portuguese assistance) successfully repulsed a major Muslim invasion, they turned their full attention to the Falasha. King Minas (r. 1559–1563) and his son Sarsa Dengel (r. 1563–1597) fought major battles against the Beta Israel and inflicted heavy losses upon them. Hostilities were renewed in the reign of Susenyos (1607–1632) and under his leadership the Ethiopian army totally defeated the Falasha who were led by their ruler Gideon. This defeat marked the end of Falasha independence.
A FALASHA KINGDOM
Although it has for many years been claimed that an independent "Falasha" kingdom existed in Ethiopia during this period, and the Beta Israel themselves claim to have been ruled by a long line of kings, these contentions should not be accepted without careful scrutiny. There is little support in the contemporary primary sources for the idea that the Beta Israel were united into a single political framework earlier than the 16th century. As was noted above, none of the sources from the period prior to the 14th century is of sufficient historicity for firm conclusions to be drawn. Nor is there any evidence for the existence of a unified Jewish kingdom in the 14th and 15th century reports. Judaized groups are invariably referred to in the contemporary hagiographic texts and chronicles by the region they inhabited. Their rulers are depicted as local governors, members of the regional nobility. Thus we read of people "like Jews" in Semien, Wagara, Salamt, and Sagade," of "sons of Jews" in Enfraz; of the governor of Semien and Cambiya, etc.5 Even James Bruce, who perhaps more than any other writer deserves credit for popularizing the exploits of the Jewish "kings" of Ethiopia, makes no mention of a monarchy in this period. It is therefore difficult to escape the conclusion that in the 14th and 15th centuries the Beta Israel were politically divided and geographically dispersed.
The recognition of this reality has several important consequences for the interpretation of Beta Israel history. Firstly, it serves as a caution against attempts to artificially impose unity on the sources by treating scattered events in specific regions as if they affected all Beta Israel. The Christian Emperor Yeshaq's (r. 1413–1430) victory over the Beta Israel governor of Semien and Dambiya was not, for example, a defeat for all Beta Israel. Some were allies of the Emperor and benefited from his victory. In a similar fashion, the reported conversion to Christianity of much of the population of Salamt province by the 15th-century Christian missionary St. Takla Hawaryat must be evaluated in its proper geographic context. His successes in that region left the population of Semien at least temporarily untouched.6
A recognition of the decentralized character of Beta Israel society during this period is also of crucial importance to the proper understanding of the dynamics of Beta Israel political history. If one accepts the existence of an ancient Falasha kingdom with its origins shrouded in the undocumented past, the rest of Beta Israel history appears almost automatically to be little more than an account of their decline from this mythical peak. In fact, the story is much more complex. According to the extant sources, a centralized relatively unified political organization existed among the Beta Israel only from the 16th and early 17th centuries. The effective military-political structure described in Ethiopian royal chronicles of this period was not, therefore, an aboriginal characteristic of Beta Israel society. Rather it developed relatively late, probably in response to the external threat posed by the Christian empire. Their history is not accordingly a story of continuous and unremitting decline but rather a gradual process of consolidation and unification followed by a series of catastrophic defeats.
Even when applied solely to the period of the 16th and 17th century the term Falasha kingdom should not be applied too casually. Even those later sources which portray a far more centralized polity than existed in earlier periods are far from unanimous as to the precise character of the group's political structure. It is, for example, of interest to note that while many medieval Hebrew sources (none of them eyewitness accounts) accept the existence of a kingdom as axiomatic, the first-hand reports of Ethiopian, Portuguese, and Muslim obervers are far more restrained. The claim put forward in the Chronicle of Emperor Sarsa Dengal that the 16th-century Falasha leader Radai lived from his own labor ("he was a tiller of te soil, who ate his bread by the sweat of his brow"; cf. Gen. 3:19) is difficult to reconcile with the idea of a fully developed monarchy.7
Nor should James Bruce's detailed reports on the Jewish kings be accepted uncritically. Bruce, it must be remembered, visited Ethiopia almost a century and a half after Susenyos' victory over the Falasha. He was, therefore, at least in this case, a recorder of traditions and not an eyewitness. In addition, his claim that a Falasha king and queen still ruled at the time of his visit scarcely enhances his credibility.8
THE RISE OF MONASTICISM
The gradual evolution of a more centralized political structure was only one of the responses engendered by the Christian threat to the Beta Israel. During the same period a major revolution took place within the structure of Beta Israel religious life. A new form of religious leadership began to emerge. Faced with increasing political and military pressure from the Christian Ethiopian emperors, the Beta Israel adopted the Christian institution of monasticism as a means of consolidating and developing their unique communal identity. Beginning with Abba Sabra and Sega Amlak, who lived in the 15th century and are credited with founding Beta Israel monasticism, monks played a vital role among the Jews in Ethiopia.9
According to Beta Israel traditions, the introduction of monasticism was accompanied by a number of other religious innovations including the introduction of new religious literature, the composition of prayers, and the adoption of important laws of ritual segregation and purity. The Beta Israel monks can thus be justly claimed to have been the chief carriers of their people's distinctive religious heritage. It appears probable that it was they who provided the ideological basis for the creation of a unified political structure among their people. Just how successful the monks were in assuming a central position in Beta Israel society is evidenced not only by the fact that they survived the demise of the autonomous political leaders but also by the fact that nearly all the figures commemorated by the Beta Israel as holy men at various holy places in Ethiopia were monks.
Any doubts one might have with regard to the finality of the Beta Israel's defeat at the hands of Susenyos are resolved by the decision of his son Fasiledes (1632–67) to build his capital at Gondar near the heart of Falasha territory. The site would only have been chosen after the local people had been totally subdued. According to both Christian and Jewish traditions, Beta Israel soldiers and artisans were speedily incorporated into the military and economic life of Christian Ethiopia. Although the Beta Israel no longer ruled themselves, the Gondarine period (1632–1769) is remembered as a period when the "(Beta) Israel lived in peace and welfare."10 Beginning in 1769, however, Ethiopia was plunged into an extended period of conflict and internal struggle. Known as the Zemane Masafent (the era of the princes or judges), because it resembled the period of the Old Testament judges when "there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his eyes," this period brought fresh sorrows to the Beta Israel. During a period of almost 100 years (1769–1855) Ethiopia lacked effective imperial rule and local rulers vied with each other for supremacy. The Beta Israel, whose wellbeing was largely dependent upon royal patronage and protection, suffered accordingly. Their decline from independence to imperial appointees to despised artisans is clearly visible in their changing patterns of leadership.
AZMACH AND BEJEROND
Following their loss of independence in the 17th century, the structure of Beta Israel political leadership underwent a dramatic change. Autonomous rulers no longer exercised control over the community or the regions in which the Beta Israel lived. Political power passed into the hands of royal-appointed governors, none of whom was chosen by virtue of their traditional roles among their own people. Rather they acquired land and titles through their ability to render services to the Christian Emperors who resided in Gondar. The principal secular leaders of the Beta Israel became those who were recognized as such by the dominant society, rather than those related to their own previous ruling families. A new elite of soldiers, masons, and carpenters emerged.
The Beta Israel leaders of the Gondarine period are remembered as having held two titles: azmach (commander) and bejerond (treasurer).11 The former, which was the higher of the two ranks, was used to refer to military leaders and local officals. The latter appears to have had connections with tax collection, although as applied to the Beta Israel it seems to have referred primarily to the "chief of the workers"—especially potters, carpenters, masons, and blacksmiths. While the azmach might exercise leadership over a heterogeneous community, the bejerond's authority was confined to the Beta Israel. One informant stated, "The azmach was government administrator for many people, but the bejerond was only concerned with the Beta Israel."12
One of the clearest indications of the deterioration of the status of the Beta Israel in the late 18th and 19th century is the gradual disappearance of the azmach. In the Gondarine period Beta Israel were appointed both azmach and bejerond, by mid-19th century those few Beta Israel who had any titles at all were exclusively bejerond. As James Quirin has noted, this transition was symptomatic of their social-political decline and increasing identification as a low-status artisan group.13
One immediate consequence of the Beta Israel's loss of autonomy was a return to the decentralized pattern of communal organization which had characterized their political structure prior to the 16th and 17th century. While it may be convenient to continue to speak of the Beta Israel "community," no evidence exists for the survival of formal centralized communal institutions. Rather a large number of scattered communities existed with informal economic, political, marital, and religious ties. HalMvy observed when he visited Ethiopia in 1867, "Chaque commune est autonomie et indMpendante. C'est seulement dans les cas Xu un grand danger menace la religion qu'on se reunit, afin de repousser l'ennemie commun."14
The Beta Israel's lack of autonomy and of an effective political-military leadership also resulted in a sharp decline in the communities' coercive power. Abba Yeshaq, one of the Beta Israel's outstanding religious leaders of the 19th century, told the French explorer Antoine d'Abbadie that originally the Beta Israel would stone to death any member of the community who ate leavened products on Passover. Following their loss of independence, however, they were compelled to change the punishment. "Mais aujourd'hui, comme on n'a pas de roi juif, on se contente d'infliger une pMnitence qui est le don d'une chIvre d'un an."15
Abba Yeshaq's words serve as a reminder that however great the authority of the Beta Israel clergy, neither they nor any other group in post-independence Beta Israel society had the power to enforce its will upon the population. On the whole, the means of coercion in their hands were largely limited to steps such as ostracism, which depended upon the support of community opinion. As HalMvy wrote, "Chaque province, chaque ville se soumet volontairement B la decision de son prKtre et de ses debteras."16
At the heart of the daily functioning of the voluntary system described by HalMvy stood the village elders (shmagilotch). On their role he observed
La justice est exercMe par les anciens (chimagueliM). Les plaintes et les diffMrends sont portes devant eux. Leurs jugements sont toujours respectes par les deux partis. Personne n'ose s'y opposer ni faire appel a l'autoritM amharique.17
Although HalMvy appears to have been the first witness to mention the role of the elders in Beta Israel society, the phenomenon he describes was probably of considerable antiquity. Certainly we can presume that it existed at least from the time when the Beta Israel lost their independence. More importantly, it formed an integral part of Beta Israel life throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and thus forms a vital element in any comprehensive picture of their traditional leadership in the modern era.
Although we possess no specific information of the Beta Israel clergy during the Gondarine period, it appears likely that their importance was increased by the decline of the autonomous political leadership. In particular, the monastic clergy who became virtually the only leaders not dependent upon the Christian kings for their position, probably rose in status. The further decline of the secular leaders during the "era of the princes" could only have further enhanced their standing.
By the time we begin to receive detailed accounts of Beta Israel life in the first half of the 19th century, the paramount position of the monastic clergy is clearly established. Antoine d'Abbadie, one of the most important of the early European visitors to Ethiopia wrote, "Bien qu'il n'y ait pas de hierarchie ecclesiastique, les Falachas reconnaissent pour chef les plus savent ou le plus habile de leurs moines."18 The centrality of the monastic clergy during this period receives further confirmation in the Beta Israel's own sources according to which their religion survived a severe crises in the early 19th century due to the efforts of the monk, Abba Wedaje.19 Significantly it was also the monastic clergy who served as communal spokesmen when the first efforts to communicate with world Jewry were made. Finally, it was upon the monastic clergy that the main responsibility fell to defend their people against the temptations of foreign missionaries.
1860–1905: The Missionary Challenge
By the middle of the 19th century a small number of Westerners had visited the Beta Israel and brought reports about them back to Europe. Although a number of these travelers were themselves missionaries, it was only in 1859 that organized Western missionary activity amongst the Beta Israel began. In that year the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews established its Ethiopian mission. It is difficult to overestimate the impact of the mission's activities upon the Beta Israel.20 While the number of converts they procured was never very large, the educational opportunities they offered and the vernacular scriptures they distributed significantly disrupted the Beta Israel communities. Existing divisions between regions and groups within the population were exacerbated. New tensions were also created. For the monastic clergy in particular, the missionary intervention proved fateful.
The Decline of Monasticism
A crucial feature of the missionary program was a concerted effort to undermine the Beta Israel's confidence in their priests and monks. These clerics attracted the ire of the missionaries for a variety of reasons. Firstly, as evangelical Protestants the missionaries had a deep aversion to any monastic religious hierarchy. (They were, for example not less bitter in their condemnation of the clergy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.) The Beta Israel religious leaders were, moreover doubly blameworthy in their opinion, because they claimed biblical sanction for their office. Typical of their hostility to the monks was the encounter of the missionary Henry Aaron Stern with a "wild fanatical looking monk with a grin of contempt which imparted to his black face and capacious mouth a repulsive expression with an air of pride and self-complacency."21
Stern and his colleagues not only attacked the priesthood and monasticism as institutions, but also exploited every opportunity to demonstrate their superiority by engaging individual clerics in disputations. Their task was not a difficult one. The Beta Israel clergy were honored by their people because of their piety and the communal and ritual roles they performed; not for their skill as debaters. Few, if any, Beta Israel priests possessed a complete Bible. The arts of citation and argumentation, at which the missionaries were so skilled, was totally foreign to them. Inevitably, they came out second best in the confrontations engineered by the missionaries.
The deleterious effects of the missionaries' direct attacks upon the monastic clergy were further supplemented by other activities with less immediate but no less important consequences. In particular, the opening of the mission schools and the distribution of Amharic Bibles (and religious tracts) set in motion a mini-reformation among the Beta Israel. Young men and secondary clerics (debtera) attracted by the mission's offer of education and an alternative avenue to achievement and status were among the most prominent early converts. The missionaries themselves drew a clear connection between literacy and familiarity with the biblical text, and the decision to defy clerical authority.
The missionary attempt to undermine the Beta Israel's trust in their religious leaders was based upon a shrewdly accurate assessment of their centrality to their people. In the mid-19th century as today most Beta Israel possessed only a rudimentary understanding of the symbols and rituals which comprised their religious traditions. The clergy, especially the monks, were not only the paramount ritual experts, but also the chief guardians of the community's traditions and beliefs. It thus, for example, fell to them to defend the community's interests before the king when in 1862 the missionaries succeeded in temporarily curtailing Beta Israel sacrifices. The monks moreover held tremendous sway over their followers. On no less than three occasions during the first decades of the missionary enterprise (1862, 1874, 1879) groups or individual monks succeeded in leading large bands of Beta Israel on ill-fated exoduses out of Ethiopia. Given such devotion, it becomes clear that the missionary assault on clerical prestige and status held the promise of totally undermining the Beta Israel religious system. In fact, the missionaries seem to have been confident that this was, in fact, happening.
"Respecting the Jews, or Falashas, one remarkable feature is at present observable, namely, that they have been greatly divided in their religious opinions, as also in respect of their adherence to the monks... Hence, a great division has arisen, and although we must not as yet be too sanguine, yet we may freely say that the balance is in our favor."22
The earliest period of missionary activity also saw the creation of another sort of division among the Beta Israel, with the establishment of a major settlement in the Tigre province of northern Ethiopia.
Although Beta Israel villages appear to have existed in Tigre province during the Middle Ages, the modern Tigrean communities appear to have originated in 1862. In that year a large number of Beta Israel inspired by a prophet set out for the Promised Land. Their attempt ended not in a miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, but in disaster and starvation. Many died, some straggled back to Gondar, others settled in Tigre especially in the Shire region.23 As time passed they acquired many of the characteristics of their Tigrean neighbors, most notably the language Tigrinya. Their economic situation and historical experience also diverge significantly from their brethren further south. During the late 19th and early 20th century contact between the Jews of Gondar and Tigre was irregular, and no common leadership united the two regions.
While the activities of the missionaries may have posed a serious challenge to the religious authority of the Beta Israel monks, this problem pales in comparison to the threat to their survival created by the great famine of 1888–1892.24 During this four year period Dervish invasions, rinderpest, drought, locusts, and disease devastated most of northern Ethiopia. It appears likely that between a third and a half of the Beta Israel died during this period. Those who survived left their normal places of residence and scattered far and wide. Traditional village life and the customary separation from non-Jews broke down in face of the danger of starvation. Beta Israel monks seem to have been especially hard hit. Certainly, none of the travelers who visited Ethiopia in the late 19th or early 20th century viewed them any longer as the central pillars of Beta Israel religiosity. Priests (qessotch) and elders had, by this time, become the new communal leaders.
1904–1936: Faitlovitch and His Students
The arrival of Jacob Faitlovitch in Ethiopia in 1904 marks another turning point in the history of the Beta Israel. Although Faitlovitch's teacher, Joseph HalMvy, was the first practicing European Jew to visit the Beta Israel, it was only through the activities of Faitlovitch himself that they were slowly introduced into the mainstream of world Jewish history. He was moreover similarly instrumental in beginning the gradual trend towards the "normalization" of their religious belief and practice. Processes set in motion by Faitlovitch in the early 1900s were to reach their culmination in the aliyah of the majority of the Falasha in the decade of the 1980s.
Despite the centrality of Faitlovitch's activities for an understanding of the history of the Beta Israel in the 20th century, his