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On Sigd

This week is a week full of Jewish celebration. I don’t mean Thanksgiving – although we could explore its Jewishness for the Americans among you – rather I mean that “we” are celebrating the Jewish festival of Sigd.

Sigd. I’m sure some of you have heard of it, but even fewer of you have celebrated it. As the Israeli parliament website informs us: “Sigd is the holiday of the Ethiopian Jewish community, known as “Beta Israel”. The name of the holiday is derived from the Hebrew word for prostration, “sgida”.”

Sigd is celebrated on the 29th of Cheshvan, fifty days after Yom Kippur, and marks the renewal of the covenant between the Jewish people, God and Torah. On Sigd Ethiopian Jews pray to God and plead to return to Zion. And they engage in communal introspection and repentance. In their understanding sins are not just forgiven on Yom Kippur but also in the following fifty days. And on the 50th day, following this process, Sigd is commemorated a bit like Yom Kippur – with prayers and a fast.

To celebrate Sigd In Ethiopia, Jews would walk for days to go to a high mountain where they could pray in the direction of Israel, towards Jerusalem. They would fast for the first part of the day, and go to the top of the mountain and pray. The kessim (their rabbis) would bless and then they would come down and eat a meal together. The whole community would come together like brothers and sisters. Their hope was to return to Jerusalem.

Nowadays, thanks to the large-scale Aliyahs that were made in the 1980s and 1990s (and some of you may have watched the Red Sea Diving Resort on Netflix about part of this clandestine operation), the Ethiopian Jews are mostly in Israel. So on Sigd they travel to Jerusalem and visit the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple. The festival serves as an annual gathering of Ethiopian Jewry, with the Kessim dressed in traditional robes, carrying the Torah whilst holding multi-coloured umbrellas. And for all Sigd’s seriousness and fasting, it ends with a breaking of the fast, dancing, feasting and revelry.

Since 2008 it has been an official national holiday in Israel. And while it is yet really to go mainstream, hopefully one day it will be fully integrated as the newest Jewish festival in our calendar. So when you celebrate Thanksgiving tonight, make sure to mention to your table that the Ethiopian Jews are giving thanks now as well, and that we are all grateful for their continued contribution to the Jewish people.

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