In This Article Ethiopian Jews

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Encyclopedias and Bibliographies
  • Proceedings and Edited Volumes
  • History and Legend until the 19th Century
  • From the Middle of the 19th Century until 1948
  • Jacques Faitlovitch and His Students
  • From 1948 to 1977
  • Relations with World Jewry
  • Immigration to Israel
  • Culture and Society
  • Family
  • Gender
  • Education
  • Internal Social Hierarchies
  • Language
  • Religion and Ritual
  • Literature
  • Folk Culture—Crafts, Music, Oral Traditions

Jewish Studies Ethiopian Jews
by
Hagar Salamon, Steven Kaplan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0037

Introduction

The Ethiopian Jews (also known as Beta Israel, or Falasha) lived until the last decades of the 20th century as a religious and ethnic minority in the northeastern African country of Ethiopia. Prior to their aliyyah to Israel, they had lived scattered in hundreds of villages in the northern part of the country, primarily in the regions of Gondar (Bagemdar), Tigray, Walqayit, and Qwara. (Although there are no precise figures, they numbered between 30,000 and 80,000.) While similar to their compatriots in physical appearance, in dress, in the languages they spoke, and even in some respects their attachment to a biblical past, they were distinguished by numerous aspects of their religious practice, by occupational specialization, and, in particular, by a consciousness (which was reinforced by their neighbors) that they were a distinct group, sharply distinguished from their mainly Christian and Muslim surrounding groups. The numerous terms used to designate them both within and outside Ethiopia—“Falasha,” Ayhud, Beta Israel, Ethiopian Jews, Ethiopian immigrants, Ethiopian Israelis—testify to the complexity of their identity and the numerous ways in which the perspectives of the observers have shaped the manner in which they are portrayed. While there are limited sources on the premodern history of the group, from the middle of the 19th century onward a significant literature emerged on the “Black Jews” of Ethiopia. In the 20th century the rate of publication continued to gain momentum slowly until in the 1970s and particularly 1980s and 1990s, when their aliyyah to Israel produced an explosion both of academic and popular literature. While most of this literature was historically in English or other European languages, more recently Hebrew has become the vehicle for countless publications. Moreover, whereas discussions of the group previously were written almost exclusively by outsiders, today a growing body of literature is being produced by members of the community. Broadly speaking, Ethiopian Jews have been depicted either as a Jewish “lost tribe” in exile or as an Ethiopian ethnic group. This article is focused on the history, culture, religion, and society of Ethiopian Jews in Ethiopia. Although the issue of their aliyyah to Israel and particularly of personal narratives of the journey composed by Ethiopians is included, we have not attempted to explore or characterize the vast literature that has emerged concerning their experiences in Israel. Having said that, many works that discuss their lives in Israel contain important background material on Ethiopia.

General Overviews

Over the years, several attempts have been made to provide syntheses of Beta Israel’s history, religion, and society. The missionary J. M. Flad (Flad 1869) relied both on the existing written sources as well as his own experience in Ethiopia. Almost eighty years later the Jerusalem-based Judaica scholar Aaron Aescoly (Aescoly 1943) sought to provide an overview without having met more than a few community members and without having ever visited Ethiopia. By the time Steven Kaplan wrote (Kaplan 1990) a volume in the French-language series Fils d‘Abraham, not only had the physical situation of the community begun to change, but a major shift had begun to take place, with a rush of new research. A few years later, Gadi Ben-Ezer (Ben-Ezer 1992) devoted a substantial portion of his Hebrew study of migration and absorption to “background” information. In contrast to these single-author works, Hagar Salamon (Salamon 2007) brings together an international team of scholars, with each writing on the area of his or her expertise in a clear, accessible tone.

  • Aescoly, Aaron Zeev. Sefer Ha-falashim: Yehude Habash, tarbutam u-mesorotehem. Jerusalem: Reuven Mass, 1943.

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    In Hebrew. On the basis of written sources collected primarily in Israel, Aescoly discusses various aspects of “Falasha” life. A serious attempt to present the then-current state of knowledge about the group. Reprinted as recently as 1973.

  • Ben-Ezer, Gadi. “Yegan Mevraht” Migration and Absorption of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Jerusalem: Reuven Mass, 1992.

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    Text in Hebrew. While large portions of this book (p. 132ff.) are concerned with the experience of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, earlier chapters present information on such topics as social codes, history, anthropology, the journey via the Sudan (see also below), the experience of uprooted children in Addis Ababa (see below), and intercultural communication.

  • Flad, J. M. The Falashas (Jews) of Abyssinia. Translated by S. P. Goodhart. London: W. Macintosh, 1869.

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    Flad, who led the Protestant mission to the Ethiopian Jews for several decades, beginning in the middle of the 19th century, presents his understanding of the group on the basis both of written sources and his own encounters with them.

  • Kaplan, Steven. Les Falashas. Fils d’Abraham. Turnhout, Belgium: Editions Brepols, 1990.

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    Part of a series devoted to the Fils d‘Abraham, this work discusses history, literature (including translated excerpts from selected works), religion, and society.

  • Salamon, Hagar, ed. Jewish Communities in the East in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Ethiopia. Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    In Hebrew. Published as part of the flagship series Ḳehilot Yiśraʼel ba-Mizraḥ ba-meʼot ha-teshaʻ-ʻeśreh ṿeha-ʻeśrim (“Eastern Jewish Communities in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries”) by the Ben-Zvi Institute and the Israeli Ministry of Education, the chapters in this book reflect the state of research on principal aspects of life in Ethiopia. Especially useful are the numerous sidebars, which include dates, explanations of terms, and short biographies of important individuals.

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