The Sigd

Irit Lando - Livne |29/10/2021|160
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The Sigd, a holiday celebrated by the Ethiopian Jewish community in the month of Cheshvan (October/November), has experienced a revival in Israel during the last few years. The meaning of the holiday is “bowing in worship” and the subject of the central prayers are communal introspection and the call to return to Zion, which at its core is expressed during the holiday as yearning for the city of Jerusalem, a desire for peace, and a longing to return.

The Sigd holiday does not have a clear Biblical source. It takes inspiration from the assembly that Ezra and Nehemiah organized to renew the covenant between the Jewish people and God during the days of the Return to Zion from the exile in Babylonia (described in the book of Nehemiah). Its goal is first and foremost to protect the community and preserve its identity during difficult times of war, persecution and assimilation. In Ethiopia, the Sigd was celebrated by fasting and purification, wearing special clothing, and participating in a ceremony conducted at the apex of a high mountain. There the kes (religious leader) would read select verses from the holy books - a collection of holy writings of the community. The Biblical text is in the Ge’ez language and the reading of chapters is done in this language and translated concurrently into the language of the masses - Amharic or Tigrinya. Holy songs for the Sigd holiday are performed in Israel as well with traditional instruments: the “krar” - an instrument made entirely of wood with metal strings similar to those of an electric guitar; the “masenqo” - an instrument similar to a violin, made of wood and dried cowhide with a string made from horse hair; and the “kebero” - a percussion instrument made from the hollowed out trunk of a tree wrapped in dried cowhide.

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Ethiopian Jews Sigad Holiday. In the photo Ethiopians celebrate at the promenade near Armon Ha'Natziv in Jerusalem. Credit: Mark Neyman, NPS

In Ethiopia, unlike in Israel, the Sigd is celebrated at the end of Spring - before the season of the harvest when the hills are in bloom. Families would arrive from near and far and congregate in honor of the coming of the Sigd holiday, celebrating their bond to each other and to the community. The first ceremonies of the Sigd in Israel were celebrated on Mt. Zion, concluding with a march to the Western Wall accompanied by song and prayer. However, the discomfort that the Kessim (the community religious leaders) would feel when passing near the many churches on Mt. Zion brought about the decision to conduct the ceremony

on the Sherover Promenade in the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood. In 2008, the State of Israel enacted a law establishing the Sigd as an official holiday. Since then, the day is marked by a central gathering along with educational activities in order to teach and preserve the ancient tradition. The holiday itself is colorful and lively- the kessim walk in their impressive mantles carrying colorful umbrellas, and stand on a high platform to read prayers before the masses of the people.

The aim of the law establishing the holiday was to preserve tradition and strengthen the involvement and the identity of the Ethiopian community. Israel’s official recognition of the Sigd, however, has also generated interesting, creative initiatives all over the country, especially in Jerusalem, including meetings and discussions in the spirit of the holiday and its significance for the wider population; movies and performances dealing with the Ethiopian community and its traditions; and exciting musical renditions of blessings and prayers for redemption, by artists both within and outside the Ethiopian community.

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President Shimon Peres hosts Beta Israel for a celebration of Sigd at the President's Residence in Jerusalem. In the picture, President Peres (left) speaks to young members of the Ethiopian community. Credit: Mark Neyman, NPS

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