Sudan connection: Are Ethiopian Jews descendants of the traditional Israelites?

The typical concept amongst historians as we speak attributes the origin of the Ethiopian Jews to a separatist motion that branched out of Christianity and adopted Judaism between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries (e.g. Quirin, 1992a, 1992b; Shelemay, 1989; Kaplan, 1995). The idea basically holds the Ethiopian Jews to be the descendants of indigenous non-Jewish Ethiopians, and their perception in historical Jewish descent to be only a matter of delusion and legend. Proponents of the idea have been praised for being “thought-provoking” (Waldron, 1993) and for “demythologizing” (Gerhart, 1993) the historical past of the group. Consequently, students, and historians specifically, have been steered to disregard the compelling proof for the traditional origins of the group.

I’ll current the historic proof which, with the assist of essential genetic findings, strongly means that as we speak’s Ethiopian Jews are the descendants of an historical Jewish inhabitants. This examine reinforces current critiques of the DNA research of the Ethiopian Jews (Entine, 2007) which have already pointed to main flaws within the conventional historic perspective. Moreover, the most recent analysis additional suggests a robust historic affiliation between the Ethiopian Jews and Northern Sudan that’s little mentioned in literature. The paper analyzes the historical past of the Jews of Ethiopia in context of their peripheral geography within the Lake Tana space and the Semien.

The Beta Israel

Till they had been pressured to depart Ethiopia within the Eighties, Ethiopian Jews lived in small villages scattered within the northwestern area of the Ethiopian plateau round Lake Tana and within the Semien mountains space. They historically referred to themselves because the Beta Israel, and had been referred to by different Ethiopians as Falasha, that means “strangers” within the indigenous Semitic language Ge’ez. Thus, the time period Beta Israel will probably be used all through this text to label the neighborhood.

The neighborhood has commemorated the Previous Testomony of the Ethiopian Bible and its spiritual language has been Ge’ez. In the present day, the Beta Israel present closest resemblance in exterior cultural traits to their surrounding Habash, i.e. the ethnic class that encompasses the Amhara and Tigray-Tigrinya populations. And though each the Habash-Christians and the Beta Israel declare royal descent from the time of King Solomon and Queen Sheba, an vital distinction exists (Entine, 2007, p.148-9). Whereas the Christians declare descent from King Menelik—the offspring of Solomon and Sheba in Ethiopia—the Beta Israel declare descent from first-generation Israelites from the tribe of Dan who some imagine accompanied Menelik as guards of honor.

To begin with, the geographical definition of Ethiopia in historic sources have to be addressed for it has distorted main research on the historical past of the area. It wasn’t till not too long ago that students realized that the identify Ethiopia, in historical and medieval sources, denoted the Nile valley civilization of Kush, additionally identified as we speak as historical Nubia, in what’s as we speak Northern Sudan. However, the geographical space that encompasses the fashionable nation of Ethiopia had up to now housed the traditional kingdom of Aksum, which developed within the northern elements of the plateau, and was generally known as Abyssinia. It’s also price mentioning that the entire Biblical, and a good portion of the traditional, references to Ethiopia, or Kush, predate the institution of Aksum within the first century CE.

As I’ve argued in a former paper (Omer, 2009a), analyzing the historical past of the Beta Israel throughout the boundaries of the modern nation of Ethiopia is a problematic strategy. That’s as a result of the political boundaries of the fashionable day nations of Sudan and Ethiopia had been solely outlined in direction of the early twentieth century. Nonetheless, even after the boundaries had been specified, the Beta Israel settlements remained on the periphery and much from the inside of as we speak’s Ethiopia, which is near the western border area with Northern Sudan.

The political boundaries between the 2 states had remained, for the longest a part of historical past, fluid and undefined in lots of areas. It was principally the 20 th century borderline that outlined the modern id of the Beta Israel inhabitants as Ethiopian, and distinguished them from the populations of the flat plains of the Sudan, to the west. In different phrases, the Beta Israel have all the time represented a periphery inhabitants that, within the context of historical past, can by no means been seen as integral component of as we speak’s Ethiopia.

Theories of historical past

Earlier than continuing additional, I’ll current a quick overview of the speculation that the Beta Israel emerged out of Ethiopia’s Christianity. The speculation is finest argued by Quirin (1992a) and Kaplan (1995). Quirin’s argument is predicated on the premise that the Beta Israel id has “emerged out of a differential interplay with the Ethiopian state and dominant Abyssinian society” (1998, p. 1). Kaplan (1995) follows the identical line of argument and concludes that “their ‘Judaism,’ removed from being an historical precursor of Ethiopian Christianity, developed comparatively late and drew a lot of its inspiration from the Orthodox Church” (p. 157). They basically argue that the spiritual substance of the Beta Israel has been tailored from the Jewish character already present in Ethiopia’s Christianity. Salamon (1999) additionally emphasizes the Christian roots of the Beta Israel, but she leaves the query of the group’s precise origins open to query. She argues that they “constructed their id in reference to their Christian neighbors, relatively than to a Jewish ‘different’” (p. 4).

Lack of impartial evaluation to the shared similarities between the spiritual traditions of the Beta Israel and that of the Ethiopian Church has been a significant downside within the examine of the group. Having stated this, it needs to be famous that Ethiopian Christianity seems to be extra influenced by Judaism than vice versa. Gatatchew Haile (as cited in Tibebu, 1995, p. 11) states:

Solely a Christianity of a nation or neighborhood that first practiced Judaism would incorporate Jewish spiritual practices and take the time to persuade its devoted to watch Sunday like Saturday. In brief, the Jewish affect in Ethiopian Christianity appears to originate from those that acquired Christianity and never from those that launched it. The Hebraic-Jewish parts had been a part of the indigenous Aksumite tradition adopted into Ethiopian Christianity.

Additionally, as Kessler (2012) factors out, the idea doesn’t point out how the Beta Israel gained intricate comprehension of Jewish materials encompassing pre-rabbinical rules based mostly on the books of Enoch and Jubilees. In essence, the sum of Christian influences in Beta Israel spiritual traditions, which we should always take nice care to not exaggerate, might mirror nothing rather more than the struggles of a Diaspora Jewish neighborhood at preserving no matter was left of its steadily vanishing heritage. Poverty, instability, persecution, and illiteracy throughout the centuries would have definitely precipitated the lack of any important genuine Jewish scriptures. Nonetheless, this could not deny the survival of the elemental elements of the Jewish id and faith among the many Beta Israel.

Furthermore, a fundamental query that Kaplan (1995) and Quirin (1998) don’t deal with is: Why would Christians turn into Jews? As Teferi (2013) explains, changing to Judaism requires the abandonment of the essence of Christianity (p. 179), which makes a conversion unlikely. The one cheap suggestion, Teferi signifies, as to why Christians would have turn into Jewish is that if they had been pressured to (p. 180) convert, which can be unlikely.

Price mentioning are the accounts of the sixteenth century Christian monks, Abba Saga and Abba Sabra, which have been of main significance to proponents of the normal Christian origin concept. Quirin (1992a) in addition to Kaplan (1995) current the 2 monks as central figures in establishing the spiritual establishments of the Beta Israel. That is based mostly on the concept that the monks will need to have been chargeable for introducing monasticism and the clergy system discovered throughout the Beta Israel traditions.

This side of the argument is problematic for 3 causes. First, there’s nothing concrete to verify the historicity of the 2 monks. Second, a special sixteenth century report means that many Beta Israel practiced monasticism previous to the alleged arrival of the 2 monks (Teferi, 2013, p. 185). The report refers to Jews from Abyssinia (or Aksum) and “their books, their clergymen and their monks” (as cited in Teferi, 2013, p. 185; Norris, 1978). Third, as said by Kessler (2012), “Quirin tends to confuse the essential tenets of the Beta Israeli Falashas with the rites and types of their practices” and “doesn’t respect that the faith ‘because it has come right down to us’ [as cited in Quirin, 1992a, p. 68]. In essence this implies a perception within the oneness of the Almighty, based mostly on the teachings of the Torah (Orit), and a religion within the coming of the Messiah,” which “greater than ritual variations – vital although they’re – distinguish Judaism from Christianity and couldn’t conceivably have been invented by the insurgent monks” (Preface to Third, Revised, Version part).

The Beta Israel and Kush (Northern Sudan)

In an effort to hint the origin of the Beta Israel, we should begin in Northern Sudan, the place the oldest proof for Jews within the Horn of African space factors. This isn’t solely vital due to the geographical relevance between the Beta Israel and Kush, but in addition due to the immense proof that hyperlink between the 2.

The historical past of the Beta Israel in context of their neighboring historical land of Kush, in what’s as we speak Northern Sudan, has surprisingly not been the topic of a critical investigation. Kessler (2012) is considered one of only a few modern students who has tried to elaborate on the connection between the Beta Israel and Kush, and has acknowledged the tendency amongst students “to underrate the importance of the influence of historical Egypt and of Nubia or Meroë” (Preface to Third, Revised, Version part) on growth of the African Horn area.

References to Kush seem within the Bible in addition to in extra-Biblical narratives and traditions. The Bible mentions immediately the presence of Jews in Kush; the e-book of Zephaniah states (observe that Ethiopia in historical sources referred to Northern Sudan, to not the fashionable nation of Ethiopia): “From past the rivers of Ethiopia [Kush], My worshipers, My dispersed ones, Will convey My choices” (3:10, New American Bible). Psalm 87:4 and Isiah 11:11 make the identical indication.

Additionally, the Bible identifies a lot of vital Biblical characters as Kushite. In Numbers (12:1), the spouse of Moses is claimed to have been a Kushite. Zipporah, Moses’ spouse identified by identify, is usually described in Biblical traditions as being of Kushite ancestry. In Ezekiel (Exagoge: 60-65) Zipporah tells Moses about her motherland:

Stranger, this land is named Libya [Africa]. It’s inhabited by tribes of assorted peoples, Ethiopians [Kushites], black males. One man is the ruler of the land: he’s each king and basic. He guidelines the state, judges the folks, and is priest. This man is my father {Jethro} and theirs.

The Midrash Ebook of Jasher (Hapler, 1921), gives an in depth account of Moses’ journey to the southern kingdom of Kush; together with how he gained the admiration of its folks (p. 132):

Twenty-seven years outdated was Moses when he started to reign over Cush [Kush], and forty years did he reign. And the Lord made Moses discover grace and favor within the sight of the youngsters of Cush, and the youngsters of Cush beloved him exceedingly.

What makes Kush central to the examine of the Beta Israel is that it has outlined the teams’ id till medieval occasions. Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Zimra, the sixteenth century Chief Rabbi of Egypt, whose acknowledgment of the Beta Israel as rightful Jews has later been of serious significance of their recognition by the world Jewry, states: “these [Jews] who got here from the Land of Cush are no doubt of the tribe of Dan…” (as cited in Lenhoff & Weaver, 2007, p. 303).

The identification of the Beta Israel with Kush is finest illustrated within the writings of Jewish scholar and traveler Eldad Ha-Dani within the ninth century. Eldad identifies himself as being a citizen of an unbiased Jewish state “past the rivers of Cush” (Hapler, 1921, p. 49). He additionally recognized himself as being of an Israelite origin from the tribe of Dan, and thus his final identify Ha-Dani. Eldad’s geographical affiliation and identification with the tribe of Dan strongly corroborate with what is understood of the Beta Israel (Omer, 2009b; Epstein, 1891; Schindler & Ribner, 1997, p.2; Teferi, 2013, p. 188-9; Schloessinger, 2009, p. 1-9).

Furthermore, Eldad’s description of the ethnic teams and geography of the African Horn area seems to be pretty reputable and reinforces the historicity of his accounts (Borchardt, 1923-1924). In the midst of his narrative, he elaborates on the migration story of his Israelite ancestors—the tribe of Dan—from the time once they left the “land of Israel” (Hapler, 1921, p. 52), handed by means of Egypt, and at last settled down in “the land of Cush”(p. 53). He states: “The inhabitants of Cush didn’t forestall the youngsters of Dan from dwelling with them, for we [the children of Dan] took the land by power” (p. 53). The truth that Eldad identifies his folks with Kush, and never with Aksum, demonstrates the very robust historic id bond that ties between the Beta Israel and Northern Sudan. And though students generally view the affiliation with the tribe of Dan in context of different world myths in regards to the ten misplaced tribes of Israel (e.g. Segal, 1999; Schwartz, 2007, p.1x), some students have proposed an precise Samaritan origin for the Beta Israel on foundation of quite a lot of spiritual and linguistic proof (Shahîd, 1995, p.94-5; Leonhard, 2006, p.39-42). Therefore, tribal Israelite descent amongst the Beta Israel will not be unlikely.

One other vital twelfth century Jewish traveler, Benjamin of Tudela, writes about unbiased Israelite cities in mountains in Jap Africa—in a transparent reference to the Beta Israel settlements within the Semien mountains—from which the inhabitants “go right down to the plain-country known as Lubia [or Nubia]” (Benjamin as cited in Kaplan, 1995, p. 50). Although Benjamin doesn’t check with Kush, his makes use of the extra medieval identify of Northern Sudan, Nubia.

A 3rd, no much less important supply, is the fifteenth century scholar, Obadiah ben Abraham of Bertinoro, who discusses commerce relations between the Beta Israel and Kush: “They imagine them-selves to be descendants of the Tribe of Dan, and so they say that the pepper and different spices which the Cushites promote come from their land” (as cited in Abrahams & Montefiore, 1889, p. 195).

Moreover, archeological findings point out robust communication ties and journey between Aksum and Kush, ranging from the early levels of the Aksumite kingdom (Fattovich, 1975, 1982; see additionally Phillipson, 1998, p. 24). As talked about beforehand, the civilization of Kush predates that of Aksum with greater than fifteen hundred years. Whereas Kush was already a flourishing kingdom by 1700 BC, and rose as a Mediterranean empire within the eighth century BC, Aksum didn’t emerge as a recognizable kingdom till the primary century CE. Though the archeology of pre-Aksum, in what’s as we speak Ethiopia, displays a dominant South Arabian tradition, the later archeology of Aksum exhibits stronger and direct cultural influences from Kush (Pirenne, 1967; Fattovich, 1982, 1975).

Moreover, in the course of the Meroitic interval, when Kush was centered at Meroe, from 270 BC- 400 CE, the Kushites performed in depth constructing actions east of the Nile. Ranging from across the first century, constructions included quite a few hafirs and different water sources (Welsby, 1998, p. 128), which signifies the intensification of human motion between the dominion of Kush and with the, by then, rising kingdom of Aksum. It also needs to be famous, on this regard, that Aksum’s solely direct-land entry to the Mediterranean was by means of the Sudan.

Kessler (2012) has recognized a lot of conventional Beta Israel crafts and manufacturing practices which can be traditionally related to the folks of Kush; these are domestically made pottery, cotton weaving, basketry, and leatherwork. Extra importantly is the normal function of the Beta Israel as ironsmiths, which corresponds with Meroe’s distinctive function in historical historical past within the discovery and manufacture of iron. Being wealthy in ore, the Kushites employed iron in all of the completely different industries of the dominion together with agriculture (Asante, 2012, p. 96).

Given all these indications, the chance that the Jews who entered the dominion of Aksum, which didn’t mature till the primary century CE, got here from Kush turns into possible. Regardless that such speculations appear to nonetheless fall in need of explaining the distinctive affiliation between the Beta Israel and Northern Sudan in medieval references, they pose essential inquiries concerning the origin of this group.

Lastly, in context of our seek for the historic, and probably genealogical, connections between the Beta Israel and Northern Sudan, an vital level concerning the bodily options of the group have to be made. Opposite to what’s generally assumed, and as I careworn formally in an essay (Omer, 2012, p. 1), the Beta Israel do probably not appear like their surrounding non-Jewish Ethiopians. As a Northern Sudanese myself, I used to be in a position to discover that many of the Beta Israel look nearer to the folks of Northern Sudan in bodily look, than they do to the non-Jewish Ethiopians. In different phrases, though a non-Jewish Ethiopian can simply be distinguished from a Northern Sudanese by seems to be, no distinction can principally be drawn between an Ethiopian Jew and a Northern Sudanese. Nearly all of them don’t appear like the non-Jewish Ethiopians.

However, and regardless of the anticipated issue in distinguishing East African particular bodily options for folks from different locations, Western scholar, Leslau (1979), who visited Ethiopia within the Nineteen Forties was in a position to discover some “facial traits” (p. xii) among the many Beta Israel, which he mistakenly associates with the stereotypical look of the “Oriental Jew”.

The Beta Israel and Aksum

The standard Christian origin concept argues that the modern Beta Israel developed individually from the traditional Jews of Aksum. Quirin (1992b) states: “The ‘Falasha’ emerged as an identifiable, named group in the course of the interval from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century” (p. 203); in settlement, Kaplan argues: “Nothing within the written sources will be interpreted as dependable proof for the survival of a definite well-defined Jewish neighborhood in Ethiopia for the interval from the seventh to the 14th century” (1995, p. 55).

Nonetheless, historic proof strongly contradict Quirin’s and Kaplan’s conclusion. To begin with, it has been confirmed with certainty that Judaism in Aksum predates the introduction of Christianity, within the fourth century. Kaplan (1995) admits that “the linguistic proof would appear to obviously point out that Jewish influences in Ethiopia had been, not less than partly, each early, i.e., Aksumite, and direct” (p. 19). Linguistic proof present in translations of Biblical materials into Ge’ez, has already proven {that a} Jewish society had entered Aksum someday between the primary and fourth centuries (Kaplan, 1995, p. 13-20). On account of this, the affect of Judaism within the Ethiopian Orthodox church has been overwhelming and has no counterpart within the modern Christian world. Traditions together with circumcision on the eighth day of start (Ullendorff, 1956), the historic upholding of the Saturday Sabbath (Ullendorff, 1968, p. 109-13), the architectural division system of the Ethiopian church that mimics Solomon’s Temple (Ullendorff, 1968, p. 87-97), in addition to a range of different options, testify to a robust former Jewish tradition.

Further proof comes from the sixth century reign of Kaleb, the fervently Christian king of Aksum who adopted vigorous insurance policies to transform the non-Christian inhabitants of the dominion. Within the early many years of the century, he restored Christianity to South Arabia by defeating its Jewish king. Sadly there are not any sources to elaborate on his home insurance policies in direction of the Jews; nonetheless, just a few however important sources present essential indications for the origins of the Beta Israel settlements within the Lake Tana space and the Semien. A few of these sources point out that Kaleb had two sons; one Gabra Masqal and one other Beta Israel (Kaplan, 1995, p. 39; Getatchew Haile, 1982). Beta Israel is alleged to have unsuccessfully tried to discourage Gabra Masqal’s path to the throne. On this account, plainly the identify Beta Israel was used as propaganda to represent the disobedience of the Jews to conversion. (In fact the concept that Kaleb himself was a Beta Israel can be topic to hypothesis).

Additionally, in the course of the sixth century, the Alexandrian traveler Cosmas Indicopleustes stories on army conflicts between an Aksumite king (most likely Kaleb) and enemies within the “Semenai [Semien]”(McCrindle, 1897, p.67); this will point out that Jewish resistant actions had been already being clustered within the indicated space. One other reference from medieval Abyssinia speaks about occasions going down across the sixth century, and mentions the identify “Falash[a]” (as cited in Kaplan, 1995, p. 39; additionally see Varenbergh, 1915-16).

By the mid sixth century, Aksum started to say no and struggled to manage its northern and peripheral territories. By the late many years of the century, the frontier areas to the north and west of Lake Tana had been principally unbiased and will have already been inhabited by Jews. From the seventh to the fourteenth centuries, the talked about areas remained remoted from Aksum, which seemingly explains the decline in references to Jews in Aksumite sources.

Eldad’s reference to his unbiased Jewish state “past the rivers of Cush” (Hapler, 1921, p. 53) in the course of the ninth century appears to level to the identical Lake Tana space of the Beta Israel. Writing within the twelfth century, Benjamin of Tudela seems to corroborate Eldad’s account by mentioning unbiased Israelite cities in Jap Africa: “And there are excessive mountains there and there are Israelites there and the Gentile yoke will not be upon them” (as cited in Kaplan, 1995, p. 50). It seems that by “mountains” Benjamin is referring to the Semien.

Lastly, the Jewish queen Judith, who’s deeply located in Ethiopian historical past and traditions, is described as coming from a area “west” (Trimingham, 1952, p. 52) of Aksum and dominated Aksum someday within the late ninth or tenth century, is yet one more robust indication of the presence of Jews on this area prior of the fourteenth century. The Christian Zagwe dynasty that succeeded Judith to the throne and dominated till the late thirteenth century is broadly described as being of Jewish roots (Briggs, 2009, p. 18). Judith’s potential Jewish background is additional enforced by the truth that the dynasty ruled from Lasta, which has been a vigorously Jewish space.

Given the varied references for Jewish presence within the area throughout the centuries, there seems to be no persuasive motive to imagine that the Beta Israel have emerged as not too long ago because the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. It’s also very unreasonable to recommend that each one such historic references to Jewish presence within the designated areas, which drastically correspond with the historic and cultural context of the modern Beta Israel, are coincidental.

Genetic proof

In recent times, DNA research have proven the standard historic concept endorsed by Kaplan (1995) and Quirin (1992b) to be very a lot unreliable. An in-depth evaluation of genetic analysis by Entine (2007, p. 149) states:

The Falasha might have been a rump group that remained true to its historic roots when the Ethiopian king transformed to Christianity within the fifth century. For hundreds of years, the Black Jews maintained separate traditions from their Christian countrymen. Whereas most Ethiopians ate uncooked meat, drank closely, and barely washed, the Falasha cooked their meat and had been scrupulously sober and relentlessly hygienic.

Though the exact relationship between the traditional Jews of Aksum and the modern Beta Israel neighborhood has not been clearly understood by geneticists, research have already confirmed some historic continuity throughout the group (Entine, interview, July 7, 2013). Thus, the broadly accepted concept amongst geneticists, as proposed by Entine (2007) and supported by analysis and subsequent research (Saey, 2010; Ostrer, 2012), means that the group was shaped as early because the fourth to sixth centuries interval. The truth that research discovered the Beta Israel to be genetically so diverged from different Jewish communities (e.g. Lucotte & Smets, 1999) might recommend that the group was initiated by Jewish settlers who transformed a majority of native folks to Judaism greater than two thousand years in the past (Begley, 2012). Accordingly, Entine (2013) concludes, “That might imply that Ethiopian Jewry predates Ashkenazi Jewry” (interview, July 7); nonetheless, this doesn’t essentially recommend that the Beta Israel descent will be particularly traced to the Fertile Crescent.

Furthermore, even though the genetic distance between the Beta Israel and different modern Jewish teams is massive, research have already cited instances of Ethiopian Jews with genetic markers frequent in different Jewish populations (Hammer, et al., 2000).

The wide selection of historic proof out there on the Beta Israel factors to the survival of an historical Jewish heritage throughout the group. Moreover, sources recommend the institution of the Beta Israel settlements of their modern Lake Tana areas to be a lot sooner than the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries interval some historians have steered. As well as, the African ethnicity of the Beta Israel seems to be extra difficult than simply Ethiopian, and appears to mirror a robust Northern Sudanese component as corroborated by the wide selection of talked about historic observations and the peripheral geography of the inhabitants.

We want extra historic investigation on the origin of the Beta Israel that isn’t dictated by ideas of the standard historic concept. Latest genetic research have already confirmed an historical heritage throughout the modern Beta Israel inhabitants. Therefore, the strategy steered by the normal historic concept in simplifying the origins of the group to native and former-Christian converts is neither geographically persuasive nor convincing from a historic perspective.

Ibrahim M. Omer is a Analysis Assistant at California State College Monterey Bay, Visible & Public Arts Division, Museum Research Program.

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This text beforehand appeared on the GLP Jul 22, 2013.

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