Beta Israel

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Beta Israel
Total population: over 105,000 (est.)
Significant populations in:

Israel: 90,000 (est.)
Ethiopia: 15,000 (est.)

Language Traditionally, (Kayla), more recently Amharic; Ge'ez as a liturgical language and now (in Israel) Hebrew as a liturgical and common language.
Religion Judaism
Related ethnic groups

• Jews
  • African Jews
    • Qemant
    • Falas Mora
  • Other Jewish groups

The Beta Israel (or "House of Israel"), known by outsiders by the term Falasha or Falash Mura ("exiles" or "strangers"), a term that they consider to be pejorative, are Jews of Ethiopian origin. Under the provisions of Israel's Law of Return (1950), over 90,000 (over 80%) of them have emigrated to Israel, most notably during Operation Moses and Operation Solomon, but also continuing until the present time.

Ethiopian enclave

The Beta Israel come from a Jewish enclave in the Ethiopian highlands that had no contact with other Jewish communities until the 1860s. One of the earliest dated references to the Beta Israel in Ethiopian literature is in the Glorious Victories of Amda Seyon (trans. G.W.B. Huntingford [Oxford: Clarendon Press], p. 61), which mentions a revolt in the province of Begemder by "the renegades who are like Jews" in the year 1332.

The isolation of the Beta Israel was reported by an explorer James Bruce, who published his Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in Edinburgh in 1790. But in 1860 a Jewish convert to Christianity traveled to Ethiopia in order to attempt to convert the Beta Israel to Christianity. Popularly touted as a "lost" tribe, the Beta Israel at first found many cultural barriers to assimilating in Israel.

Religious traditions

The holiest work is the Torah -- Orit (i.e., oraita, "Tora" in Aramaic). All the holy writings, including the Torah, are handwritten on parchment pages that are assembled into a book rather than a scroll. The rest of the Prophets and the Hagiographa are of secondary importance.

Outside the Biblical canon, a number of the external writings—the books of Hanoch, Jubilees, Baruch and the books of Ezra—are held sacred as well.

The basic wording of Beta Israel Biblical writings was passed down apparently through the ancient Greek targumim (translations) like the Septuagint, which incorporates some of the Apocrypha as well.

The Beta Israel possess several other books, among these other books are the Arde'et (The Book of the Disciples), Acts of Moses, Apocalypse of Gorgorios, Meddrash Abba Elija, and biographies of the nation's forebears: Gadla Adam, Gadla Avraham, Gadla Ishak, Gadla Ya'kov, Gadla Moshe, Gadla Aaron, Nagara Musye, Mota Musye.

A book of special importance for the leaders of the community is one dealing with the Sabbath and its precepts -- Te'ezaza Sanbat (Precepts of the Sabbath). The leaders of the Beta Israel also read liturgical works including weekday services, Shabbat and Festival prayers, and the wordings of the various blessings: Sefer Cahen deals with priestly functions, while Sefer Sa'atat (Book of the Hours) applies to weekdays and Shabbat. [1]


The Beta Israel once spoke the Qwara language (Kayla), a Cushitic language, but now they speak Amharic, a Semitic language. Their liturgical language is Ge'ez; since the 1950s Hebrew has been taught in schools. They consider the term "Falasha" pejorative, and today they prefer the term "Beta Israel" for themselves.

Israel intervenes

The Israeli government accepted the Beta Israel as Jews officially in 1975; Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin obtained clear rulings from Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef that they were legitimate descendants of the lost tribes. They were however required to undergo pro forma halakhic conversions to Judaism.

Operation Moses came to an abrupt halt in 1985, leaving many of the Beta Israel still in Ethiopia. It was not until 1990 that Israel and Ethiopia came to an agreement that would allow the remaining Beta Israel a chance to migrate to Israel. In 1991, however, the political and economic stability of Ethiopia deteriorated as rebels mounted attacks against and eventually won over the capital city of Addis Ababa. Worried about the fate of the Beta Israel during the transition period, the Israeli government along with several private groups prepared to covertly continue along with the migration. On Friday, May 24, Operation Solomon began. Over the course of 36 hours, a total of 34 El Al passenger planes, with their seats removed to maximize passenger capacity, flew 14,325 Ethiopian Jews non-stop to Israel.


Traditions of the Beta Israel

The Ethiopian legend described in the Kebra Negast relates that Ethiopians are descendants of Israelite tribes who came to Ethiopia with Menelik I, alleged to be the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (or Makida, in the legend). The legend relates that Menelik, as an adult, returned to his father in Jerusalem, and then resettled in Ethiopia, and that he took with him the Ark of the Covenant. In the Bible there is no mention that the Queen of Sheba either married or had any sexual relations with King Solomon; rather, the narrative records that she was impressed with his wealth and wisdom, and they exchanged royal gifts, and then she returned to rule her people in Kush. However, the "royal gifts" are interpreted by some as sexual contact. The loss of the Ark is also not mentioned in the Bible.

However, most of the Beta Israel consider the Kebra Negast legend to be a fabrication. Instead they believe, based on the 9th century stories of Eldad ha-Dani (the Danite), that the tribe of Dan attempted to avoid the civil war in the Kingdom of Israel between Solomon's son Rehoboam and Jeroboam the son of Nebat, by resettling in Egypt. From there they moved southwards up the Nile into Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian Jews are descended from these Danites.

Other sources tell of many Jews who were brought as prisoners of war from Eretz Israel by Ptolemy I and also settled on the border of his kingdom with Nubia (Sudan). Another tradition handed down in the community from father to son asserts that they arrived either via the old district of Qwara in northwestern Ethiopia, or via the Atbara River, where the Nile tributaries flow into Sudan. Some accounts even specify the route taken by their forefathers on their way upstream from Egypt. [2]

Rabbinical views

Some Jewish 'halakhic' authorities have asserted that the Beta Israel are the descendants of the tribe of Dan, one of the Ten Lost Tribes. In their view, these people established a Jewish kingdom that lasted for hundreds of years. With the rise of Christianity and later Islam, schisms arose and three kingdoms competed (and probably others in Africa as well). Eventually, the Christian and Muslim Ethiopian kingdoms reduced the Jewish kingdom to a small impoverished section. The earliest authority to rule this way was the Radbaz (Rabbi David ben Zimra, 1462–1572). A recent authority who has ruled this way is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in 1973.

Other 'halakhic' authorities have maintained that the Jewishness of the Beta Israel is seriously suspect. The earliest to do so was Rabbi Ya'akov Kastro, a student of the Radbaz (who had ruled that the Beta Israel were Jews). Most recent authorities have also ruled this way, including Rabbis Moshe Feinstein, Elazar Shach, Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, and Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.

In either case, rabbinical authorities require the Beta Israel to undergo shortened conversions as a religious precaution. Among those who carry the latter opinion, however, conversion is no mere formality if an Ethiopian Jew wishes to be accepted within other Jewish communities.

DNA evidence

Gerard Lucotte and Pierre Smets in Human Biology (vol 71, December 1999, pp. 989–993) [3] studied the DNA of 38 unrelated Beta Israel males living in Israel and 104 Ethiopians living in regions located north of Addis Ababa and concluded that "the distinctiveness of the Y-chromosome haplotype distribution of Beta Israel Jews from conventional Jewish populations and their relatively greater similarity in haplotype profile to non-Jewish Ethiopians are consistent with the view that the Beta Israel people descended from ancient inhabitants of Ethiopia who converted to Judaism." [4] This study confirms the findings of an earlier study by Avshalom Zoossmann-Disken, A. Ticher, I. Hakim, Z. Goldwitch, A. Rubinstein, and Batsheva Bonné-Tamir titled "Genetic affinities of Ethiopian Jews," published in Israel Journal of Medical Sciences 27:245 (1991).[5]. A study of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes of Jewish and non-Jewish groups titled Jewish and Middle Eastern non-Jewish populations share a common pool of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June, 2000 suggested that "paternal gene pools of Jewish communities from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East descended from a common Middle Eastern ancestral population," with the exception of the Beta Israel, who were "affiliated more closely with non-Jewish Ethiopians and other North Africans." [6]. These Y-chromosome studies only speak to the paternal lineage (some ethnic groups are a product of one maternal lineage and a different paternal lineage, see Métis people (Canada)), but a study of the Mitochondrial DNA [7] (which is passed only along the maternal lineage) shows that the most common mtDNA type found among the Ethiopian Jewish sample was present elsewhere only in Somalia, furthering the view of most that Ethiopian Jews are of local (Ethiopian) origin.

However, one study performed by the Department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University did find a possible genetic similarity between 11 Ethiopian Jews and 4 Yemenite Jews who took part in the testing. The differentiation statistic and genetic distances for the 11 Ethiopian Jews and 4 Yemenite Jews tested were quite low, among the smallest of comparisons that involved either of these populations. Ethiopian Jewish Y-Chromosomal haplotype are often present in Yemenite and other Jewish populations, but analysis of Y-Chromosomal haplotype frequencies does not indicate a close relationship between Ethiopian Jewish groups. It is possible that the 4 Yemenite Jews from this study may be descendents of reverse migrants of African origin, who crossed Ethiopia to Yemen. The result from this study suggests that gene flow between Ethiopia and Yemen as a possible explanation. The study also suggests that the gene flow between Ethiopian and Yemenite Jewish populations may not have been direct, but instead could have been between Jewish and non-Jewish populations of both regions. [8]

Scholarly view

In the past secular scholars were divided on the origins of the Beta Israel; whether they were the descendents of an Israeli tribe, or converted by Jews living in Yemen, by the Jewish community in southern Egypt (Elephantine), or even by the permanent Jewish community in Ethiopia implied in Isaiah 11:11 (c. 740 BCE). However, modern scholars of Ethiopian history and Ethiopian Jews, such as James Quirin, Steve Kaplan, Kay Shelemay, and Harold Marcus, consider the Beta Israel to be a native group of Ethiopian Christians, who took on Biblical practices, and came to see themselves as Jews. As Paul B. Henze explains in his Layers of Time (Palgrave, 2000):

These groups came into conflict with the military colonies and Christian missions which were the main instruments of the extension southward of the Ethiopian state. They may have been joined by dissidents or rebelling northern Christians who felt their interpretation of ritual, sacred texts and traditions of art represented a more ancient Israelite connection than Orthodox Monophysite Christianity itself. The Beta Israel can thus be understood as a manifestation of the kind of rebellious archaism that has often come to the surface in Christianity -- e.g. Russian Old Believers and German Old Lutherans. Assertion of Jewish derivation, they felt, provided them with a stronger claim to legitimacy than their Christian enemies. (p. 55)

Jewish Pre-Settlement Theory and the Beta Israel

An alternative to the view that the Beta Israel are a recent group of Christian converts, is the view that Judaism entered Ethiopia at a very early date and the Beta Israel are a remnant of this ancient Ethiopian Jewish tradition. According to this view there was an influx of Jewish settlers from South Arabia and or Upper Egypt between the 8th century BC and 5th century BC.

Evidence for this influx comes from the fact that there are a number of Hebrew and Aramaic loan words in Northern Ethiopian Semitic languages (Ge'ez, Amharic, Tigrigna). In addition the temple of Yeha in the Tigray province contains Judaic artefacts and is believed to be an architectural copy of other Jewish temples found in Israel and Egypt during the pre-Babylonian era. It is believed that this temple was erected between the 6th century BC and 5th century BC.

Other evidence for the antiquity of Judaism in Ethiopia comes from the interesting fact that Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is closer to Judaism than any other branch of Christianity. Ethiopian Christians traditionally follow dietary rules that are similar to Jewish Kashrut. The Ethiopian Christians also keep the Sabbath on Saturday. These along with numerous other commonalities may have resulted when ancient Ethiopians combined their Hebraic religious practices with that of the more recent Christian religion.

Consistent with the view that Ethiopia was subject to immigration from the Near East in ancient times are DNA studies that show "periods of admixture have played a major role in shaping the gene pool of Ethiopia, and its population display both (Western) Eurasian and Sub-Saharan genetic influences" (Ann Human Genet, Vol 69, Issue 3, pp. 275-287).

Given the above evidence it seems possible that the Beta Israel are the last adherents of a faith brought into Northern Ethiopia by Near Eastern Jewish immigrants during antiquity. Their Jewish practices would then be the continuation of an ancient tradition, as opposed to a more recent off-shot of Ethiopian Christianity.



  • Kaplan, Steve The Beta Israel (Falasha in Ethiopia: from Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century). New York University Press, re-issue edition, 1994. ISBN 0814746640
  • Marcus, Harold G. A History of Ethiopia. University of California Press, updated edition, 2002. ISBN 0520224795
  • Quirin, James. The Evolution of the Ethiopian Jews: A History of the Beta Israel (Falasha) to 1920. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. ISBN 0812231163
  • Shelemay, Kay Kaufman. Music, Ritual, and Falasha History. Michigan State University Press; 1989. ISBN 0870132741

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