A Celebration of HeritageFebruary 28, 2012 - 5:00 am
“All the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.” — Nehemiah 8:1
Just a few weeks ago, Irish Americans (and even some who are not) celebrated their unique heritage and culture during St. Patrick’s Day. Parades were held; people donned green; and in my former hometown of Chicago, they even dyed the Chicago River green.
While these celebrations are mostly light-hearted and joyous occasions, they do serve a purpose in helping people remember their ancestral roots. They keep alive the rich traditions and strengthen the tie to their homeland.
For centuries, the Ethiopian Jews have celebrated their Jewish faith and roots in a unique holiday, known as Sigd, which means “to prostrate oneself.” The celebration is believed to have started in the 15th century when the priests gathered the Beta Israel, “House of Israel” as they call themselves, to strengthen their faith in the face of great persecution.
The priests were inspired by the description in the book of Nehemiah of how the Jews who had returned from Babylon after seventy years of exile dedicated themselves to follow God: “All the people came together as one in the square of the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel” (Nehemiah 8:1).
Prior to the mass aliyah (immigration to Israel) of Beta Israel, which began in the 1980s, generations of Ethiopian Jews would walk for days to a mountaintop where thousands would join in prayer and the reading of the Torah. Following the afternoon prayers and blowing of the shofar, the entire community would descend from the mountain for a joyous feast.
In this way, the Ethiopian Jews celebrated and remembered their connection to Jerusalem and renewed their commitment to Jewish unity.
Sigd is now an official holiday, celebrated by all Jews in Israel, and Ethiopian Jews who have made aliyah to Israel gather at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to commemorate this day. It is truly an inspiring and spiritual experience.
Although the holiday of Sigd is one that Ethiopian Jews have exclusively celebrated for centuries, it is a holiday that many Jews can relate to. Jews in Israel have gathered from Europe, America, Russia, Iran, and countless other countries of their birth. Uniting in Jerusalem is the answer to our prayers, because all of us were once strangers in a strange land.
The holiday of Sigd commemorates the struggles all who resettle went through to arrive in the Holy Land. It also reminds us about the love that God will always have for His children, wherever they may be found.