In 1991, thanks to the IDF’s Operation Solomon, Askabo Meshiha escaped Ethiopia with his family, but had to leave behind many possessions, including a manuscript of the book of Psalms written in Ge’ez—the liturgical language of the country’s Jews and Orthodox Christians. A few months ago, the family retrieved it. Cnaan Liphshiz tells the story:
Secretly and on short notice, the family had to leave their rural homes for the capital Addis Ababa with as little baggage as possible, and so they entrusted non-Jewish neighbors with keeping the book safe until they could retrieve it. From Israel, they tracked the book’s whereabouts for more than 30 years, never losing hope of getting it back—even after their native country fell into civil war and the book wound up in the hands of a Christian priest who demanded a steep ransom to release it.
Dozens of square parchment pages measuring 11-by-11 inches had fallen out of the binding, and others were barely attached. But the book’s significance remained easy to identify: among the multiple types and colors of ink, some segments are written in red—a way of signifying that a kes, the Amharic-language word for a rabbi, had made additions to the original.
Even speakers of Amharic typically cannot read or communicate in Ge’ez, which is decipherable only to a dwindling group of spiritual leaders of Ethiopian Jewry, who mostly now live in Israel. Last week, the book was used in prayer, probably for the first time in at least 34 years.
The book is significant to far more than just Askabo Meshiha’s extended family. It is one of just a handful of texts in Israel that are part of the Orit, an Ethiopian variant of the Hebrew Bible that predates the advent of that standardized text.
More about: Ethiopian Jews, Hebrew Bible, Psalms, Rare books