The Race to Preserve and Document the Sacred Traditions of Ethiopian Jewry

October 27, 2020 | Amanda Borschel-Dan
About the author:

Cut off for many centuries from the main centers of Jewish religious life, the Beta Israel Jews of Ethiopia preserved distinctive canonical texts. Moreover, while rabbinic Jews committed their oral teaching to writing in the middle of the first millennium CE, Ethiopian Jews continued to hand these down by word of mouth. A group of Israeli academics at Tel Aviv University are now committed to preserving these traditions before they are lost. Amanda Borschel-Dan reports:

The university has just launched the only graduate program in the world to focus on Ethiopian Jewish scriptures. Called “Orit Guardians,” it entails an interdisciplinary study of the Ethiopian Jewish scripture and its ancient liturgical language, Ge’ez, combined with the scientific study of biblical translation and interpretation, with the goal of recording the biblical scriptures that have been orally transmitted to the Beta Israel community in their own common tongues, Amharic or Tigrinya, for the past several hundred years at least.

The foundational Ethiopian Jewish scripture is called the Orit. It is an Octateuch which includes the Five Books of Moses—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—as well as the books of Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, and written in Ge’ez, but transmitted orally in congregations by the kes, [traditional Beta Israel clergyman], in their lingua franca.

Until now there has been no scientific study of the texts and the oral translations transmitted to the communities, which would naturally include some form of biblical interpretation. As Ethiopian Jewry assimilates into the greater Israeli Jewish society, these traditions are being quickly lost in favor of rabbinic Judaism, even as the kes leadership is diminished.

Read more on Times of Israel: