Sigd, an exploration of Jewish diversity

Sigd morning prayers on Signal Hill

By Batya Shmueli – Cape Town Community & Aliyah Shlichah

The Jewish holiday Sigd dates back hundreds of years.

In Ethiopia, Sigd was celebrated exclusively by Ethiopian Jews. However, the Ethiopian Jewish festival has been made an official national holiday of the Jewish state since 2008, and it can now be celebrated both as a religious holiday and as a way of exploring Ethiopian Jewish culture. It’s a great holiday for Jewish families to explore the diversity of Judaism and also to strengthen their connection to their faith.

For many centuries, the Ethiopian Jewish community lived in complete isolation from other Jewish communities, until a large number of Ethiopians were airlifted to Israel in the mid-20th century. Therefore, the Ethiopian Jewish community, known as Beta Israel, developed many Jewish holidays and celebrations that are not found in other Jewish communities.

Sigd was a highlight of Jewish life in Ethiopia and marks the renewal of the covenant between the Jewish people, God and Torah. This holiday, celebrated 50 days after Yom Kippur, brought the Jewish community together in a large celebration. They would ascend a mountain and spend the morning praying for the return to Zion.

Having prayed to return to Israel, the Ethiopian Jewish community now dedicates this important festival to giving back to the State of Israel and the Jewish people. As a celebration of a homecoming and Israel’s statehood, Sigd has become a significant part of Jewish culture.

I am Batya Shmueli, and my family and I recently moved to Cape Town. Currently, I serve as the Aliyah and Community Shlichah. It is a pleasure and honour for me to be an Ethiopian Jew and to be connected to the wonderful continent of Africa. As the Shlichah of the community, my role is to strengthen bonds between the local community and the State of Israel. It is such an honour to be sharing the experience of the festival of Sigd with you all here in South Africa.

This 2500-year-old tradition is something I wanted to bring to the Cape Town community. In order to explain the festival of Sigd and the journey of Ethiopian Jewish communities to Jerusalem, I recently composed a dramatic piece that we presented to the schools. Students need to be taught the importance of this event. It was important to me that both students and Shlichim were included in this performance, which expresses the spirituality of the Sigd festival. Akiva & Ayellet Glatt, the Bnei Akiva Shlichim played an important role in this performance and all the activities at the schools. We appreciate the enthusiasm shown by all the Principals and the JLL departments, who understood the significance of Sigd and how it showed the learners the diversity of Israel.

As is tradition on Sigd, members of the local community gathered on 4 November, to climb the mountain together and pray as a community. Rabbi Shmuel of Ohr Sameach led the prayers, and everyone felt a connection to Judaism. Unity and hope were the lasting impressions of this service.

This was followed in the evening with a Sigd Festival hosted by the South African Zionist Federation Cape Council, a celebration of food, music and storytelling, rich in Ethiopian Jewish culture and customs. Take a look at the event photos here.

Learners Hike up Signal Hill to take part in the Sigd ceremony

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• Published in the PDF edition of the December 2021/January 2022 issue – Click here to get it.

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