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Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania

Review: "Falasha" Religion: Ancient Judaism or Evolving Ethiopian Tradition? Author(s): Steven Kaplan Source: The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 79, No. 1 (Jul., 1988), pp. 49-65 Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 04/01/2011 23:12
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This article considers recent research on the religion of the Beta Israel (Falasha), and in particular Kay Kaufman Shelemay's Music, Ritual, and Falasha History. Most scholars have, on the basis of an artificially static and ahistorical picture of the Beta Israel religion, depicted it as a form of ancient Judaism. In contrast, Shelemay contends that the Beta Israel's religious tradition developed around the fourteenth or fifteenth century and draws heavily on Christian Ethiopian sources. While generally favorable to her views, this article attempts to demonstrate that the development of Beta Israel religion was a more gradual process than she claims and continued into even later periods. Evidence to support this theory is drawn from oral traditions and Beta Israel literature. "And if a religion is not developing, is it a religion at all"? -Mary Douglas'

The much publicized airlift of thousands of Beta Israel (Falasha)2 to Israel has fueled a renewed interest in this fascinating people. No less than half a dozen books have appeared on the dramatic story of "Operation Moses," and a recently published
* The research on which this article is based was carried out under the auspices of the Ben Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities of the East and the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace. It forms part of a research project in cooperation with Dr. Shalva Well, which is supported by the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. Mary Douglas, "A Ritual in Time," Times Literary Supplement, August 14, 1987, p. 870. 2 Although best known to their neighbors and the outside world as "Falasha" (wanderers, landless, emigrants), the Jews of Ethiopia referred to themselves as "Beta Esra'el" ("the house of Israel"). Today many reject the term "Falasha" as pejorative, and accordingly I have used the term Beta Israel throughout this article.



bibliography listed almost 1,500 items on the Jews of Ethiopia.3 As is to be expected, most of the writings produced as a result of this most recent "discovery" of the Beta Israel have been popular in character and contribute little to a genuine understanding of their history and culture. Fortunately, scholarly researchers also have begun to turn their attention the Beta Israel, at times with gratifying results. Kay Kaufman Shelemay's Music Ritual and Falasha History4 is the first full length scholarly study of the Beta Israel to appear in almost thirty years.5 As such, this book would be of considerable value even if it only updated our knowledge by integrating what is already known about the Beta Israel with recent developments in Jewish and particularly Ethiopian studies. The book, however, contributes in an original fashion on several fronts. First, in two lengthy appendices (pp. 231-312, 313-44) Shelemay offers a large collection of Beta Israel liturgical texts in Ge'ez (transcribed in English letters), in English translation, and with (western) musical notation. The publication of these texts is a major contribution to our knowledge of Beta Israel liturgy. In particular the fact that Shelemay's material is based on oral performance rather than on manuscript tradition adds an important dynamic element to what has hitherto been treated in a static noncontextual manner.6 In this respect it should also be noted that it may well prove impossible ever to duplicate the fieldwork which Shelemay undertook among the Beta Israel of Ethiopia in 1973. Conditions in Ethiopia today do not augur well for such work, and in Israel, while opportunities for recording Beta Israel informants are numerous, the chances of obtaining authentic religious traditions decline daily in the face of a massive
3 Steven Kaplan and Shoshana Ben-Dor, eds., Ethiopian Jewry: An Annotated Bibliography (Jerusalem, 1988). The bibliography lists 1,461 items, but at least fifty more have appeared since it went to press. 4 Ethiopian Series Monograph, No. 17 (East Lansing, Michigan, 1986). 5 Since Wolf Leslau's Coutumes et croyances des Falachas (Juifs d'Abyssinie) (Paris, 1957). 6 Cf. Joseph Halevy, Prieres des Falasha (Paris, 1877); idem. "Nouvelles prieres des Falachas," Revue Semitique 19 (1911): 96-104, 215-18, 344-64; A. Z. Aescoly, Recueil de textes falachas (Paris, 1951), pp. 152-71; Wolf Leslau, Falasha Anthology (New Haven, 1951), pp. 112-40.



"normalization" of Beta Israel religion.7 Shelemay's texts thus represent virtually unique cultural documents. The second contribution of Shelemay's work lies in her presentation of a challenging and controversial thesis concerning the religious traditions of the Beta Israel. Drawing upon liturgical and literary sources, as well as the oral traditions of the Beta Israel themselves, Shelemay concludes that the evidence "persuasively points towards Ethiopian Christian monks, probably those of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as sources of the beliefs, traditions, and rituals that survive among the Beta Israel" (p. 215). Moreover, she notes, contrary to what is generally assumed, there is little evidence for any direct connection between Beta Israel religion and any archaic Jewish tradition (ibid.). Although it is the second of these statements which will undoubtedly draw the most attention, Shelemay devotes relatively little of her book to arguing this point in detail. Since there are no historically reliable sources concerning the Beta Israel for any period prior to the fourteenth century, the nature of "protoFalasha" faith remains an enigma.8 Moreover, if the changes which took place in the fourteenth century and after were as sweeping as Shelemay believes, the possibilities for reconstructing earlier aspects of their religion are extremely limited. Nevertheless, for a fuller appreciation of Shelemay's work it would appear
7 The NationalSoundArchives, Nationalde la Recherche Israel,andthe Centre in Scientifique Francearecurrently engagedin a largeprojectto studyBetaIsrael are liturgy.Ironically,their key informants qessotch(priests)enrolledin a prostudies. gramof rabbinic 8 Shelemay herself(pp. 11-12) expressesconcernlest her conclusions used "be to reopenpainfuldiscussions BetaIsraelreligious of In identity." fact considerable did controversy developaroundan exhibit at the Jewish Museumin New York for whichShelemay servedas guestcurator.At the riskof belaboring obvious the it mustbe statedthat the relativeantiquityof BetaIsraelreligionis of littledirect the bearingon the issue of theirdescent.Theoretically Beta Israelcould be local convertswho practicean ancientform of Judaism,or directdescendants Jews of whose presenttraditionsdevelopedonly relatively of recently,or a combination both. No attemptwill be madein this articleto discussthe thornyissue of Beta Israelorigins,but see my article"TheOriginsof the Beta Israel:Five Methodoof 33 Pecamim (1987):33-49 [Hebrew].For the continuation logical Cautions," Social this controversyin Israel see my "The Beta Israel and the Rabbinate,"
Science Information 27 (1988): 357-70.



useful to consider briefly what is known about earlier Judaism in Ethiopia and in particular about the manner in which this subject has been treated in the past. Ancient Judaism Although there is no direct evidence for the presence of Jews in Ethiopia prior to the Middle Ages, few scholars would question the claim that Jews or Jewish influences must have reached that country during the first centuries of the Common Era. The overwhelmingly Hebraic-biblical cast of so much of Ethiopian culture, both Jewish and Christian, can hardly be explained totally as the product of imitatio Veteris Testamenti.9 Indeed, several phenomena can only be explained on the basis of a more immediate form of contact with Jews or Judaism. Of particular significance are the Jewish-Aramaic loanwords in the Ge'ez (Ethiopic) version of the Bible. Words such as meswat (alms), tabot (ark), ta'ot (idol), and 'arb (Friday, i.e., Sabbath eve) are all distinctively Jewish in either form or content. As H. J. Polotsky has observed, "none of these words is distinctively Christian in meaning. What they denote belongs to the Jewish leaven in [Ethiopian] Christianity."10 To this linguistic evidence must also be added the textual witness of the Ge'ez versions of several Old Testament and Apocryphal books. Although almost certainly based primarily on a Greek text, the works offer numerous examples of reliance on a Hebrew or Aramaic Vorlage as well.1l While the precise
Edward Ullendorff, Ethiopia and the Bible (London, 1968), pp. 15-30, and Maxime Rodinson, "Sur la question des 'influences juives' en Ethiopie," Journal of Semitic Studies 9, 1 (1964): 11-19, lay special stress on the significance of such imitation, but admit that it cannot explain all aspects of Ethiopia's Judaic molding. 10 "Aramaic, Syriac, and Ge'ez," Journal of Semitic Studies 9 (1964): 10. Although most scholars appear to accept the claim that these words entered Ethiopia as the result of Jewish influences prior to the introduction of Christianity, some do present other interpretations. Cf. Ephraim Isaac, "An Obscure Component in Ethiopian Church History," Le Museon 82 (1972): 244: "I, however, contend that they were brought by Jewish Christians from Syria." " Edward Ullendorff, "Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek: The Version Underlying Ethiopic Translations of the Bible and Intertestamental Literature," in Gary Rendsburg et al., eds. The Bible World: Essays in Honor of Cyrus H. Gordon (New York, 1980), pp. 249-57, especially p. 252, n. 18. Idem., "Hebrew Elements in the Ethiopic Old Testament," Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 9 (1987): 42-50. 9



circumstances under which Jews or other bearers of such material might have been involved in the translation of text into Gecez remain unclear, the presence of such elements is highly suggestive of an early Jewish element in Ethiopia. If the existence of this linguistic and literary evidence for early Jewish influences on Ethiopian culture is not open to dispute, its precise relevance to the Beta Israel, and more specifically for the characterization of their religion, is not immediately obvious. All the elements described above are the common heritage of both Jews and Christians in Ethiopia, and most scholars would argue that the Beta Israel inherited them, along with the GeCezversions of the Bible and Apocrypha, from the Ethiopian Church.12 According to this view the Beta Israel do not represent the original carriers of Jewish traditions into Ethiopia but rather one of the groups molded by their influence. However, even if we were to accept this idea, might not it still be argued that their religion is primarily an ancient form of Judaism, which they have preserved for almost two millennia? Almost without exception scholars of Beta Israel religion appear to have accepted this suggestion and describe their tradition as a remnant from the ancient Jewish past. Wolf Leslau in his classic Falasha Anthology notes: "One thing seems certain: their form of Judaism is primitive and might date from a time when the Mishneh and Talmud were not yet compiled.13 Many others have echoed such views and some, not satisfied to merely posit the antiquity of Beta Israel tradition, have also sought to identify the specific form of ancient Judaism which it preserves. The Beta Israel, we are told, are descendants of the Essenes, of the Jews of Elephantine, of the Jews of Egypt, etc.4 While the limits of this essay do not permit a detailed evaluation of all the arguments put forward in each of these cases, a comment on one general methodological point is of relevance.15 Advocates of a link between the Beta Israel and a specific ancient
12 13 14

Shelemay, 57; Leslau,FalashaAnthology,p. xxxviii. p.

P. xli.

For a useful recent survey of the vast literature on this subject see Emanuela

Trevisan dei Ebreiet etnologidurante colonialismo il Semi,Allo specchio Falascia:

Fascista (Firenze, 1987), pp. 25-40. 15 For a more general consideration see my article "On the Origins of the Beta Israel" (above, n. 8).



Jewish sect almost inevitably rest their case on similarities which exist between the two communities in one or two aspects of religious life. Thus, for example, supporters of an Elephantine or other Egyptian origin of the Beta Israel stress the existence of sacrifices and priests in both cases.16 Those who connect the Beta Israel with the Essenes cite the existence of asceticism and ritual purity laws among both groups.17 At the heart of such an approach lies the usually unstated assumption that the Beta Israel religion, as described by European observers in the nineteenth century, was with minor exceptions identical with whatever form of ancient Judaism reached Ethiopia. Otherwise the entire exercise would be rendered meaningless. For example, it can only be argued that Beta Israel monasticism is a direct continuation of ancient Jewish asceticism,s1if it is assumed that monasticism is an ancient feature of Ethiopian Judaism. If on the other hand Beta Israel monasticism emerged only in the fifteenth century,19it can scarcely be produced as evidence for an historical link to the Essenes or the Therapeutae. The tendency to view the Beta Israel religion in a static and ahistorical fashion is by no means limited to scholars who advocate a link to a particular ancient sect. Others have demonstrated a similar conception in their attempts to identify one or another element in Beta Israel tradition as a survival of ancient practice. Emanuela Trevisan Semi concludes her recent study of priestly investiture among the Beta Israel by commenting that "il serait possible peut-etre d'imaginer que le rite ainsi pratique jusqu'a nos jours puisse etre un residu d'une tres vieille tradition conservee par un groupe aux origins aussi anciennes."20 Max Wurmbrand, clearly troubled by a reference to a thrice-repeated "sign of the
16 David Kessler, The Falashas (London, 1982), pp. 42-44; Abraham Epstein, Sefer Eldad ha-Dani (Pressburg, 1891), pp. 184-86. 17 Ephraim Isaac, "The Falasha: Black Jews of Ethiopia" (Dillard University Scholar Statesman Lecture Series 1974) characterizes the Beta Israel's religion as "Essenic," but it is not clear whether he intends to posit an historical link. For a less ambiguous statement see Max Wurmbrand,"Le 'Dersana Sanbat', une homelie ethiopienne attribuee a Jacques de Saroug," L'Orient Syrien 8 (1963): 368, n. 20. 18 Ibid. 19 See infra. 20 "Le Sriet: Une rite d'investiture sacerdotale chez les Beta Esra'el (Falaschas)", REJ 46, 1-2 (1987): 113.



Lord", i.e., the cross, in the Beta Israel version of The Acts of Susanna, argues rather tortuously that this is an oblique reference to an ancient Jewish custom of signing which survived "in such a stagnant channel of Judaism as the Falasha community."21 It is against the background of such static and ahistorical depictions of Beta Israel religion that Shelemay's work must be evaluated. Her main thesis, that Beta Israel religious traditions are relatively recent in origin, is aimed directly at the type of quasi-historical speculation cited above. If, as she contends, all (or at least most)22of the elements of the Beta Israel religion date from no earlier than the fourteenth or fifteenth century, any attempt to link their tradition directly to one or another form of ancient Judaism becomes clearly untenable. What then is the nature of the evidence for her thesis? Oral Tradition As is to be expected from a scholar whose primary training is in ethnomusicology, Shelemay rests much of her case on the evidence of the Beta Israel liturgy. In a series of detailed chapters (3-6, pp. 71-196) she analyzes the context, structure, texts, and music of the liturgy. Although much of this material is descriptive in nature, her underlying theme is rarely far from the surface: the terminology, texts, and much of the Beta Israel liturgy all indicate a striking similarity to those of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.23 Similarity is, however, not proof of dependence, nor does it in
21 "A Falasha Variant of the Story of Sussana," Biblica 44, 1 (1963): 45. 22 Personally, I would not go quite as far as Shelemay in ruling out the survival of some ancient elements among the Beta Israel. The almost total obscurity which surrounds much of their prehistory (prior to the fourteenth century) precludes almost any blanket statements. Moreover, a major question remains about the basis on which material was selected in the fourteenth and fifteenth century. What was the model of "Israelite" religion which was used and where did it originate? Some indications of the answers to this question may lie in the numerous Agau passages preserved in the Beta Israel liturgy, which may represent an earlier stratum in Beta Israel religion. The task of proving direct Jewish influence is not an easy one and requires expertise in history, literature, linguistics, and religion. For a brilliant example of how to go about such an exercise see Roger Cowley, "Ethiopian Biblical Interpretation: A Study in Exegetical Tradition and Hermeneutics" (Ph.D. dissertation, Cambridge, 1985). 23 Shelemay, pp. 148-54, 173-83, 190.



this case easily lend itself to chronological calculations. To provide these points for her argument Shelemay turns to recent work in Ethiopian history and in particular the oral traditions of the Beta Israel themselves. Given the controversial nature of Shelemay's finding, it is rather surprising to find that some of the most convincing evidence in support of her views comes from the testimony of Beta Israel qessotch (priests). Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Beta Israel monasticism. Despite the above mentioned attempts by some scholars to depict Beta Israel monasticism as a survival from the ancient Jewish past, the Beta Israel themselves are unanimous in dating this major religious institution to the fifteenth century.24In fact, as Shelemay notes, virtually every major feature of the Beta Israel religion as known today is attributed to Abba Sabra, a former Christian monk who is credited with establishing Beta Israel monasticism, or to one of his disciples.25 Typical of these traditions are those which surround one of the special festivals of the Beta Israel, Seged. Observed on the twentyninth day of the eighth month, Seged, or as it is also called, Mehella (supplication), is a day of fasting, pilgrimage, and prayer.26 Although Beta Israel informants readily associated Seged with Ezra's proclamations against Babylonian wives (Ezra 10:10-12), several indications point to the holiday as being far more recent in date. In fact, leading priests from both the Gondar and Tigre region describe the festival as one of the responses of the Beta
Ibid., pp. 79-86; for similar traditions gathered by other scholars see Wolf Leslau, "Taamrat Emmanuel's Notes on Falasha Monks and Holy Places," in Salo Wittmayer Baron Jubilee Volume (Jerusalem, 1975), vol. 2, esp. pp. 624-34; G. Jan Abbink, The Falashas in Ethiopia and Israel (Nijmegen, 1984), pp. 31-32; Shoshana Ben-Dor, "The Holy Places of Ethiopian Jewry," Pe'amim 22 (1985): 32-52 (Hebrew); and James A. Quirin, "The Beta Israel in Ethiopian History" (Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota, 1977), pp. 61-63. 25 Ibid., pp. 79-80. These include sacred music, religious literature, laws of social purity, the liturgical cycle, and the architecture of the prayer house. 26 For a detailed study of the Seged see Shoshana Ben-Dor," Ha-Sigd shel Beta Israel: Hag Hiddush ha-Berit" (M.A. thesis, Hebrew University, 1985). Although Ben-Dor disagrees sharply with Shelemay with regard to her characterization of the Seged and lays far more stress on its covenant-renewal aspect, she concurs in dating the holiday in the Middle Ages. See especially her recent article, "The Sigd of Beta Israel: Testimony to a Community in Transition," in M. Ashkenazi and A. Weingrod, eds., Ethiopian Jews and Israel (New Brunswick, 1987), pp. 140-59.



Israel to conflicts with the Christian Ethiopian kings in the Middle Ages.27 The Beta Israel's own description of the manner in which their key religious institutions originated accords well with external evidence concerning their development. The period between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, for example, saw the development in Ethiopia of several monastic movements, including two with clear Judaizing tendencies.28 Not only were members of these movements in contact with the Beta Israel, but they may also have even directly influenced the emergence of "Jewish" monasticism.29Certainly the conditions under which monasticism appeared among the Beta Israel seem remarkably similar to those which encouraged its spread elsewhere in Ethiopia.30 Similarly, the traditions which testify to a major religiousideological transformation among the Beta Israel in the fourteenth or fifteenth century are strongly supported by the evidence of Christian Ethiopian texts. Prior to the sixteenth century such texts refer to a variety of scattered regional groups of Jews (ayhud) living on the Ethiopian plateau.31Only from the sixteenth century onward does a relatively unified people known as Falasha emerge in the literature.32Thus such texts appear to confirm the thesis that only in the Middle Ages did the Beta Israel develop as a unified political-religious entity. On face value, therefore, a strong case exists for accepting Shelemay's thesis regarding the development of the Beta Israel's religious traditions. Both their own testimonies and the external evidence of contemporary sources appear in agreement about the
Ibid., p. 141, and cf. G. Jan Abbink, "Seged Celebrations in Ethiopia and Israel: Continuity and Change of a Falasha Religious Holiday," Anthropos 78 (1983): 796. 28 Steven Kaplan, The Monastic Holy Man and the Christianization of Early Solomonic Ethiopia (Wiesbaden, 1984), pp. 30-44. 29 Ibid., pp. 39-41, 100-05; Quirin, pp. 61-63; Shelemay, pp. 21-22. 30 Kaplan, Holy Man, pp. 40-41. 31 Steven Kaplan, "Leadership and Communal Organization among the Beta Israel: An Historical Study," Encyclopedia Judaica Yearbook 1986-87, p. 155. It should be noted, moreover, that not all the ayhud (Jews) are Beta Israel-the term was applied also to Christian heretics and rebels. 32 Ibid. On the emergence of the term Falasha in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century see my article, "The Falasha and the Stephanite," BSOAS 48, 2 (1985): 279-82. 27



dramatic transformations which took place in the fourteenth, and especially fifteenth, century.33Nevertheless, some caution must be exercised before her conclusions are accepted in toto. For while there can be little question regarding the nature of the changes which took place among the Beta Israel, precisely when they began to occur and how long they continued remains open to further investigation. There are, for example, a number of indications that a significant degree of "telescoping" has taken place with the Beta Israel's own view of their past.34 As a result changes in their religious practice which may have evolved over many years appear condensed into a short period involving a small number of individuals. Shelemay herself hints at such a possibility when she writes, "Although the Beta Israel credit Abba Sabra with founding their monastic institution, it is more likely that he organized an already established [i.e., fourteenth century] tradition" (p. 81). Similarly, it is difficult to understand how monks in the fourteenth or fifteenth century can be credited with organizing the Beta Israel's liturgical cycle (p. 79), if at the same time this cycle is believed to be based on a work not translated into Ge'ez until the second part of the sixteenth century (p. 45).35Such inconsistencies would appear to indicate that while Shelemay is undoubtedly accurate in her basic thesis concerning the development of Beta Israel tradition, the time scale she suggests is probably too narrow. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries may well have been periods of dramatic transformation, but the process of crystallization of Beta Israel traditions lasted many years.36

33 For a consideration of the evidence of Beta Israel literature see below. 34 On the process of telescoping in oral traditions see Jan Vansina, "Oral Tradition and its Methodology," in J. Ki-Zerbo, ed., General History of Africa (Los Angeles, 1981), pp. 157-60. 35 On this work, Abu Shakir, see infra. 36 Of course even after a distinctive Beta Israel religious system had developed it must have continued to evolve and change. When Abba Yeshaq, a learned Beta Israel monk-priest, spoke to Antoine d'Abbadie ("Reponses des Falasha dits Juifs d'Abyssinie," Archives Israelites 12 [1851-52]), he noted changes in Beta Israel practice which resulted from political (pp. 235-36), economic (p. 264) and social (p. 235) pressures. Cf. also Shelemay, pp. 199-200. Although Shelemay stresses the element of continuity in these testimonies, the dynamic character of the religion is evident.



Literature Having considered some aspects of the Beta Israel's own testimony concerning the development of their religion, as well as the evidence of external sources, we now turn our attention to the information on this subject which can be gleaned from their religious literature. Shelemay, who perhaps preferred to rest her case as much as possible on her own highly original research, gives only passing attention to this aspect of Beta Israel religion (pp. 57-59), providing a concise and accurate survey of major research on the subject. In fact, as I shall attempt to demonstrate below, recent research, including the evidence of some unpublished manuscripts, provides important additional support for her thesis. It also raises some interesting questions for future investigation. No aspect of Beta Israel culture has been the subject of as continuous a tradition of serious scholarly attention as their literary works. Beginning with Halevy in 1902,37a galaxy of important researchers,including Aescoly,38Leslau,39Conti Rossini,40 have investigated this Strelcyn,41Ullendorff,42and Wurmbrand,43 much work remains to be done and in parsubject. Although ticular several important collections of unpublished manuscripts have yet to be studied,44 a number of clear trends have emerged from the study of this literature to date. In particular it must be
37 Teezdza Sanbat (Commandements du Sabbat), accompagne de six autres ecrits (Paris, 1902). 38 Recueil. 39 Anthology. 40 "Appunti di storia e letteratura Falascia," Rivista degli studi Orientali 8 (1920): 563-610; "Nuovi appunti sui Giudei d'Abbissinia, Rendiconti della Reale Accademia dei Lincei, 31 (1922): 221-40. 41 "Sur une priere 'Falacha' publiee par C. Conti-Rossini," Rassegna di Studi Etiopici 8 (1949): 63-82; "La litt6rature religieuse Falacha (etat de la question)," Studi e materiali di storia delle religioni 26 (1955): 106-13. 42 "The 'Death of Moses' in the Literature of the Falashas," BSOAS 24 (1961): 419-43. 43 Dersana Sanbat, Susanna, Mota Aron: The Death of Aaron (Tel Aviv, 1961) [Hebrew]; The Falasha Ardeet (Tel Aviv, 1964) [Hebrew]; "Remarks on the Text of the Falasha 'Death of Moses'," BSOAS 25 (1962): 431-37. 44 Most notable among these is the Faitlovitch Collection at Tel Aviv University. The Jewish National Library, Hebrew University, also has several manuscripts of interest. A number of Beta Israel immigrants in Israel possess manuscripts as well.



stressed that almost without exception scholars have concluded that the majority of Beta Israel texts neither originated within that community nor reached the Beta Israel directly through Jewish channels. Rather the majority of Ethiopian "Jewish"texts reached the Beta Israel through the mediation of Ethiopian Christian sources.45 Perhaps the most striking example of this phenomenon is the best known of all Beta Israel texts, Te'ezdza Sanbat (The Commandments of the Sabbath), long considered the most original of Beta Israel compositions. Te'ezdza Sanbat is in fact a composite work which draws from a variety of sources. The first section of the published editions of this work (which does not appear in all manuscripts) is dependent on an Arabic (Christian?) source.46 The next section is a skillfully edited and censored version of a Christian homily on the Sabbath (Dersana Sanbat).47 Accordingly, while Te'ezaza Sanbat as a whole may well be a Beta Israel composition, and the deep devotion it exhibits towards the Sabbath is certainly a Jewish theme,48 the sources it draws upon include several which are both relatively late and non-Jewish in origin. In fact, Te'ezaza Sanbat clearly illustrates the kind of misunderstanding which can result from a superficial analysis of Beta Israel religious forms. Both in form and content Te'ezdza Sanbat appears quite similar to several ancient Jewish works. The mood it creates and the images it uses are clearly evocative of early Judaism. Indeed it even incorporates at several points selected material from the important Second Temple period Book of Jubilees.49 Nevertheless, an in depth examination reveals that

Leslau, Anthology, p. xxxviii; Strelcyn, "La litt6rature." Leslau, pp. 11-16. Both manuscripts of Te'ezaza Sanbat in the Faitlovitch collection omit this section and begin with Leslau, p. 16, line 3. 47 Leslau, pp. 16-19; Steven Kaplan, "Te'ezaza Sanbat: A Beta Israel Work Reconsidered," Gilgul (Supplements of Numen, 50), ed. S. Shaked et al. (Leiden, 1987), pp. 107-24. For an earlier evaluation see Wurmbrand, "Dersana Sanbat." 48 On the deep devotion of Ethiopian Christians to the Sabbath see Ernst Hammerschmidt, Stellung und Bedeutung des Sabbats in Athiopien (Stuttgart, 1963). For liturgical elements similar to Te'ezdza Sanbat see his "Jewish Elements in the Cult of the Ethiopian Church," Journal of Ethiopian Studies 2 (1965): 1-12, especially 9-11. 49 Leslau, Anthology, pp. 19-21, 32-34.



little if any of this seemingly archaic material is likely to have reached the Beta Israel directly from an ancient Jewish community. This seemingly paradoxical situation can perhaps be clarified somewhat by the examination of another important Beta Israel text. The Testament of Abraham is undoubtedly a work of great antiquity and quite possibly of Jewish origin. It has at various times been attributed to the Essenes, the Therapeutae, or the Jewish community of Alexandria.50 Whatever its precise provenance, the inclusion of this work in the Beta Israel corpus of texts would appear, at first glance, to be a clear indication of an ancient Jewish connection. However, scholars have long recognized, even on the basis of a defective manuscript, that the Ge'ez version of the text is based on a Christian-Arabic rather than a Greek Vorlage.51Since translation from Arabic to Gecez began only towards the end of the thirteenth century and was primarily the result of contact between the Coptic and Ethiopian churches,52 the presence of this text among the Beta Israel is no indication of a direct link between them and any ancient Jewish source. Beginning with Conti Rossini scholars, including Aescoly and Leslau, have dated this text in the fourteenth or fifteenth century.53In fact, one unpublished manuscript attributes the translation to Abuna Salama, an apparent reference to the important fourteenth century (1348-88) bishop who played a significant role in the introduction of Arabic texts into the Ethiopian Church.54 We therefore possess a fairly reliable tradition regarding the
50 For a useful survey of opinion see E. P. Sanders, "Testament of Abraham," in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City, New York, 1983): 1:875-76. 51 Leslau, p. 94; Conti Rossini, "Nuovi appunti," p. 228. I have unfortunately been unable to consult Maurice Gaguine, "The Falasha Version of the Testaments of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" (Ph.D. diss., University of Manchester, 1965). Its major findings are summarized in Mathias Delacor, Le Testament d'Abraham (Leiden 1973), pp. 18-23. It should be noted that the manuscript used by Conti Rossini, Aescoly, and Leslau in editing the Testament contains many gaps. Several of the manuscripts consulted by Gaguine preserve a more complete text. 52 Enrico Cerulli, Storia della letteratura etiopica (Milano, 1961), pp. 31-33, 67-70. 53 Conti Rossini, "Nuovi appunti," p. 228. 54 Delacor, p. 20, citing Gaguine. On Abba Salama see A. van Lantschoot, "Abba Salama, m6tropolite d'Ethiopie (1348-88) et son role de traducteur," Atti del Covegno di studi Etiopici (Rome, 1960), pp. 397-401.



translation of this work into Gecez. Unfortunately, we have no information as to precisely when the text reached the Beta Israel, but on its face value the case for a process in the realm of literature similar to that suggested by Shelemay for the liturgy and in approximately the same period seems strong. The Testament of Abraham is only one of a number of Beta Israel works which reached them through the mediation of an Arabic text. Both Mota Muse (The Death of Moses) and Mota Aron (The Death of Aaron) belong to this category,55 and a similar judgment appears probable with regard to the still unpublished "Homily on Abraham and Sarah in Egypt."56This work, which even in the Beta Israel manuscripts is attributed to St. Ephrem of Syria, is found in both Syriac and Arabic versions.57 The latter would appear to be the most likely source for the Gecez version. Scholars have generally tended to date Beta Israel texts translated from Arabic sources in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, the peak period for such translations.58Shelemay, quite naturally, quotes such views with approval, since they neatly support her own conclusions.59 However, with the exception of the Testament of Abraham, no clear evidence exists for a specific dating for any of these works. Moreover, as I shall demonstrate below, there is, as in the case of the oral traditions cited above, at least some reason to believe that the evolution of Beta Israel literature extended across a far longer period than has generally been assumed.
55 Wurmbrand, Mota Aron, p. 15; Leslau, Anthology, p. 106; Ullendorff, "The Death of Moses," pp. 440-43. 56 In Max Wurmbrand's draft catalogue of the Faitlovitch collection this work is found in MSS and 10. It is also found in a manuscript in the possession of Qes 9 Adana Takuyo, formerly of Ambober, presently of Jerusalem. For a Christian manuscript containing this work see Getatchew Haile, A Catalogue of Ethiopian Manuscripts, microfilmed for the Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library, Addis Ababa, and for the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, Collegeville (Collegeville, Minnesota, 1979): 4:630. 57 I am deeply indebted to the late Roger Cowley, who in a letter of Feb. 2, 1988, called my attention to these versions, and with typical kindness and generosity shared with me the results of his own studies of the Faitlovitch collection. 58 Leslau, Falasha Anthology, p. 106; Ullendorff, "The Death of Moses," p. 442; Quirin, pp. 63-65. 59 P. 58.



Abu Shdkir, an important Arabic calendric work was, for example, translated into Gecez in the second half of the sixteenth century.60How long after that date it reached the Beta Israel is unclear. However, even if we assume that this occurred in a relatively short time, the period in question is at least a full century later than that posited by Shelemay. Moreover, if, as she suggests (p. 45), Abu Shdkir is a "source for Jewish elements in the Beta Israel liturgical cycle," their religion must still have been open and evolving during the late sixteenth century. Indeed, any crucial features may only have taken shape at this time. An even longer time scale than that indicated by Abu Shakir is suggested by yet another unpublished Beta Israel text. Nagara Muse (The Conversation of Moses) has generally not been recognized as part of the Beta Israel corpus of literature. It was not found in any of the manuscripts used to prepare the standard anthologies of Beta Israel texts, and Aescoly appears to have been aware of only the Christian Ethiopic version. In fact, three manuscripts in the Faitlovitch collection and at least one manuscript in private hands contain this text.61 Nagara Muse purports to be an account of a conversation between God and Moses on Mt. Sinai. In response to a series of inquiries God explains the rewards which follow certain types of good deeds and the.punishments meted out for specific sins. The text appears to be of Syriac origin and the Ge'ez versions, both Christian and Jewish, are certainly derived from an Arabic source.62 Indeed, several manuscripts clearly state that the work
E. J. Van Donzel, Enbaqom Anqasa Amin (La porte de foi) (Leiden, 1969), p. 30; Otto Neugebauer, Ethiopic Astronomy and Computus (Vienna, 1979), pp. 15-16, 21-22. 61 Sefer ha-Falashim (Jerusalem, 1973), p. 115. Beta Israel versions are found in Faitlovitch MSS 10, and 14, as well as Qes Adane's text. See also the list of 8, works which Abba Yeshaq gave to Antoine d'Abbadie ("Reponses," p. 239). 62 For the Syriac version see Isaac H. Hall, "The Colloquy of Moses on Mount Sinai," Hebraica 7, 3 (April, 1881): 161-77. For the Ethiopian Christian version see Lazarus Goldschmidt, Die abessinischen Handschriften der Stadtbibliothek zu Frankfurt am Main (Berlin 1897), Anhang 3:91-101. I am grateful to Professor Dr. Eike Haberland for providing me with a photocopy of this material which was not available in Jerusalem. The Arabic version is not the text published by Jacques Faitlovitch, "Entretiens confidentials du Seigneur avec Moise," Mota Muse (Paris, 1906), pp. 36-39.



was translated from an Arabic source in the middle of the eighteenth century!63 Without for the moment considering the specific merits of this claim, one point should be carefully noted. Although it has generally been assumed that works such as Mota Aron and Mota Muse appeared in Ge'ez as part of the translation activity of the fourteenth and fifteenth century, both Abu Shdkir and Nagara Muse indicate that considerably later dates are not implausible. Indeed, whatever the verdict concerning a particular work, it now appears quite reasonable to assume that the development of the Beta Israel canon was not a brief, short-lived process but a gradual and drawn out one. Once again, the time frame suggested by Shelemay appears in need of expansion. Having considered Shelemay's argument and briefly examined the manner in which the evidence both supports her general claims and raises questions regarding one or two specifics, let us now return to the question of the place of her work in the broader study of the Beta Israel. The primary contribution of Shelemay's book is that it is the first systematic attempt to introduce an historical component into the study of the Beta Israel religion. Not surprisingly Shelemay strongly rejects the ahistorical depiction of Beta Israel religion as a form of archaic Judaism. Her argument against this position is based not on a point by point refutation of its claims but rather on an undermining of its theoretical underpinnings. If, as she demonstrates, the structure of Beta Israel religious leadership, most of their sacred literature, significant parts of their liturgical cycle, including several key holidays, and their liturgy are all relatively late in origin, how can one possibly assume continuity in religious practice with regard to other elements. Yet without such an assumption supporters of the position that the Beta Israel religion is a direct continuation of ancient Judaism are left at best with only scattered parallels and little evidence of historical continuity. In support of her thesis Shelemay marshals an impressive array of literary, liturgical, and oral evidence. She also incorporates the
Two of the manuscripts in the Faitlovitch collection (8, 14) date the translation in the year 7250 after Creation (1757/8 CE), in the reign of the Emperor Joas (1755-69). Goldschmidt's text dates the translation in the year 7247 after creation (1754/55) and attributes the translation to Abuna Chrestaddolus.



best of recent research on Ethiopian history in general and the Beta Israel in particular. Her thesis is thus built upon a multidisciplinary approach and employs a wide variety of sources and perspectives. Its strength lies not merely in the fact that it offers the best explanation to date for the full range of data available, but also in its balanced incorporation of other independent research. Thus, any major challenge to Shelemay's main thesis can only be undertaken through a significant reevaluation of much recent research on the Beta Israel by other scholars as well. In this essay I have suggested that Shelemay's findings are on the whole sound and well reasoned. My main reservation is not that she has gone too far in her rethinking of Beta Israel religious history but that she has perhaps not gone far enough. The changes which began among the Beta Israel in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries do not appear to have run their course quite as quickly as she suggests. For many decades and even centuries the religion of the Beta Israel continued to change, develop, and evolve. That this should appear surprising is only the result of the unrealistically static view of the Beta Israel religion that has predominated to date. Shelemay has gone a long way towards correcting this view. Future scholars will doubtless build on her work. They would do well to keep in mind Mary Douglas's query cited at the beginning of this article.