The Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University’s Rosenberg School of Jewish Studies and Archaeology is launching a new MA program in the study of the Biblical texts of Ethiopian Jewry.
Yes you heard that right. Ethiopian Jewry has a distinct Bible.
The Program is named “Orit Guardians” for the Ethiopian Bible and its founders intend to study and safeguard the scriptures and culture of Beta Israel, the Ethiopian Jewish community.
Such differences from the majority of Jews in the world are part of why the Ethiopians were not at first recognized by many as fully Jews. That and the fact that they did not adhere to the full oral Jewish tradition as transcribed in the Talmud.
Yes it is true. Ethiopian Jews have suffered through discrimination in Israel – to this very day. Some segments of the religious community have always questioned their authenticity as Jews. And they face discrimination in both the work place and from the police.
The Yemenite immigrants faced similar problems in Israel. Like the Ethiopians, the Yeminites also have their own unique traditions separate from the two major Jewish groups – Sephardic and Ashkenazic.
But when it comes to the Ethiopians, interestingly enough, the community also has its own version of the Tora – the Bible.
Biblical scholar Prof. Dalit Rom-Shiloni, who leads the initiative, explains: “The Scriptures of Beta Israel are accompanied by oral traditions of translation and interpretation, as well as prayers composed by the Kesim [religious leaders] for their communities through the ages. These cultural treasures are in danger of extinction, if an urgent effort is not made to document and preserve them – and this is our main goal. To our great delight, we found enormous enthusiasm among educated and socially aware Israelis of Ethiopian descent, who wish to safeguard their heritage for future generations.”
The first students in the program will be Ethiopian Israelis who already hold a BA.
So what is so different about the Ethiopian Bible?
Scholars refer to the Tora – the Five Books of Moses – as the Masoretic text.
The Ethiopian Bible is written in Ge’ez, an ancient Semitic language known only to Ethiopian spiritual leaders called Kesim. It is accompanied by its own oral tradition as well as Ethiopian prayers in Ge’ez, a
These were translated into Amharic and Tigrinya, languages spoken by Ethiopian Jews.
But after the community came to Israel, Beta Israel’s way of life changed. Their leaders needed to be retrained in the Orthodoc Jewish tradition based on the Talmud. Many Ethiopians feel that they had their heritage taken away from them.
Tel Aviv University sees its new The Orit Guardians program as a rescue mission undertaken to academically study Ethiopian heritage.