Ethiopian Jews & the Festival Sigd

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, October 30, 2019

Hodesh Tov! This is the standard Jewish greeting at the start of each new month in the Jewish calendar. As November begins this year in the secular calendar, the month of Heshvan begins in the Jewish calendar. However, the rabbinic sages often refer to this month as Mar Heshvan because it is without holidays other than our weekly observance of Shabbat. Mar means bitter, like the Maror we eat at the Passover seder. After all of the Fall chagim – beginning with the observance of Selichot, leading us into Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, followed quickly by Sukkot and then Simchat Torah – a month packed chock full of holiday celebrations and meals with family and friends – a month without holidays might seem bitter. Or, as many of my rabbinic and cantorial colleagues can attest, after the privilege and responsibility of leading 24 services in 29 days, the beginning of Heshvan does not feel bitter at all. Rather, it is a welcome opportunity to regroup, reflect, and catch up on the mundane aspects of life, like all of the laundry and bills that have piled up.

But for Ethiopian Jews, Heshvan has not been a month without a holiday. For centuries the Jews of Ethiopia have gathered on the last day of the month of Heshvan in celebration of the holiday of Sigd. On the 29th day of Heshvan, 50 days after Yom Kippur, recalling the time span between Passover and Shavuot, the Ethiopian Jewish community celebrates the festival of Sigd, marking the renewal of the covenant between the Jewish people, God and the Torah. For centuries it also marked the community’s belief that they would return to Jerusalem. In Ethiopia, celebrants would gather on a hill, like the Israelites at Sinai, fast, recite Psalms and read from the Orit, the Ethiopian Torah scroll.

Today, 40 years after most of the Ethiopian Jewish community were airlifted to Israel, Sigd is an opportunity to give thanks for that dream of returning to Jerusalem having become a reality. On the 29th of Heshvan Jews of Ethiopian heritage now gather on the Promenade overlooking Jerusalem, in the spot where many believe that the patriarch Abraham was shown Mount Moriah. Qessim, priests, dressed in traditional robes, lead a procession carrying Torah scrolls under brightly coloured umbrellas. Musicians play drums and trumpets, and the community recites prayers of blessing and forgiveness and listen to the Qessim read passages that tell of the Jewish people’s return to Jerusalem after the exile in Babylonia. And of course, there is food. While Sigd is marked by fasting for the first part of the day, after the recitation of “Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet,” from Nehemiah 8:10, the fast is broken with communal meals and special bread, called Dabo, often eaten with Ethiopian cheese. Since 2008 Sigd has been recognized as an official state holiday in Israel. This year Sigd will be observed beginning the evening of Tuesday November 26 through Wednesday November 27th.

You can find out more about the Jews of Ethiopia and the Jewish holiday of Sigd here:


Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

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