Sigd - A Holiday of Ethiopian Jewry
Sigd is a holiday of Ethiopian Jewry, the community named “Beta Israel.” The name of the holiday is derived from the Hebrew word for bowing or prostration, “sgida”.
Sigd is celebrated on the 29th of Heshvan – 50 days following Yom Kippur (similar to the holiday of Shavuot, celebrated 50 days after Passover), and the community rejoices for the renewal of the alliance between the people, God, and His Torah. This act is reminiscent of the treaty made for the People of Israel by Ezra and Nehemiah upon the return from Babylonian exile in the 5th Century BCE. The holiday originated in the Book of Nehemiah: “And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and when he opened it, all the people stood up. And Ezra blessed the lord, the great God. And all the people answered: 'Amen, Amen', with the lifting up of their hands; and they bowed their heads, and fell down before the Lord with their faces to the ground” (Nehemiah, 8:5-6). “And they stood up in their place, and read in the book of the law of the Lord their God a fourth part of the day; and another fourth part they confessed, and prostrated themselves before the Lord their God” (Nehemiah, 9: 3).
During Sigd, Ethiopian Jewry pray to God, and plea to return to Zion. The community also holds communal self-examination, in addition to that held in private during Yom Kippur. In accordance with tradition, the public must examine itself and amend itself socially to be worthy to return to Jerusalem from exile. Sins of the community members are being forgiven for during Yom Kippur and the following 50 days, the last of which is the communal self examination carried out in a similar way to that of Yom Kippur itself in prayers and fast.
The holiday in Ethiopia
In Ethiopia, the community used to gather from all distant villages to celebrate communally. The day prior to the holiday was used for carrying out special prayers to welcome the following day and for washing their festive clothing. The Kes (spiritual leader) would prepare cow and sheep meat for the feast to be held to end the holiday, during which the community fasted.
The Sigd ceremony was held on a high mountain, considered to be pure due to its resemblance to Mt. Sinai on which Moses was given the Torah. Elder members of the community would climb up to the place of prayer and ensure its purity and strengthen its surrounding fence, in front of which they would prepare the area to place the Torah scroll. Early in the morning, the community would bathe in the river and gather at the prayer house. The Kes would then extract the Torah to the sounds of singing and cries of happiness and lead the crowd up the mountain. Some of those present would carry with them a rock symbolizing their surrender before God and as a sign of regret for their sins.
The ceremony opens with the Kes reading excerpts from the Bible, spoken in Ge’ez and translated to Amharic. The excerpts included: Receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai (Exodus, 19-20), Nehemiah’s ceremony for renewal of the alliance with those returning from the Babylonian exile (Nehemiah, 8-9), and excerpts from the books of Leviticus, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel and Psalms. Furthermore, the Kes would pray and accompany their service with sermons and preaching.
During the ceremony the members of the community would kneel, bow and direct their hands at the sky. This was followed by an interval of trumpets, while saying: “As we have had the fortune to celebrate the holiday this year, we shall have the fortune to hold it in Jerusalem in the next year.” The prayers following these words expressed joy, comfort and their hope for the return to Zion and the building of Jerusalem. The participants would return to the prayer house in the afternoon to hold a festive meal, accompanied with songs and dance.
The holiday in Israel
Today, as the majority of the Ethiopian Jewish community has made Aliyah to the State of Israel, members of the community make their way to Jerusalem, to the Wailing Wall and to the promenade at the “Armon Hanatziv” neighborhood in the city. The holiday serves as an annual gathering of the entire Ethiopian community and they see it as a chance to strengthen their affinity to their history and culture.
The Kessim carry the Bible holding colorful umbrellas. They stand on top of a stage to read the excerpts and prayers before the community. Many officials come and greet the audience, while the crowd continues to observe their fast until late in the afternoon.
The Knesset legislated the Sigd Law-2008, declaring the 29th of Heshvan as a national holiday.
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