Tel Aviv University (TAU) scholars are on a mission to save the Bible – not the Hebrew Bible to which we are all familiar but Orit, the Bible of Ethiopian Jews that is written in their language called Ge’ez.
The language of this Bible is known only to the community’s spiritual leaders, called Kesim, and is accompanied by living oral traditions that include translations and interpretations of the biblical texts, as well as prayers, passed on by each generation of Kesim to their successors. Today, in Israel around the world, these traditions are in danger of extinction.
Ethiopian Jews in Israel are immigrants and descendants of the immigrants from the Beta Israel communities in Ethiopia who now reside in Israel. Today, the Holy Lan is home to the largest Beta Israel community in the world, with over 150,000 citizens of Ethiopian descent.
The community here includes the Falash Mura, a community of Beta Israel that was forced in their native country to convert to Christianity over the last 200 years. The majority of Beta Israel came to the Holy Land in waves of mass immigration made possible by the Israeli government – Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991. Just recently, coming under political pressure after years of foot-dragging by the Likud government following opposition by some ultra-Orthodox (haredi) parties, an additional 4,500 Falash Mura are scheduled to arrive in the coming months.
The Orit Guardians’ master’s degree program at TAU’s department of biblical studies aims to study and safeguard the scriptures, culture and heritage of Ethiopian Jews, contributing to the preservation of the community, empowering its members and strengthening their status in Israeli society.
Prof. Dalit Rom-Shiloni, who heads the program, commented: “This is a novel, pioneering and uniquely inspiring project. The students, all of whom are Ethiopian Israelis, understand that if they do not explore the traditions that are so dear to their hearts, this heritage will simply be lost.” The program will probably be expanded to include bachelor’s and doctoral degree studies as well.
“The Scriptures of Beta Israel are accompanied by oral traditions of translation and interpretation, as well as prayers composed by the Kesim 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,” noted Rom-Shiloni.
The new program’s lecturers and supervisors will be faculty members at the biblical studies department, as well as Dr. Anbessa Teferra, head of the Semitic linguistics program at the department of Hebrew and Semitic linguistics, and Dr. Ran HaCohen of the literature department.
“The volumes of the Hebrew Bible, found in every Israeli household, are all almost absolutely identical, down to the letter,” said Rom-Shiloni. “This text, known as the Masoretic Text, was consolidated in Tiberias between the 6th and 10th centuries CE. We know, however, that biblical textual traditions existed hundreds of years before that time. Research on texts from the Second Temple period, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls, has revealed that Jewish communities held various versions of the sacred texts – which were essentially similar, but definitely not identical.
The Jews who came to Israel from Ethiopia brought their own Scriptures, but Beta Israel’s way of life changed completely when they came to Israel, thus weakening the status of the Kesim, undermining their age-old training processes and bringing these cultural treasures to the brink of extinction. The Orit Guardians program is, in a sense, a rescue mission undertaken to academically study this important heritage
The students who have just begun their studies in the 2020-2021 academic year are all Ethiopian Israelis with bachelor’s degrees, highly aware of their heritage and eager to take part in the effort to preserve it. “The important point is that they are the only ones who can do the job,” concluded Rom-Shiloni “Unlike researchers who do not belong to Beta Israel, these students speak Amharic and have access to the elderly Kesim. This is a novel, pioneering and uniquely inspiring project.”
She said that the students bring “immense motivation and commitment, understanding fully well that if they don’t do it, it simply won’t happen. We believe that their research projects will contribute to the enhancement of the Jewish identity of Ethiopian Israelis and increase the public’s awareness of their culture, while establishing the heritage of Ethiopian Jews as an academic field of study and research in every aspect – cultural, historical, lingual, religious, spiritual and social – in both Israeli and international academia.”