Since the beginning of the last exile following the destruction of the second temple, the Jewish people were scattered to every corner of the earth. Many fled to the Middle East, Europe and eventually the rest of the world, while a small remnant stayed in Israel during the last 2000 years. But some groups of Jews were living in exile for much longer than that.
One of those groups is “Beta Israel” (House of Israel) - the Jewish community from Ethiopia. The origin of their community in Ethiopia is debated, but there are three widely accepted theories:
1. They are the descendants of the ancient Israelite Tribe of Dan
2. They are a community of Jews who left following the destruction of the first temple
3. They might have descended from a son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba
For thousands of years, they maintained a form of strict Biblical Judaism predating second temple times. They kept kosher, the laws of ritual cleanliness and observed the Jewish Sabbath and festivals. They passed down Jewish tradition orally and maintained Torah scrolls and Jewish books. Their religious leaders, the Kesim, were respected in each community like a Rabbi and led their festival services in the ancient liturgical language of Ge’ez.
Beta Israel, called “Falashas” (The Outsiders) by their neighbors, yearned for the hills of Jerusalem. In prayer and in daily life, their desire was to return to “Zion” – but their journey out of exile was not an easy one. Their history was one of danger, persecution and isolation.
Their faith and identity were often under persecution from neighboring groups, whether it be at the hands of Christians, Muslims or local tribal warfare. Due to frequent persecution, they were forced to settle and build their rural communities in the mountains of the province of Gonder.
But even being hidden away in the mountains was not enough to keep persecution at bay. In 1624, Jewish freedom in Ethiopia came to an end. With the help of the Portuguese, the Ethiopian locals defeated Beta Israel, and Jewish captives were sold into slavery or forcibly baptized. Their lands were confiscated, their books and writings were burned, and practice of the Jewish religion was forbidden in Ethiopia.
Read Part 2 for the conclusion.