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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Jews of Abyssinia. A colony of Jews exists in Abyssinia known under the denomination of "Falashas" or "Emigrants." They are also called "Kaila"; in the Walkait and Tchelga regions they are known as "Foggara," and the Ilmormas or Gallas give them the name of "Fenjas." In their families they make use of the expression "house of Israel," or simply "Israel"; the word "Aihud" (= "Jew") is almost unknown. The origin of the Falashas is unknown. According to a tradition preserved by them and recorded by Bruce, who traversed Abyssinia in the eighteenth century, they left Jerusalem in the retinue of Menilek, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. After a lengthy residence on the coast, about the time when the commerce of the Red Sea passed into foreign hands they appear to have withdrawn into the interior of the country, where they applied themselves to the fabrication of pottery. Others believe the Falashas to be descendants of prisoners of Shalmaneser, or of Jews driven from Judea when Jerusalem was destroyed in the time of Titus and Vespasian. But Joseph Halévy, who visited them in 1868, thinks that the Jewish element of the Falashas proceeds especially from the Himyarites captured in Ethiopia by the king Kaleb, conqueror of Dhu-Nuwas. Taking refuge in the mountains beyond the Takazze, they converted a part of the Agaus, and through intermixture with them produced the Falasha type. This opinion appears to be the more probable.

Manners, Customs, Dress.

The Falashas are in general darker and more corpulent than the Amharas, among whom they live. Their hair is shorter and often curly; their eyes are smaller, and their faces not so long. Their houses are built in the same fashion as those of other Abyssinians; they use the same implements and speak the same language. Their usual food is teff or "dagussa," and they do not eat raw meat. Their drink is hydromel or beer made from the dagussa-grains. Their dress is the same as that of the Christians; their priests wear turbans like Christian priests. The Roman toga is their gala-dress; during work they wear short trousers or a waist-cloth descending to the knees. For out-of-door wear the women put on a long shift edged with different colors; they also wear bracelets and earrings, but do not pierce the nose as do the tribes of the Tigre district. Laymen have no head-dress, but usually shave the head; and they walk barefoot. The woman is the equal of the man, and is neither veiled nor confined in a separate abode. Married couples apply themselves to their occupations in unison.

The Falashas ply all trades, though agriculture is their chief occupation. They make the articles necessary for the home or the field; they become masons, architects, blacksmiths, and weavers, but reject commerce. They marry at a mature age, and are monogamous. Divorces, which are very infrequent, take place in public assembly and not by writing. The children are taught by the "debteras" or scribes; education is very rudimentary, and consists in teaching them to read the Bible (especially the Psalter) and sacred history, and to recite prayers. Writing is seldom taught. As has been stated, the Falashas generally speak Amharic, the official language of Abyssinia, but in their homes they employ an Agau dialect, which is known under the name of "Falashina" or "Kailina." In the Kuara region, to the northwest of Lake Tana, it has a peculiar pronunciation. It is this dialect into which they translate the Bible and in which they recite their prayers.

The leaders of the Falashas are divided into three classes, "nezirim," "kohanim," and "debteras." The nezirim are said to have been founded by Abba Ze'ira in the fourth century. They live together in large numbers, and eat only food prepared by one of their own number. They are visited by other Falashas, and when the first-born is not redeemed he is given over the nezirim. The kohanim live with the other Falashas, often taking the place of the nezirim, by whom they are ordained. They are compelled to marry; but when the wife dies they do not marry again. They are the ritual slaughterers, and receive part of the animal offered. The debteras assist the kohanim in their work.

Leaders and Religion of the Falashas.

The religion of the Falashas is pure Mosaism, based upon the Ethiopic version of the Pentateuch, but modified by the fact that they are ignorant of the Hebrew language. Indeed, they appear neverto have known the Hebrew text of the Bible. They have no Hebrew books at all, despite the exaggerated reports of some scholars (Ludolf, "Hist. Æthiopica," 1:14; "Orient, Lit." 1848, p. 262). They read the Bible in Geez, and know nothing of Mishnah or Talmud, although there are a few points of contact between Falasha and Rabbinic, Karaite, and Samaritan observances. They follow generally the Pentateuch, but do not observe the customs connected with the ẓiẓit, tefillin, and mezuzot; nor do they celebrate either Purim or Ḥanukkah. They keep the Sabbath very rigorously, calling it "Sanbaṭ Ḳadma'i," following the tradition that the Sabbath was created before heaven and earth. In fact, they believe Sanbaṭ to be an angel placed over the sun and the rain, who will precede them on the way to Jerusalem in the days of the Messiah. The kohanim spend Friday night in the "masjid" (synagogue), and commence their prayers with the crowing of the cock. After prayers the people bring their food to the masjid, and all eat there together. On Sabbath they do not light a fire, nor do they cross a river. They sanctify the new moon, fasting on the eve. They preserve in "Nisan," "Ab," "Lul," and "Teshran," some remembrance of the Hebrew names of the months, though in ordinary life they use the solar cycle.


Every four years the Falashas add a month in order to equalize the lunar with the solar year. They fast on the tenth day of every month in remembrance of the Day of Atonement, on the twelfth day in honor of the angel Michael, and on the fifteenth in remembrance of the Passover and Pentecost. The yearly celebration of the Passover is observed in the following manner: On the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth, and until the evening of the fourteenth day, they eat only a peculiar sort of bread called "shimbera." They slaughter the paschal lamb at sunset on the fourteenth day. Their maẓẓah is made of shimbera and wheat. Pentecost is celebrated on the 12th of Siwan, as they commence to count from the last day of the Passover festival. It is for them also the day of the giving of the Law. New-Year's Day is called the "Festival of Shoferot"; the Day of Atonement, the "Day of Forgiveness," on which day God appeared to Jacob. During the Feast of Tabernacles they do not build booths, but, according to Flad, eat maẓẓot for seven days. The last day of the ninth month is the Festival of Ingathering, when they go up into the mountains, taking gifts to the nezirim, and pray and offer sacrifices. The tenth day is the Harvest Festival, when they give tithes to the kohanim. They have many fast-days—e.g., the second and fifth days of the week, and, in commemoration of the destruction of the First Temple, from the 1st to the 9th of Tammuz. They do not commemorate the destruction of the Second Temple.

The synagogue or masjid of the Falashas consists of a Holy of Holies and a sanctuary. To the right of the door of the Holy of Holies is a table on which is placed the Book of the Law; to the left are the vestments of the priests. Two vessels are placed there, one containing the ashes of the red heifer, the other "the water of sin." On the right hand of the eastern gate is a stone altar 5 x 5 ells, and one ell high. The women's court is to the south of the masjid, while the congregation assembles in the northern end. Offerings are made more frequently than is commanded by the Pentateuch. The ceremonials are accompanied with the noise of sistra, together with the burning of incense; after each passage, recited in Geez, the translation is read in Kailina, and the hymns are also chanted in that dialect. Circumcision is performed on the eighth day, on both girls and boys; the operator is a woman. If the eighth day falls on a Sabbath, the ceremony is performed on the ninth. When the first-born is not redeemed by money he is trained as a nazir. A first-born must marry a woman who also is a first-born. The first-born of animals is given to the priest when it is one year old.

The Falashas are monogamists; they know nothing of the levirate. Before death they make confession to a nazir. The mourners put dust on their heads and cut themselves, while the nazirs recite psalms and prayers. They bury their dead at once, not in coffins, but in graves lined with stones. Lamentations are continued for seven days; on the third and seventh days an offering is brought, and it is believed that until this has been done the soul remains in the "valley of death." During the seven days the mourners' food is brought to them byfriends. Among the Falashas, as among the Christians, are found hermits who enjoy a great reputation for knowledge and sanctity. They are the fathers of families who have made vows of chastity after the death of their wives.

The Falashas observe very carefully the distinctions between "clean" and "unclean." Next to each dwelling is a tent to which the unclean person retires. At the end of the day he must bathe. In the case of a death the mourners retire for seven days. The Falashas are also very careful to slaughter animals in strict accordance with the ritual. Before being cooked the flesh is cut into small pieces, and any traces of blood which remain are removed. They know nothing, however, of the distinction between that which is "meaty" and that which is "milky." They wash their hands and recite certain prayers before eating.

The prayers of the Falashas have been published, with a Hebrew translation, by J. Halévy (Paris, 1877) from a manuscript which he brought back with him from Abyssinia. The following may serve as a specimen:

"Praised be Thou, God of Israel, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of the whole earth. God, give us Thy blessing. Bless us with the blessing with which Thou didst bless Abraham. Bless us as Thou didst bless the storehouse of Abitara [a charitable woman]. Keep our going-out and our coming-in, Thou who art the keeper of Israel. Keep us in peace. Praise the Lord, O ye heavens. Let the whole earth praise Him. Amen!"

Falashas exist in Tigre, in Shire, among the Azobo-Gallas, and as far as Shoa. In Amhara they have established themselves in the Walkait and along the Takazze, from the Semien to the Lasta. Less numerous to the east of Lake Tana, they are not found at all in Miethya and Gojam; but they form a considerable part of the inhabitants of Dembea and of Tchelga, and are much scattered to the west of Lake Tana, in Kuara, and elsewhere.

Distribution and History.

In the tenth century a Jewish queen named "Judith" (or "Esther" or "Terdaë-Gobaz"), at the head of the Falashas of the province of Semien, appears to have dethroned a king of Abyssinia at Axum, and to have established a dynasty which occupied the throne for about three centuries. Joseph Halévy has doubted this story, and not without cause, as further researches have shown. Under the rule of Amda-Seyon I. (1314-44) Jews dwelt in Semien, Wogara, Ṣalamt, and Ṣagade. One of this king's generals suppressed a rebellion in Begameder, inhabited by Christians converted to Judaism. A Falasha revolt took place under Isḥaḳ (1412-29). The reign of Zara' Ya'eḳob (1434-68) was also troubled by a rebellion of Amba-Nahad, the governor of Salamant; of Sagay, governor of Semien; and of Kantiba, all of whom had abjured Christianity and become Jews. The latter were then rigorously persecuted, as also under one Marḳos, general of Baeda-Maryam (1468-78), son of Zara' Ya'eḳob.

The wars which took place between the Abyssinians and the Mussulmans during the reigns of Lebna-Dengel (1508-40) and Galawdewos (1540-59) probably produced an alliance for common defense between the Christians and Jews of Abyssinia; but the latter were again attacked by Minas (1559-63), who during the first year of his reign proceeded to Semien and made war upon Rade'et the Falasha. This war was continued by his successor, Sartsa-Dengel (1563-1597). About 1578 the latter engaged in battle with the Abatis, a Falasha tribe, at Waina-Daga, and exterminated them. Two years later he made an expeditioninto Semien, seized upon Rade'et, and carried him off to Waj. In 1582 he conquered Kalef, another Jewish chief of Semien, and in 1587 made a fresh incursion into the country, attacked Gushn, brother of Gedewon, and slew him. At last in 1588 he carried his arms into Kuara. Under the reign of Susenyos (1607-32) Gedewon revolted and was subdued; he was killed by this ruler in 1626, and the Falashas of Dembea, terrified by the emperor's cruelty, embraced Christianity. In 1627 a battle occurred between Susenyos and the Falashas. Toward the end of the eighteenth century they seem still to have had a separate political existence in Semien, but they were at that time finally reduced to vassalage. In Gondar they are the masons and smiths ("Israelitische Annalen," 1839, p. 71); in other places, also carpenters, merchants, and agriculturists. In 1894 Falashas commenced to arrive at Massuah on the coast, desirous of advancing trade with Italy ("Allg. Zeit. des Jud." Oct. 5, 1894, p. 4). King Theodore, approached by Protestant missionaries who wished to convert the Abyssinians, authorized them to attempt the conversion only of the Falashas.

In Hebrew writings there are only a few and, in general, indistinct references to the Falashas. The earliest account is in the diary of Eldad the Danite (9th cent.). His account, especially of the halakot of the Abyssinian Jews, has been carefully studied by A. Epstein ("Eldad ha-Dani," Presburg, 1891). Most of the references date from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, and are connected with the reports of "Prester John" and of the existence of the Ten Tribes. There is an evident confusion between the Jews of Abyssinia and those of India (both countries called "Cush" or "Ethiopia"). David ibn Abi Zimra (1479-1589) mentions in his Responsa (4:219) a question in regard to the Falashas. There is a possible reference in Obadiah of Bertinoro (1488). The cabalist Abraham Levi (1528), writing from Jerusalem, speaks of Falasha as being three days' journey from Suakin; he speaks of a Jewish king, and a Christian king, Theodorus, who killed 10,000 Jews in Salima in 1504. Levi's contemporary, Israel, mentions in a letter Jews who came from Cush, and a Jewish king who had Mohammedan and Christian subjects. Elijah of Pesaro (1532) speaks of the Jews in Ḥabesh, while Isaac ibn 'Aḳrish (1550), in the preface to his "Ḳol Mebasser," reports that he heard from an Abyssinian envoy in Constantinople that the Mohammedan governor there would have been annihilated had it not been for the help of the Jewish prince and his 12,000 horsemen. The Falashas are further mentioned by Moses de Rossi (1534; "J. Q. R." 9:493); Abraham Yagel (16th cent.), who speaks of them as inhabiting the Mountains of the Moon; and Moses Edrei (1630), who knew of a Jewish king, Eleazar, in Abyssinia. Most of these references are to be found in Neubauer's article in "Sammelband" of the Meḳiẓe Nirdamin, and in "J. Q. R." vol. ("Where Are the Ten Tribes?"). Compare also Lewin, "Wo Wären die Zehn Stämme Israels zu Suchen?" Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1901.

  • J. Ludolf, Hist. Æthiopica, Frankfort-onthe-Main, 1681;
  • J. Bruce, Voyage aux Sources du Nil Pendant les Années 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, et 1772 (transl. by J. H. Castera), London, 1790;
  • H. Salt, Voyage en Abyssinie (transl. by Prévost), Paris and Geneva, 1812;
  • idem, Voyage en Abyssinie (transl. by Henry), Paris, 1816;
  • Combes and Tamisier, Voyage en Abyssinie de 1835 à 1837, ib. 1838;
  • Réné Basset, Etudes sur l'Histoire d'Ethiopie, in Journal Asiatique, ib. 1882;
  • J. Perruchon, Vie de Lalibala, Roi d'Ethiopie. ib. 1892;
  • idem, Histoire des Guerres d'Amda-Seyon, in Journal Asiatique, ib. 1890;
  • idem, Les Chroniques de Zar'a Ya'eqob et de Ba'eda Mâryâm, ib. 1893;
  • idem, Hist. d'Eskender, d'Amda-Seyon II. et de Nâ'od, Rois d'Ethiopie, in Journal Asiatique, ib. 1894;
  • F. M. E. Pereira, Historia de Minas, Ademas Sagad, Rei de Ethiopia, Lisbon, 1888;
  • idem, Chronica de Susenyos, ib. 1892;
  • Marius Sainéano, L'Abyssinie dans la Seconde Moitié du XVI. Siècle, Leipsic and Bucharest, 1892;
  • Guillaume Lejean, Theodore II., le Nouvel Empire d'Abyssinie, Paris, 1865;
  • Conti Rossini, Appunti ed Osservazioni sui Re Zague e Takla Haymano, Rome, 1895;
  • Joseph Halèvy, Excursion chez les Falacha, in Bulletin de la Société de Géographie de Paris, March-April, 1869;
  • A. d'Abbadie, Rapport sur les Falacha, in Arch. Isr. 1846;
  • M. Flad, A Short Description of the Falasha and Kamants, London, 1866;
  • Ger. transl. Basel, 1869; Jews of Abyssinia, in Christian Observer, London, 1869;
  • A. Loewy, The Falashas, in Jew. Chron. London, Dec. 5, 1890;
  • Luzzatto, Mémoire sur les Juifs d'Abyssinie ou Falashas, in Arch. Isr. 1852 and 1853;
  • Metz, Zur Gesch. der Falaschas, in Monatsschrift, 1878 and 1879;
  • Morais, The Falashas, in Penn Monthly, Philadelphia, 1880;
  • L. Stein, Die Juden in Abessinien (Falaschas), Amsterdam, 1881;
  • H. A. Stern, Wanderings Among the Falashas in Abyssinia, London, 1862;
  • Cyrus Adler, Bibliography of the Falashas, in American Hebrew, March 16, 1894;
  • Lewin, Ein Verlassener Bruderstamm, in Bloch's Wochenschrift, Feb. 7, 1902, p. 85.
J. D. Pe.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Falashas'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​f/falashas.html. 1901.
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