This is a day dedicated to renewing the covenant, introspection, and yearning for Zion, celebrated by Ethiopian Jewry.
Sigd is a significant holiday in the life of the Beta Israel community. This day played a central role in shaping the community’s religious, spiritual, and social identity.
The name of the holiday derives from the word “sgida,” a Semitic word that means to prostrate. On the festival of Sigd, the word takes on a deeper meaning: bowing down to God. The holiday is also called Mahalala” (beseeching and requesting forgiveness).
The origin of the holiday traces back to the days of Ezra and Nehemia, returnees to Zion from Babylon after the expulsion following the first Temple era. The book of Nehemia includes a description of a gathering of the nation for the purpose of repentance and worshipping God: “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.Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, even the Levites, caused the people to understand the Law; and the people stood in their place. And they read in the book, in the Law of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.”(Nehemia 8, 5-8). The text continues: “Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackcloth, and earth upon them. And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers. 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” (Nehemia 9, 1-3).
The day that Ezra and Nehemia and the other leaders of the return to Zion convened the nation in order to rebuke them, restore their connection with God, and rehabilitate Jerusalem from its ruins became a day of beseeching, introspection, and longing for Jerusalem among Beta Israel. In contrast with the date noted in Chapter 9 of the book of Nehemia, the Jews of Ethiopia set the day for this holiday on the 29th of the Hebrew month of Heshvan, 50 days after Yom Kippur. The first part of the holiday is a fast day, and the second part is a day of rejoicing. This is a day of special holiday prayers (similar to those recited on Yom Kippur), and chapters related to the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the covenant between Israel and God are read aloud from a Torah scroll (Chapter 20 in the book of Exodus and Chapters 5-6 and 27 in Deuteronomy, as well as Chapters 8-9 in Nehemia). The prayers and the Torah reading express a renewal of the covenant with God and include supplication and atonement as well as yearning for Jerusalem. On this day, the Kessim warned the community against converting to another religion. Wherever they lived, Ethiopian Jews followed the custom of ascending to the tallest mountain with the Torah scroll (this is the only day that the Torah scroll is taken out of the masgid / “tzlot bayit” - the synagogue), in a reenactment of the events at Mount Sinai. The ascent up the mountain began in the early morning hours, and a young boy would be selected to carry the Torah scroll - on his head. The Kessim marched at the front of the procession, followed by the elders, adults, children, and the women. This act of renewal of the covenant each year was an opportunity for Ethiopian Jewry to pray to God about returning to Zion.
An important custom in the community is inviting guests, and on Sigd, this custom becomes even more significant. As the day approached, everyone could feel the festive atmosphere in the air and the sense of spiritual elevation.
The holiday was celebrated in the various districts and villages, the most central of which was Ambober, due to its accessibility to the large city of Gondar. Today, in Israel, the central state event takes place at the Armon Hanatziv promenade in Jerusalem, from a point where it is possible to see the Temple Mount – the holiest site in Judaism, while the prayers are being recited. The only difference from the original custom is that in Israel, a mass festive meal is not held; rather, private meals are held by each family. In order to break the fast after the prayers, participants bring food with them to Jerusalem. There is a group that holds the ceremony at the Western Wall each year.
The Sigd Law
On June 30, 2008, the Knesset ratified the Sigd Law – 2008, which was promoted by the Association of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. The law was proposed by MK Uri Ariel from the National Union party, in conjunction with Knesset members from Shas, Meretz, Labor, and the Likud. The law establishes that Sigd is a national holiday in Israel, celebrated on the 29th of Heshvan in a central ceremony that will be organized by the Ministry of Culture and Sport, and that educational activities in its honor will be implemented by the Ministry of Education. The law also establishes that Sigd is an elective business day. The wording of the bill was based on the wording of the Jerusalem Day Law. The explanation accompanying the bill stated: “Adoption of the holiday by the Knesset and by the State of Israel will facilitate preservation of this ancient tradition and contribute to the sense of identification and involvement of the members of the Ethiopian community in Israeli society.” The law also states that if the 29th of Heshvan falls on a Saturday, the holiday will be celebrated earlier, on Thursday, the 27th of Heshvan, as was practiced by the Ethiopian community. The reason that the holiday is made earlier and not postponed is that the next day is Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new Hebrew month – a day when fasting is prohibited.