Ethiopia and the Jews

The Ethiopian monarchy, removed from power in 1974, claimed an unbroken line of descent from a supposed liaison between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The original account of this is in a work called the Kebra Nagast, the oldest manuscripts of which go back to the thirteenth century A.D. The story goes that the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, conceived in Jerusalem but born in Ethiopia, visited his father at the age of twenty. After a year, Solomon sent him home with a group of first-born sons of the elders of Israel, including the son of Zadok the high priest. The latter stole the ark of the covenant from the temple, and it has remained in Ethiopia ever since. 

This story is, of course, devoid of any evidence from Scripture, and Sheba is the other side of the Red Sea, the country now called Yemen. We know from 2 Chronicles 35:3 that the ark was still in Jerusalem in the time of King Josiah.

What is undoubtedly true is that there are ancient links between Israel and Ethiopia. The existence of black Jews in Ethiopia has been known for some time. They are called Falashas, the name being derived from the Amharic (the language of Ethiopia) word for strangers, a reminder in itself of the way in which the Jews have remained separate from the peoples among whom they lived. The Falashas became prominent in 1984-5 when 12,000 of them were airlifted to Israel from refugee camps in the Sudan, where they had fled because of famine, in what was called Operation Moses. Operation Moses came to an abrupt halt once it became public knowledge, but in 1990 Israel and Ethiopia established diplomatic relationships, and most of the rest of the Falashas went to Israel. It is generally thought that the Falashas are the descendants of converts made by Jews from Arabia in the first and second centuries A.D.

In a visit to Ethiopia in January 1990 Hancock came across another, less well-known, Ethiopian tribe, known as the Qemant, which appeared to have Jewish origins. He visited the Qemant and found that they were mostly adherents of Ethiopian Christianity. However, older members of the Qemant, generally regarded as pagans, in fact preserved beliefs and practices going back to the Law of Moses, particularly food laws and the keeping of the sabbath, but mixed up with other practices relating to their pagan religion.

Next section: Jewish Practices in the Ethiopian Church