With every Jewish holiday in America, it is difficult to feel the same amazing presence you get from celebrating it in Israel. This same emotion is present for me with the upcoming Sigd Festival. From a young age, I remember going to Jerusalem each year, to Armon Hanetziv, to join thousands of Jews from Beita Yisrael to mark the holiday in holy and spiritual splendor.
During the Sigd Festival, thousands would respond “Amen” after hearing prayers led by the Kessim (the Ethiopian clergy), then stand for several hours in prayer recalling the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the establishment of the covenant and the reaffirmation of the bond between God and his people during the days of Ezra the Scribe, and more; alongside sermons on the duty to uphold the Torah and follow its commandments. The atmosphere of that day was always able to energize my spiritual essence and allow me to feel the Divine Presence above us accepting our prayers, something that truly illustrated anew the revelation at Sinai, as if I had actually been there myself. This was the power of the holiday. Fifty days after Yom Kippur, after we had already stood before God, here we were standing before Him yet again, but this time in order to renew the covenant with God and to remind ourselves before whom we were standing. “And Ezra blessed the Lord, God, and the entire people responded ‘Amen, Amen’ and they lifted up their hands and bowed down and prostrated themselves before God” (Nehemiah, 8:6).
For me, the festival of the “Sigd” (bowing down) is, first of all, extremely important in the tradition of the Ethiopian-Jewish community because it symbolized, for us, the yearnings we felt for Jerusalem. The way the ceremony is celebrated in Ethiopia involves going up a large mountain, facing Jerusalem, fasting half the day to recall the destruction of the Temple and then ending the fast during the second half of the day with singing, dancing and a festive meal to celebrate our covenant with God. The festival would always conclude with us giving thanks to God for choosing us. In practice, this is an alliance of commitments between ourselves and God and this covenant obligates both sides. God, who has chosen us, will redeem us and soon we will return to Zion; and on the other hand, we, the Jewish people, recall the revelation at Sinai and our obligations as the chosen people.
We continue to mark the Sigd holiday in Israel, because in the eyes of many of the older members of the Ethiopian community, the return to Zion has not yet been completed. Although the last group of Ethiopian Jews landed in Israel this past August, there are still many Jews all over the world who belong in Israel. Moreover, since the third Temple has not yet been built, the Jerusalem we long for when we sing “Next Year in the Rebuilt Jerusalem” is still only a prayer.
The Sigd Festival is also a holiday that in Ethiopia, was an opportunity to strengthen and reinforce the community, a chance for distant families to come together for a great community-wide celebration that was attended by young and old alike. This experience continues here when we see so many mothers coming to the prayer ceremony with loaves of Ethiopian challah. At the end of the ceremony, they share their challah at the promenade in Armon Hanetziv, then return home for a family or neighborhood meal. This is a holiday that preserves a tradition, dating back thousands of years of longing for Zion. This is also a perfect opportunity to witness the integration of traditions from different Jewish communities into the Jewish calendar, proof that it is indeed possible to include everyone.
On June 30, 2008, the Knesset passed the “Sigd Festival Law,” which was set according to its Hebrew date of 29 Heshvan. On this day the law calls for schools and educational institutions to mark the holiday with social and educational activities. Celebration of the holiday in the education system aims to reinforce the relationship between Ethiopians and their heritage and gives a place of honor to the cultural treasures that Ethiopian Jews brought with them. For me, the Sigd Festival Law also enables public institutions, especially in Israel, to leave behind the concept of the “melting pot” and to adopt a multi-cultural and pluralistic approach of accepting “the other” and those from different cultural backgrounds in our country.
Pnina Gaday Agenyahu is the Jewish Agency shaliach to The Jewish Federation Of Greater Washington. In her previous position she served as the Hillel director at Tel Aviv University and was a member of Israel’s Council for Higher Education. During the past six years she has led Sigd Festival events in Jerusalem initiated by Hillel Israel and Beit Avi Chai. She also participated in the Forum for the Promotion of Beita Yisrael, established under the sponsorship of President Shimon Peres, which has led to the President’s sponsorship over several years and a reception at the President’s Residence, along with cultural activities by various bodies and government ministries in honor of the Sigd Festival.