The Sigd, which took place on October 31, commemorates and is based on the renewal of the covenant between God and the Jewish people that followed the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel from the Babylonian exile, as described in the biblical book of Nehemiah.
During the holiday, thousands of Ethiopian Jews from across Israel gather at Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv Promenade, which overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem. The Sigd services are conducted there by the qessotch, who chant prayers and praises in the ancient Ethiopian Ge’ez and Agau languages.
In addition, the qessotch read selections from the Bible, including passages describing the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai and the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile. The passages are first read aloud from handwritten Ge’ez texts and are then translated into Amharic for the benefit of the congregation, as that is the first language of many Ethiopian Jews.
“Sigd” means bowing or prostration in Ge’ez, and the service includes frequent bowing and prostration on the part of worshipers.
Among those attending this year’s Sigd celebration was the newly-appointed Rishon Lezion, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef. His father, the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who was himself a Sephardi Chief Rabbi, passed away on October 7, at the age of 93. The funeral, the largest in Israel’s history, was attended by hundreds of thousands of mourners in Jerusalem.
The late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was considered a great supporter and friend of Ethiopian Jews, having issued rabbinic rulings that paved the way for their mass aliyah to the state of Israel and that reiterated that they are Jews according to halakhah (Jewish law).
When it was announced that Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef had arrived at the Armon Hanatziv Promenade, a ripple of ululations spread through the crowd of worshipers, and people rose from their seats as a sign of respect upon seeing him.
Wearing the traditional hat and embroidered robe of a Rishon Lezion, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef joined the qessotch on the platform from which they conduct the Sigd services, and offered his greetings.
“I wish to bless you on the occasion of your holiday,” he told the worshipers. “There is nothing greater than that there be unity in the nation of Israel. Thank God, we have merited that there be an ingathering of exiles . . . For two thousand years we longed for this thing . . . Thank God, there are now millions of Jews in the Land of Israel.”
Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef used the occasion to remember his late father. “I wish to mention my father, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who issued the rabbinic ruling that the Jews of Ethiopia are Jews in every sense, basing himself on the words of the Radbaz [Rabbi David ben Shelomo ibn Zimra] and Rabbi [Yaakov] Castro and others,” the Sephardi Chief Rabbi said.
He explained that his father had issued that historic ruling “in order to safeguard the Judaism of the nation of Israel and the uniqueness of the nation of Israel.” Chief Rabbi Yosef then urged the qessotch to continue laboring for Judaism and the Torah, and to “strengthen your entire holy congregation.”
Other speakers at the Sigd celebration included two new Knesset (Israeli parliament) members from the Ethiopian Jewish community: Penina Tamanu-Shata, who is Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, and Shimon Solomon.
“I am proud and moved to be standing before you … on the Sigd holiday, a holiday that symbolizes for us the renewal of the covenant and our love for the Land [of Israel] . . . which is the undisputed home of all of us,” MK Tamanu-Shata said.
She also took the opportunity to remember the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. “I wish to express sorrow about the death of the Gadol Hador Ovadia Yosef. There are many things I could say about Maran,” she continued, referring to the rabbi by one of his popular titles. She noted that “he treaded where others did not tread” and that among other bold moves, “he is the one who ruled unequivocally … that the Jews of Ethiopia are Jews in every sense.”