The history of Ethiopian Jews is a captivating narrative that diverges significantly from the more well-known tales of Jewish communities in the Middle East and Europe. It is a history marked by a distinct set of circumstances, beliefs, and challenges. In this exploration, we will delve into the history of Ethiopian Jews up until the late 19th century, reserving the events of the 20th century when Ethiopian Jews returned to the land of Israel for a separate discussion.

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European “Discovery” and Ancient Roots

The European “discovery” of Ethiopian Jews, a term rooted in colonial history, is often attributed to the 18th-century explorer James Bruce, who brought attention to this unique Jewish community through his work “Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile.” However, it’s vital to understand that the Jews of Ethiopia had long been known to Jews themselves, with historical references predating Bruce’s accounts.

Eldad the Danite, a mysterious figure from the ninth century, claimed association with a Jewish kingdom, possibly in Ethiopia. However, his account remains a subject of skepticism among historians, as its authenticity is questioned.

Benjamin of Tudela, a renowned Jewish traveler, offered a more reliable account based on information gathered from others. Obadiah ben Abraham of Bertinoro, also known as The Bartenura, recorded the presence of dark-skinned Nubian Jews in slave markets, who required redemption by the Jewish community.


Support from Prominent Rabbis

Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Zimra, known as Radbaz, a prominent 16th-century rabbi, confirmed the Jewish identity of Ethiopian Jews, particularly those from the tribe of Dan. His rulings supported the redemption of Ethiopian Jewish slave women and their subsequent marriage to Jewish individuals.


The Origins and Beliefs of Ethiopian Jews

Ethiopian Jews have a unique and somewhat mysterious history. They resided near Lake Tana, situated thousands of miles south of Israel, but not far from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The question of their origin remains a subject of debate. This tradition is based on the story of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, which is central to Ethiopian oral traditions. However, there is limited supporting evidence for this narrative.

Other oral accounts suggest that Ethiopian Jews might be descendants of Jews who left Egypt during the Exodus or possibly the tribe of Dan, who supposedly found refuge in Ethiopia to escape the Assyrian invasion. A plausible theory is that Judaism arrived in Ethiopia through the influence of the Himyar, a kingdom in South Arabia that converted to Judaism around the 4th to 5th century. The exact origin remains unclear, but what’s evident is that a unique group in Ethiopia identifies as Jews, coexisting within the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia.


Self-Governance, Conflict, and Identity

Ethiopian Jews had a significant presence in the region, often in conflict with Christian rulers. The 16th century marked a peak of self-governance for them, followed by a gradual decline as they lost much of their land. They shifted from farming to crafts and maintained a strong presence in martial arts.

The term “Beta Israel” or the “House of Israel” was used by this community to distinguish themselves from Ethiopian Christians, referred to as the “House of Christianity.” Over the centuries, they were derogatorily called “Falasha” or landless wanderers, but they respectfully referred to themselves as “Beta Yisrael.”


Unique Religious Practices

The Ethiopian Jewish faith, known as “Haymanot” or “faith,” is distinctly biblical, devoid of rabbinic or Karaite influences. Their calendar includes the fast of Esther but omits Hanukkah. Their practices and beliefs provide insight into their unique origins and faith.


Challenges and the 19th Century Exodus Attempt

In the 19th century, Ethiopian Jews displayed a profound longing for Zion. However, a significant event in 1855 marked a turning point when an Ethiopian Jewish father brought his son to Jerusalem for rabbinic education, and the son later converted to Christianity. This incident marked the beginning of efforts by the Christian world, particularly Protestant Christians, to convert the Ethiopian Jewish community to Christianity once their presence became known to the outside world.

In 1862, a crisis occurred when an Ethiopian Jew converted to Christianity and excommunicated by the village elders cursed them in the name of the emperor. This curse had a significant impact, leading to a court appeal before Emperor Tewodros II, who issued a decree limiting their religious practices.

In the same year, a large number of Ethiopian Jews, exact in number unknown, decided to embark on a march to Israel, a journey of about 2,500 miles or 4,000 kilometers on foot. This effort, motivated by religious sincerity, ended in disaster as hunger and disease afflicted the participants. Many survivors stayed in Tigray, while others attempted to return to Lake Tana. While the 19th century posed significant challenges to Ethiopian Jewry, their history would take a new and hopeful turn in the 20th century.


Embarking on a Cultural Journey Through Jewish Tours



Exploring our shared Jewish heritage, we unweave the fabric of our history, shedding light on our collective narrative. To fully engage in this enriching experience, we welcome you to embark on an exceptional glatt kosher cruise with Kosher Riverboat Cruises. Blending the pleasures of travel with the convenience of kosher luxury, it’s more than just a getaway; it’s a voyage of culture, connection, and the bonds of our Jewish trips.