White turbaned kess or priests are the traditional leaders of Israel’s Ethiopian community, but if Israel’s rabbinut has its way then they will disappear along with the customs they have preserved for centuries. According to Israel HaYom and a widely syndicated story, the rabbinut wants to put an end to the Ethiopian priesthood.
Despite Israel being a Jewish state, it only recognizes a small percentage of the world Jewish community’s religious leaders. Most know about the lack of recognition for Israeli ordained liberal Jews. Less well known are the difficulties of non-European Jewish communities: Indian, Yemenite, Ethiopian and others.
The core problem is that the Jewishness of the state is determined by the rabbinut. The Israel rabbinut considers its brand of Judaism as normative and rejects others. Its definition of Judaism is practice based rather than values or process based. It has few tools for finding a common meeting ground when community customs differ for either ethnic or philosophical reasons.
Among Ethiopian Jews, priests, rather than rabbis, have been the traditional religious leaders. Along with the priests come several distinctive rituals. The language of prayer is Ge’ez. Their version of the Tenach (Hebrew Bible), called the Orit, is written in Ge’ez as well. Priests are responsible for preparing kosher meat and use a slaughtering method that differs from European and North African Jews.The wedding ritual also differs from European Jews. So much so, that Israeli Ethiopians who are married by the rabbinut often have a second ceremony with more traditional customs.
On Rosh HaShanna, the beating of drums replaces the shofar. Fifty days after Yom Kippur, on the 29th of Cheshvan, they celebate Sigd. The community fasts, reads psalms, and rededicates their lives to the Torah. On Succot produce is brought to the Kess for a blessing. In Adar, they celebrate a three day fast similar to Ramadan, eating only at nighttime. At passover, traditional Ethiopian Jews slaughter sheep and read the story of the Exodus from their own version of the Haggadah. On Ba’ala Maerrar, a festival seven days later than the Sukkot of European Jews, women bake a special bread and the loaves are brought to the priest for a blessing.
The origins of Ethiopian’s Jews are shrouded in myth and conjecture, but one theory is that the community originates from the tribe of Dan. The Dan tribe left for Egypt to escape the conflict between Jeroboam, king of Northern Israel, and Rehoboam, king of the South. During this period of Israel’s history, priestly customs were practiced wherever priests lived and not just at the temple in Jerusalem. They took these customs with them when they went to Egypt and have continued to practice them to this day.
European Jews customs differ markedly because they are descended from Jews who remained in Israel throughout the struggles between the Northern and Southern kingdoms. When the Assyrians conquered Israel, most of the Jews were exiled to Babylon. When they returned from exile, the priesthood became centered on the temple in Jerusalem and priestly activities outside of the Temple were prohibited. When the temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the Jews in the region shifted their focus to text study and debate. Rabbis rather than priests became the dominant model of leadership. Over time Jews from Palestine spread out along trade routes on both sides of the Mediterranean, in both North Africa and Europe. However none of these trade routes went through the home lands of Ethiopian Jews and there was minimal contact between the two Jewish communities.
When the Ethiopian Jews began immigrating to Israel, the Israeli rabbinut was so suspicious that they made many of them go through pro-forma conversions. Although Ethiopians began making aliah in the 1980’s, their priests were denied government salaries until 1992. Since then 13 new priests have been ordained and the government refused to give them salaries. Several demonstrations and a hunger strike later the ministry of religious services agreed to pay the new priests but insisted that these would be the last.