From Sinai to Ethiopia

(Gefen Books, 2016)

Once in a while I get to meet special people in whom I see a special divine spark; people that blend warmth, wit, and wisdom; people who live in the moment yet seem to see beyond the moment. Rabbi Dr. Sharon Shalom is most certainly one such individual.

Sharon was born in Ethiopia in 1973 and when he was just 8 years old he made the 2-month journey by foot with his family from Ethiopia to Sudan to the Twawa refugee camp. Unfortunately, not all of those at the camp were able to travel at once to Israel and so, as the eldest child, Sharon – or as he was known then, Zaude – was sent by his parents so that at least he could fulfil the dreams of reaching Jerusalem. Sharon travelled by truck, boat and plane and by January 1982 he realised the dream of arriving in Israel. Yet despite fulfilling the dream of returning to Israel, Sharon did not feel fully at home. Instead, he felt like a foreigner and experienced a form of identity crisis. ‘In Ethiopia I was identified as a Jew of Beta Israel. They called me “Israel.” But ironically, here in Israel, I was called “Ethiopian”’ (p. 12). The sense of alone-ness was further compounded by the fact that Sharon had been told that his parents had died.

Sharon studied at the Afula children’s home but in 1984 he was told that a mistake had been made and that his family was actually alive. Sharon was reunited with his parents who had been brought to Israel in Operation Moses. Following high school, Sharon studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion where he combined his Torah study with army service, and he has since received numerous qualifications including rabbinical ordination (semicha) from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel – the first to be given to an Ethiopian Jew – and a PhD in Jewish philosophy from Bar-Ilan University. Rabbi Dr Shalom lectures both in Tel Aviv and Bar Ilan University, and he also serves as rabbi to the Kedoshei Yisrael community in Kiryat Gat.

Having read his story it may be natural to think that Rabbi Shalom’s journey is now over. But along with his gentle demeanour is a passion to make a real difference in the world and, in terms of Ethiopian Jewry, a yearning that the current and next generation of Ethiopian Jews in Israel do not undergo the type of identity crisis that he experienced.

In 2012 Rabbi Shalom published מסיני לאתיופיה which contained a lengthy and scholarly essay exploring the spiritual world of Ethiopian Jewry, as well as ‘Shulhan Ha-Orit’ – what could be described as an Ethiopian Kitzur Shulhan Aruch – in which he outlined Ethiopian laws and customs in light of contemporary practice and offered halakhic suggestions to first and second generation Ethiopian immigrants to Israel. Earlier this year, מסיני לאתיופיה was translated into English under the title ‘From Sinai to Ethiopia’, and since purchasing a copy I have literally not been able to put it down.

From an initial glance, one may think that From Sinai to Ethiopia is about cultural preservation. But more significantly, From Sinai to Ethiopia is concerned with halakhic and social integration wherein Rabbi Shalom offers a pathway for Ethiopian Jews to bridge the halakhic and cultural gap between their long-held traditions and the many laws and customs which they encountered upon arriving in Israel. I deliberately use the term integration to contrast it with assimilation because, unlike assimilation, integration does not demand that a particular group shed their identity simply because they find themselves amongst a group of differing laws and customs. From Sinai to Ethiopia is therefore a compelling argument for the legitimacy of Ethiopian laws and customs and a powerful expression concerning the plurality of tradition and the nature of religious practice in the modern state of Israel.

But it is particularly in the second section of From Sinai to Ethiopia in his Shulhan Ha-Orit where Rabbi Shalom’s vision is best expressed – and from where he has received the greatest level of criticism.

In Shulhan Ha-Orit Rabbi Shalom explores every aspect of Jewish law and custom beginning each entry with a description of the general practice within the Beta Israel community, continuing with a summary of how each issue is addressed in the Talmud, and concluding with suggestions regarding how the Beta Israel community should or should not maintain elements of their traditional practice in contemporary society.

In some instances the suggestions made by Rabbi Shalom are little more than cultural accommodations. For example, while the Talmud does not require that we wash our feet each morning, this remained a custom among the Beta Israel. Thus, Rabbi Shalom explains that ‘there is no obligation to wash the feet because today people do not usually walk barefoot. Still, if a person wants to wash his feet, he is certainly permitted to do so. He should wash his feet himself, and not have his wife do it for him, as was the practice in most locations in Ethiopia’. What we see from here is that Rabbi Shalom sees no major conflict between some traditional customs and modern living, although he does suggest that each person wash their own feet.

In other instances, however, the contrast between the customs of the Beta Israel and most other Jewish communities are particularly stark. For example, the Beta Israel did not practice laws that many would consider as core to Jewish living such as tefillin, mezuzah, Shofar and Arba Minim (nb. although all of these were biblical commandments, the Beta Israel community had, at some stage, forgotten how to practice each of these commandments). In other instances, the Beta Israel community maintained practices which are now no longer performed such as offering sacrifices, prostrating during their prayer services, and permitting the eating of chicken and dairy. In some cases the Beta Israel acted in ways which conflict with normative Jewish practice such as bringing charity money to synagogue on Shabbat, using an umbrella on Shabbat, and allowing greetings towards men and women that include shaking hands and kissing the cheek, while in other cases they forbade what is generally understood to be permitted practice such as forbidding fire to be left on a Friday so that it continues to burn into Shabbat, the use of wine for any reason, marital relations on Shabbat, and the breaking of Torah laws to save a life (ie. Pikuach Nefesh).

In response to some of these positions Rabbi Shalom is emphatic that the Beta Israel must change their practice to reflect normative Jewish law. For example, concerning Pikuach Nefesh he writes that ‘it is absolutely forbidden to continue to follow the Ethiopian custom, and the Beta Israel must immediately adopt the general Jewish custom for all issues of saving a life’.

Similarly, he writes concerning laws such as Shofar that ‘the mitzvah of blowing the shofar is a biblical injunction, and so everyone must fulfill it as the general Jewish population does’.

In cases such as the eating of chicken with dairy Rabbi Shalom writes that ‘although there is no biblical prohibition… the Beta Israel should stop the practice of eating them together, in order to create a uniform halakhah. First-generation immigrants who wish to do so should do it only in private. Second-generation immigrants are not permitted to do so.’ Similarly, he writes about the offering of sacrifices that ‘in my view, the ceremony of offering sacrifices cannot remain as it was practiced in Ethiopia’ and instead he suggests liturgical replacements to fill the void of sacrificial offerings.

However, it is especially in cases where Beta Israel practice appears to have greater halakhic legitimacy or where its dismissal would have a significantly negative impact on the Ethiopian community’s day-to-day behavior where Rabbi Shalom’s suggestions are particularly fascinating.

For example, while numerous halakhic authorities prohibit the use of umbrella’s on Shabbat and festivals, others claim that there is no prohibition against opening them. Consequently, given that umbrella’s ‘formed part of the proper clothing for worshipping God’, Rabbi Shalom writes that ‘the Ethiopian Jews are permitted to use an umbrella… on condition they open the umbrella before Shabbat begins’. Similarly when discussing the practice of bringing charity money to synagogue on Shabbat, Rabbi Shalom suggests that ‘those who follow the custom of bringing should continue to bring, as the money is designated for use on Shabbat. In the Ethiopian world, which is based on trust, we do not suspect that a person might use this money for other purposes on Shabbat.’ And regarding the shaking of hands and kissing of cheeks of friends, while Rabbi Shalom admits that this is a complex issue, he writes that ‘the Ethiopian Jews should continue their custom to greet members of the opposite sex, shake hands, and even kiss on the cheek. However, they must preserve the barriers of modesty that existed in Ethiopia (modest dress, no relations before marriage, separate seating in the synagogue, etc.).

For many in the Beta Israel community, Shulhan Ha-Orit is nothing less than monumental, and what Rabbi Shalom has achieved by this work is to place Ethiopian laws and customs on the map. As Rabbi Reuven-Tal Iasso explained, ‘Rabbi Shalom has shaken the rabbinic world by forcing it to confront Ethiopian tradition in rabbinic language, the language of halakhah and Jewish law.’ More significantly, as Priest Kes Mentosnot (Eli) Wende remarked, ‘this work brings together the younger generation, which was born and grew up in Israel, and the adult generation, which may Aliyah. This book is a link that connects between past and present, a continuation of the long chain of our tradition..’.

However, not all were thrilled with this work. In fact, there were those who regarded From Sinai to Ethiopia as a direct attack on ‘tradition’ and especially on the authority of the Shulchan Aruch, and when the original hebrew volume was published in 2012, Rabbi Shalom was severely criticized by numerous rabbinic leaders including then Sefardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.

Yet despite these attacks and despite knowing that many may disagree with some of his suggestions, Rabbi Shalom knows that what he has achieved is of great significance because through sharing the wisdom and traditions of the Beta Israel community, he has exquisitely demonstrated that halakha is not monolithic, but rather, it contains a wide range of voices reflecting the diversity of the Jewish people.

To purchase a copy of this incredible book, click here.