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The Jews of Ethiopia
By Ellen Minsky - March 8, 2009


Shabbat in Gondar (Photo: AP)
The Beit Israel or the "House of Israel" is the name given to the Jewish community originating in Ethiopia. One of the Ethiopian legends contained in Kebra Negast, or "Book of the Glory of Kings," says that that Ethiopians are descendants of Israelite tribes who came to Ethiopia with the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The legend goes that this son, Menelik, returned to his father in Jerusalem but that later he went back to Ethiopia and took the Ark of the Covenant with him. There are no references to this arrangement in the Torah but for many years it was acceptable folklore throughout Ethiopian Jewry.

Most Ethiopian Jews of the Beit Israel however donít believe this legend but rather trace their Jewish origins to the tribe of Dan who settled in Egypt to avoid the civil war in Israel between Solomon's son Rehoboam and Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, following the death of Solomon. Later Dan and his followers moved southwards up the Nile into Ethiopia, and the Beit Israel are descended from these Danites.

There are historical and rabbinical references to the Beit Israel and in the ninth century the Jewish traveler Eldad ha-Dani claimed the Beit Israel descended from the tribe of Dan, claiming Jewish kingdoms around or in East Africa existed during this time. The Rabbi Ovadiah Yare of Bertinoro is also quoted in a letter from Jerusalem in 1488 that he saw some of the Beit Israel in Egypt and noted that they claimed to be related to the tribe of Dan.

It is thought that the Beit Israel established a Jewish kingdom that lasted for hundreds of years but with the rise of Christianity and later Islam the Jewish kingdom was reduced to a small impoverished section.
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