Beta Israel

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Beta Israel
Total population: over 105,000 (est.)
Significant populations in:

Israel: 90,000 (est.)
Ethiopia: 15,000 (est.)

Language Traditionally, (Kayla), more recently Amharic; Ge'ez as a liturgical language and now (in Israel) Hebrew as a liturgical and common language.
Religion Judaism
Related ethnic groups

• Jews
  • African Jews
    • Qemant
    • Falas Mora
  • Other Jewish groups

The Beta Israel (or "House of Israel"), known by outsiders by the pejorative term Falasha or Falash Mura ("exiles" or "strangers") are Jews of Ethiopian origin. Under the provisions of Israel's Law of Return (1950), over 90,000 of them have emigrated to Israel, most notably during Operation Moses and Operation Solomon, but also continuing until the present time.


Ethiopian enclave

Template:ClearrightTemplate:Jew The Beta Israel come from a Jewish enclave in the Ethiopian highlands which had no contact with other Jewish communities until the 1860s. The isolation of the Beta Israel was reported by an explorer James Bruce, who published his Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in Edinburgh in 1790. But in 1860 a Christian who converted from Judaism actually traveled to Ethiopia in order to attempt to convert the Beta Israel to Christianity. Popularly touted as a "lost tribe", the Beta Israel at first found many cultural barriers to acculturating in Israel.


The Beta Israel once spoke the Qwara language (Kayla), a Cushitic language, but now they speak Amharic, a Semitic language. Their liturgical language is Ge'ez; more recently they have adopted Hebrew. They consider the term "Falasha" pejorative, and today they prefer the term "Beta Israel" for themselves.

Israel intervenes

The Israeli government accepted the Beta Israel as Jews officially in 1975; Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin obtained clear rulings from Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef that they were legitimate descendants of the lost tribes. They were however required to undergo pro forma halakhic conversions to Judaism.

"Operation Moses" came to an abrupt halt in 1985, leaving many Beta Israel still in Ethiopia. It was not until 1990 that Israel and Ethiopia came to an agreement that would allow the remaining Beta Israel a chance to migrate to Israel. In 1991 however, the political and economic stability of Ethiopia deteriorated as rebels mounted attacks against and eventually won over the capital city of Addis Ababa. Worried about the fate of the Beta Israel during the transition period, the Israeli government along with several private groups prepared to covertly continue along with the migration. On Friday, May 24, Operation Solomon began. Over the course of 36 hours, a total of 34 El Al C-130 Hercules turboprop planes, with their seats removed to maximize passenger capacity, flew 14,325 Ethiopian Jews non-stop to Israel.


Traditions of the Beta Israel

Ethiopian legend relates that Ethiopians are descendants of Israelite tribes who came to Ethiopia with Menelik I, alleged to be the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (or Makida, in the legend). The legend relates that Menelik, as an adult, returned to his father in Jerusalem, and then resettled in Ethiopia. In the Bible there is no mention that the Queen of Sheba either married or had any sexual relations with King Solomon; rather, the narrative records that she was impressed with his wealth and wisdom, and they exchanged royal gifts, and then she returned to rule her people in "Kush". However, the "royal gifts" are interpreted by some as sexual contact.

However, the Beta Israel generally consider this legend to be a fabrication. Instead they believe, based on the 9th century stories of Eldad ha-Dani (the Danite), that the tribe of Dan attempted to avoid the civil war in the Kingdom of Israel between Solomon's son Rehoboam and Jeroboam the son of Nebat, by resettling in Egypt. From there they moved southwards up the Nile into Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian Jews are descended from these Danites.

Rabbinical view

Some Jewish halakhic authorities have asserted that the Beta Israel are the descendants of the tribe of Dan, one of the Ten Lost Tribes. In their view, these people established a Jewish kingdom which lasted for hundreds of years. With the rise of Christianity and later Islam, schisms arose and three kingdoms competed (probably others as well in Africa). Eventually, the Christian and Islamic Ethiopian kingdoms reduced the Jewish kingdom to a small impoverished section. The earliest authority to rule this way was the Radbaz (Rabbi David ben Zimra, 1462–1572). A recent authority who has ruled this way is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in 1973.

Other halakhic authorities have maintained that the Jewishness of the Beta Israel is seriously suspect. The earliest to do so was Rabbi Ya'akov Kastro, a student of the Radbaz (who had ruled that the Beta Israel were Jews). Most recent authorities have also ruled this way, including Rabbis Moshe Feinstein, Elazar Shach, Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, and Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.

In either case, rabbinical authorities require the Beta Israel to undergo shortened conversions as a religious precaution. Among those who carry the latter opinion, however, conversion is no mere formality if an Ethopian Jew wishes to be accepted within other Jewish communities.

DNA evidence

Gerard Lucotte and Pierre Smets in Human Biology (vol 71, December 1999, pp. 989–993) [1] ( studied the DNA of 38 unrelated Beta Israel males living in Israel and 104 Ethiopians living in regions located north of Addis Ababa and concluded that "the distinctiveness of the Y-chromosome haplotype distribution of Beta Israel Jews from conventional Jewish populations and their relatively greater similarity in haplotype profile to non-Jewish Ethiopians are consistent with the view that the Beta Israel people descended from ancient inhabitants of Ethiopia who converted to Judaism." [2] ( This study confirms the findings of an earlier study by Avshalom Zoossmann-Disken, A. Ticher, I. Hakim, Z. Goldwitch, A. Rubinstein, and Batsheva Bonné-Tamir titled Genetic affinities of Ethiopian Jews, published in Israel Journal of Medical Sciences 27:245 (1991).[3] ( A study of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes of Jewish and non-Jewish groups titled Jewish and Middle Eastern non-Jewish populations share a common pool of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June, 2000 suggested that "paternal gene pools of Jewish communities from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East descended from a common Middle Eastern ancestral population", with the exception of the Beta Israel, who were "affiliated more closely with non-Jewish Ethiopians and other North Africans" [4] ( These Y-chromosome studies only speak to the paternal lineage (some ethnic groups are a product of one maternal lineage and a different paternal lineage, see Métis people (Canada)), but a study of the Mitochondrial DNA [5] ( (which is passed only along the maternal lineage) shows that the most common mtDNA type found among the Ethiopian Jewish sample was present elsewhere only in Somalia, furthering the view that the Ethiopian Jews are of local (Ethiopian) origin.

Scholarly view

In the past secular scholars were divided on the origins of the Beta Israel; whether they were the descendents of an Israeli tribe, or converted by Jews living in Yemen, by the Jewish community in southern Egypt (Elephantine), or even by the permanent Jewish community in Ethiopia implied in Isaiah 11:11 (ca 740 BCE). However, modern scholars of Ethiopian history and Ethiopian Jews, such as James Quirin, Steve Kaplan, Kay Shelemay, and Harold Marcus, consider the Beta Israel to be a native group of Ethiopian Christians, who took on Biblical practices in the 14th to 16th centuries, and came to see themselves as Jews. Marcus pinpoints their origins to the persecutions of the sabbatarian movement of Abba Ewostatewos (c. 1273–1352), the remnants of which he believes grew into the Beta Israel of today. These views also accord with the DNA evidence on the Beta Israel.



  • Kaplan, Steve The Beta Israel (Falasha in Ethiopia: from Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century). New York University Press, re-issue edition, 1994. ISBN 0814746640
  • Marcus, Harold G. A History of Ethiopia. University of California Press, updated edition, 2002. ISBN 0520224795
  • Quirin, James. The Evolution of the Ethiopian Jews: A History of the Beta Israel (Falasha) to 1920. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. ISBN 0812231163
  • Shelemay, Kay Kaufman. Music, Ritual, and Falasha History. Michigan State University Press; 1989. ISBN 0870132741

External links

fr:Falashas he:ביתא ישראל nl:Beta Israël


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