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The Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd is more relevant than ever

In the 1997 Seinfeld episode “The Strike,” George Castanza is embarrassed when his father Frank shamelessly promotes Festivus, a December 23 celebration that Frank created years ago in reaction to the other winter festivals in popular culture. The episode ends with George’s friends and enemies joining together at the Castanza home as Frank leads the family in the made-up traditions of this made-up day, including the performance of feats of strength and the public airing of grievances against one another.

We all observe birthdays, anniversaries and other milestones. Yet many of us would find it strange to incorporate new holidays like Festivus into our calendars. At the same time, there are numerous holidays — known as Purim K’tanim — observed by local Jewish communities around the world with profound and unique histories. They mark days of salvation from enemies and other accomplishments worth celebration and the offering of thanks to God.

And then there is Sigd, a holiday rife with meaning for — and until recently known only by — Ethiopian Jews. Sigd marks 50 days since Yom Kippur, which Ethiopian Jews understand as a day of personal repentance and spiritual striving, and which marks the beginning of a process of communal growth and repair. Sigd then completes that process, not unlike the 50 day period that begins with Passover and culminates with receiving the Torah on Shavuot.

Rabbi Sharon Shalom, who has worked tirelessly to preserve and promote the traditions of his community in Israel, describes the ancient Sigd celebrations in great detail in his book, “From Sinai to Ethiopia.” The community would carefully count 50 days from Yom Kippur. Then, they would prepare special foods and wear their best clothing as they gathered in central villages and ultimately climbed nearby mountains. There, verses from the Urit (Ethiopian Torah) and other prayers would be recited. These prayers were focused on communal repentance, redemption, communal solidarity and the joy that flows from that unity. The ceremony would end with participants asking each other for forgiveness, bowing to the ground and praying that next year, they would be in Jerusalem.

Today, with the vast majority of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, and with easy access to Jerusalem, Sigd has taken on even greater significance as the Knesset has added it to its official list of Jewish holidays. This recognition has been an important milestone for Ethiopian Jews, whose heritage and customs are often seen as second class in the larger Jewish community. The official recognition also invites all Jews to consider the meaning of Sigd.

With the tremendous trials and triumphs of 2020, perhaps this is the year for us non-Ethiopians to find a way to celebrate Sigd. I remember our family’s preparations for Passover this year. My wife, a front-line physician, and I had both contracted Covid-19 within days of each other in the week leading up to the holiday. Juggling taking care of each other and our children while still in isolation and unable to shop, cook or clean as we normally would, we were graced by amazing generosity of time and spirit from so many in our local Jewish community.

Friends, family and even work colleagues made sure our home was ready for the Seders. I often wonder if our children noticed just how different this Pesach was when they sang Ma Nishtana as we sat around our table enjoying the smallest seder we’d ever experienced as a family.

So many others around the world have benefited from immense acts of kindness over the past year, and Sigd invites us to share love, solidarity and community, and to be grateful for all we accomplish when we focus on the needs of others: wearing masks and following other guidelines provided by health officials.

And perhaps Sigd is also an opportunity to confront the ongoing blight of racism in our midst. A holiday born out of the experience of a long-forgotten Black Jewish community, which challenges us to consider how our individual actions impact our society, is a good place to begin a process of repair. Today, we are already challenged to consider our treatment of those who are most often left feeling unwelcome in our Shuls, schools and other institutions of Jewish belonging; recognizing Sigd is an opportunity to start in encouraging diversity and inclusivity.

Sigd will take place this coming Sunday night and Monday, and I invite you to join me in marking this day with reflection and celebration as we draw inspiration from Ethiopian Jews’ unique experiences and teachings. Ultimately, Sigd can help us grow as an inclusive community and reflect on the immense power we have when we work together to better our community and the world around us.

Rabbi Yonah Berman is Mashgiach, Director of Alumni Engagement and Chair of Professional Rabbinics at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, NY.

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