Are Ethiopia’s Falashans Jews?

Marc B. Shapiro writes:

…I was involved in the Ethiopian Jewry cause.[43] My first trip there, in 1987, was memorable, as we were the first group allowed into the villages of Gondar after Operation Moses. (It was also great to be together with Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky, who in recent years has done such important work on various communal traditions that are in danger of being forgotten.) Yet I vividly recall how even then, when I was quite young, I knew that the notion of the Ethiopian Jews being descended from Dan was a legend without any historical value. The Ethiopians themselves never claimed that they had any connection to the tribe of Dan.

The legend goes back to Eldad ha-Dani and was accepted as authentic by the Radbaz.[44] Based on this, and some other sources that accepted this spurious identification, R. Ovadiah Yosef declared the Ethiopian Jews halakhically Jewish. I regarded R. Ovadiah as a hero for taking this step. Truth be told, I didn’t care how he arrived at this decision; I was just happy he did. My attitude was that it is not for me to be mixing in on these matters, even if I know that certain things being stated don’t stand up to scholarly scrutiny. After all, halakhah operates as an independent discipline with its own rules. The halakhic “truth” need not be identical with what an outsider observer would regard as truth.

…I didn’t live with the Ethiopian Jews. Unfortunately, the online versions do not contain the beautiful pictures I took. Here are a few pictures (the men were religious leaders of the village). The book in strange script is the Torah written in Ge’ez. My second trip to Ethiopia was in August 1991, a few months after the overthrow of the Mengistu communist regime. There was still a nighttime curfew in effect during this period and I did not go with a group. While in Addis Ababa I was lucky to become friendly with Asher Naim, the Israeli ambassador. Although this is a story worth telling, for now let me simply recommend his book Saving the Lost Tribe: The Rescue and Redemption of the Ethiopian Jews.

[44] In his famous letter urging that the Ethiopian Jews be rescued, R. Moshe Feinstein also expresses doubts about whether the Radbaz’ information about their origin was accurate. See here.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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