FALASHAS (i.e. exiles; Ethiopic falas, a stranger), or "Jews of Abyssinia," a tribe of Hamitic stock, akin to Galla, Somali and Beja, though they profess the Jewish religion. They claim to be descended from the ten tribes banished from the Holy Land. Another tradition assigns them as ancestor Menelek, Solomon's alleged son by the queen of Sheba. There is little or no physical difference between them and the typical Abyssinians, except perhaps that their eyes are a little more oblique; and they may certainly be regarded as Hamitic. It is uncertain when they became Jews: one account suggests in Solomon's time; another, at the Babylonian captivity; a third, during the 1st century of the Christian era. That one of the earlier dates is correct seems probable from the fact that the Falashas know nothing of either the Babylonian or Jerusalem Talmud, make no use of phylacteries (tefillin), and observe neither the feast of Purim nor the dedication of the temple. They possess - not in Hebrew, of which they are altogether ignorant, but in Ethiopic (or Geez)- the canonical and apocryphal books of the Old Testament; a volume of extracts from the Pentateuch, with comments given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai; the Te-e-sa-sa Sanbat, or laws of the Sabbath; the Ardit, a book of secrets revealed to twelve saints, which is used as a charm against disease; lives of Abraham, Moses, &c.; and a translation of Josephus called Sana Aihud. A copy of the Orit or Mosaic law is kept in the holy of holies in every synagogue. Various pagan observances are mingled in their ritual: every newly-built house is considered uninhabitable till the blood of a sheep or fowl has been spilt in it; a woman guilty of a breach of chastity has to undergo purification by leaping into a flaming fire; the Sabbath has been deified, and, as the goddess Sanbat, receives adoration and sacrifice and is said to have ten thousand times ten thousand angels to wait on her commands. There is a monastic system, introduced it is said in the 4th century A.D. by Aba Zebra, a pious man who retired from the world and lived in the cave of Hoharewa, in the province of Armatshoho. The monks must prepare all their food with their own hands, and no lay person, male or female, may enter their houses. Celibacy is not practised by the priests, but they are not allowed to marry a second time, and no one is admitted into the order who has eaten bread with a Christian, or is the son or grandson of a man thus contaminated. Belief in the evil eye or shadow is universal, and spirit-raisers, soothsayers and rain-doctors are in repute. Education is in the hands of the monks and priests, and is confined to boys. Fasts, obligatory on all above seven years of age, are held on every Monday and Thursday, on every new moon, and at the passover (the 21st or 22nd of April). The annual festivals are the passover, the harvest feast, the Baala Mazalat or feast of tabernacles (during which, however, no booths are built), the day of covenant or assembly and Abraham's day. It is believed that after death the soul remains in a place of darkness till the third day, when the first sacrifice for the dead is offered; prayers are read in the synagogue for the repose of the departed, and for seven days a formal lament takes place every morning in his house. No coffins are used, and a stone vault is built over the corpse so that it may not come into direct contact with the earth.
The Falashas are an industrious people, living for the most part in villages of their own, or, if they settle in a Christian or Mahommedan town, occupying a separate quarter. They had their own kings, who, they pretend, were descended from David, from the 10th century until 1800, when the royal race became extinct, and they then became subject to the Abyssinian kingdom of Tigre. They do not mix with the Abyssinians, and never marry women of alien religions. They are even forbidden to enter the houses of Christians, and from such a pollution have to be purified before entering their own houses. Polygamy is not practised; early marriages are rare, and their morals are generally better than those of their Christian masters. Unlike most Jews, they have no liking for trade, but are skilled in agriculture, in the manufacture of pottery, ironware and cloth, and are good masons. Their numbers are variously estimated at from one hundred to one hundred and fifty thousand.
Bibliography. - M. Flad, Zwolf Jahre in Abyssinia (Basel, 1869), and his Falashas of Abyssinia, translated from the German by S. P. Goodhart (London, 1869); H. A. Stern, Wanderings among the Falashas in Abyssinia (London, 1862); Joseph Halevy, Travels in Abyssinia (trans. London, 1878); Morais, "The Falashas" in Penn Monthly (Philadelphia, 1880); Cyrus Adler, "Bibliography of the Falashas" in American Hebrew (16th of March 1894); Lewin, "Ein verlassener Bruderstamm," in Bloch's Wochenschrift (7th February 1902), p. 85; J. Faitlovitch, Notes d'un voyage chez les Falachas (Paris, 1905).
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