Image: Ethiopian community celebrating Sigd at the Tayelet in Jerusalem in 2011. The sign, in Hebrew and Amharic says, “Welcome to the Festival of Sigd.” Yehudit Garinkol via the PikiWiki – Israel free image collection project.
50 days after the solemnity of Yom Kippur, on the 29th of Cheshvan, Ethiopian Jews celebrate the festival of Sigd [“Prostration”.] Since 2008 it has been a national holiday in Israel as well. This year (2017) it coincided with Shabbat on 17 November.
The holiday celebrates the renewal of the covenant between God and Israel. On the larger Jewish calendar, it echoes the Biblical holiday of Shavuot, which falls 50 days after Passover.
The text to which the holiday is based in two passages in the book of Nehemiah, which recounts the events of the return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon:
On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Teaching before the congregation, men and women and all who could listen with understanding.
He read from it, facing the square before the Water Gate, from the first light until midday, to the men and the women and those who could understand; the ears of all the people were given to the scroll of the Teaching.
Ezra the scribe stood upon a wooden tower made for the purpose, and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah at his right, and at his left Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, Meshullam.
Ezra opened the scroll in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; as he opened it, all the people stood up.
Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” with hands upraised. Then they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves before the LORD with their faces to the ground. – Nehemiah 8:2-6
and then, in the next month, and the next chapter of the book:
On the twenty-fourth day of this month, the Israelites assembled, fasting, in sackcloth, and with earth upon them.
Those of the stock of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.
Standing in their places, they read from the scroll of the Teaching of the LORD their God for one-fourth of the day, and for another fourth they confessed and prostrated themselves before the LORD their God. – Nehemiah 9:1-3
As Shai Afsai wrote for the CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly:
Those two ancient Jerusalem assemblies, on Rosh Hashanah and on the twenty-fourth of Tishre, are the Sigd’s blueprint. Reading, translating, and expounding upon portions of the Bible, as well as the lifting of hands in prayer, and prostration, are features of the day. And as on that twenty-fourth of Tishre gathering, the Sigd also involves fasting and a communal confessing of sins, as well as re-acceptance of the Torah.
Back in Ethiopia, during their long exile, the Jewish community gathered on mountaintops to pray and hear words of Torah. Nowadays Ethiopian Jews in Israel gather at the Tayelet, a large plaza which overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem, to recall their years of exile and to celebrate their reunion with the Jews of the world in Israel. They welcome Jews of all backgrounds to the celebration.
They campaigned for many years for the inclusion of Sigd as an official Jewish holiday in Israel; that quest was successful in 2008.
For photographs of the celebration in 2017, see this Times of Israel article by David Sedly,
While I am not aware of American Jewish celebrations of Sigd (please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong!) this seems to me to be a wonderful opportunity for celebrating the Torah here as well. What if our religious schools took this holiday as an opportunity for learning about the diversity of Jewish ethnicities and expressions in the world?