What is Sigd?

Image: Ethiopian Jewish Women celebrate Sigd in Jerusalem. (Photo: Yehudit Garinkol)

Sigd is the name of the only Jewish holiday in the month of Cheshvan. It is celebrated by Ethiopian Jews on the 29th of Cheshvan. The word “sigd” (ሰግድ) means “prostration” in Amharic, an Ethiopian language.

50 days after the solemnity of Yom Kippur, on the 29th of Cheshvan, Ethiopian Jews celebrate the festival of Sigd [“Prostration”.]  This year (2018) it will be celebrated beginning at sundown on November 6, ending at sundown on December 7.

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?

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Chodesh Tov: It’s Cheshvan

Chodesh Tov!  [Happy (new) month!]

That’s the traditional greeting for every new month. The moon is key to the Jewish calendar, and every new moon is a new month, a Rosh Chodesh.

The month of Cheshvan is the quietest month of the Jewish year – no holidays, no fasts, just quiet. And really, after the last six weeks, it’s time for a little quiet. The only exception is the Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd, which is celebrated in Israel on the 29th of CheshvanSigd falls on the 50th day after Yom Kippur (just as Shavuot is 50 days after the first night of Passover) and in Ethiopian Jewish tradition, it is the day to celebrate God revealing Godself to Moses. For more about Sigd, there is an excellent article in the Times of Israel.

The name Cheshvan is short for Marcheshvan, the older name for the month, which comes from waraḫsamnu, the Akkadian (Mesopotamian) name meaning “eighth month.” (In Mesopotamia, the month we call Nisan is the first of the month, which is how the months were counted in Biblical times, too.)

At some point in the past someone noticed that Mar is Hebrew for “bitter,” and the tradition arose that Marcheshvan was “Bitter Cheshvan.” Indeed, there are bitter dates in the month:

12 Cheshvan – Assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin (1995)

16 Cheshvan – Kristallnacht (1938)

Bitter though those dates may be, I wish you a gentle month of Cheshvan in 5776.

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