The Human Spirit: Sigd signals

Published in the Jerusalem Post
11/22/2012 12:39

Nearly 200 women and men celebrate an Ethiopian festival for Nishmat’s Maayan Program.


‘What happens when you want to move a tree?” asks the stately young woman in the long white gown, reading to the audience from an oversized notebook marked “Sigd.”

Let’s call her Adina – a name that works in both Hebrew and Amharic. Out of modesty and unease about media exposure, she prefers to use a pseudonym.

“You can try to transplant the tree without the roots,” she says. “But if you take the trouble of digging out the roots, it will thrive in new surroundings.”

This Ethiopian aphorism captures the theme of Sigd night at Nishmat, the Jeannie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women in Jerusalem. Nishmat is renowned for enabling women to decode complex Jewish texts, a prerequisite for leadership in the religious community, and for the pioneering of women’s halachic advisers – yoetzot halacha – who run an authoritative hotline for women in matters of ritual purity.

But tonight the tall books of Talmud are stored away.

Nearly 200 women and men – students, teachers, volunteers, friends – led by Ethiopian-born students like Adina from Nishmat’s Maayan Program, are celebrating the Ethiopian festival. The usual photos of Sigd show Ethiopian patriarchs (kesim) in white robes, carrying umbrellas and staffs, praying on the hillsides of Jerusalem. Back in Ethiopia, Jews celebrated Sigd by fasting, dressing in festive white clothing and climbing to the highest nearby mountain peak where they reaffirmed their commitment to the observance of Judaism and their continued longing for Jerusalem through prayer and reading the Torah. Later, they returned to their villages for feasting and dancing. In 2008, the Knesset made Sigd an official holiday of the State of Israel.

Adina has taken a rare day off from her intensive studies.

She went to the ritual ceremony with her dormmates, Sabra Torah scholars and American gap-year students, and interpreted for them. And she and her 16 fellow Ethiopian-born first-year Maayan students have prepared the evening’s dramatic readings and the food.

The menu includes miser wat (red lentils), dabo (bread) and stewed vegetables eaten with injera, the high-protein sour crepe that is the staple of the Ethiopian diet.