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Judiasm & Rastafarianism:
A study of the Falashas

Edward Bardfield

Spring, 1998

In this research paper I will discuss the ethnic groups of Africans in the Caribbean and Jews in Ethiopia. Jews in Ethiopia call themselves Beta Israel which means `house of Israel.' They are also known as the Falashas. Falasha means `stranger' or `immigrant' in the classical language of Ethiopia (the Ge'ez tongue). I will also describe the culture of the African people displaced into the Caribbean who identify themselves as the Rastafarians and the connections I have made between them and Judaism. I believe that these connections between Judaism and Rastafarianism are more than just similarities that can be found between any two Bible- following religions. I choose the Falashas as the topic for personal, religious and spiritual reasons. I was born into a Jewish household, rich in the traditions and customs of my Hebrew ancestors. I grew up however in the Caribbean, home of the unique culture known as the Rastafari. Throughout my life I have felt a deep connection between Judaism and Rastafarianism. In this paper I seek the origins and history of the connection that I feel in my heart. I believe that the Falashas are the bridge between these two cultures.

The connection of the Rastas to Ethiopia is a deep and mystical one. It would take hundreds of pages to illustrate the connections of this culture to Israel. In briefly describing their culture I attempt to illustrate what sparked my attention about the similarities between Jews, Falashas, and Rastas. The Rastas believe that they are originally and ancestrally Ethiopians. They were stolen from their homeland in times of slavery and brought to the `New World'. To say the least, the Rastafarians believe in many of the similar concepts that Jews do. However, the spiritual beliefs of the Rastas differ slightly from that of modern day Jews. While Jews are still waiting for the messiah, Rastas believe that the messiah has already come (and, unfortunately, gone) in the form of the last Emperor of Ethiopia, His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie I."Today man sees all his hopes and aspirations crumble before him. He is perplexed and knows not whither he is drifting. But he must realise that the solution of his present difficulties and guidance for his future action is the Bible. Unless he accepts with clear conscience the Bible and its great message, he cannot hope for salvation. For myself, I glory in the Bible."- Selassie I

Emperor Haile Selassie is a direct descendant of King Salomon and the Queen of Sheba; not surprisingly the African people of the Caribbean looked to Selassie as their savior. They were taken from their motherland, Africa, in times of slavery and sought repatriation. Their situation made belief in a white god unrealistic. Selassie I was their Savior. It was on the day of November 2, 1930, when Selassie was crowned Emperor, that he assumed his name meaning"the power of the Holy Trinity". Since then, he has been called many names including King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and the Conquering Lion of Judah - all of which are taken from the book of Revelations. Before he was emperor, he was Ras Tafari, (Rosh Tiferet in Hebrew) which translates to"Crown Prince."A psalm in the Bible predicted"a crown prince shall come forth from Kush."This meant that when Haile Selassie was crowned emperor, in Jamaica they believed he was their savior. This linked in with Marcus Garvey's philosophy that Jamaica was Babylon and a savior would lead the slaves back to their Promised Land. A strong influence in the repatriation movement was Marcus Garvey, a philosopher who is famous for the philosophy"One God, One Aim, One Destiny"and"Africa for Africans at home and abroad."The connections between Rastas and Ethiopia are so strong that it seems as if the slaves that were brought to Jamaica were born in Ethiopia themselves.

Many aspects of Ethiopian culture portray Judaic influence. The Old Testament stimulates a connection between Rastafarianism and Judaism. Both cultures study this ancient text, yet I think all people could benefit from the teachings that the Bible has to offer. Jewish people believe that they are the chosen race, essentially from the story that God made a covenant with our ancestors and agreed to give us the Torah (Old Testament) because we agreed to teach it to our children. I am an example of this covenant. As a child I went to Hebrew school to learn to read and write in Hebrew and to study the Torah. Most Jewish children attend Hebrew School until they are bar/bat mitzvahed once they turn 13. Bar/bat mitzvah means literally son/daughter of the torah. A bar/batmitzvah is a unique Jewish rite of passage, like many other traits shared by the different sects of Judaism.

Another aspect of the Falasha and Rastafarian culture that shows Judaic influence is the observance of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is seen as a day of rest, set aside by God. The Sabbath is a time of study and relaxation, to be spent with one's family. It starts at dusk on Friday and runs until dusk on Saturday. Yet another key connection lies in dietary laws. The Torah dictates an extensive number of laws concerning food, which are known as the laws of Kashruit. Foods that are not `kosher' to eat include swine, birds of prey, and fish that do not have gills. These rules may seem random and illogical but they are not, they actually make perfect sense concerning the cleanliness and safety of eating meat. The Rastas have a different word for kosher. The Rastas say `ital'. Ital means vital, specifically the foods vital for survival. Rastafarians are vegetarians, which means they `keep' kosher.

Rastas are most easily distinguished by their unique hair style. Most, but not all Rastas, wear dreadlocks. This comes from their interpretation of the bible. Hassidic Jews also have a unique hairstyle that separates them from everyone else. In Reggae music, the word"bald head"is a word which opposes the white man's oppression felt by the Rasta, in addition to what the Bible says in Leviticus 21:5 of how one is not to cut their hair. Nevertheless, it is clearly evident that both the Rastafarians and Hassidic Jews share this Biblical influence in contrast to a bald- headed Babylonian. My personal observation on these cultures is that they are mystical religions. Each person reads his or her own interpretation of the faith. Because the Falashas were in isolation, theory believed that they were the only Jews left. Unlike other Jews, the Falashas have no knowledge of Hebrew. Their sacred texts are written in Ge'ez, a language that only the priests can understand. The Falashas practice"Old Testament pre-Exilic Judaism, based on a literal obedience to the Pentateuch"(Operation Moses, 19). Accordingly, they adhere strictly to the biblical laws concerning the Sabbath, dietary laws, circumcision, and other religious rituals.

Jewish temples around the world face the direction of Israel. In North America it happens to be East. Falasha Jews have the same custom."Whenever a Falasha Jew prayed, he would first turn in the direction of Jerusalem, and Falasha literature and prayers deal constantly with such themes as the `return' to Zion and the re-establishment of priestly worship in the temple. The love of Zion is no different, in essence, to that of any other Jewish group throughout the Diaspora"(Operation Moses, 19). An important aspect of Falasha culture was a stress against assimilation. This helped to isolate the Falashas from the other societies that surrounded them."Until very recently, when a Falasha happened to touch a non-Falasha he was considered impure until he had bathed himself"(Operation Moses, 20).

It is hard to say exactly how Jews made it into Ethiopia. It is possible that they are descendants of the tribe of Dan. History tells us that there were twelve tribes of Israel. They are named after the children of Jacob. The tribes are: Reuben, Simeon, Levy, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin. The theory that the Falashas were descendants of the tribe of Dan comes from the story of Eldad ha-Dani. This ninth century tradition says that during the rift between Rehoboam (son of Solomon) and Jeroboam (son of Nebat), the Danites resettled to avoid the impending civil war. The Danites resettled in Egypt. Once there, they continued to move southward up the Nile to the historic land of Kush. This land was then rich in resources. Eldad ha-Dani himself was probably from this area. According to his story, members of the tribes of Naftali, Gad, and Asher lived together with the Danites. Eldad himself could trace his roots back to Dan, the son of Jacob. The theory that the Jews in Ethiopia were descendants of the tribe of Dan can also be found in other medieval and biblical sources.

Approximately one century before the first temple was destroyed and Judah was exiled, the Prophet Isaiah prophesied the End of Days. This is when the dispersed people of Israel and Judah would come together from their places of exile. Kush is one of the places mentioned."And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord will set His hand again the second time to recover the remnant of His people, that shall remain from Assyria and from Egypt, and from Pathos, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands in the sea. And he will set up an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the dispersed of Israel, and gather together the scattered of Judas from the four corners of the earth."-Isaiah 11:11-12

The prophesies of Isaiah describe the return of people living"beyond the rivers of Abyssinia"to"the place of the name of the Lord of Hosts". This is found in detail in Isaiah 18 and Zephania 3:10. Sources sufficiently demonstrate Jewish presence in Ethiopia towards the end of the First Temple period. Other similarities in traditions and customs support the evidence of a link between the ancient Egyptian Jews and those of Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Jewry is partly a mystery. Relatively little is known about the origins of the community. We do know that it represents one of the oldest Diaspora communities. It is believed that they adopted Jewish beliefs around the second or third century B.C.E. The Jewish Oral Law was codified in the third century AD, it is presumed that the migration of people or ideas took place before this time because there are no elements in Falasha Judaism that reflect knowledge of rabbinic Judaism."The Falashas themselves like to maintain that they descended from the Jews who came to Ethiopia with King Menelik, who is thought by Ethiopians to be the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba."(Operation Moses, 16) Over time many Ethiopian Jews came under the influence of Christianity (which is the religion of most of the country). The few who remained Jewish had little contact with the outside Jewish world. This isolation caused them to not include the later Rabbinical laws and commentaries. Jewish settlement in Ethiopia is concentrated in the mountainous Gondar Province around Lake Tana in the Tigre Province, which is the area where the Danites settled (Kush). From 1935 until 1941, during the Italian occupation, the small Jewish communities of Addis Ababa and Diredawa were disbanded. Many of the Falashas took part in the struggle against Italian occupation and lost their lives. Israeli and Jewish organizations provided help throughout the succeeding decades in terms of education and welfare. In 1975 the Israeli Rabbinate recognized the status of Ethiopian Jews which paved a way for mass exodus to Israel. Aided by recent events, the world is growing more aware of Ethiopian Jews.

On May 25, 1991, nearly 15,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel. This constituted almost the entire Falasha population. The massive airlift took place in less than 36 hours. The distance from Ethiopia is more than 1,500 miles. It took 40 flights to complete the mission. The Israeli Air Force said that it took 35 civilian and military planes including one Ethiopian airliner. According to the New York Times, at one point there were 28 planes in the air. The planes were loaded far beyond their normal carrying capacity, often there was 2-3 people in a seat. An El-Al 747 cargo plane carried more than twice as many passengers as it was designed for. A crew of doctors and paramedics were on board for every flight. Five babies were born aboard the planes. Nurses waited as the planes landed to take sick people to hospitals and put newborn babies in incubators. In addition, 16,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted in secret in 1984.

Most of the airlift took place on the Sabbath. (Sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.) There were no complaints from any religious authorities though. The torah actually encourages the breaking of the Sabbath if it is to save a life, and because of the political situation in Ethiopia, the religious officials considered the operation to be life-saving. Being that it was on the Sabbath made the mission easier because most of the planes were idle anyway. The entire operation was censored for protection, so the media was notified of this operation after the fact. When the plan to evacuate all the Ethiopian Jews leaked out to the press, the Ethiopian Government was somewhat embarrassed and halted further departures. The exodus was only finalized after President Bush sent Ethiopian officials a message asking them to let the Jews leave all at once. The Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam had"used the Ethiopian Jews essentially as bargaining chips, seeking to exchange their controlled departure for Israeli arms and perhaps aid from Washington"(New York Times, May 26,1991). Rebels had seized the vital port and capital, Addis Ababa. Foreign embassies were evacuated and residents were cautioned.

Operation Moses was a very significant and spiritually charged event, not only for the Falashas but for the State of Israel as well. Israel was formed with the spiritual intention of bringing together all the Jews. The airlift of the Falashas was a manifestation of Israel's primary mission. The exodus was equally important to the Falashas."They are ending a trip of 3,000 years"Israeli journalist Chaim Gouri said."We've stood up to our obligation and completed the operation bringing all the Jews: It gives us a feeling of strength"Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir stated.

A recent issue concerning the Ethiopian population in Israel was the discarding of Ethiopian's blood donations by the national blood bank. The blood bank had made it a policy to discard the blood because of fear of AIDS. This resulted in a violent protest outside of Prime Minister Shimon Peres' office. There was much anger and tension that had been building for years, and it came to a head outside the compound where the cabinet was holding its weekly meeting. The police used tear gas and water cannons to hold back protesters."The use of gas was the only means by which I could prevent them from bursting into the prime minister's office and perhaps attacking the ministers,"Jerusalem Police Chief told reporters. The protesters believed that the actions of the blood bank were racist. They carried posters that read"Apartheid in Israel"and"Although our skin is black, our blood is as red as yours and we are just as Jewish as you are."After several hours of violent demonstration Peres met a delegation of protesters. His office announced that they would set up a committee to look into the complaints. Peres apologized on behalf of the government, and praised the Ethiopian immigrants. He did however condemn the violence that resulted in the injuries of soldiers and policemen. The blood bank did confirm the newspaper report that it routinely discarded Ethiopian blood out of fear of AIDS contamination. The actions of the blood bank humiliated and enraged the Ethiopian community."Unity is the world's key, and racial harmony. Until the white man stops calling himself white and the black man stops calling himself black, we will not see it. All the people on earth are just one family.'s life we deal with. No death. He that sees the light and knows the light shall live. When the time comes, people will seek the truth in all things. They get it when they are ready to hear it. Man can't do without God. Just like you thirsty, you have to drink water. You just can't do without God. I pledged to work for righteousness. God's given me inspiration. So me personally as a man is nothin' without the inspiration of Jah."-Bob Marley

The actual religion of the Rasta is quite complicated to decipher, due to the oral nature of the Rastafarian tradition. There are various sources that have dealt with the nature of the religion, but what is astonishing is how diverse the variation of ideas and concepts are amongst the different texts. The religion differed in all of my sources and none of the texts confronted the issue of conflict in the written transmission of the religion. Through a long process of filtration of the many sources and discovery through my own personal experiences with the Rastafarian tradition, the following analysis focuses purely on the nature of the religion. It will be based on the essence of the teachings as practiced by the most religious upholders of the true meaning of what `Rastafari' stands for as a movement for humanitarianism opposed to a movement based upon notions of superiority to an inferior white race. The notion of superiority having been a motive for the Rastafarians in the actions of reclaiming their identity would only have served to mirror the evil ways of those who oppress them. In addition, if the Rastafarians meant to employ the ideologies and concepts used by their white European oppressors in their savage attempt to destroy non-white people, that would only prove the success of the long lasting internalizing achievements of the Imperialist's implementation of initiations. Leonard Barrett states in his book, The Rastafarians, that the inception of the movement is grounded in some key verses of the Old and New Testament, although not all of the contents of the Bible are deemed acceptable by the Rastafarians. They believe just as the Jews had that the Bible had fallen victim in its processes of translation to the many corruptions that,"enhance the philosophy of the slave masters."(Barrett, 82) The Rastafarians feel that they have discovered ways in which to reveal the truth from the underlying corruption. In Jewish philosophy, a philosopher known as Moses Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed discussed thirteen principles of faith. He believed that there were two levels in which to comprehend the Bible and reveal its hidden messages. One way was on an"exoteric"level, understanding on a literal level, while the other way was on an"esoteric"level, intellectual understanding of the many metaphors. The Rastafarians uphold the holy Bible and believe it contains certain collections of Rastafarian wisdom which can be extracted through the processes of esoteric and exoteric modes of overstanding.

I truly feel that the Falashas are the bridge between the Jews and the Rastafarians. I have come to the conclusion, after finding countless connections between the Jews and the Ethiopian Jews, and the Ethiopian Jews and the Rastafarians, that Rastafarianism can actually be considered a sect of Judaism. (Just picture a Falashan Rabbi: a rasta in good clothes! Leonard Howell against the Jamaican government is just like David against Goliath!)


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Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton. Reggae - The Rough Guide. London: Rough Guides, 1997.

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