Sigd, the Pilgrimage Holiday of Ethiopian Jews

By NYPL Staff
October 28, 2021

Perhaps there is no more distinctive community in the land of Israel than the Jews from Ethiopia who have a rich and unique history, culture, and holiday. That holiday is Sigd, a pilgrimage holiday that falls every year on the 29th day of the 8th lunar month—that is, 50 days after Yom Kippur in the Hebrew calendar. In 2021, it will begin the evening of November 3 and conclude on the 4th; in 2022 it will begin the evening of November 22 and conclude on the 23rd. Resources available at the New York Public Library help to clarify the complex nature of this holiday.

Descending the mountain after prayers during Sigd celebration, Ambober, Ethiopia, 1956. Photographer: Yehuda Sivan, Jerusalem. In: The Jews of Ethiopia: A People in Transition, Natalia Berger, et al. (Tel Aviv: Beth Hatefutsoth, The Nahum Goldmann Museum

According to tradition, Sigd can be traced to Ethiopian Christian monks of the mid-15th century who joined the Ethiopian Jews, who were known in Ethiopia as Beta Israel or, historically, as Falashas (a term today considered derogatory). These monks helped to develop the music and prayers of the Beta Israel liturgy. Though absent from Ethiopian Judaism today, monks were integral to Beta Israel and played a major role in shaping it. One possibility is that  Sigd originated as a send-off for the monks as they embarked on a retreat. Over the centuries, Sigd gained many layers of meaning. These include: “a reminder of the Prophet Ezra’s injunctions against intermarriage during the Babylonian Exile of the people of Israel (Ezra 9-10),” and “the important thing for the people is (to read) the Ten Commandments;” Sigd also marks the approach of the most important new moon of the year. Surprisingly, Sigd was also important to Ethiopian Christians who would ask Jewish clergy to pray for them during the holiday.

Also written “Seged,” Sigd is Amharic for bowing down or prostration, as penitence is a major feature of the celebration. The name draws on the Ge’ez root s g d. Amharic, a Semitic language, serves as the lingua franca of Ethiopia; Ge'ez, also a Semitic language, serves as the liturgical language of Ethiopia, including Beta Israel and Christians. To celebrate Sigd in Ethiopia, Beta Israel would prepare themselves by refraining from sexual intercourse for seven days, and avoiding bodily contact with non-Beta Israel. In this state of ritual purity, on the morning of Sigd the faithful would wear “clean clothes, preferably white, with colored fringes'' and, bearing a stone, climb a ritually pure mountain top—one that only Beta Israel had ascended—outside the most ritually significant village in the area. The mountain would be compared with Mount Sinai.

Women carrying stones on their heads to where Sigd is celebrated. Ambober, Ethiopia, 1984. Photographer: Joan Roth, New York. In: The Jews of Ethiopia: A People in Transition, Natalia Berger, et al. (Tel Aviv: Beth Hatefutsoth, The Nahum Goldmann Museum o

A pilgrimage in Ethiopia in 1882 began with “hundreds of Falashas, men and women . . . gathered together. All arrived carrying a big stone on their neck, crying ‘O God, have mercy on us: Elohe, Elohe, gracious God, forgive us.’” Other penitential acts, such as fasting and prostration in prayer,  would be combined with Biblical readings in Ge’ez, clarified through Amharic translations and exegeses. The holiday would be concluded by descending the mountain, with celebratory singing, dancing, and breaking the fast by feasting on oxen that had been ritually sacrificed by the priests the previous evening

Beta Israel come primarily from rural northern and northwestern Ethiopia and Eritrea, including agriculturally challenging locations such as the Semien mountains. Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, they lost the right to own land; many turned to trades, including metalsmithing and pottery, to make ends meet. These trades carried social stigma because they involve working with fire, which was believed to endow people with magical powers. Beta Israel “had been totally subjugated” as "Jews," a term applied to those considered heretical or foreign by the time the Christian rulers of the Ethiopian Empire shifted their capital to this region.

Semien Mountains, Ethiopia (20 September 2009).

Photographer: Hulivili. Creative Commons license.

The community survived numerous further challenges including, with regard to Sigd, occasional prohibitions by the Communist regime that ruled from 1974–1991. It was during this time that large numbers of Beta Israel began emigrating from Ethiopia; most left on an often dangerous and difficult journey to Israel, where currently the population numbers over 150,000. Few Beta Israel still live in Ethiopia. In recognition of this historic community and its traditions, Israel has observed Sigd as an Israeli national holiday since 2008.

Since 1975, Beta Israel have been recognized as Jews eligible for immigration under Israel’s Law of Return. Beta Israel’s traditions are, at the same time, deeply intertwined with those of other Ethiopians, specifically those of the Ethiopian Church and of the "Pagan-Hebraic" Qemant. Beta Israel’s history is distinct enough from Judaism as practiced elsewhere that leading scholars have argued that the term “Beta Israel” should only be applied to the community when it was in Ethiopia, especially before the widespread adoption of mainstream Jewish norms in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The term "Jews” which, historically, had a broader meaning in Ethiopia, should properly refer to the community after adoption of these norms, and particularly after the community’s arrival in Israel. 

The basis for such a distinction has significant scholarly acceptance. “Beta Israel” and “Ethiopian Jews” continue, nevertheless, to be used as essentially equivalent terms. Popular accounts of Beta Israel prefer, moreover, to understand its practices, including Sigd, as directly descended from pre-Rabbinic Jewish sources. This idea finds resonance among some Ethiopian Jews today, and agrees with traditional Beta Israel perspectives. Drawing on the Kebra Nagast, the 14th century Ethiopian national epic, Beta Israel traced its origins to Menelik, son of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon. The epic thus situates the origins of Beta Israel—and of the Christian dynasty that ruled Ethiopia from the 13th century to 1974—in the 10th century BCE.

Sherover Promenade, Jerusalem (photo taken between 1990 and 2000).

Photographer: Zvi Tiberiu Keller. Creative Commons license.

The purposes and significance of Sigd have been understood in a variety of ways as circumstances have changed. Perhaps the most dramatic transformations have been inspired by the departure of most Beta Israel from Ethiopia. Celebration in Israel began in 1980. A variety of objections from both within and without the Ethiopian Jewish community had put off celebration of Sigd before then: some argued it was not Jewish; others argued that it was a festival of "exile” and was therefore not meaningful once Ethiopian Jews were in Israel; still others asserted that, as a mark of difference, it was not helpful to the assimilation process. 

The first celebration was still hampered by these ongoing concerns and the practical complexities of re-envisioning the holiday in a new setting. By 1982, however, a more successful version of Sigd had been worked out. Today the penitential  portion of the ritual takes place at the Western Wall and celebration takes place along the Haas and Sherover Promenades, which provide impressive views over the Old City of Jerusalem. These locations underline Sigd’s new, civic prominence and significance as a “festival of exile and redemption.” 

The New York Public Library offers many resources on Sigd, and on the fascinating history of Ethiopian Jewry. A few suggestions may be found below. You are welcome to consult our reference staff at for further assistance with any research questions.

Resources on Sigd and Related Topics Available at NYPL or Online

On the Sigd / Seged Pilgrimage Festival:

Abbink, J[on]. “Seged Celebration in Ethiopia and Israel: Continuity and Change of a Falasha Religious Holiday.” Anthropos, vol. 78: 5/6 (1983): 789-810. Available through the NYPL via JSTOR.

Knesset (Israel). Lexicon, “Sigd – Holiday of Ethiopian Jews.” Webpage accessed 18 October 2021.

Shalom, Sharon. From Sinai to Ethiopia: The Halakhic and Conceptual World of Ethiopian Jewry. Jerusalem and New York: Gefen, 2016. On Sigd, see pp. 176-180.

Shelemay, Kay Kaufman. “Seged: A Falasha Pilgrimage Festival,” Musica Judaica, Vol. 3, No. 1 (5741/1980-81): 42-62. Available through the NYPL via JSTOR.

Ziv, Yosi. Festival and Holiday in the Ethiopian Jewish Tradition of Beta Israel = חג ומועד בביתא ישראל. Jerusalem: Mekhon Ben-Tsevi le-ḥeḳer ḳehilot Yiśraʼel ba-Mizraḥ: Mekhon Mofet, 2017. On Sigd, see pp. 159-168. In Hebrew with English summary.

On the history of Ethiopian Jews / Beta Israel:

Berger, Natalia, curator; Kay Kaufman Shelemay, guest curator. The Jews of Ethiopia: A People in Transition. Exhibition catalog. Tel Aviv: Beth Hatefutsoth, The Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora; New York: The Jewish Museum, 1986.

Dege-Müller, Sophia. “Between Heretics and Jews: Inventing Jewish Identities in Ethiopia.” Entangled Religions, vol. 6 (2018): Historical Engagements and Interreligious Encounters - Jews and Christians in Premodern and Early Modern Asia and Africa. Online, open-access journal.

Jews East, a European Research Council project at the Center for Religious Studies, Ruhr University Bochum, Germany. Subproject Horn of Africa: The Horn of Africa - from Ethiopia to the Red Sea. Responsible Team Members: Sophia Dege-Müller, Verena Krebs, Bar Kribus.

Kaplan, Steven. The Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopia from Earliest TImes to the Twentieth Century. New York: New York University Press, 1992.

Kaplan, Steven. “Ethiopian Jews in Ethiopia.” Video of a lecture presented on 30 November 2020 as part of the Institute of Advanced Studies’ Ethiopian Studies Series.  

Kaplan, Steven, and Chaim Rosen. “Ethiopian Immigrants in Israel: Between Preservation of Culture and Invention of Tradition.” Jewish Journal of Sociology, 35:1 (June, 1993): 35-48. Available through the NYPL via JSTOR.

Kribus, Bar, and Verena Krebs. “Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jewish) Monastic Sites North of Lake Tana - Preliminary Results of an Exploratory Field Trip to Ethiopia in December 2015.” Entangled Religions vol. 6 (2018): Historical Engagements and Interreligious Encounters - Jews and Christians in Premodern and Early Modern Asia and Africa. Online, open-access journal.

Quirin, James. The Evolution of the Ethiopian Jews: A History of the Beta Israel (Falasha) to 1920. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. 

Salamon, Hagar. The Hyena People: Ethiopian Jews in Christian Ethiopia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Shelemay, Kay Kaufman.  Music, Ritual, and Falasha History. 2nd printing. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 1989.

Related Themes

Abebe, Dani Adeno. המסע לא תם : סיפורו של הילד רועה הצאן שהפך לעיתונאי יוצא אתיופיה הראשון בישראל = The Journey is Not Over Yet. Rishon le-Tsiyon: Yediʻot aḥaronot: Sifre ḥemed, [2019]. In Hebrew.

BenEzer, Gadi. The Ethiopian Jewish Exodus: Narratives of the Migration Journey to Israel, 1977-1985. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

Demeke, Girma Awgichew.  The Origin of Amharic. Addis Ababa: French Centre for Ethiopian Studies, 2009.

Gamst, Frederick C. The Qemant, A Pagan-Hebraic Peasantry of Ethiopia. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.

Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Law of Return 5710-1950.

Shelemay, Kay Kaufman. A Song of Longing: An Ethiopian Journey. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Tropper, Joseph, and Rebecca Hasselbach-Andee. Classical Ethiopic: A Grammar of Ge'ez. University Park, PA : Eisenbrauns, [2021].

Kebra Nagast

Original Ge’ez text, edited and with German translation

Kebra nagast; Die Herrlichkeit der Könige, nach den Handschriften in Berlin, London, Oxford und Paris, zum ersten Mal in äthiopischen Urtext, hrsg. und mit deutscher Übersetzung versehen von Carl Bezold. Munich: G. Franz, 1905.

English translations based on Bezold, etc.


The Queen of Sheba and her only son Menyelek (I) ; being the 'Book of the glory of kings' (Kebra nagast) a work which is alike the traditional history of the establishment of the religion of the Hebrews in Ethiopia, and the patent of sovereignty which is now universally accepted in Abyssinia as the symbol of the divine authority to rule which the kings of the Solomonic line claimed to have received through their descent from the house of David. Budge, E. A. Wallis, translator. 2nd ed. London, Oxford University press, H. Milford, 1932. Translated from Bezold's edition of the Ethiopic text, entitled: "Kebra nagast. Die herrlichkeit der könige," cf. Introd., p. xxxvi-xxxvii.


Brooks, Miguel F. A Modern Translation of the Kebra Nagast: the Glory of Kings. Lawrenceville, N.J. : Red Sea Press, 1996.