On a high mountain top under the warm Ethiopian sun, swathed in white priestly garb, swarthy, dignified Kessim (Priests) stand before their people reciting melodically the ancient words of Ezra and Nehemiah: “Then I proclaimed a fast … that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions” Ezra 8:21), “… the hand of our God was upon us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambush along the road” (Ezra 8: 31), “And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. Then all the people answered ‘Amen, Amen!’ while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground” (Nehemiah 8: 5-6).
Having gathered together at daybreak, the community observes the holy day of Sigid. Standing, they listen to the scriptures that speak of the return of the Jews from exile to Jerusalem and the entrance into a Covenant code with God (Ezra 8: 15-35, Nehemiah 8: 1-10). When the priests finish their recitation, the community bows as with one body and worships God. They sing the scriptures and bring a reverent dance that demonstrates their meek and humble hearts as worshipers (Zephaniah 3; 10). These expressions speak out their desire that they would one day return to Zion, Jerusalem.
Decades later in the modern streets of Jerusalem thousands of Ethiopian Israelis gather in a neighborhood facing the Western Wall of the destroyed Temple. Clusters of modern Kessim, cloaked in royal capes and carrying colorful umbrellas walk along in procession chanting the Ge’ez (ancient Ethiopian Semitic language) liturgies. The people from the community swarm about them listening to the prayers and recitations, participating wholeheartedly in the modern holiday of Sigid.
Sigid is an Amharic word. It means bowing down prostrate on the ground and worshiping God. It is a willful act of self-abasement, and an expression of total submission to God. Sigid is the name of this ancient Ethiopian Jewish holiday modeled after Nehemiah 8: 1-10. It is celebrated during the Hebrew month of Cheshvan, seven weeks after Yom Kippur.
This holiday is a festival of thanksgiving to God for his faithful Hand in returning the exiles to Jerusalem and renewing them to Himself. The holiday continues to be celebrated annually by Ethiopian Israelis, as they assemble together in Jerusalem to offer thanksgiving to God in reminiscence of their own unique and miraculous journey to Jerusalem.
Several years ago, I participated in the holiday held in Jerusalem in early December. I arrived at the event, mentally soaked in the diverse fabric of Israel, only to find myself instantly transported to a little Ethiopia right there in the middle of suburban Jerusalem. Armon Hanatziv (a neighborhood just south of the old city of Jerusalem) was filled with thousands of Ethiopians who had arrived by the busload from every corner of Israel.
As I took in the scene around me, I saw this devout day anchored in the hearts of my people. It spoke of their worshipful heart and their calling as a community to bring a unique offering to God. It was as if my people were standing before the ancient doors calling for the King of Glory to come in.
Seeing each member return from this day of worship my heart was grabbed afresh by the thought: “Now the journey towards Jerusalem has been fulfilled; it is time to come and meet the King of Glory.” Who is this King of Glory? Yeshua the Messiah.
I left the holiday celebration with a renewed burden for the salvation of my people.