Falasha - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs and Practices. The most remarkable aspect of Falasha culture is their peculiar form of non-Talmudic Judaism, developed in isolation from the main currents of Jewish religious thought. They believe in the God of Israel; the Old Testament commandments are their guidelines. The Falasha celebrate most festivals and fasts mentioned in the Torah, observe food taboos, and offer sacrifices, for example, on Easter (Fasika). Circumcision is carried out on the eighth day after birth, and the sabbath is closely observed. The Falasha Holy Book is the Ethiopian Bible (in Ge'ez), without the New Testament but with some Ethiopian Apocryphals. Their prayer service, prayer texts, and other religious books appear to be heavily influenced by medieval Ethiopian Christian sources. There is no clear evidence of a Hebrew tradition and of independent Jewish influence on the formation of Falasha Judaism. Some religious holidays of the Falasha are not marked by other Jews, and the Falasha traditionally did not celebrate post-Exilic festivals such as Hanukkah and Purim. Religious leadership was provided by "monks" and priests. These monks have disappeared since the late 1960s, but the priests still function as liturgical and community leaders. Since the mid-twentieth century, Falasha Judaism has been much influenced by Talmudic Judaism; religious practices not in accordance with it have, for the most part, been abandoned. In Israel, the priests are retrained as spiritual leaders. They learn rabbinical law, but few attain the status of rabbi. After arrival in Israel, Falasha immigrants are familiarized with the basics of Talmudic religious law. It is the requirement of a symbolic "conversion" that has caused the most problems in Falasha social adaptation in Israel. In addition to their Judaic belief, the Falasha traditionally shared the common Ethiopian beliefs in supernatural forces and spirits. They also consult magicians; some Falasha were themselves famous magicians, who were also revered by Christians.

Arts. Expressive arts are poorly developed among the Falasha. Except for simple decoration of pots and clothes, there are no well-developed art forms. Women used to decorate their faces and arms with tattoo patterns, like Amhara-Tigray women. There are Falasha musicians, who play the common Ethiopian instruments such as krar , masänqo , and washint , but most of their songs and dances follow the style and form of those of the Amhara-Tigray. Unique to a certain degree is their liturgical music, performed by priests during parts of the prayer service, but even this is heavily influenced by Ethiopian Christian liturgical traditions (Shelemay 1986). Medicine. The Falasha had recourse to the spectrum of Ethiopian traditional healers, some of whom were practitoners of magic. There is also a general knowledge of the medicinal qualities of a variety of highland plants. In some villages, clinics were established, first by voluntary agencies interested in the Falasha, later by the government. Health care, is, however, far from adequate.

Death and Afterlife. The Falasha believe, in accordance with the tenets of the Bible, in life after death, and that the dead will be resurrected at the end of days. Burial takes place as soon as possible, even before all relatives may have arrived. Death is the strongest source of ritual pollution of living persons. Those having touched the corpse must remain in isolation for several days before rejoining the community. Eulogies on the deceased are given by various relatives on the day of the funeral or before. There is no particular veneration of the dead, as there is no clear idea of "lineage solidarity." Commemorative gatherings in honor of the dead person are held one week, one month, and one year after the burial.


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