Shedding Light on Medieval Betä Ǝsra’el (Ethiopian Jewish) Monasticism:
An Examination of Sources and Suggestions for Future Study
One of the most intriguing aspects of Betä Ǝsra’el (Ethiopian Jewish) history and religious life is this community’s monastic movement. Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism is the only type of Jewish or Judaic monasticism known to have existed in medieval or modern times. It is a monastic movement in the full sense of the term: The monks were celibate, lived in monasteries, observed ascetic practices and dedicated their lives to the worship of God.
This monastic movement played a central role within Betä Ǝsra’el society: the monks served as the supreme religious leaders of the Betä Ǝsra’el. They trained and consecrated the priests (qes), and took part in leading the liturgy in synagogues (mäsgid, Flad 1869: 29-36, Leslau 1951: xxi-xxvi). Following the gradual loss of Betä Ǝsra’el autonomy as a result of conflict with the Christian Solomonic Kingdom (fifteenth – seventeenth centuries), the monks assumed the role of supreme leaders of the community in non-religious matters as well (Flad 1869: 32; Kaplan 1992: 79-96, 110, 114-115). Their role in the preservation of the community’s religious identity is clearly demonstrated by their fervent opposition of Protestant missionary efforts (late nineteenth – twentieth centuries, Ben-Dor 1994). One monk, Abba Mähari, famously led a large group of Betä Ǝsra’el on a failed attempt to reach the Holy Land in 1862 (Ben-Dor 1987).
Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism was traditionally founded in the fifteenth century (see below), and underwent a process of decline from the mid-nineteenth to the second half of the twentieth century. Factors contributing to this decline include famine (1888-1892, Kaplan 1990a; 1992: 143-154), armed conflict and political unrest (Erlich 2007), which reduced the population of the Betä Ǝsra’el in general, and that of Betä Ǝsra’el monks in particular. In addition, both Christian missionaries (Flad 1869; Payne 1972; Stern 1968) and representatives of World Jewry (Faitlovitch 1959; Halévy 1994) active among the Betä Ǝsra’el in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries attempted to revise Betä Ǝsra’el religious practices and did not view monasticism as a “proper” practice. At present, Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism no longer exists as a widespread movement. Only one Betä Ǝsra’el monk immigrated to Israel (Tourny 2002), and only one of his students is following in his footsteps.
The series consists in the following posts:
I Introduction (this post)