What follows is Rabbi J. David Bleich's overview of the halakhot regarding Ethiopian Jews, excerpted from Contemporary Halakhic Problems (Volume 1), published by KTAV and Yeshiva University in 1977. I used OCR software to scan this, so if you note any errors please post them in the comments to this post or email me. I have added my own notes when necessary. To read Rabbi Bleich's article, please click the link below:
BLACK JEWS: A HALAKHIC PERSPECTIVE
By Rabbi J. David Bleich
…The only question with regard to the status of black Jews which is germane is whether or not they have established a valid claim to Jewish identity by virtue of either birth or conversion. There are, however, numerous distinct communities of black Jews and the claim advanced by each group must be examined on its own particular merits.
Historically, the question first arose with regard to the Falashas, the black Jews of Ethiopia. The earliest reference to the Falasha community is contained in the diary of Eldad ha-Dani, a ninth-century merchant and traveler who professed to have been a citizen of an autonomous Jewish state in eastern Africa inhabited by the tribes of Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher. The reports of Eldad ha-Dani were given credence as a result of the endorsement of the then Ga'on of Sura, Zemach ben Chaim, who vouched for Eldad's reliability and trustworthiness. Although such scholars as Abraham ibn Ezra 2 and Meir of Rothenberg3 expressed reservations with regard to the veracity of Eldad's narrative, other rabbinic lumintries, such as Rashi, Rabad, and Abraham ben Maimon, cite Eldad as an unquestioned authority. Eldad ha-Dani speaks of the Falashas as Jews and describes the religious practices followed by the Falasha community. Since at that time, and for generations thereafter, there was little or no traffic between Abyssinia and the Jewish centers of Europe and Asia, the question of the Jewish identity of the Falasha community was entirely a matter of speculative curiosity.
The matter did, however, become the subject of halakhic adjudication in the responsa of R. David ibn Zimra (1479-1589). By that time, a fairly extensive slave trade preying upon inhabitants of North Africa seems to have developed. R. David ibn Zimra, or Radbaz, as he is known in rabbinic literature, was presented with a halakhic question which not only called for a clarification of the religious status of the Falashas but also describes the adversities which they suffered.4. A Falasha town or settlement was attacked, the males slaughtered and the women and children taken captive. One woman, whose husband was presumably among the slaughtered, was purchased as a slave by a Jew who subsequently entered into a sexual liaison with her which resulted in the birth of a son. Later, the son sought to marry a young lady of Jewish parentage and Radbaz was asked for a ruling with regard to the permissibility of the forthcoming marriage.
For Radbaz, the question of the captive's identity as a Jewess was not at all in doubt. "It is clear that she is of the seed of Israel, of the tribe of Dan," declares Radbaz. Describing the prevailing circumstances, be writes: "There is constantly war between the kings of Abyssinia, for in Abyssinia there are three kingdoms; part of the land is inhabited by Moslems, part by Christians steadfast in their religion, and part by Jews of the tribe of Dan . . . and daily they take captives one from the other." Radbaz was concerned solely with the question of bastardy which, in turn, is predicated upon the possibility that the husband, unknown to his wife, may have been spared or may have escaped. If the captive's husband was yet living when she consorted with her master, the child born to them would, of course, be a bastard and forbidden to marry a Jewess of legitimate birth. If, however, her husband had indeed been killed, the captive's status would have been that of an unmarried widow. According to Jewish law, a child born out of wedlock to an unmarried mother does not bear the stigma of bastardy. Radbaz was called upon to decide whether, in the given instance, the child should be considered to be of legitimate birth, whether he should be declared a bastard or whether, in light of the mother's uncorroborated testimony with regard to the prior death of her husband, the status of the child must remain clouded by unresolvable doubt.
Presented in this manner, the question is simply the classic agunah problem in one of its many guises. As such, the question as raised was individual in nature and represented a matter of concern primarily to the persons involved.' However, the ramifications of this responsum go far beyond the question at hand. The question reflects a matter of far broader concern, since it is one which could not conceivably arise unless the Jewish identity of the Falasha community is antecedently accepted. Since bastardy is a matter of concern only with regard to Jewish issue, no problem is posed unless it is assumed that the child is of Jewish parentage.
Radbaz was concerned with yet another factor which might serve as a barrier to marital alliances with any member of the Falasha community. This latter consideration, also, is germane only because Radbaz regarded the Falashas as Jews. The religion professed and practiced by the Falasha community is a form of Mosaism;6; the Falashas are totally ignorant of the Oral Law. "They appear to be of the sect of Zadok7 and Boethus known as Karaites," declares Radbaz. Since they are indeed Jews, marriages contracted by them are entirely valid, but, point out Radbaz, their divorces are defective because they are not performed in accordance with the usages of Jewish law. Furthermore, by virtue of their adherence to Karaite heresies, the Falashas are disqualified from serving as witnesses. Hence, any get (bill of divorce) signed and delivered in the presence of Falasha witnesses is invalid.8. The absence of a valid divorce, of course, precludes the wife from validly contracting a new marriage. The issue of any subsequent (invalid) marriage entered into by the wife would be halakhically categorized as bastards. Radbaz was one of many authorities who were concerned with the permissibility of marriage between Jews and Karaites. In view of the long period of time which had elapsed since the Karaite schism in the ninth century, it was inevitable that numerous Karaite women had, in the course of centuries, been divorced according to Karaite usage. Many undoubtedly remarried and gave birth to children halakhically forbidden to marry Jews of legitimate parentage. Thus, the suspicion arose that any given prospective Karaite bride or groom might bear the stigma of bastardy.
Radbaz, however, does find grounds for permitting Karaites -and Falashas- to marry within the Jewish fold without restriction. He argues that although their divorces are defective by virtue of the use of unqualified witnesses, it may be assumed that members of the Karaite community are also married in the presence of Karaite witnesses. Since Karaites are disqualified from serving as witnesses, marriages contracted in the presence of Karaite witnesses have no halakhic validity. Since a valid marriage does not exist, it follows that a bill of divorce for its dissolution is superfluous. In light of these considerations, Radbaz rules that there is no suspicion of bastardy with regard to members of the Karaite or Falasha communities. Accordingly, declares Radbaz, marriage to a Falasha is permissible provided that the marriage partner is willing to accept the practices of rabbinic Judaism.
In a subsequent (and presumably later) responsum,9, Radbaz expresses grave reservations with regard to Falasha eligibility for marriage within the Jewish community, but is explicit and even more emphatic in his opinion that they are unquestionably of Jewish lineage. The responsum in question was written in reply to a query regarding how one should comport oneself vis-a-vis a Falasha who had been acquired as a slave. Radbaz declares unequivocally: "Therefore.... with regard to the Falasha slave, since it has become clear that he is a Jew, this purchase is nought but the ransom of captives, not the purchase of a slave, and the obligation was encumbent upon all of Israel to redeem him." Although the "slave" must be granted freedom, Radbaz stipulates that the ransomed captive
may be obliged to serve as a laborer or as an indentured servant for a fixed period of time in order to compensate the purchaser for the sum of money which had been expended in the "ransom" of the captive.
Radbaz felt constrained to add that Falashas taken captive must be ransomed even though they conduct themselves as Karaites. The halakhic obligation regarding the ransoming of captives does not encompass sectarians, and, accordingly, Radbaz affirms that there is no obligation to ransom a Karaite who is taken captive. Yet, despite Radbaz' belief that the Mosaism of the Falashas is the result of Karaite influences, Radbaz rules that the Falashas have not placed themselves outside the pale of the Jewish community and are not to be looked upon as sectarians. With regard to the absence of an obligation to ransom Karaite captives Radbaz writes, ". . . it seems to me that this is so only with regard to those who dwell among the Rabbanites. . . ."
The Falashas, in particular, are not to be branded as sectarians, Radbaz holds, since "these who come from the land of Kush are without doubt of the tribe of Dan and because there are not among them scholars, masters of tradition, they seize unto themselves the literal meaning of Scripture . . . they are as a child who has been held captive among idolaters." Consistent with this newly formulated position but in contradiction to his earlier stated view, Radbaz concludes: "But with regard to genealogy, I fear lest their marriages be valid but that their divorces are not as has been ordained by the Sages, of blessed memory, for they are not at all acquainted with the form of divorces and marriages."10.
A disciple of Radbaz, R. Ya'akov Castro, in a gloss to Yoreh De'alh 158:2, cites the opinion of his teacher and similarly declares the Falashas to be descendants of the tribe of Dan. But, curiously, the same author, in a gloss to Yoreh De'ah 267:14, reports that it was customary to execute a writ of manumission (get shihrur) in emancipating ransomed Falasha captives. Apparently, the established Jewish communities came into contact only with Falashas who had been captured and sold into slavery. It appears that the purchase or ransom of Falasha slaves by a Jew was not an infrequent occurrence. When a Falasha slave was acquired by a Jew, the question of the religious status of the Falashas became a matter of great significance in determining the master-slave relationship. Radbaz, as noted, ruled that since the Falashas were to be regarded as Jews, they could not be held as slaves. Were they to be regarded as non-Jews their status would have been that of a "Canaanite slave" who upon emancipation by means of a bill of manumission acquires the status of a Jew. Since no bill of manumission is required for the release of a Jew from bondage, the fact that such writs were actually executed tends to indicate that the status of Falashas was beclouded and was at least a matter of doubt. Rabbi Castro, however, points out that were a Falasha belonging to a Jewish master indeed to be regarded as a Canaanite slave, in addition to a bill of manumission, immersion in a ritualarium would also be required upon emancipation in order for him to acquire status as a full-fledged member of the community of Israel. Rabbi Castro reports that while delivery of a writ of manumission seems to have been the accepted practice, paradoxically, it was not customary for immersion in a ritualarium to be carried out. Rabbi Castro accordingly concludes that "possibly" the writ was of no religious import, but was drawn up simply to provide documentary evidence of the Falasha's status as a free man.
Despite the unequivocal declaration of Radbaz with regard to the origins of the Falasha community, Radbaz' halakhic decision, handed down in the sixteenth century, may not be valid in the twentieth. In the course of the intervening four centuries it is entirely possible that there has been extensive intermarriage between the Falashas and the indigenous Abyssinian population. It is reported that R. Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk adopted a similar position with regard to the Karaite community. R. Chaim contended that while in earlier periods of Jewish history there was room for significant disagreement regarding the permissibility of marriage between Jews and Karaites, there is no question that in our day such marriages are forbidden according to all authorities. R. Chaim pointed out that over the centuries the Karaites accepted gentile converts but did not do so according to the prescribed ritual. Indeed, since Karaites are disqualified from serving as members of a Bet Din, conversions performed by them would be inefficacious even if the Karaite Bet Din were to adhere scrupulously to all details of the conversion ritual. As a result, declared R. Chaim, every Karaite now has the status of a safek akum and his identity as a Jew is in doubt.11. The same considerations may well be applicable to the Falasha community. However, the Falashas may differ significantly from Karaite communities with regard to the incidence of conversion. The Falashas are known to be shunned as pariahs by the dominant Ethiopian tribes with the result that social intercourse between the communities is severely limited. On the basis of available published information it is impossible to determine whether acceptance of converts over the generations was a common or rare occurrence among the Falashas.*
Despite any qualms which might be voiced, the authenticity of the claims to Jewish identity advanced by the Falashas was affirmed not only in the Middle Ages but in modern times as well. The Falasha community was rediscovered over a century ago and their plight brought to the attention of western Jewry. In 1864, R. Ezriel Hildesheimer, a prominent rabbinic spokesman, issued a call for action in order to counteract missionary activity among the Falashas.12. This was followed by a fact-finding mission undertaken in 1867 by the noted Orientalist and Semitic scholar, Joseph Halevy. However, it was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that meaningful endeavors were undertaken on behalf of the Falashas. A relationship with the Falasha community was established largely through the efforts of a single individual, Dr. Jacob Noah Feitlovitch, whose efforts on behalf of the Falasha community were endorsed in the strongest terms in a public manifesto issued in 1921 by the then Chief Rabbi of Erez Yisra'el, Rabbi A. Y. Kook.13
Although neither Rabbi Hildesheimer nor Rabbi Kook addresses himself to the thorny question of the permissibility of marriage between Jews and members of the Falasha community or to the question of the possible requirement of a conversion ceremony because of intermarriage over the course of centuries,** both epistles speak of the Falashas in the warmest of terms and proclaim the responsibility of world Jewry both for their material support and for their religious education. Reflected in both statements is deep concen lest the Falashas forsake the Jewish faith.
More recently, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, reiterated the commonly accepted halakhic view in stating that the Falashas are "descendants of the tribes of Israel ... and without doubt the aforementioned authorities who determined that they are of the tribe of Dan investigated and reached this conclusion on the basis of the most reliable testimony and evidence." 14. Therefore, declared Rabbi Yosef, it is obligatory upon the Jewish community to rescue them from assimilation and to "hasten their immigration to Israel, to educate them in the spirit of the holy Torah, and to coopt them in the rebuilding of our holy land."15. Rabbi Yosef specifically calls upon the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency to facilitate the immigration of the Falashas. It has been reported that Rabbi Yosef has, on other occasions, counseled that Falashas should undergo a conversion*** ceremony in order to eliminate any possible question with regard to their status as Jews. Curiously, until very recently, a completely antithetical policy was adopted by secular officials of the State of Israel. For many years it was the stated policy of the Israeli government that "Israel does not regard the Law of Return as being applicable to the Falashas" and "is not enthusiastic about the prospect of Falasha immigration."16. This posture was seemingly motivated by considerations of international diplomacy. Following the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie, an interministerial committee was appointed to review the status of the Falashas. As a result of the deliberations of the committee, the Falashas have been recognized as eligible for Israeli citizenship and other rights under the Law of Return .17
1. Bemidbar, 684.2. Commentary on the Bible, Exod. 2:20.
3. Teshuvot Maharam Rothenberg, no. 193.
4. Teshuvot Radbaz, IV, no.. 219 (1290). The identical responsum appears
in VII, no. 9.
5. A statement apparently referring to this young man and the ultimate solution to his problem appears in a responsum authored by a disciple of Radbaz. R. Ya'akov Castro, Ohalei Ya'akov, no. 11, writes: "It is a commonplace occurrence for a bastard to marry a female slave who has immersed [herself] for purposes of slavery [in order] to purify his progeny that they may enter into the congregation. Such a case occurred in Egypt in [the case of] a Jewish Falasha who, had been married in her country and gave birth to a son in Egypt [fathered] by a Jew who cohabited with her in ignorance. [The son] married a female slave and purified his progeny in the time of the scholars of the preceding generation, of blessed memory."
6. It should be noted that many other Ethiopians also practice circumcision, observe the Sabbath and perform ritual ablutions. The Christianity practiced by many Ethiopians is highly syncretistic and retains many Judaic elements. Edward Ullendorf, The Ethiopians: An Introduction to Country and People (London, 1960), is of the opinion that the Falashas are descended from elements of the Aksumite Kingdom who resisted conversion to Christianity. Thus their Aksumite practices mirror the religious syncretism of the pre-Christian Aksumites.
7. Rabbinic writers frequently refer to Karaites as Sadduces, not as a result of misidentification, but because the Karaites, in common with the Sadducces, rejected the Oral Law. Cf. J. D. Eisenstein, O[t]zar Yisra'el (New York, 1951), IX, 211.
8. In point of fact, modern scholars report that the bill of divorce is unknown among the Falashas. There is no distinctive Falasha custom in connection with divorce. The formalities are executed in the presence of the local chief. See Wolf Leslau, The Fala,~ha Anthology (New Haven, 1951), p. xviii. Since in dissolving a Falasha marriage a bill of divorce is not written and presented to the wife, as is required by Jewish law, there is no question that from the halakhic perspective, the matrimonial relationship has not been terminated. Either Radbaz was unaware of Falasha practices with regard to divorce or the bill of divorce fell into disuse among the Falashas sometime after the sixteenth century.
9. Teshuvot Radbaz, VII, no. 5.
10. This is also the definitive ruling of Bet Yosef, Even ha-Ezer 4, and
Rema, Even ha-Ezer 4:37.
11. Quoted by R. Ovadiah Yosef, Torah She-be-'al Peh, XIII (5731), 28;
see also R. Eliezer Yehudah Waldenberg, Ziz [i.e, Tzitz] Eli'ezer, X, no,. 25, chap. 3, sec. 10, who independently makes a similar point with regard to the B'nai Israel of India.
12. Jeschurun, XI, no. 2 (November, 1864).
13. Unpublished letter dated 3 Kislev 5682. See also R. Abraham Y. Kook,
Iggrot ha-Re'iyah (Jerusalem, 5722), 11, 83, 89f and 318.
14. Unpublished communication dated 7 Adar 1, 5733. Rabbi Yosef indicates this was also the opinion of Rabbi Isaac ha-Levi Herzog. Radbaz' position with regard to the descent of the Falasha community from the tribe of Dan is also accepted by Ziz. Eli'ezer, X, no,. 25, chap. 3, sec. 19.
15. Loc. cit.
16. David Zohar, First Secretary, Embassy of Israel, Washington, D.C., in
a letter published in Sh'ma, 3/47 (February 2, 1973), pp. 54-55.
17. JTA Daily News Bulletin, April 15, 1975.
*To my knowledge, all scholars hold there was little if any conversion to Judaism by other Ethiopians during the preceding four hundred years. Conversely, there was significant conversion from Judaism to Christianity.
**Available evidence shows there was little if any intermarriage between the Falashas and other Ethiopians during the preceding four hundred years.
***Rabbi Yosef subsequently ruled that the Falashas do not need a conversion and are fully Jewish without one. He also ruled that there is no problem of mamzerut.