Jew­ish Text

The Koren Ethiopi­an Hag­ga­da: Jour­ney to Freedom

Men­achem Wald­man, ed.; Binyamin Shalom, trans.
  • Review
By – June 21, 2012

For almost 2,500 years the Jews of Ethiopia prac­ticed their ancient reli­gion, iso­lat­ed from and igno­rant of rab­binic Judaism and post­bib­li­cal Jew­ish prac­tice. Led by priests who passed their her­itage from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion oral­ly, they observed the Judaism of the Torah. It was only in the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry that the Ethiopi­ans became aware of the larg­er Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and learned, to their great sor­row, that the Tem­ple had been destroyed.

When the Ethiopi­ans made aliyah to Israel, they began their assim­i­la­tion into main­stream Judaism, at the same time risk­ing the loss of their cen­turies-old tra­di­tions and a unique Jew­ish cul­ture. A rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the chief rab­bi of Israel’s Com­mit­tee on Ethiopi­an Jew­ry and a schol­ar of Ethiopi­an Jew­ry, Rab­bi Men­achem Wald­man has sought to pre­serve the Ethiopi­an her­itage, lit­tle known even to some mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty, as he intro­duces them to con­tem­po­rary Judaism.

The Ethiopi­an Jews did not have a hag­gadah; the priests sim­ply fol­lowed the bib­li­cal com­mand to tell the sto­ry of the Exo­dus. In com­pil­ing The Koren Ethiopi­an Hag­ga­da, Wald­man tells the par­al­lel sto­ry of the Ethiopi­ans’ strug­gle in the face of per­se­cu­tion by insert­ing orig­i­nal doc­u­ments and prayers — in a very real sense, com­men­taries— from archives into a stan­dard hag­gadah text, print­ed on hand­some tint­ed paper to dif­fer­en­ti­ate it from the Ethiopi­an inserts. The inno­cence and unwa­ver­ing devo­tion record­ed in these com­men­taries, as well as the exten­sive illus­tra­tions and his­toric pho­tographs, are placed at rel­e­vant points in the hag­gadah and rich­ly under­score the sig­nif­i­cance of the seder.

Although not nec­es­sar­i­ly for use at table, The Koren Ethiopi­an Hag­ga­da brings alive bib­li­cal Passover and a con­tem­po­rary exo­dus in its extra­or­di­nar­i­ly mov­ing pho­tographs and doc­u­ments, as well as a group of sear­ing per­son­al rec­ol­lec­tions that serve as a post­script to the hag­gadah text. It is a sin­gu­lar source of seder com­men­tary, illus­trat­ing that the Exo­dus is indeed a time­less expe­ri­ence, repeat­ed before our eyes in this hag­gadah. Because the sto­ry of Ethiopi­an Jew­ry is not well known, more back­ground infor­ma­tion on the community’s twen­ty-year strug­gle to make aliyah, as well as a fuller bib­li­og­ra­phy, would have been valu­able addi­tions. Abbre­vi­a­tions and sources, full-col­or illus­tra­tions, photographs.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions