In looking through some statistics for my blog, I discovered that seven people have found my blog by searching “beautiful Ethiopian women.” At the risk of increasing that number, I thought I would devote some time to traditions of body art among the Jewish communities of Ethiopia. While henna is used among Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Ethiopians, in this post I’m going to go (a little) out of my field and talk about tattooing.
The origins of the Ethiopian Jews are murky and, to my mind, irrelevant to this discussion (but see Kaplan 1992, Parfitt 1999, or Weil 2011 for some approaches). Suffice it to say that by the 19th century there was a large community of Jewish Ethiopians, living mostly in the areas of Gondar, Wegera, Semien, Wolqayt and Shire in Tigray (yes, there is both a Gondar and a Shire in Ethiopia; no, it is not Middle Earth). A related community is known as Feresmura or Falashmura, Jews who had converted (or been converted) to Christianity in the nineteenth century, but maintained a separate communal identity. Ethiopian Jews are also known as Beta Israel, ‘the House of Israel’ (an older term, Falasha, literally ‘exiles,’ has been largely rejected by the community).
|Ethiopian Jews in Israel celebrating Sigd, Jerusalem, 2010.|
Photo by Noam Sienna
In Ethiopia, the Beta Israel practiced a Torah-based form of Judaism — that is, without the additional customs, explanations, festivals, and practices of rabbinic Judaism as codified in the Talmud and later scholars. Since coming to Israel, they have largely been assimilated to the structure of normative Judaism; the Feresmura have also reverted to Jewish practice in Israel. Some excellent introductions are here, here, and here.
One of the most striking features of the Ethiopian Jewish community is their tattooing. Historically, the vast majority of Jewish communities generally refrained from tattooing, even when living in environments with established tattoo traditions, due to the prohibition on tattoos in Leviticus 19:28. Technically, in the Biblical context this was a prohibition on imitating Canaanite mourning practices of cuttings and tattooed inscriptions for the dead. The rabbis, however, eventually identify this with any form of putting ink permanently under the skin, whether writing or drawing, for any purpose. While I’m on the subject, let me remind everyone that tattooing, while thus prohibited, does not disqualify one from burial in a Jewish cemetery or access to any other Jewish service (so hopefully that myth can finally be busted).