JPL Logo JPL Presents

Prayer

Ge’ez prayer book [Gondar province, Ethiopia, 18--?]

The Liturgy of the Seventh Sabbath.

The Ge’ez prayer book is  perhaps the most curious book in the antiquarian collection. The translation comes from Fisseha Tadesse, who is an Ethiopian expatriate living in Toronto. Ge’ez is also known as Ethiopic, an ancient liturgical language  used by the Beta Israel community as opposed to the vernacular Amharic.  It comes from the South Semitic family of languages and eventually became the official language of the Kingdom of Aksum, reputed by some over-zealous explorers as the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.

Scholars have long debated the origins of the Ethiopian Jewish community.  Monica S. Devens in The Liturgy of the Seventh Sabbath states that the community emerged from the Agau peoples of Ethiopia as a distinct group in the 15th-16th centuries.  A fusion of Judaic elements with the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church is one theory, but just a theory. What we do know is that its members knew nothing of the Talmud or rabbinical literature,  had no working knowledge of Hebrew, no synagogues or any of the other ritual characteristics known in the other parts of the diaspora.

The text is a collection of liturgical readings divided into about fifty segments glorifying the Sabbath. The sequence of prayers are constructed on mathematical formulas using acrostics and other structures. The principal themes that characterize Beta Israel literature in general are the centrality of the Sabbath and the relationship between God and Moses. The Sabbath in particular, is depicted as an female figure who intercedes with God on behalf of the faithful.

The  manuscript is printed on vellum made from goat skin and sewn into wooden covers. To the best of our knowlede, only three other copies exist in the world as far as we know.