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The Beta Israel

Falasha in Ethiopia: From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century

Steven Kaplan

Publication Year: 1995

...balanced and well informed...a striking piece of scholarship aimed at demythologizing the origins of the Ethiopian Falasha.
-Foreign Affairs

Kaplan's definitive treatment will be of interest to students and scholars of Jewish history, African history, and comparative religion, as well as anyone interested in Jewish affairs and the modern Middle East.

The Midwest Book Review

Kaplan's conceptualizations are judicious and clearly expressed...incisive and well documented... and provides essential background for the process of assimilation now taking lace in Israel.
-The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Kaplan's able interdisciplinary approach is of great value for persons interested in religion, civilization, and process of change.
-Religious Studies Review

Kaplan's well-written, lucid presentation make[s] this important, competent contribution accessible to all levels of readers. Highly recommended.


Insightful and thorough, a welcome contribution.Kay Kaufman Shelemay, Professor of Music, Harvard University

Undoubtedly the most detailed, most scholarly, and most dispassionate argument of Falasha history hitherto published. [T]his work deserves ... the most careful study by all those (and in particular in Israel) who have any practical or scholarly connection with the Beta Israel.
-- Edward UllendorffEmeritus Professor of Ethiopian Studies, University of LondonFellow of the British Academy

Given Kaplan's facility with both written and oral sources, he is in a unique position to synthesize and reconcile the new historical findings of ethnographers with the written sources and differing conclusions of earlier historians and linguists. His work is insightful and thorough, a welcome contribution.
-- Kay Shelemay, Wesleyan University

The origin of the Black Jews of Ethiopia has long been a source of fascination and controversy. Their condition and future continues to generate debate. The culmination of almost a decade of research, The Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopia marks the publication of the first book-length scholarly study of the history of this unique community.
In this volume, Steven Kaplan seeks to demythologize the history of the Falasha and to consider them in the wider context of Ethiopian history and culture. This marks a clear departure from previous studies which have viewed them from the external perspective of Jewish history. Drawing on a wide variety of sources including the Beta Israel's own literature and oral traditions, Kaplan demonstrates that they are not a lost Jewish tribe, but rather an ethnic group which emerged in Ethiopia between the 14th and 16th century. Indeed, the name, Falasha, their religious hierarchy, sacred texts, and economic specialization can all be dated to this period. Among the subjects the book addresses are their links with Ethiopian Christianity, the medieval legends concerning their existence, their wars with the Ethiopian emperors, their relegation to the status of a despised semi-caste, their encounters with European missionaries, and the impact of the Great Famine of 1888-1892.
Kaplan's definitive treatment will be of interest to students and scholars of Jewish history, African history, and comparative religion, as well as anyone interested in Jewish affairs and the modern Middle East.

Published by: NYU Press


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xi

This book, which marks the culmination of almost a decade's research on the history of the Beta Israel, could never have been written without the support and assistance of countless individuals and institutions. While it is impossible to list all of those on four continents who have in one way or another helped me ...

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pp. 1-12

Despite the existence of a vast and ever-expanding literature on the Beta Israel (Falasha) of Ethiopia, no book-length scholarly study of their history has yet been published. Major works on their literature and religion have generally offered only brief surveys of their history, and most of the standard books in Ethiopian ...

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1. Ethiopian Jews: Obscure Beginnings

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pp. 13-32

Anyone with even a passing interest in the Beta Israel will have noted the extent to which the question of their origins has dominated the study of this people. Although much of their modern history remains shrouded in obscurity and a first-rate ethnography of the group has yet to be published, almost everyone who has written ...

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2. Speculation and Legend

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pp. 33-52

Given the success and influence Hebraic elements enjoyed in the Aksum region, a Judaized faith may eventually have had a chance of becoming the dominant religion in the region. Certainly, this is what happened briefly in parts of South Arabia during the sixth century. However, while Aksumite culture was still in its infancy, ...

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3. From Ayhud to Falasha: The Invention of a Tradition

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pp. 53-78

The Zagwe dynasty ruled Ethiopia for nearly one hundred fifty years from 1137 to 1270. Almost from the outset their rule was a troubled one, as various problems served to weaken and eventually to completely undermine them. Although the Zagwe rulers were apparently devout Christians and presided over a major revival ...

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4. Resistance and Defeat: 1468 - 1632

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pp. 79-96

During the period from 1468 to 1632 the Beta Israel displayed their most sophisticated political-military organization, were involved in some of their most dramatic conflicts with the Ethiopian emperors, and suffered some of their most serious defeats. Although most aspects of their cultural, economic, and social development ...

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5. Glory and Decline: 1632 - 1855

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pp. 97-115

Susenyos' final victory over the Beta Israel of Semien was unquestionably one of the major landmarks in the history of their people. In retrospect, however, it appears to have been less a radical turning-point than the culmination of more than two centuries of conflict. From the time of Yeshaq in the fifteenth century onward, ...

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6. A Mission to the Jews

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pp. 116-142

Throughout the Zamane Masafent individual local rulers sought to rise above their peers and assert dominant control over the Ethiopian highlands. Only in the middle of the nineteenth century, however, was one of them successful. During the period from November 1852 to February 1855, Dejjazmach Kasa of Qwara ...

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7. Kifu-qem: The Great Famine of 1888 - 92

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pp. 143-154

Despite the growth of Jewish interest in the Beta Israel, almost forty years were to pass between Halevy's visit to Ethiopia and the journey of his student and follower Jacques (Ya'acov) Faitlovitch. In the meantime, events in Ethiopia continued to shape the fortunes of the Beta Israel in a dramatic fashion. ...

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Conclusions: Before Faitlovitch

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pp. 155-166

The arrival in Ethiopia of Jacques Faitlovitch in 1904 marks a turning point in the history of the Beta Israel. Faitlovitch, who dedicated his life to the cause of Ethiopian Jewry, was responsible more than any other single person for their entry into Jewish history and consciousness. Indeed, the processes ...


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pp. 167-210


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pp. 211-224


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pp. 225-231

E-ISBN-13: 9780814763537
E-ISBN-10: 0814763537
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814746646
Print-ISBN-10: 0814746640

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 1995

OCLC Number: 794701150
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Beta Israel