Thursday, January 12, 2012

Shadal series #9 - Samuel David Luzzatto's Letter to the Ethiopian Jews

This post is going to have a second part, since there is some intrigue about this letter, which I will mention at the end. First, here is my translation of a fascinating letter printed in Iggerot Shadal Volume II, pp. 1027-29.
19 May 1847 4 Sivan 5607

To His Honor the Great Sage Abba Yshaq, Father and Teacher to our Brethren the Israelites in Abyssinia, Blessings and Peace without Limit:

We learned with great joy that even in Abyssinia there are Jacob's children who observe the Torah of Moses, the Man of God. However, the news which has arrived from your land has been through the medium of men who are not Israelites, and their words are unclear and insufficient to quench our thirst to know the true facts. Therefore I, the small Samuel David Luzzatto who dwells in Padua, Italy, who instructs our God's Torah and is a father and teacher to the youths who study Torah in this land, have sent this epistle to you, inquiring from you to do us a kindness and enlighten us with your reply to the questions which I send to you this day.

First, I ask you to tells us what is the meaning of the name "Falasha" and how did you come to be called by this name.

Second, I ask you when did your branch of the Israelites arrive in Abyssinia.

Third, I ask if the Israelites came to Abyssinia at one time, or gradually, in disparate groups, and if they came in large or small numbers.

Fourth, I inquire of you to know if the Israelites were ever self-ruled in Abyssinia, and if so at what point did you become subjects to others? Were there Israelites who kept their self-rule, and if so are there any today? Are you at peace with the gentiles surrounding you; are you beloved or hated by them?

Fifth, I am yearning to know what language you speak. Is it the Holy Tongue, biblical Hebrew, with which the Torah is written, or another language? What is the origin of the language among you? Would you please write me a bilingual sample of your language, in Hebrew and the language you speak.

Sixth, please tell me when you circumcise your children, and is it true that you also circumcise the girls.

Seventh, please tell me how many months are in your year, what are their names, how many days are in a month, and if your years and months are always the same, or if occasionally you have a longer year than others, and a longer month than others.

Eighth, please inform me which festivals and holidays do you observe, and the month and day in which you practice each one of them. What are your fast days when you refrain from eating and drinking in memory of the travails of your ancient fathers?

Ninth, I ask of you if you have the books of Torah and Prophets, written in their original language, the language of Moses and the Prophets, and what is the number and the names of your prophetic and other holy books?

Tenth, please inform me if you have books other than the Torah and Prophets, and if you have prayer books with which you pray to God?

Eleventh, I ask you to know if you believe as us in the coming of a redeemer, the messiah, who will gather the scattered Israelites from the four corners of the earth, and return us to the land of our forefathers, the Holy Land?

Twelfth, I ask you to inform me if all the Israelites in Abyssinia are called 'Falasha,' or if some are called by another name. Also, do all of you share the same faith and Torah, or are there various sects and customs?

Please do me a kindness and write a learned response to my twelve questions, and give the letter to the man who brings my letter to you. I am also prepared to assist you and do anything good for you in my power. The God of Israel will bless you and all the Israelites who dwell in your land. God bless and keep your eternally, Amen. These are the words of your brother who desires good for you, written here in Padua, 4 Sivan 5607 years from the creation of Heaven and Earth as we reckon it.

The small Samuel David ben Hezekiah Luzzatto.
Now, the context is that at this time reports were reaching Europe about practicing Jews in Ethiopia. Their existence had not been unknown by any means, but only in the mid-19th century was there a sufficient and consistent European presence in Africa. There were reports printed in newspapers and journals about the Beta Israel, and this intrigued Samuel David Luzzatto and, especially, his son Filosseno. The latter, who was only 17 when this letter was sent to Abba Ishak, a Beta Israel elder, became a noted expert on that community, authoring an important book - to the extent that one could be an expert without having actually traveled there.

What is especially interesting about this letter is that Filosseno would also send such a letter; or at least that is what all the literature on the subject says. His letter is extremely similar (but not identical). A couple of years later his letter and the reply from Abba Ishak - there is a reply - were printed in journals and newspapers. My next post will show these. But I wanted to mention here that I have not found a single reference in any scholarly literature on the Beta Israel that acknowledges this letter in Iggerot Shadal. My conjecture is that Filosseno's famous letter was written by his father, Shadal, and he allowed his son to use it to help make a name for himself, or else that letter was a guide for his son. It's really quite amazing that no one seemed to have noticed this before. Stay tuned.


  1. thanks. such great questions Shadal asks

  2. Fascinating! I look forward to reading the response.

  3. They really are great questions. It looks to me as if Shadal knew a lot more than he was revealing: he was ready for the possibility that they were genuinely descended from an ancient Jewish community, but he thought it likely that they were Judaised descendants of Jewish traders or occasional migrants. Some of the questions are designed to test their authenticity as a Jewish community, others are there to test when they split off from the mainstream and to what extent their practices are syncretic.

  4. I agree, although I would say "suspect" rather than knew.

    It's also a nice model for how people can be respectful of difference. Even though the questions almost assume that they are not Rabbinic Jews, it's nothing but friendly, respectful and brotherly.

  5. Rabbi S.
    where can i find Iggerot Shadal online?

  6. Iggerot Shadal Volume 1

    Iggerot Shadal Volume 2

    Epistolario (Italian, French and Latin letters.)

    If you're not in the United States and these links don't work, email me.

  7. Dear On the Main Line:

    I would be fascinated to read the Ethiopian response, if you could find the time to post it.

    And thank you for this wonderful blog.




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