ISRAELI ETHIOPIANS SIGD

Thousands of Ethiopian Jews take part in a prayer of the Sigd holiday on the Armon Hanatziv Promenade overlooking Jerusalem on November 27, 2019. The prayer is performed by Ethiopian Jews every year to celebrate their community's connection and commitment to Israel. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90

(JTA) — Tel Aviv University announced the launch of what it says is the world’s first academic program focused on the holy scriptures of Ethiopian Jews.

The program, aimed currently at graduate students, was announced last week by the university’s Chaim Rosenberg School of Jewish Studies and Archaeology. It is is titled Orit Apprehenders, which refers to one of the central pieces of scripture in the Ethiopian Jewish community.

In a statement, Dalit Rom-Shiloni, the TAU professor who is leading the new program, called it a “rescue operation” to preserve understanding about the Orit.

The Orit is the Ethiopian variant of the Hebrew Bible, Rom-Shiloni said. Prior to the compilation of the text known today as the Hebrew Bible, Jewish communities had similar “but certainly not identical” versions, she added.

Ethiopian Jews brought the Orit with them when they immigrated to Israel beginning in the 1980s. The text is written in Ge’ez, a Semitic language used by clergy in Ethiopia. Around the Orit, an unwritten liturgy evolved over the centuries that includes songs, rabbinical interpretations and stories in Amharic and Tigrinya.

The new study program aims to preserve and teach that liturgy, which is fading as Ethiopian Jews integrate into Israeli society.

“These cultural treasures are facing extinction,” Rom-Shiloni said.