Little is known about the Rastafarian religion other than that Bob Marley was a Rasta who had dreadlocks and enjoyed smoking Marijuana. During my trip to Jamaica, I found that there was so much more that connected to my own personal experiences as a Jew. I decided to discover more and what I found was astonishing. I began to strike up discussions with local Rastafarians. A Rastafarian cab driver that I was speaking with claimed to be from the tribe of Judah and had a Star of David on his dashboard. When I came back to the U.S. the importance to me of what I discovered had not changed. I began to look at the similarities between the two religions. I discovered that in many ways the two religions are almost, if not, identical. The two religions of Rastafarianism and Judaism embody many of the same characteristics, as well as their ancestry. Although the Rastafarians, at times, inaccurately explain the bible, their belief in the Old Testament is still prevalent. Many of the customs are almost identical, but the rationale behind the traditions and laws contrast greatly (Rastafarians).
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In order to understand all the connections within the beliefs, rituals, and symbols between Rastafarianism and Judaism it is extremely important to understand the origin of Rasta. Rasta has its roots in the teachings of Jamaican black nationalist Marcus Garvey, who is 1920 said “Look to Africa when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand” (Chevannes, Rastafari 98). Many thought the prophecy was fulfilled when in 1930, Ras Tafari, was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie 1 of Ethiopia and proclaimed “King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and the conquering lion of the Tribe of Judah”. Haile Selassie claimed to be a direct descendant of King David, the 225th ruler in an unbroken line of Ethiopian Kings from the time of Solomon and Sheba (Chevannes, Ideology 99).
It was 1930, the year of the Great Depression, and the Jamaican people were opening their hearts and minds to new possibilities. During this time of economic instability, the downtrodden black Jamaican was receptive to the economic communal ideas and strong positive emphasis on being black and African. Garvey preached a message of black self-empowerment and initiated the “Back to Africa” movement. Which called for all blacks to return to their ancestral home, and more specifically Ethiopia. He taught “self-reliance ‘at home and abroad’ and advocated a ‘back to Africa’ consciousness, awakening black pride and denouncing the white man’s eurocentric worldview, colonial indoctrination that caused blacks to feel shame for their African heritage” (Campbell 64). He and his followers took great pride in being black and wanted to regain the black heritage that was lost by losing faith and straying from the holy ways. Soon other leaders began to emerge such as Leonard Howell. Howell was arrested in 1933 for using “Seditious and Blasphemous language” to increase the sale of pictures of Haile Selassie. Howell claimed that the “spirit of our Lord was returned in this Mythical figure.” During Howell’s trial, he refused to swear on the bible, and told the court, “We were told that we were Gentiles (but we came) to know that we were the Jews” (Barret 19).
From the beginning of the Rasta movement, the similarities to Judaism were clear. The Rastas believed that they were the descendants of the Jews and that Haile Selassie was the king prophesized in the Bible. According to the Bible, King Solomon, King of Israel and the Jews, was visited by the Queen of Sheba, an Ethiopian Monarch. The queen was very impressed during her visit to the Holy Land and adopted the Jewish religion. When her son Menelik grew up, he visited his father and transferred the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Axum. It is at this point that a new religion of the Falasha Jews began in Ethiopia. The Falashas are the black Jews of Ethiopia, descendants of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba. Falasha means emigrant, exile, or stranger to the land and it is not impossible that the Jews of Ethiopia themselves originally adopted this term to indicate that they were exiles from the Holy Land into which, when the Messiah came, they would be gathered. The Ethiopian Jews depend entirely on written laws, without support from the Talmud or any Rabbinical interpretations.
The Falashas adhere to the teachings of the Torah, the five books of Moses, as well as all the other books of the Old Testament and they reject any scriptures from the New Testament and the Koran, which are used by Christians and Muslims across the world. Orthodox rabbis have questioned the authenticity of their attachment to the Jewish religion because the Falasha, unlike Jews, do not follow the precepts of the Halachah, or Oral Law. But the Talmud (a written version of the oral law) was not complete until about 500 AD, at a time when the Jews of Ethiopia were already cut off from their co-religionists in the rest of the world (Messing 42-44).
To the Rastafari, the word ‘Israelite’ and ‘Ethiopian’ are one and the same name. According to the Rastafarians, they, the true Israelites, have been punished for their sins by God their father through slavery under whites. This sin led them to exile in Jamaica. They share many of the same customs that European and Israeli Jews adhere to. They do this by sticking to the strict dietary laws of the Old Testament. This is explained by Samuel Brown: “The Rastafarian is he who bows the knee to God above; we are those who obey strict moral and divine laws based on the Mosaic tenet. We strongly object to sharp implements used in the desecration of the figure of man, e.g. trimming and shaving, tattooing of skin, cuttings of flesh. We are basically vegetarians, making scant use of certain animal flesh, yet outlawing the use of swine’s flesh in any form, shellfishes, scaleless fishes, snails, etc.” ( Barret 111). These laws are followed by Jews around the world and are called being kosher.
Both Rastafarians and the Jews follow the laws of the Old Testament. Both adhere to biblical tenants regarding hair cutting. In several of the scriptures, the holy man is instructed not to alter his hair. In Leviticus 19:27, Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mars the corners of thy beard. “In Leviticus 21:5,”They shall not make any baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in the flesh.” And finally Numbers 6:5,”All the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head: until the days be fulfilled, in which he spareth himself unto the Lord, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow” (Lewis 43). Based on these biblical commandments, the Rastas grow their long, unaltered locks as symbols of blackness, dignity, and honour. Jewish boys traditionally do not cut their hair until the age of three, and religious men cover their head and let their hair grow into long, distinguished beards.
The Star of David is used many times to symbolize the Rastafarian religion. It is used on many reggae CD covers and even flags depicting both Rastas and Jews. The Rastafarians, as stated above, believe that Haile Selassie, their leader, was descended from King Solomon and King David, hence they use as their symbol the Star of David. The Jews also use this as their symbol to represent Jews and even Israel on the Israeli flag.
Another symbol that is connected to the Jewish religion is the symbolism of the Lion. The Lion represents Haile Selassie, the Conquering lion of Judah. The Lion is seen all over, again on Reggae CD covers such as the Burning Spear, in homes, on flags, on tabernacles, in paintings, and in their songs and poetry (Chevannes Rastafari and Other 19). “The Lion represents not only the king of kings but the dominant maleness of the movement. The Rastafarians stimulate the spirit of the lion in the way they wear their locks and in the way they walk. To the public the image of the lion suggests strength, dominance and aggressiveness” (Chevannes, Rastafari and Other 89).
Another similarity between the two religions is a belief in the coming of a Messiah. The religions differ in their interpretation of who that Messiah is or will be. Rastas believe in the messianic status of Selassie as the descendants of King David and that Selassie is the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah, now dwelling in his Holy Place on Mount Zion, which is in Ethiopia. When Selassie came to Jamaica, which was a rare and spectacular event, the Rastafarians ‘knew’ that Ras Tafari was their Messiah and Savior. “But most importantly, the fact that Haile Selassie rejected the idea that he was the saviour is even more proof to the Rastas that he was the returned Messiah. The Messiah will indeed be a king from the house of David who will gather the scattered of Israel together, but the order of the world will not be radically changed by his coming” (Chevannes, Ideology 138). In contrast, Jews believe that with the coming of the Messiah there will be a world of peace and justice and all people of Israel will become obedient to the ways of the Torah.
The closest that anyone has ever come to creating a widely accepted list of Jewish beliefs is Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith. Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith are thought to be the minimum requirements of Jewish belief:
“1.G-d exists 2.G-d is one and unique 3. G-d is incorporeal 4.G-d is eternal 5. Prayer is to be directed to G-d alone and to no other 6. The words of the prophets are true 7.Moses’s prophecies are true, and Moses was the greatest of the prophets 8. The Written Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) and Oral Torah (teachings now contained in the Talmud and other writings) were given to Moses 9.There will be no other Torah 10.G-d knows the thoughts and deeds of men 11.G-d will reward the good and punish the wicked 12. The Messiah will come 13. The dead will be resurrected” (Neusner 18). These ideas are very similar to the set of ideals that Leonard P. Howell is credited for creating in 1935. He also is acclaimed for writing the first Rastafarian bible. The Rastafari movement never had a central organization or a single leader with any kind of authority. This was because of their philosophy that no person had any privilege, power or special religious domination. Likewise, Judaism does not have a central religious figure such as the Catholic pope.
Howell wrote that to be a Rastafarian, you must acknowledge the following 13 theories:
“1.H.I.M. Emperor Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Israel, Conquering Lion of The Tribe Of Judah, 225th descendent of the House of David.
2. One must know and acknowledge the Bible and the teachings of Jah Rastafari above all things.
3.One accepts and holds in reverence the person of His Majesty Haile Selassie as the living manifestation of Jah (God) in the flesh.
4.One must know that the so-called “death” is not an eternal phenomenon, one only sees “death” happening in life-a a Rastaman knows not of death but of life everlasting.
5.Repatriation is a must for all Rastafarians. Repatriation from Babylon (western concepts and false teachings) to Zion land, the promised land, African Land. Physical and spiritual repatriation to the land of ‘I n I’ (our) fore-parents, with clean hands and pureness of heart”.
6.One seeks after the world of life, Jah Life (The Kingdom of Jah) and not after the material things of this world, for they are only temporary (Kingdom of Babylon).
7.A Rastafarian is a Jew by nature, being a righteous one of principles, dignity and love for God.
8. A Rasta cannot afford to be “colour-blind” Jah is universal, Jah goes and do as he wishes, Jah can take on any colour he pleases.
9.All people are of Jah Rastafari regardless of colour.
10. A Rastafarian must accept the oath of the Nazarite, such as the forefathers- Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, and Ras Ta Fari.
11.A Rastafarian must be a man of peace, love and unity, living in harmony with Jah, man, and nature. Living without violence, corruption and envy towards his brothers and sisters.
12. A Rastafarian must accept and observe the laws of the Ten Commandments, which Jah left early mankind, comprising of every prerequisite for a flourishing communal life.
13. It is and should be the will of all Rastafarian to liberate and eradicate all iniquity (evil) from all the world” (Barret 67).
There are clearly many similarities between the two religions. It appears as if Howell modelled his ideals after Rambam’s even in the fact that both lists have thirteen attributes. Major differences arise from the disagreement about Haile Selassie as a messiah. Both religions believe that G-d should be worshipped above all things and that people should look to the ten commandments, and to the prophets, and that a messiah will come from the house of King David. Tenet number six, stating that a Rastafarian is a Jew by nature, is an obvious link between the two religions. The two religions share similar attitudes toward God, the Bible, and humanity. The main paths of divergence lie in views of the messiah and beliefs about the race of major religious figures in the Bible.
Although both Jews and Rastas believe in the Old Testament and obey its laws, Rastas pick and choose which parts of the Bible to take literally and which to interpret. The white person is considered inferior to the black person by most Rastafarians. “The original man is… none other than the Black man, a Black man is the first last: creator of the Universe and primogenitor of al other races”(Barret 114). Despite such rhetoric, white people are considered oppressors of the black people, but not all white people are considered evil.
The Rastafarians believe that the bible is written by and about black people. When the Bible speaks about the Israelites, the Rastas believe that the writings are about black people. “The history thus dug from the earth in Africa has borne mute but abundant testimony that the bible records us Black people as Israel. They go on to believe that the black Africans are the sole representatives of those chosen people recounted in the Bible” (Barret 86). Thus they often interpret the Bible literally, especially when colour is discussed. In Lamentations chapter 4, verse 8, it is written “Their visage is blacker than a coal; they are not known in the street: their skin cleaveth to their bones; it is withered; it becomes like a stick.” The Rastafarians read this reference as referring to black people, while Jews interpret it metaphorically as an indication of god’s wrath towards the children of Israel. God, in his anger, is dooming the people and warning that if they act badly, their faces will ‘darken’. Jews do not interpret the passage as a reference to race but rather as a metaphorical description of rejection and evil.
Rastafarians also believe that Moses must have been black. When the Pharaoh of Egypt decreed as a law that all the Hebrew male babies be cast into the Nile River, Miriam and her mother hid Moses in a basket alongside the river. When Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses, she knew that the baby was Hebrew and adopted him. Rastafarians believe that if Moses had been a white baby, it would have been difficult to conceal him from her father’s anger (Barret 127).
Many Rastafarians still believe that David was black despite the following quote in Samuel I, chapter 17, verse 42.”And when the Philistine looked about and saw David; he disdained him; for he was but a youth, and ruddy, and of a fair countenance.” This quote is pretty straightforward in saying that David had red hair and white skin. The Rastafarian’s have a knack for picking and choosing what they believe is true. They take most of the words out of context without understanding all the other words and phrases in the bible (Barret 128).
In conclusion, there are clearly many similarities between Judaism and Rastafarianism in terms of their core ethical beliefs, relationship to God, belief in the Old Testament’s scriptures, and practices. Indeed, one of the Rastafarian’s core beliefs is that they are descendants of David. The two religions differ, however, in their views of who the Messiah is, with Jews believing that the Messiah has not arrived yet and the Rastafarians believing that Haile Selassie was the Messiah. Rastafarians believe that Selassie was a descendent of the House of David, proving that ‘real’ Jews are blacks and that whites have hidden this identity throughout time. Thus Rastafarians are Jews in many respects, and, in my opinion, should be considered a sect of Judaism in addition to the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements.
1. Barrett, Leonard. The Rastafarians. Boston: Beacon, 1988.
2. Campbell, Horace. Rasta and Resistance. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World, 1987.
3. Chevannes, Barry. Rastafari and Other African-Caribbean World Views. London: Macmillan, 1995.
4. Rastafari: Roots and Ideology. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1994.
5. Lewis, William. Souls Rebels. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland, 1993.
6. Messing, Simon D. The Story of the Falashas,”Black Jews”of Ethiopia. New York: Balshon Print. & Offset , 1982.
7. Neusner, Jacob. The Foundations of the Theology of Judaism. London: Jason Aronson, 1991.
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