This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Moses King of Ethiopia*

News Item:

1984--In "Operation Moses" 7,000 Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel.

News Item:

May 1991-- "Operation Solomon" airlifted almost all the remaining community to Israel.

None would question the appropriateness of the name that was given to the recent airlift of Ethiopian Jewry: "Operation Solomon." The tale of King Solomon's encounter with the Ethiopic Queen of Sheba is well-known to all readers of the Bible.

Not so self-evident was the name of the earlier 1984 rescue which was entitled "Operation Moses." The biblical connection between Moses and Ethiopia is not a strong one, being limited to a vague reference to Moses' "Ethiopian wife," a mysterious figure about whom we are told very little.

Jewish legend however fills in this episode in the prophet's life in meticulous and romantic detail, relating that Moses actually reigned as King of Ethiopia for no less than forty years!

According to this tradition Moses, in his flight from Egypt following his killing of the Egyptian taskmaster, wandered off first to Ethiopia, where he found himself in the midst of a civil war. It seems that while the legitimate king, named Kikanos, had been off on a foreign campaign, he had entrusted the homefront to the wily Balaam, who took the opportunity afforded by the king's absence in order to execute a coup d'étât, fortifying the country against the returning monarch. Moses happened upon King Kikanos as he was laying siege to the capital city trying to recapture it, and was instantly appointed commander-in-chief. When Kikanos died soon afterwards, Moses was declared the new king and set to completing the liberation of Ethiopia, a task which had already dragged on for nine long years.

The most formidable of the enemy fortifications consisted of a barrier of venomous snakes and scorpions. Moses defused this "minefield" by having his soldiers unleash a volley of hungry storks who immediately swooped down upon the serpents and devoured them, allowing Moses' forces to recapture the capital. As was the custom in antiquity, Moses was expected to contract a diplomatic marriage with King Kikanos' widow Adoniah. Daunted by the prospect of intermarriage, Moses never consummated the union. Nonetheless he continued to reign as king of Ethiopia for forty years until his embittered queen aroused the population to remove this foreign ruler. Moses then proceeded to Midian where the biblical narrative resumes.

The story as I have described it is based on a work called the Sefer Hayashar, composed in Spain during the later middle ages. However versions of the story are found in Greek sources that date back to antiquity, except that instead of storks these versions refer to the ibis, the sacred bird of the Egyptians. These versions relate that the Egyptians' reverence for these birds resulted from their association with this episode.

Between "Operation Moses" and "Operation Solomon," we have been witnessing the dramatic conclusion of a long association between the Jews and Ethiopia.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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First Publication:

  • Jewish Free Press, June 14 1991.


  • L. Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, Philadelphia 1967.
  • A. Shinan, "Moses and the Ethiopian Woman: Sources of a Story in The Chronicle of Moses," Scripta Hierosolymitana 27 (1978).