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Good Samaritans

Israel’s smallest religious minority offers Jews a glimpse of what might have been

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The Samaritan Passover on Mt. Gerizim. At Abraham’s altar, approximately 1900 to 1920 (Library of Congress)
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What would the Jews look like had they not been exiled to the four corners of the earth, had they gone untainted—but also unenriched—by the cultures in which they tarried? Imagine Jews who retained their fierce attachment to the Torah and the faith of their fathers, but without the rabbinic response to displacement. No Talmud, no golden flourishing diasporas in Spain or Germany or America, no great movement out of the ghetto and into the Haskala, none of the upheavals of modernity, no Reform movement, no Holocaust, no Zionism, no state of their own, no Nobel laureates to kvell over, only the steady drip of obscurity, anachronism, and numerical decline. What would those Jews be like today?

The answer revealed itself to me the other day atop Mt. Gerizim overlooking the city of Shechem, otherwise known as Nablus, where the High Priest Aharon Ben-Av Hisda, 83, 132nd holder of the post since Aharon, the brother of Moses, was presiding over the Passover sacrifice. He wore a white beard, a loose green silk robe tied at the waist with a wide cloth, and a blue-striped tallit draped over his head. Rising above the jostling assembly of his entire people, which numbered fewer than 750 souls, he clutched a chest-high wooden staff, worn smooth with age, in his left hand. He stood on a small platform facing priests bedecked in white turbans and elders outfitted in red tarbooshes wrapped with a gold and white sash. As the sun set to unveil a full moon, Hisda’s chants (ancient Hebrew and Aramaic comingling in his throat) crescendoed, and with an ecstatic cry the sacrifice rites commenced.

All at once, dozens of white-robed Samaritan men, descendants of the ancient northern Kingdom of Israel, sliced their knives into the throats of the lambs—one per family—which in accordance with biblical instruction had been purchased four days earlier (Exodus 12:3-12:4) and had been coaxed to the sides of a long altar. Hisda’s congregation dipped their fingers into the warm, newly shed blood, dabbed it onto their foreheads, and embraced one another with joy. The slaughtered animals were skinned and disemboweled with expert haste, skewered on 10-foot spits, and placed in fire-pits gaping in the ground nearby, there to be roasted until the midnight feast commemorating the Exodus from Egypt.

***

Samaritans are the smallest religious group in the holy land, and probably the most ancient. Best known for their cameo role in the most famous of New Testament parables, the story of the Good Samaritan, they offer modern Jews a glimpse into our own past. Indeed their ceremonies prove impossible to witness without the jarring chronological blur that comes from a disruption in the historical continuum. They are our ancestors come to life—except they are not. The most faithful followers of the Torah, it seems, may not be Jewish at all.

Samaritan faith is monotheism at its simplest: a belief in one God, the God of Israel (whom they call “Shema,” or “the Name”); one prophet, Moses; and one Torah. Anything outside the five books—later prophets, oral law, rabbinic interpretation—is alien to them. There is neither Purim nor Hanukkah, no bar mitzvah, no requirement of a minyan (a quorum of 10 men) for prayer. On the other hand, Samaritans enforce strict observance of the Bible’s laws of ritual impurity (menstruating women are separated from their husbands for seven days) and the Sabbath (no traveling, cooking, writing, or sex).

Passover, celebrated this year a month after the tamer Jewish version, is far from the only sign that religious habits that for Jews have receded into a symbolic representation of an ancient memory—the burnt shank bone on a seder plate that represents the paschal sacrifice—remain for the Samaritans a living practice. Take the way this tiny community organizes itself according to religious hierarchy. Unlike the Jewish priesthood, which faded after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, Hisda and his fellow priests still serve as unquestioned decision-makers, interpreters of the law, and keepers of the calendar (an abstruse art they call by its Aramaic name “Ishban Kashta,” or “truth calculation”).

In another sense, however, the Samaritans present to Jews not so much a primeval past as an alternate vision of themselves, a road not taken.

The divergence, the fork in the road, began here on Mt. Gerizim above Nablus, where Samaritans have lived and worshiped since the day Joshua brought the holy ark here and offered the first sacrifice in Canaan (Deut. 27:4). Hisda and his community, which broke away from mainstream Judaism more than two and a half millennia ago, venerate Mt. Gerizim as the center of Samaritan sacred geography. Samaritans face Gerizim when then pray. It is where Adam was fashioned of the dust of the earth, where Noah built his altar after the flood subsided, Jacob dreamt of the angel-ladder, Abraham offered up his son Isaac, and Joshua placed the 12 stones he had brought from the Jordan when the Israelites entered the land of Canaan. (The Samaritan calendar counts from the year Joshua crossed the Jordan into the land of Canaan: the year 2794 on the Jewish calendar, which counts from creation.) This spot went by various biblical names, Samaritans say: Bethel (Gen. 12:8), House of God (Gen. 28:17), Luz (Gen. 28:19), the Chosen Place (Deut. 12:11), and the Everlasting Hill (Deut. 33:15).

The Samaritans believe that Mt. Gerizim, and not Jerusalem, is the real Moriah. They insist that the legitimate line of high priests, from the family of Eleazar, remained on Gerizim; the false line, from the family of Itamar, stole the ark to Shiloh and thence to Jerusalem. When the Jews made Jerusalem, some 40 miles to the south, the exclusive center of worship—a chosen city for a chosen people—the Samaritans regarded the Jewish cult as illegitimate.

This initiated the ancient “temple race” between the Samaritans and the Jerusalem-centric Jews whose beliefs and history shaped modern Jewry. By permission of Alexander the Great, the Samaritans built a temple of their own, measuring 400 by 560 feet, atop Gerizim. In use for some 200 years, the temple was destroyed before the first century BCE, never to be rebuilt. Israeli archaeologist Yitzhak Magen, who supervised the digs on Gerizim, has found coins and inscriptions dating back 2,200-2,600 years.

The Bible recounts that when Ezra and Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem and its temple, the Samaritans tried to prevent them; Sanballat, then leader of the Samaritans, mocked “these feeble Jews” (Neh. 4:2). The 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus reports on Samaritans who intruded into the temple in Jerusalem one Passover eve and scattered human bones to render the place unclean. The Samaritan Chronicle boasts of another episode in which Samaritans substituted rats in a cage of doves being carried to Jerusalem as temple offerings.

The antipathy ran both ways. Among Jews threatened by a rival to Jerusalem’s claim of exclusivity, a deep anti-Samaritanism prevailed. This culminated in a rabbinic ruling by Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi that, despite their scrupulousness in the observance of biblical law, the Samaritans were to be considered as Gentiles in every respect.

Yet the rival temples and the rival communities, each claiming to be true heirs of the Mosaic tradition, were fated to share a common experience of persecution. Like the Jews, Samaritans were massacred by the Romans. Hadrian built a pagan temple on Gerizim, torched Samaritan scrolls, and forbade Samaritans to perform circumcisions. Early Christians forcibly converted Samaritans and in the 5th century expelled them from Gerizim and built a church to Mary on the site. Later, Muslim rulers forbade them from praying or bringing the Passover sacrifice on Mt. Gerizim, a ban that lasted until 1820.

Despite the persecutions, most Samaritans remained in nearby Shechem (some 300,000 by the end of the 2nd century), with vibrant communities also in Gaza, Ashkelon, Beth Shean, Caesarea, and Yavneh. As of the 5th century, they numbered well over a million. It is true that starting in the 2nd century, a small Samaritan diaspora spread to Egypt, Greece, North Africa, Italy, and Sicily, but this was a peripheral, short-lived affair, limited by the mandate incumbent on every Samaritan to make the pilgrimage to Gerizim three times a year.

Over the subsequent centuries, a precipitous decline set in. By the 17th century, the number of Samaritans in the world had dropped to 140, where it more or less remained through World War I. Birth defects became common. In 1867, Mark Twain encountered in Shechem a “sad, proud remnant of a once mighty community” that had dwindled to near extinction. “I found myself staring at any straggling scion of this strange race with a riveted fascination,” he wrote in The Innocents Abroad, “just as one would stare at a living mastodon.”

***

The resurgence of the Samaritan community owes something to the establishment of the modern State of Israel, whose second president, Yitzchak Ben-Zvi, encouraged Samaritan priests to allow the community’s men to marry Jewish women who committed to Samaritan observances (Samaritans, unlike Jews, rely on patrilineal descent). Their numbers rebounded: 350 in the early 1960s, 500 by the late 1970s. Today, the community counts 730 Samaritans, divided into four extended families: Cohen, Tsedaka, Danfi, and Marhib.

This Passover, I was hosted by Benyamim Tsedaka, founding editor of the biweekly Samaritan newspaper, A.B., for Aleph Bet. Tsedaka’s wife Miriam, an Israeli from Nahariyah, married into the community in 1969, and his grandmother, a Russian Jew, was the first woman to marry in.

Another of his guests that evening was the first woman to join the Samaritans on her own, not by marriage. Sharon Sullivan, an earnest graduate student at Hebrew University from a family of lapsed Catholics in Michigan, moved to Israel a year ago. It was the Samaritans’ sense of fidelity to the Torah, without the rabbinic frills, that attracted her, she said. Today Sullivan is part of a team led by Jim Ridolfo of the University of Cincinnati, which was awarded National Endowment for the Humanities funds to create an online archive of Samaritan texts (including three 15th-century Pentateuchs), scrolls, and artifacts housed in the E.K. Warren collection at Michigan State University.

It is not uncommon to find a Samaritan family that has been in continuous possession of a Torah codex for 600 years. Each generation adds a layer of fine colored cloth, and on Passover or other special occasion, when the current trustees show the venerable volume to a guest, they must peel back layer upon layer. This Passover I wondered whether there is in that gesture, magnificent in its modest way, both a reminder of the quality of timelessness, of eternal recurrence, that characterizes the Samaritans and a hint of what, for better and for worse, the Jews might have become.

***

Today, the Samaritans are split in two. Half, including the new convert Sullivan, live in Holon, near Tel Aviv, home to a Samaritan community since the 1950s. The other half live in the village of Luza atop Mt. Gerizim in the West Bank on land purchased for them by King Hussein of Jordan. (Another gift, oddly enough, came from the Vatican. Pope John Paul II donated $190,000 to help build a Samaritan school here.) Luza now shares the mountain with the Jewish settlement of Brakhah (population 1,400).

During the Jordanian occupation of the West Bank, Holon Samaritans were permitted to visit Gerizim only once a year, on Passover. The Six-Day War opened the borders between the two, but of necessity, the community has long practice with the intricate choreography of neutrality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is nothing new. The 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus accused the Samaritans of playing both sides: “they alter their attitude according to circumstance and, when they see the Jews prospering, call them their kinsmen, on the ground that they are descended from Joseph and are related to them through their origin from him, but when they see the Jews in trouble, they say that they have nothing whatever in common with them nor do these have any claim of friendship or race.”

These days, Samaritans use both a Jewish and an Arab name; most are fluent in Hebrew and Arabic. They seek good relations with the Arabs in Nablus and send their children to the city’s An-Najah University. The late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat honored their loyalty by appointing a Samaritan to the 88-seat Palestinian Legislative Council. On the other hand, the Holon Samaritans, full Israeli citizens since the earliest days of the state, are fully integrated into Israeli life and serve in the IDF. (Nablus Samaritans like Tsedaka were granted Israeli passports in the mid-1990s.)

And so the delicate dance, set into motion by the dependence of this improbable remnant of an ancient people on its more powerful and more numerous neighbors, continues.

***

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Scott Cohen says:

Fascinating! Do you think that the Samaritan texts will have any influence on modern Jewish scholarship?

Mikhael Smith says:

Are there any Good Samaritans in America?

Badawiyya (samaritan's woman) says:

There is no samaritans in America,, half of them live in nablus city in the west bank,, and others in holon near telaviv

Not a single word in the article that Samaritans are the product of intermarriage between the remaining northern Israelites and foreign settlers, which is why Ezra excluded them from the Jewish community.

Also, no word of why their numbers dwindled to such depths by the 19th century. Some Muslims in Nablus claim Samaritan ancestors, who were converted to Islam.

“the road not taken,” indeed. this excellent article lays out the samaritan situation clearly and thoroughly
and rolls it back to the days of joshua — where we originate. there is much to contemplate here. something rankles in the story — though i am unable to give it voice. the picture – and the possibilities – are too large and too many.

Daniel says:

Fortunately Judaism turned into a different religion than what Samaritism is, one that was evolving, vibrant and living, and (usually) in touch with surrounding culture. One of the reasons for the small Samaritan population is that they never evolved, never truly stuggled with the texts as did (and do) the ancient, medieval and modern scholars of Judaism. A religion that relies only on the written Torah,and disregards not just the Oral Torah, but also the Prophets and writings may be a very nice religion, but it is ultimately, at best, a left behind remnant of what Judaism was, but bears only minimal relation to what Judaism is.

This is possibly the most interesting, captivating piece of reporting I have read in quite some time. I’m totally fascinated by this window into the past and present.

I found this to be an interesting piece since it takes a look at an aspect of Middle East culture which is rarely discussed, namely, the existence of smaller ethnic and religious groups which are neither Arab, Person nor Jew and do not adhere to Judaism, Christianity or Islam. In the opening paragraph you pose the question as to what Judaism might look like without the experience of exile and subsequent interaction with other cultures, which is an interesting question, but you follow up by suggesting that we can get some insight into what the outcome of such a contingency might have looked like by examining the culture of modern-day Samaritans, which seems inaccurate to me.

I would say this for two reasons, the first being that the roots of rabbinic Judaism, which is the Judaism we know today, has its roots in the land of Israel and the Middle East in the period leading up to the time of the destruction of the Second Temple– it is not merely a product of contact with outside groups which came about as a consequence of the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the people. Second, I believe what makes us Jews, as opposed to Samaritans, or Karaites or Christians (or worshippers of Baal or adherents to other religions of the Ancient Near East, for that matter) is that the majority of the people that would be come to known as Jews decided to follow the framework of the rabbis when it came not only to the authority of certain texts, but theologically, in terms of framing the relationship between God and Israel (the people). Personally, I think it’s great that there are still communities of Samaritans, Karaites, Druze, etc. living in Israel and the broader Middle East because I think it helps to enrich the overall cultural tapestry of the region. That being said, I am disturbed by the suggestion that Samaritans are essentially Jews, sans the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch.

In any case, I really enjoyed your brief history of the Samaritans as well as your comments about their place in modern Israel. From an historical perspective, your piece is very interesting and has piqued my curiosity about the role of religious minority groups in the modern Middle East. As the publisher of the New Vilna Review, a publication dedicated to exploring modern Jewish identity, I am always on the lookout for ideas which will enrich the conversation about what it means to be a Jew in the modern world. I believe articles such as this piece are important because they help to enlarge and enrich the conversation I encourage in the New Vilna Review.

Yosef Gotlieb, PhD says:

I found the piece on the Samaritans engaging, informative and well-written.

A good piece of work.

Mike says:

I am curious, given the Jewish conversion dispute in Israel. If you convert to be a Samaritan, does Israel give you citizenship?

Dubi says:

“probably the most ancient” – really! Samaritans pre-date Judaism? Is that what they claim, contrary to all historical evidence, or is that the editor’s mistake?

Daniel says:

Dubi: If by Judaism you mean the entire history of the Israelite religion, then the Samaritans do not pre-date Judaism. If by Judaism you mean the religion of those in the Judean diaspora, then Samaritanism precedes that as it is basically the practice of the Ancient Israelite religion. Most followers of that religion, however gained new understandings and moved the religion forward into what we now know as Judaism. In many ways the Samaritans are no different than the Amish or the Chabadniks, deciding that at a certain point their religion stopped developing and still worship (if not live) the same way they did hundres and thousands of years ago.

Jay says:

It’s ‘Hashem’ not ‘Shema’ Fascinating article. Thanks

>It’s ‘Hashem’ not ‘Shema’

In the Samaritan dialect it’s “Shema,” not “Hashem.” “Shema” means the same thing as “Hashem” in Aramaic.

You’ve got a typo: “Samaritans face Gerizim when then pray.” -> “then” should be “they.”

SR ELIZABETH says:

am happy to know more about you .am a religious from africa.ie kenya and much interested to be friends with you.am also praying for you

Ovadia says:

A very nice article, really nice job brother.

I’ve said that least 4349518 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

this is so good. i wish to meet you one day.

an attention-grabbing viewpoint!

Eleonore says:

Dear Mr. Balint,
I found this article because I wanted to find something more about or by you. The article is truly fascinating. I did not know any of this people and like one of your other commentators it does remind me of the Amish, simply not accepting that the world, its ideas and also the Jewish religion has changed over time.

The reason why I was searching for you was that I have just read your article in the German weekly “Die Zeit” on your teaching of philosophy at the Al-Kuds-University. I have taught young people for many years myself and sympathize with your efforts to lead your students through their own research and discussion to take a different point of view. Are you keeping a blog or are you planning to write a book about your experiences at Al-Kuds? I should very much like to hear more about it. Thank you.
Eleonore

Judaism has evolved too much outside of the Jewish Bible’s bounds, and this process began by going beyond the straightforward meaningin the Land of Israel. While Jews in the diasporas could never have used the stiff penalties in the Torah since the gentiles decided the respective laws of the lands, The Midrashic interpretations are squarely unnecessary. Judaism could have remained in touch with surrounding cultures as much as necessities presented themselves without ridiculous dilution and massive idolatrous influences that have taken root, notably the Kabbalah-blah.

Besides, Rabbinic Judaism is not the sole representative of Judaism. Although not widely known, Qaraite Judaism, which resembles Samaritanism in many ways, has shown a degree of grappling with the Jewish Bible’s texts that parallels Rabinism’s, and has even dealt with the volumes produced by Rabbinism itself.

It is a common error by those ignorant of Samaritan history and religion to determine there has been no evolution in Samaritanism; in addition to the Torah they have formed some unique exegeses in AD times, some of which are quasi-Rabbinic and were reached by taking Torah verses out of their contexts, assigning some words numerical values to determine meanings and even the odd Midrash (borne out by their adoption of the Rabbinic no meat/dairy admixures, their excuses for their bizarre canopy-like “sukkot” inside their homes, non practice of Tsitsit, their avoidance of decontaminating from death-impurity through ashes of a burned Red Heifer, etc.).

And I am extremely disturbed by your separation of the Qaraites from all Jews, as if the Qaraites adhere to another religion outside of Judaism rather than a form “back to Scripture” Judaism that does not recognize Rabbinic texts as authoritative.

The Samaritans undoubtedly want us to believe they are practicing the original Israelite ways, but I recommend you read up on Samaritinism in depth. It has definitely evolved a lot beyond the ancient Israelite religion as found in the Torah. Changes have occurred not only in areas where they were forced by occupying foreigners to cease practicing some commandments, but in other facets as well. Some of these changes include quasi-Rabbinic exegeses and even borrowings from the Qaraites, a non-Rabbinic Jewish stream.

David Z says:

Others have raised some problems with this article, but the most glaring one is the internal contradiction. Do they go back to Joshua or to 2,500 years ago? And why? If they go back to Joshue why is there no mention of them in any Jewish books prior to Ezra? Shouldn’t David have fought them?

The truth is, of course, that there are two conflicting narratives–the Jewish one and the Samaritan one. You need to separate the two, and state what each tradition says about itself and the other and then maybe a third part where you explain what modern scholarship has to say (often just theories, but hopefully some hard evidence as well).

I have often wondered what Samaritans think of us (Jews). We don’t consider the Samaritans to be Jewish because our tradition is that they are (at least largely) an admixture of foreign gentiles brought in by Assyria. Not because they are schismatic, per se. Although apparently some Samaritans are now Jewish because they have Jewish moms, sadly.

But what do Samaritans think of us? If they think they are Jews, as descendants of the sh’vatim of efrayim and m’nashe, wouldn’t we be kinsmen? Unless they have problems with our yikhus. But in videos I’ve seen of them, they don’t. I understand it’s hard to be accepting of others when they spurn you, but if they’re intellectually honest they would recognize us as kinsmen and try to do kiruv on us, I would imagine… Just curious. But really this article is confusing and contradictory for the reasons I’ve given.

David Z says:

Additionally, it behooves me to add that it appears strictly from secular archaeological evidence that the schism occurred after the return of the Jews from Exile. Assyrian records indicate that they settled a number of different peoples in shomron after exiling the Jews there and the first Temple built on har g’rizim dates from the 5th Century BCE. So if a third party came in and had to give a guess who was more accurate she would guess the Jews. Yet this author does the opposite. I would never argue that the Samaritans had no Jewish blood–at the very least they had the kohanim given to them by ashur. But that their religion predated the Jewish one or in any sense was an original religion is clearly a biased, romantic, and improbable version of history. I have my own biases as devout Jew, but I recognize them.

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Good Samaritans

Israel’s smallest religious minority offers Jews a glimpse of what might have been

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