Encountering Samaritans

Encountering Samaritans

YU project explores our distant, oft-estranged cousins

The Passover sacrifice on Mount Gerizim, 2015. (Ori Orhof)
The Passover sacrifice on Mount Gerizim, 2015. (Ori Orhof)

There are three things that need mentioning at our Passover celebrations, according to Rabban Gamliel. First on the list is the Passover offering — for us, a symbolic bone on the seder plate, but for our ancestors thousands of years ago, the joyous slaughtering, roasting, and eating of a lamb.

Jews stopped bringing the Passover sacrifice when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by Romans in the year 70. But our cousins the Samaritans didn’t stop. They maintain their traditional Paschal sacrifice unto this very day. After all, the Romans didn’t destroy their holy place, located on the top of Mount Gerizim, 20 miles due north of Jerusalem in the West Bank; it had been razed two centuries earlier by the Judean king John Hyrcanus, nephew of Judah Maccabee.

The Maccabees and their Hasmonean dynasty were priests in the Jerusalem Temple — and the question of which mountain had been chosen by God is a central dispute between Samaritans and Jews. It was and is a continuation of the even more ancient conflicts recorded in the Book of Kings between the Kingdom of Judea, centered on Jerusalem, and the Kingdom of Israel, centered, at least for a time, around Mount Gerizim.

As the Samaritans tell it, their ancestors were worshipping God in His chosen place, when the Judeans broke away from the Israelite confederation and set up their rogue sanctuary in Jerusalem. Sure, the Assyrians later destroyed their kingdom and exiled many of them — but those who remained stayed true to their traditions and their worship and their Torah of Moses — very much like our own, with only a few of the 6,000 generally small differences reflecting polemical variations.

While the Samaritans maintained their sacrifices when the Romans conquered the Land of Israel and later mutated into the Byzantine Christian empire, and later still when Muslims ruled the Land of Israel, their position of being “just like the Jews, only a little different” proved to be precarious. By the early 20th century, they had dwindled to barely 100 people. Today, their community has grown to 850 — which makes their membership smaller than many local synagogues.

Since the Six Day War in 1967, Mount Gerizim has been under Jewish rule. (For the 19 years before, the community was split, with a group who had settled in Holon near Tel Aviv cut off from the religious leadership under Jordanian rule.) Nine months after the war, Israeli dignitaries attended the Samaritan Passover celebrations and sacrifices on Mount Gerizim, ignoring rabbinic opposition. More than two millennia after John Hyrcanus, the Jews could be easily magnanimous about the minuscule minority.

On Monday, March 21, David Selis, a doctoral fellow at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, will talk about that 1968 Samaritan Passover on a Zoom talk for Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael. His talk is based on first-hand accounts of that ceremony he found in newly opened archives at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Mr. Selis’s research was part of a far broader project on the Samaritans undertaken by historian Steven Fine under the auspices of the Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies, which he directs.

That project debuts on Sunday, March 27, at the Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan, with the premiere screening of a documentary, “The Samaritans.” Beside the movie, the Samaritan Project has produced a full-color book that is both scholarly and coffee-table friendly; a cookbook; and a museum exhibit that will be on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., in the fall.

Dr. Fine’s interest in the Samaritans began during his junior year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1977, when he met a young Samaritan at a professor’s open house. As he went on to focus his career on cultural aspects of the talmudic period, he started to think that maybe the Samaritans weren’t getting their scholarly due. Scholars were explaining the Mishna and Talmud as relating to Christians when, he believed, Samaritans were more common and prevalent than Christians at that time. (Note that the Christian New Testament famously records Jesus preaching that Jews should, despite common practice, love their good Samaritan neighbors.) Later Christian censors confused the matter by editing talmudic passages referring to Christians as referring to “Kutim,” meaning Samaritans.

So when it came time a few years ago for Dr. Fine to choose a topic for a new project for the Israel Center, the Samaritans made a lot of sense.

“My Center for Israel Studies is dedicated to thinking about Israel in all its complexities, from Abraham to Zionism,” Dr. Fine said. “The Samaritans go back from the First Temple until yesterday. They’re not Jews. They’re not Arabs. They have a beautiful literature and beautiful art and archeology.”

Samaritans build their sukkahs indoors. (Ori Orhof)

As it happened, Tel Aviv-born philanthropist Tzili Charney, who donated $1 million to the Israel center in 2017, also is involved in filmmaking.

“She sat me down and said, ‘Wouldn’t you like to make a movie?’” Dr. Fine said. “I said, ‘What about the Samaritans?’ Suddenly we were in the movie business.”

Moshe Alafi, the film’s producer and director, spent five years working with the Samaritan community. “The love he has for them and the love they have for him just radiates through,” Dr. Fine said.

The result of that love was an unparalleled level of access to Samaritan leaders, texts, and rituals — and a blessing from Samaritan High Priest Aabed-El Ben Asher on the page facing the book’s foreword, which was written by Yeshiva University President Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman.

The Torah is the center of the Samaritans’ sacred texts, but you’ll hear no haftara on Shabbat morning: They never accepted the post-Torah portions of the Tanakh. Needless to say, they didn’t accept the Talmud of their Jewish adversaries. But over the centuries, the Samaritans composed a variety of works in genres parallel to those of the Jews, including poetic piyyut liturgical texts, Aramaic translations of the Torah, and works of law.

The Samaritan religion, based on the Torah but not on its rabbinic interpreters, has some stark divergences from Judaism.

Take, for example, the festival of Sukkot. Where the Talmud interprets the Torah’s command to “take the fruit of a goodly tree” as requiring that a citron and a palm branch be used together, Samaritans take beautiful fruit of any species — and use those fruits to construct the roofs of their sukkahs.

And as with Jews, new technologies raise new religious problems for Samaritans.

“Samaritans will circumcise on the eighth day no matter what,” Dr. Fine said — in contrast to the long-established halachic practice of postponing circumcision for a sick infant. In the early years of the State of Israel, a premature baby was born to a Samaritan family and was placed in an incubator in a Tel Aviv hospital. Should this tiny child be circumcised?

“They sent someone over the Jordanian border to ask the high priest what to do,” Dr. Fine said. “The response was: ‘What’s an incubator?’ They explained it to him. He said, ‘It’s an artificial womb. So eight days after the babies are taken out of the incubator we’ll circumcise.”

And then there is the question of air conditioning.

Like the Karaites — Jews who never bought into the Talmud’s version of Judaism and rejected the custom of lighting Shabbat candles — “Samaritans say that if the Torah says no fire should be lit on Shabbat, it means there should be no fire. That means no electricity. This is opposed to the rabbinic answer that balances the need for oneg, Shabbat joy,” against the discomfort of Shabbat darkness.

“What about an air conditioner?”

It’s not an issue for those who live near Mount Gerizim — the mountain air is cool. For those living near sea level, though, “There are two Samaritan synagogues in Holon — one for those who use air conditioners and one for those who don’t.”

Dr. Fine has attended the Samaritan Pesach sacrifice. (Their calendar is subtly different than the Jewish calendar, and their Passover and ours do not always coincide.) He did not, however, partake.

At Passover prayers on Mount Gerizim, Cantor Matzliah Cohen holds up a Torah scroll.

“I can’t eat it,” he said. “I’m not a member of their community.

“First of all, it’s not kosher for us. Secondly, they do pray to Mount Gerizim — the wrong mountain,” he said.

He had high praise for “how careful our Samaritan friends are, that everything we’re fed is stuff we can eat. I can’t eat their meat and they can’t eat our meat. We’re like Lubavitchers and Satmars,” two chasidic groups that have different kashrut requirements.

“The odd thing is when you realize they aren’t Jewish,” despite the shared Torah and all the similar practices. “The oddity is what I’m trying to pull out.”

He sees that oddity as something to be enjoyed and appreciated.

“Rather than fight over those differences, we can celebrate them,” Dr. Fine said. “For a 3,500-year enmity to be managed this way is quite astonishing.”

In the times of the Mishna, “likely you would have eaten Samaritan matzah and it would be considered kosher. The mitzvot they kept were considered to be well kept. By the time you get to the Middle Ages, they’re living in the same communities as the Jews in Cairo and Damascus. Benjamin of Tudela, who visited Cairo and Damascus in the 12th century, reported that the Jews and Samaritans got along fine but don’t marry each other.”

In modern Israel, Dr. Fine said, the Samaritans found an advocate in Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, a top Zionist leader before the creation of the state who was fascinated by the Samaritan community and befriended some of its members. In 1952, he became Israel’s second president.

Under his watch, Israel gave Samaritan priests the same rights as rabbis and Christian priests. Israel’s ministry of religious affairs sent money to the Gerizim community in Jordan through the Red Cross. And the state developed a community for them in Holon, “so all the Samaritans who lived around Tel Aviv could move into one place and retain their traditions,” Dr. Fine said. Street signs in the neighborhood use the ancient Phoenician script that the Samaritans kept using even after the Jews adopted the letter forms of the present Hebrew alphabet, which were used by the Persian empire.

Still, the old attitudes came up. The Talmud, after all, repeatedly refers to the Samaritans as “kutim” — Cutheans, people from a place in the east in what is now Iraq. That reflects the account in later biblical texts that the Samaritans are non-Israelites resettled by the Assyrian empire into the conquered Israelite kingdom. It is not a term that Samaritans appreciate.

“There’s a wonderful story in one of the videos we recorded about a school teacher in Holon who was teaching about ‘kutim.’ There were Samaritan kids in the class and they were hurt,” Dr. Fine said.

One of Ben-Tzvi’s Samaritan friends took the students to the presidential residence and told Ben-Tzvi the story.

“Ben-Tzvi says, ‘That’s awful. No one can say such things about the Samaritans. He wrote a letter to the education ministry that no teacher can teach this material when Samaritan children are present.

“He was really setting the tone for how to deal with minorities. It was a little balance to what David Ben-Gurion was doing, which was the melting pot. Ben-Tzvi had much more the notion of a salad bowl,” he said.

With only 850 members, Samaritans “are always worried about their future and about disappearing — just like Jews.” Discussions about their efforts to not disappear is a major component of the film. In one scene, Samaritan women talk in Hebrew about the question of intermarriage. What does it mean for the community’s future that 15 Samaritan men have married women from Ukraine in recent years, and another five couples are dating?

Dr. Fine can’t solve that problem, but he is proud of his role in recording and thereby preserving the community’s memories.

“We videoed them talking about the holidays and about Jordanians and Israel-is,” he said. “We collected stories from older Samaritans: One story they would like to tell their grandchildren. These are a highlight of our exhibition.”


The Samaritans: A lecture and a film premiere

What: Talk on the 1968 Samaritan Passover celebration

Who: David Selis, doctoral fellow at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies

Presented by: Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael

When: Monday, March 21, 9 p.m.

How to watch: Zoom link available at rinat.org

What: In celebration of “The Samaritans: A Biblical People” — a film premiere and discussion

Who: Professor Steven Fine, filmmaker Moshe Alafi, and Yeshiva University Vice Provost Dr. Erica Brown, who will moderate the discussion

When: Sunday, March 27 2:30-5 p.m.

Where: YU Museum at Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th St., New York

How much: $5-$10

Register at: yu.edu/samaritans. Proof of vaccination required.

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