By Rabbi Moshe Reiss
I attended the Samaritan Passover Seder, preparation beginning on April 1, 2007, eating on the following day immediately after midnight. The Jewish Seder was eaten on April 2, the preparation the day previous. 1 The Passover festival is both for Jews and Samaritans the first pilgrimage of the year.
I was told I could not eat from their sacrificed lamb because I was the equivalent of one of the nations – a Gentile. That the Passover sacrifice is forbidden for non-Israeli’s is stated in my and their Torah (Ex. 12:43). Their definition of themselves is not Samaritan’s but Children of Israel. Since I do not follow their tradition I was considered a Gentile. Since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE we Jews no longer sacrifice a lamb for Passover, most of us do not eat lamb on Passover. This experience of watching these people chant in ancient Hebrew and sacrificing a lamb as my ancient ancestors made me feel more attached to my ancient Jewish roots.
The Samaritans take the Five Books of Moses as their canon. They expect the Messiah – their ‘Taheb’ - to be the resurrected Moses. When he returns they expect the Jews to joyfully rejoin their older tradition. They do not accept the books of Prophets or the Wisdom books nor obviously the Talmud which interprets and defines Jewish law. Thus their law is ancient and literal. (The Karaites another Jewish sect founded approximately 1000 years ago accept all the books of the complete Jewish Bible but not the Talmud; thus their laws are more similar to the Samaritans. Ethiopian Jews were also not aware of the Talmud as their traditions come from before the destruction of the First Temple. An interesting tradition for them is that the mother circumcises her male son. This comes from Zipporah circumcising her and Moses’ son – Ex. 4:24-26 - while this is acceptable under Jewish law – per Maimonides and the Code of Jewish Law, by Joseph Caro - it is not ‘kosher’ under current Jewish tradition.)
The Samaritan narrative is that during the early history of the Hebrews in the Land of Israel they had their Temple on Mt. Gerizim near the ancient city of Shechem, modern day Nablus, Jews had other temples as noted in Joshua, Kings and Jeremiah. Joshua established the first holy place on Mt. Gerizim. He established ‘a covenant’ there. It became the first holy place when he dedicated a special ‘stone’ which latter become an alter (Josh. 24:25). Since God, according to the Samaritans had stated that He had already chosen the holy mountain (Deut. 12:11) 2 they believe it must be the first place where Joshua laid the first great stone.
It is only in the year 930 BCE several hundred years after Joshua that Solomon at the request of his father King David build the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Jews then decided that was to be the only place for YHVH’s Temple. Those Jews who had other Temples asked why theirs was not equally holy? We see in Jeremiah that hundreds of years after Solomon built his Temple in Jerusalem some Jews sacrificed to YHVH in Temples other than in Jerusalem. The Samaritans believe that there Holy place and their Temple was the only one that YHVH intended to dedicate for His name.
The Jewish narrative comes from the Books of Kings.
The Assyrians defeated the Northern Kingdom of Israel (the Lost Ten Tribes) in 722 BC. They sent some Assyrians to populate the land. As they lived in land they ‘were told they were Pagans and did not fear the Lord; therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them.’ These transplanted Assyrians then called Samaritans asked the Jews to send teachers so they could learn and then live safely. A priest was send ‘and taught them how they should fear the Lord. However every nation continued to make gods of its own, and put them in the shrines on the high places which the Samaritans had made, every nation in the cities where they dwelt’ (2 Kings 17:24-29). That Jews did the same we know from the last verse of the Book of Judges: ‘In those days there was no king in Israel, and everyone did as we saw fit’ (Jud. 21:25). The problem of adding syncretic aspects to Judaism was also a problem for Jews as noted in Kings (2Kings chapter 15), Jeremiah (chapters 3; 7; 10; and 19) and in an oblique reference to ‘Baal’ meaning both a Canaanite god and husband in Hosea (2:18-19).
Several hundred years later after the Jews had returned from exile in Babylon - during the times of Ezra and Nehemiah – they did not accept the Samaritans as brothers, the Samaritans separated and remained near Mt. Gerizim. It is not surprising that Jews from the Diaspora were more particular about their identity than Israeli Jews. The same is true today.
Both their Temple on Mt. Gerizim and the Jewish Temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem were destroyed by the Romans. According to the Samaritan oral history and there is some historical evidence at the time of the Temple’s destruction there were as many Samaritans as Jews (over one million each) in the state of Israel 3
This problem between Jews and Samaritans is noted in the Gospels: Jesus stated: ‘Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship’ (John 4:20).
Their holy language for liturgy is Paleo-Hebrew, the ancient Hebrew language and alphabet. Their scroll of the Torah, over 1000 years old (possibly the oldest complete Torah text in the world) is written in the ancient alphabet, their study texts are trilingual – Paleo-Hebrew, modern Hebrew and Arabic. Their pronunciation seemed to me, an outsider similar to a Yemeni accented Hebrew. In a conversion with a Yemeni Jewish Professor of Arabic he said despite that it sounded even to him as similar to his Yemeni accent he could only partly understand their chanting in Hebrew. Their mother tongue is Arabic as was true for Maimonides and the Saadia Goan (two of the greatest Jewish philosophers and commentators living a millennium ago. Yemeni Jews still study the Bible in Saadia’s Arabic text and during specific festivals read his Arabic Biblical text in Synagogue; on the Shabbat they read the Torah in modern Hebrew as well as in Aramaic) .
The spokesman for the Samaritans was named Benyamim (with an ending ‘m’ – called Benny) Tzedek; he is related to the current high Priest. His family name is a typical Jewish name for Jews descending from Arabic lands. His first name in modern Hebrew would be Benyamin with the last letter being a ‘n’. They allow intermarriage with non-Samaritan women easily. For a Samaritan to woman to marry a non-Samaritan man the process is much more complicated and is rarely done. That is because as opposed to Jews they use a patriarchal descent in the determination of religion. The Torah which we both follow does not say how religious descend is determined; both rulings are post Biblical.
At his modern home we met his Jewish born wife; they had met thirty years earlier at the Hebrew University. While he talked to us she was cooking for the festival. When the festival began at midnight they stop ‘work’ which they define as among other requirements not using fire, even shutting off the electricity in their houses. As among the Jews only a minority are strictly observant; Benny is.
Given that there are less than 700 Samaritans they are concerned about their long term survival. As a result of close intermarriage some of their people are born with genetic handicaps which were visible when we met them at the sacrifice. Approximately half of the population live in Samaria which is an area primarily populated by Palestinians; there is no conflict between them, but they are appreciative of Israeli protection (obviously visible around the enclosure when we were there). (The Mayor of Nablus whose municipality includes Gerizim was not permitted to attend; the Israelis who consider him a terrorist stated it his him or their soldiers; the Samaritans preferred Israeli protection.) The other half live in a large suburb of Tel Aviv named Holon (where many of the Karaites also live) populated primarily by Jews from Russian descent and Jews from Arabic lands. Both the Samaritans and the Karaites live in self imposed ghettos.
The Samaritans consider themselves closer to Jews than to Muslims or Christians despite Arabic being their mother tongue.
Benny a graduate of the Hebrew University lectures around the word about his people seeking to have his people declared an endangered species by the United Nations. He hopes that would protect them from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has for decades published a weekly magazine in four languages, Paleo-Hebrew, modern Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic.
Benny showed us his ‘Talit’ (prayer shawl), a white robe that resembled what we Jews call a ‘kitel’ and wear during the Jewish festival of Passover. (It also resembles shrouds which Jews are buried in.) However we use a large prayer shawl over the kitel during festivals which we call our Talit. Our prayer shawl has attached fringes while their fringes are attached to their Talit. Their Talit has twenty two buttons, one for each letter of the alphabet. When Benny prayed slowly for my benefit it was obvious to me that the language was Hebrew. Their dietary laws seem very close if not exactly the same as the Jews. During the days of the Talmud Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamaliel, President of the Sanhedrin (Jewish Rabbinical Council) ruled that ‘every commandment observed by the Samaritans was kept more scrupulously by them than by the Jews’; the great Rabbi Akiva (the deputy President) agreed. (All of the Jewish commandments are derived from the Torah, none come from the Prophets or Wisdom Books.) Some modern Rabbis agree that the Samaritans are to be considered as Jews (Rabbi Abraham Hayim Gagin and Rabbi Yosef Schwarz - both lived in the nineteenth century) and thus could intermarry without a conversion required. However this is not currently accepted by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Samaritans now (after a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court) have the Right of Return as do Jews to the State of Israel and their Priests have legal rights equivalent to Jewish Rabbis. Both of our Passover laws forbid eating food containing leavening on the Passover. They observe all the Biblical ordained Jewish festivals but not the post Biblical holidays such as Purim or Hanukkah. (An intriguing legal difference is that having intimate relations with ones wife during the Sabbath is positive commandment according to Jewish law while according to Samaritan law it is forbidden.) Their version of the Ten Commandments combines one and two (as do most Christian Bibles for different reasons) and adds as the Tenth that the sacrificial alter must be placed at Mt. Gerizim.
When we arrived in afternoon of the day before the Seder (Passover meal) we saw a wired enclosure with would fit perhaps 1000 people and an area outside with seat for several hundred. In the enclosed area were eight large pits with stones at the bottom, wood had been placed and fired; more wood and twigs was continually placed on the pits during the afternoon. At approximately 17:00 O’clock 50 lambs were brought into the enclosure and placed in one area where food was held to retain them.
One could recognize Samaritan men as all were wearing white garb, the women wore various colored long dresses, some were pants, some had their hair covered others did not. (Jewish married women cover their hair.) There was a section for women mainly with children under a roof, presumably in case of rain. Many women were with the men. At the time perhaps several hundred non Samaritan men (as well as women and children) were in the enclosure; many obviously Jewish Modern Orthodox obvious from their unique skullcaps and fringes worn outside their pants. There were additionally some Christians (some brought by me) and Muslims.
At 18:00 O’clock the non Samaritans were asked to leave the enclosed area and their Priests recognized by long colored robes (as opposed to white for non Priests) with some invited guests, Christians, Muslim and Jewish clerics, all recognizable by their distinguishing robes stayed. Then their liturgy began led by the Priests and included communal singing by the others. They were reciting from the Book of Exodus describing the exodus from Egypt. We Jews during our Seder read from a book called an ‘Haggadah’ which describes in part the exodus, particularly the plagues, but is largely about how the Sages of the Talmud remembered the exodus. It includes the communal singing of various sections. (Before the Talmud - and therefore before the Haggadah - Jews read over Passover from the Book of Exodus; exactly as the Samaritans.)
At 19:00 O’clock the Samaritan men began clapping in joy and suddenly the fifty lambs were quickly slaughtered by about twenty men in white in perhaps ten minutes and the enclosure gates were simultaneously opened. Thus those of us non-Samaritans could see the slaughtering and the cutting and cleaning of the animals. The slaughterers took a drop of blood and placed it on their forehead to signify they had accomplished the commandment of preparing the Passover sacrifice. One man I noted took a twig from a hyssop dipped it into the blood and went off with it. I knew what he doing; he was going to place the blood from his hyssop on his doorpost and the lintels of his house to protect his home exactly as noted in the Bible (EX. 12:7). Some Jews from Arabic lands when they read of the plagues in our Haggadah place a tablecloth over the food to protect it from the plagues.
The process of cutting and cleaning took almost two hours; it was obvious the older men as a result of experience were much quicker than the young men. The non-Samaritans including many children were permitted to mix with the butchers and cleaners; one had to careful due both to knives swinging and blood flowing. (The rubber boots worn by the butchers were obviously an addition to the ancient tradition.) Many non Samaritans took photographs. They had forbidden commercial Television cameras.
It was a cold evening but the fires and the joy of the Samaritans created much warmth.
After each animal was cleaned they were placed on a stake. When they stopped feeding the fire and the pits were allowed to burn out the animals were placed on the pits. They were cooked from the very heated stones for several hours and dinner would be served at midnight, the beginning of a new day, the day for Seder eating.
During the Jewish ritual Seder we eat special food; Matzah (the unleavened bread that Jesus ate during the Last Supper and is symbolized by the some Christians using unleavened bread as the Eucharist) the bone of lamb since we no longer sacrifice a lamb, bitter herbs and some foods are dunked into saltwater. The Samaritans obviously eat the lamb we saw slaughtered after roasting, Matzah (the kind made by Jews from Arab lands which differs in form but with the same ingredients, from that made by European Jews), use an extensive amount of salt in the cooking and will eat with bitter herbs. The similarities between the Jewish and Samaritan Seders far outweighed the differences.
It was an experience I had never seen before. As a Jew who has carefully read the description of sacrifices in Leviticus and in the Talmud it was an awe inspiring experience. The next Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I read the long description of the Priests and Levites sacrificing the thousand of animals with a new insight. It was obvious in discussion with many of the orthodox Jews present they felt similarly. Some experienced this as a pre messianic event; what they believed would occur at the age of the Messiah when the Third Temple is built.
When the man then asks Jesus to tell him who is his neighbor, Jesus responds with a parable about a traveler who was attacked, robbed, stripped, and left for dead by the side of a road. Later, a priest saw the stricken figure and avoided him, [presumably in order to maintain ritual purity from a dead body – despite it was obvious the man was not dead]. Similarly, a Levite saw the man and ignored him as well. Then a Samaritan passed by, and, despite the mutual antipathy between him and the Jewish population, immediately rendered assistance by giving him first aid and taking him to an inn to recover while promising to cover the expenses.
‘Which of these three do you think proved himself a neighbor. . . the man who showed pity”. (Luke 10:36-37). Rabbi Hillel in a similar circumstance said the same.
1 The Samaritan Seder and their preparation including their liturgical practices appear to be a day apart from the Jewish. Both the Samaritan and Jewish Torah define the Passover preparation to begin on the 14th day of the Jewish month on Nissan (EX. 12:6); the eating the following day. The Samaritans define the Jewish day beginning after midnight when they eat their Passover sacrifice it is already April 1th and 15th day of Nissan according to their definition. The Jews define the day as starting after dusk thus the 15th day of Nissan begins in the eve of April 2th thus despite the apparent one day difference both eat their meal on the 15th day of Nissan as defined in Exodus.
2 The verb in the text can be interpreted in the past sense as the Samaritans do or in the future as the Jews do.
3 Dr. Ingrid Hjelm, ‘Jerusalem's Rise to Sovereignty in Ancient Tradition and History: Zion and Gerizim in Competition’ (Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield, 2003).