Pesach with our Samaritan brothers; an ancient but often overlooked Israelite sect

Samaritans marking passover (Twitter)

Housewives and househusbands toiling over Pesach preparations, can console themselves that we Jews are not the only ones so engaged. The Samaritans also celebrate Pesach – this year on exactly the same dates as ourselves. If you mention the Samaritans to most people chances are that they will think of the admirable chaps who answer the telephone to distressed callers, and do so much, to console the most desperate members of society. In fact however the Samaritans only got their moniker from the ancient Israelite sect who lived north of the province of Judea in classical times. They were despised and rejected by their Jewish neighbors, feelings which they reciprocated in full. For this reason Jesus chose one of them as an example of a person whose conduct made him worthy of praise regardless of his ethnic origin.

In those days they numbered around a million people and were serious rivals to the Jews. Like us they were rebellious and like ours their rebellions were crushed with overwhelming force followed by heavy handed repression. So heavy that, combined with subsequent Christian and Muslim persecution, it had the effect of reducing  their numbers, so that by the early years of the twentieth century, there were as few as one hundred and forty Samaritans left. Their future looked bleak, as with numbers so reduced, young people in the community were unable to find partners. It was Yitzchak Ben Tzvi the second President of the state of Israel who facilitated their survival by persuading them to accept Jewish spouses. Today they number about eight hundred and fifty and their numbers are continuing to grow.

The community is about equally divided between their original home in Kiryat Luza on the slopes of Mount Gerizim near Nablus and their comparatively new home in Holon a suburb of Tel Aviv. The Samaritans in the West Bank speak Arabic and seek to blend with their Palestinian neighbors. Those in Israel speak Hebrew, serve in the army even in the permanent army, and seem like ordinary Israelis.

The obvious question is, whether they are a sect of Judaism or a different religion entirely. To a certain extent, this is a matter of definition but attitudes are influenced by the hostility between the two groups which goes back not just centuries but millennia. It is worth noting that their self-description like ours is as the people of Israel -Israelite Samaritans. Samaritans is what outsiders call them. They see themselves as descendants of the tribes of Joseph. They have the same scriptures as ours. Their version of the Pentateuch derives from the Septuagint created by the Hellenistic Jewish community of Alexandria and then carried over into the Christian world. It differs from our own Masoretic text in about six thousand places but, with one exception, these are mainly minor technical matters such as spellings. 

In many ways their practices look back to Judaism in ancient times. Their sacred language is Hebrew but they write it with a version of the ancient Hebrew script (ktav ivri) which was in use before the Babylonian exile. After the return from Babylon the Jews brought back the Aramaic Script (ktav ashuri). During Judea’s sporadic periods of independence the ktav ivri was occasionally used by Jewish leaders for nationalistic reasons but when these came to an end the ancient script was abandoned by us entirely. 

The Samaritans have all our festivals with the exceptions of Hanukah and Purim but they know them by their Biblical names. For instance Rosh Hashanah is Yom Zikaron. Inexplicably they don’t have second day Yom Tov but they seem to manage without this and to survive even though to paraphrase Flanders and Swan they haven’t got Rabbis to show them the way.

Pesach, our greatest historical festival, is celebrated by them according to the strict instructions contained in Exodus XII. They go to Mount Gerizim their holy mountain- Jerusalem they see as a later innovation- slaughter the Pascal lamb and eat it with Matzot and bitter herbs ,with their shoes on their feet and their staffs in their hands as if going on a journey. Thus they re-enact the actual Exodus. There was a school of thought among the Jews that inclined to this practice  but the majority of Rabbinical opinion was against. It has long been an aspiration of mine to attend the ceremony on Har Gerizim. By all accounts it is impressive. Unfortunately our festivals generally clash and when they didn’t COVDID intervened. Nevertheless I hope to attend sometime. 

Nowadays we can see beyond the hatred and persecution of previous ages. Hatreds even as old as this can fade. We have much to learn from the Samaritans not only about their faith but also about our own. With their slow revival they will enrich their environment not only to their benefit but also to the benefit of all of us. 

About the Author
I studied at Yeshivat Kerem Beyavneh in Israel and then at Cambridge University. After practising as a commercial lawyer I became active in communal affairs. I was Co-Chair of British Friends of Peace Now and the New Israel Fund. I was President of the Board of Deputies and then took a Masters at UCL in Jewish History and am now doing graduate research there.
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