Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yetze 5763/ November 16, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Parashat Va-Yetze 5763/ November 16, 2002

The Samaritans - Their Origins, Heritage and Holy Days

Dr. Yaakov Geller
The Paul and Helene Schulman Center for Basic Jewish Studies

This week's haftarah mentions the ancient Samaritans - Israelite tribes that were exiled from their land because they defied their G-d. We shall take advantage of this reference in order to give a full description of the Samaritan community.

Today's Samaritan community, numbering around 660 people, hails from an ancient people that once numbered over a million. Despite its many hardships over the last 2,700 years, this community has maintained its ethnic distinction and has not lost its character or heritage. The Samaritans continue to write and speak their own language - ancient Hebrew - and take care not to assimilate with other ethnic groups.

The origins of the Samaritan community are a subject of dispute. Some scholars maintain that they descend from those members of the northern Israelite tribes, exiled by the Assyrians, who remained on their land. According to this theory, in origin the Samaritans are Israelites and authentic Jews. This is what the Samaritans themselves maintain, calling themselves Shomrim, "preservers," meaning Israelites who preserve the Teaching of Moses. They claim that despite their Jewish origin they were rejected by the Jews who returned from the Babylonian exile because they had not been part of the Jewish experience in that exile.

The Bible gives a different account of the formation of this ethnic group (II Kings 17:24-31). According to Scripture, the Samaritans were exiles from Mesopotamia, brought to Israel by the kings of Assyria (Sargon II, Shalmaneser and Sennacherib) in the eight century B.C.E., and made to settle in the hills of Ephraim instead of the Israelites who had been exiled from there. Since some of them were brought from Cuthah (a city in Babylonia), they later became known by the Sages as Kutim. The new inhabitants of Samaria brought their pagan practices with them and did not adjust to the new environment or the Mosaic faith. After many died in the wake of attacks by lions, they reluctantly converted to Judaism and therefore were also called "lion converts" (Heb., gerei arayot, perhaps a play on gurei arayot, "lion cubs"). They ostensibly accepted the Torah but in fact did not integrate into the Jewish people, living as a separate group and thus remaining distinct. Regarding their Judaism, it could be said that they tried to sit on the fence, but this attempt at playing both sides eventually became their downfall, leading them to be viewed as outsiders: "Those nations worshipped the Lord, but they also served their idols. To this day their children and their children's children do as their ancestors did" (II Kings 17:41).

The Samaritans were not a homogeneous group. One branch did not identify with the Jewish people nor were they faithful to the Torah, whereas the other branch were proselytes, observing the Torah and its commandments. They asked the exiles returning to Zion to include them in building the Second Temple: "Let us build with you, since we too worship your G-d" (Ezra 4:2), but were rejected: "Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the chiefs of the clans of Israel answered them, 'It is not for you and us to build a House to our G-d, but we alone will build it to the Lord G-d of Israel, in accord with the charge that the king, King Cyrus of Persia, laid upon us'" (Ezra 4:3).[1] Ezra, hostile to them, together with his court ostracized the branch of the Samaritans that did not identify with the Israelites.

The Samaritans, who considered themselves Jewish and were even married to Jews, were hurt by the policy of Ezra and Nehemiah not to acknowledge them and did all they could to undermine the construction of the Temple. They sent defamatory letters about the people's leaders to the Persian authorities, thus causing construction of the Temple to be delayed, until it was resumed in the reign of Darius. Finally Johanan Hyrcanus (the leader of Judah who renewed that state's independence in the second century B.C.E.) defeated the Samaritans and destroyed their temple, which had been competing with the Temple in Jerusalem. The day of its destruction, the 21st of Kislev, was proclaimed a holiday by the Jews and called Mount Gerizim Day. According to Megillat Ta'anit it was customary not to make eulogies on that day.[2]

In the Second Temple period Jews and Samaritans had frequent contact and even formed family bonds. After the destruction of the Temple, however, the gulf between them widened and relations became especially tense. The Sages ruled their wine and the meat they slaughtered not kosher, since they suspected the Samaritans were pouring libations to the image of a dove in their Temple or some other pagan worship. The process of separation from the Samaritans took several generations. In the days of Rabbi Judah the Prince the Sages were still of divided opinion as to whether the Samaritans should be considered gentiles, or whether they were to be considered Jews in every respect. Even in Tractate Kutim we are told, "The ways of the Kutim are sometimes like idolaters, sometimes like Jews. Most of them are like Jews ... but their fruit is tevel like the fruit of idolaters." Rabbi Judah said, "A Samaritan may not circumcise a Jew, since he performs the circumcision for the sake of Mount Gerizim." The Samaritans were suspected of "feeding the Jews animals that had not been slaughtered." "Rabbi Ishmael says that initially they were considered righteous proselytes. So why were they forbidden? Because of mamzerut (bastards) and because they do not perform yibbum. When are they to be accepted? When they reject Mount Gerizim and acknowledge Jerusalem and life after death."[3]

The Jews refused to accept them as proselytes on account of their practices regarding marriage and divorce. According to the historian Josephus Flavius (first century C.E.) and the Apocrypha, the Jews viewed the Samaritans as gentiles, both ethnically and religiously. Josephus writes that the Samaritans thought of themselves as Jews when they stood to benefit from that, but whenever they needed to they immediately became total gentiles. After the destruction of the Second Temple the Samaritans spread to thirteen Jewish settlements, including Caesaria, Jabneh, Aza, Emmaus, Lydda, Rosh ha-Ayin, and a town near Haifa.[4]

The Samaritans made many changes in the text of the Torah, also in its vocalization. They do not believe in the sanctity of Jerusalem; instead, they believe only in Mount Gerizim, near Samaria. All their commandments focus on Mount Gerizim: they face there when they pray, when they bury their dead, when they do circumcision and when they marry, and three times a year they go on pilgrimage there.

Their religion rests on four principles: 1. Belief in one G-d. 2. One prophet - Moses son of Amram, there being no other prophet after him. Most of their prayers and hymns are about Moses who gave them the Torah, and he is considered the savior and Messiah of the future. 3. The Mosaic Torah, comprised of the Pentateuch, is the only holy writ, and there is no other sacred text. Therefore they do not believe in the Prophets or Writings, and they have no Oral Law. 4. They have one holy place, Mount Gerizim. A fifth principle has been added to these four - belief in Tahav (Shahav), or the Messiah son of Joseph, who will come on the day of "vengeance and recompense" (Deut. 32:35), at the end of days. This belief is due to their association with the tribe of Joseph.[5]

The Samaritan community has become decimated over the years for several reasons. In the fifth and sixth centuries they were they rebelled against Byzantine rule in the land of Israel. They rose up in revolt in 484 and 529, and also rebelled against Emperor Justinian's legislation curtailing their rights. The Samaritans killed many Christians, and at first succeeded in establishing themselves a state of sorts, numbering 300,000 people. They raised an army of 30,000 soldiers, crowned themselves a king, levied taxes and held victory celebrations. The Byzantines, however, overcame them, passed decrees against them and persecuted them, slaughtering tens of thousands, selling twenty thousand of them into slavery, and forcing thousands to convert. The Samaritans also suffered greatly during the Arab conquest of the land in 635. Later the Arabs made peace with them, and the Samaritans even served as spies and guides for them, helping them conquer Jerusalem. By the time of the rise of Saladin, in 1187, most of the population in Samaria had become Moslem, many Samaritan farmers being slaughtered and others taken as slaves in the process. The Crusades (in the 12th century) also resulted in much Samaritan blood being shed and to large-scale forced conversion.

The survival of the Samaritans during those difficult times in the land of Israel and the surrounding area must be attributed to the Jews, with whom they established reasonably good relations, notwithstanding the mutual dislike that had existed between them earlier.[6]

During Mameluke rule over the land of Israel, from 1260 to 1516, pressure on the Samaritans was renewed, and their numbers dropped to a thousand families. The Ottoman conquest of the land of Israel did not bring them relief, and their small settlements were wiped out. Facing continued persecution by the Moslems, many Samaritans converted. In 1842 the Samaritans in Nablus (Shechem) were cruelly persecuted by Moslem Arabs, who argued that they had no religion - they neither believed in the Jewish faith and in the Prophets and Writings, nor did they accept the New Testament or the Koran. At that time the Samaritans appealed to the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem (Hakham Bashi), Rabbi Abraham Hayyim Gagin, who gave them a document attesting that the Samaritans are a branch of the children of Israel, "who acknowledge the truth of the Torah." This document, accompanied by gifts, managed to halt their persecution, which had decimated their population. In 1838 they numbered only 150 people; in 1881 they increased to 160; in 1901, back to 152. By 1935 their population increased to 212; in 1970, they numbered 420; in 1978, 500; in 2001, 660. Of these, 325 live in Holon, and 335 in Shechem.[7]

The Samaritans and their Customs

The Samaritans have a lunar calendar, different from our own, with the year numbering 354 days. When to have a leap year and how to set the dates of the festivals are determined by the high priest, who every half year publishes a special calendar. They do not observe our rules that Rosh ha-Shanah must not fall on a Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday, and that Passover may not be on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday. Therefore, Passover for them does not coincide with our festival, and sometimes occurs when we have Pesah Sheni (a month later). They celebrate seven holy days and festivals: Passover, the Festival of Matzah, the Festival of Weeks, the First Day of the Seventh Month (Rosh ha-Shanah), the Day of Atonement, the Festival of Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret (Simhat Torah). They do not celebrate Hanukkah or Purim.

The Sabbath is strictly observed from evening to evening, similarly to the Karaites. They do not light candles on the Sabbath eve; rather, they sit in the dark. They do not eat hot food and do not leave their homes, except to go to the synagogue, where they spend most of the day. On the Sabbath husband and wife abstain from sexual intercourse. According to Rabbi Meshulam of Voltera, the Samaritans living in Egypt "observe the Sabbath until mid-day, and afterwards profane it." So too according to Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura, "They observe the Sabbath only from mid-day Friday until mid-day Saturday."

Passover they distinguish from the Festival of Matzah. The former is the festival of sacrificial offering, the Pascal sacrifice, for which preparations are begun several days before the fourteenth of Nisan. The Festival of Matzah follows the Pascal sacrifice. The commandment of pilgrimage to Mount Gerizim on the three festivals became a gathering of the entire people. On Passover every family takes a yearling lamb, as written in Scripture: "each of them shall take a lamb to a family" (Ex. 12:3). A small family is joined by neighbors, and the sacrifice is made by sunset. It is eaten hurriedly, with loins girded, sandals on their feet, and staff in hand (Ex. 12:11), in what for them is an extremely moving ceremony. The remains of the sacrifice are divided by the men among the women and children, and great care is taken that no outsider partake of it. Whatever is left over until the morning is burned, in fulfillment of the words, "You shall not leave any of it over until morning; ... you shall burn it" (Ex. 12:10).

The festival of Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) is always on a Sunday, as in Karaite practice, since they count seven weeks from the day after the Sabbath, from the Sunday of the intermediate days of the festival of Passover. Shavuot, like Passover and Sukkot, they celebrate for seven days, from the Monday preceding it and through the day of the festival itself. The day that begins this week is called Yom Kahala or Yom ha-Kahal, the Day of Congregation.

Rosh ha-Shanah they observe only one day, like the Karaites. It begins the nine days of repentance leading to the Day of Atonement and the days of penitential prayers and fasting. According to their tradition, Moses ben Amram, lord of all the prophets, was born on the seventh day after Rosh ha-Shanah.

The Day of Atonement is the foremost of their holy days. On that day they sound a blast for the freedom Israel on the shofar and everyone fasts, from the age of infants who have been weened through the elderly, in accordance with their strict reading of Scripture: "Indeed, any person who does not practice self-denial throughout that day shall be cut off from his kin" (Lev. 23:29). Prayers continue from evening to evening, without pause.

The festival of Sukkot is celebrated seven days, and Shemini Atzeret is also observed as the most joyous of days and the rejoicing of Simhat Torah is included. From the eve after the Day of Atonement a luxurious sukkah is erected indoors in the living room, where there is a frame for it in the ceiling, and it remains there until the eve after the last day of the festival. Fruits weighing a total of about 350 kilogram are hung in the sukkah, and above them are placed the "four kinds" (etrog and lulav). It is customary to visit one's neighbors' sukkot, and to offer guests dried fruit. The Sabbath that occurs during the festival is called the Sabbath of the Garden of Eden.

The Samaritans do not lay tefillin (phylacteries), nor do they wear a tallit, save for the priest who wears a tallit when officiating as cantor. They do not put mezuzot on their doors, but instead engrave the ten commandments on a stone which they place outside, near the entrance. They perform circumcision on the eighth day after birth, and do not postpone the ritual even if the newborn is not well. When the day of circumcision falls on the Sabbath it is postponed to the next day.

This community has no secular youth, for to be a Samaritan means to be religious. Whoever does not abide by the customs of the community is not considered a Samaritan. Every Samaritan must show identification with the community in four ways: living in the land of Israel, participating in the Pascal sacrifice, observing the Sabbath, and strictly adhering to the laws of ritual purity.

Benjamim (note the spelling) Tzedakah, along with Yefet ben Ratzon Tzedakah, publish a bi-weekly entitled Aleph Bet, covering news of the Samaritan community. This periodical has been in existence since 1969 and appears in modern and ancient Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Its articles include studies of Samaritan history. After the passing of their high priest, Levy ben Avishai, at the age of 81, Shalom ben Amran ben Yitzhak ha-Gadol was appointed to succeed him. He is the principle authority, ruling on all questions facing the community, including issues of marriage and divorce. In addition to him, there are several local priests.

To sum up, the Samaritan community, which once numbered over a million, has suffered persecution and decrees against it, and has known conversion and genocide by the many nations that ruled over the land of Israel: Romans, Byzantines, Moslems, Mamelukes, Turks, and Ottomans. Hence it has dwindled, leaving only about 660 members of this community today. They suffered all these hardships because of their staunch, unyielding adherence to their religious principles, despite the terrible difficulties which they faced. Their literature (they have an Aramaic Targum to the Torah in their own dialect, also a sort of Midrash) is studied in academic institutions the world wide, and symposia on their history and cultural heritage are held every few years.

[1] Uriel Rappaport, Toledot Yisrael be-Tekufat ha-Bayit ha-Sheni, Tel Aviv 1984, pp. 35-37; Salo W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, vol. v, 1957, pp. 170-177; Benjamim Tzedakah, Kitzur Toledot ha-Yisraelim ha-Shomronim, Holon 2001, p. 1.
[2] Joseph Klausner, Historiah shel ha-Bayit ha-Sheni, Part 3, Jerusalem 1968, pp. 86-87; Megillat Ta'anit (Lichtenstein- Avneri ed.), Jerusalem 1966, p. 339(83), 340(84).
[3] Tractate Kutim is a minor tractate, to be found at the end of Tractate Avodah Zarah.
[4] Gedaliah Alon, The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age, ed. and trans. G. Levi, vol. ii, 1984, pp. 562-565; 742-746; Joseph Klausner, ibid., p. 20.
[5] Benjamim Tzedakah, Kitzur Toledot ha-Yisraelim ha-Shomronim, Holon 2001, p. 130; Kaftor va-Ferah, Jerusalem 1959, p. 11a-b.
[6] Michael Avi-Yonah, The Jews under Roman and Byzantine Rule, 1984, pp. 241-243; Michael Ish-Shalom, Be-Tzilan shel Malkhuyot, Toledot ha-Yishuv ha-Yehudi be-Eretz Yisrael, Tel Aviv 1975, pp. 208-211; David Yaakobi and pp. 134-139; David Yaakobi and Yoram Tzafrir, Yehudim Shomronim ve-Notzrim be-Eretz Yisrael ha-Bizantit, Jerusalem 1988, pp. 217-244.
[7] Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi, Sefer ha-Shomronim, Jerusalem 1970, pp. 31-38; Abraham Al-Maliah, Ha-Rishonim le-Zion, Jerusalem 1970, p. 202.