Samaritans: A Branch of The Family
About five years ago I was headed to Israel and asked a rabbi friend for a lead on something exotic. “Check out the Samaritans,” he told me. “I’ve never met them myself, and it’s hard to get there, but it can be done.”
“Samaritans? As in Good Samaritan?” I asked.
The rabbi nodded. I scrawled “Samaritan” in my note pad and off I went. The rabbi was right about it being hard to get to them. Israelis offered to drive me to the moon and back, but venturing an hour north from Jerusalem into the West Bank was about as appealing to them as one of the Ten Plagues.
Finally, an Israeli archaeologist took me past a few military checkpoints to Argarizin, as the holy mountain of the Samaritans is called in ancient Hebrew (it is Har Gerizim in Modern Hebrew, Mount Gerizim in English). On top of the hill was Kiryat Luza, a small village of simple, white stucco houses, a dusty main street and a two-story museum. Inside the museum I was greeted by a tall, thin, gray-haired man in spectacles named Yefet Cohen.
About twice the size of my small living room, the museum had a diorama of priestly garments, a sample of round matza, a small indoor sukka with genealogical charts and hanging fruit arranged in geometric patterns. One wall was covered with photographs of austere-looking old men with turbans and flowing beards. “That was my father,” Cohen said, pointing to one of them. “He was the kohen gadol, the high priest of the Samaritans.”
It was at that moment that I felt, deep in my very modern heart, I was encountering a very ancient connection. Cohen showed me samples of early Samaritan writing and explained that the priestly lineage goes back to Aaron, brother of Moses.
Most visitors to Mount Gerizim are Christians, drawn there because of the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan. But in truth, the community may be more important to Jews, though most have no idea Samaritans exist.
In Tel Aviv I met with Yefet Tsedaka, coeditor with his brother Benyamim of Aleph Bet, the Samaritan newspaper.
“Let me show you who we are,” Tsedaka said. “We have a prayer that is only two words, but it will take me two minutes to say it. Look at your watch.” He intoned “Wnas Annas” (“And will escape who escapes from sin,” from a Day of Atonement piyyut, or poem) in a deep, powerful tribal chant. Two words. Two minutes.
“Who are you?” I asked him.
“We are from the tribes of Menassah, Ephraim and Levi, the priests,” he began. “Since the Exodus, we have worshiped at the place where the ancient Tabernacle was, where Joshua united the tribes, at Har Gerizim.”
When I returned to the States, I called my rabbi friend. He was skeptical. “The area in the north of Israel was known as Samaria in ancient times,” he explained. “In 721 B.C.E., the Assyrians invaded, exiled the population…and [transferred] diverse people living in their lands to Samaria. The imports called themselves Jews, but they weren’t the real thing. They were assimilated Assyrians.”
I immediately e-mailed Tsedaka to run this version by him. Surprisingly, it was his brother Benyamim, or Benny—scholar, historian and, it turned out, ambassador-at-large—who answered me.
“Ours is a story of survival,” he wrote. “In ancient days, the powerful Kingdom of Israel in the north was much more developed, strong and centralized than tiny Jerusalem in the south. In 721 B.C.E., the Assyrians invaded, destroyed and exiled the Northern Kingdom’s ruling class, which was only a portion of the population. The rest remained and have been in Israel ever since. We are the descendants of the original Israelites, the only people in the world who still speak ancient Hebrew. Our tradition is based on the Five Books of Moses [the Abisha Scroll] and not anything that came after it. Moses is our only true prophet.”
“So you’re Jews?” I typed.
“No,” he responded, ”the Jews were Judahites from the south. We were the tribes from the north. We had an ongoing rivalry with the Judahites. We eventually separated, but our origins are identical. In the year 400 C.E., there were about a million and a half Israelite Samaritans. We have been persecuted and killed by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, even by Jews of the Hellenistic period, for practicing our ancient faith. Today we are about 700 souls, half of them under 25.” (The fewest was 146 in 1917.)
“I am coming to the U.S.A. on a lecture tour,” wrote Benny, who, I soon learned, wrote the section on Samaritans in the Encyclopedia Judaica. “If you can arrange a talk, you and I will tell people about the Israelite Samaritans. You will talk about your experience on our holy mountain.”
I arranged for a talk at the local temple in Santa Fe and waited for Benny’s arrival. I had an image of a bearded, wizened scholar, but Benny turned out to be a tall, handsome, vigorous, funny, passionate man in his mid-fifties.
“Ahot!” he proclaimed loudly when we finally met.
I looked around.
“Ahot!” he repeated. “You will officially be my sister and I am yourah, your brother.”
I was moved by this unexpected bond. Benny turned out to be a delicious mixture of an ancient tribal elder and a man who enjoyed Shirley Bassey and Broadway musicals. We gave our talk and people were fascinated to hear that the Samaritans still exist. When Benny had to leave we said a teary farewell; we were now, after all, family.
About three years ago, I was invited back to Israel as a journalist, and Benny insisted I come to Mount Gerizim for Shabbat. Our reunion began in Holon, where Benny’s and about 80 other Samaritan families live and work. The community’s prosperity is recent; it used to depend on support from Israel and Jordan. Today, they work as teachers, lawyers and engineers, in high technology, insurance and banking. “We don’t have doctors,” Benny said, “because it means work on Shabbat.”
His wife, Miriam, was busy cooking for Shabbat; she strictly follows the Samaritan laws of kashrut. The walls were covered with mesmerizing photos of Benny’s father and grandfather in ceremonies on Har Gerizim; images of the annual Passover sacrifice, an event that until the intifada drew thousands of visitors and scholars from around the world. With the new mood of Palestinian-Israeli rapprochement, it is hoped the influx of visitors will rise again.
On Friday afternoon we traveled through the West Bank, arriving at Kiryat Luza without incident. We drove to the top of Argarizin, where a major Samaritan archaeological site opened in August 2000. “It is a place of interest to Jews because of their common historical and ritual background,” Benny said. He led me to the three places holiest to Samaritans: where Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed, the 12 stones where Joshua united the tribes and a large, empty slab of deep-gray stone where the Israelites re-erected the Tabernacle when they arrived in Israel.
“This is called the World’s Hill,” Benny said. “I know the Jews have another version of these three events, but according to the Samaritans they took place on Mount Gerizim. Our Torah has 7,000 differences from the Jews’. Most are minor and the rest pertain to Mount Gerizim and the role it played in Israelite history.” Benny walked me around the site, where archaeologist Yitzhak Magen discovered 510 ancient stone inscriptions, many referring to the unity of the God of Israel and evidence supporting the Samaritan’s claim of strict adherence to the commandments. There were ruins from the Persian, Hellenistic, Byzantine and Samaritan periods. I saw a Samaritan wine press, copious remains of buildings, sacrificial tools and an altar, thousands of animal bones, two sets of seven steps (seven being a sacred number) that once led to the Tabernacle and a vast expanse where thousands of coins and artifacts were excavated. (Since my trip, the first of five volumes of Magen’s Mount Gerizim Excavations has been published by the Israel Antiquities Authority.)
The sun was lowering on the horizon so we returned to prepare for Shabbat. Benny dressed in a white robe and tarboosh (red cylindrical hat) with the white band of an elder. As we headed to the synagogue, he pointed out the words in ancient Hebrew on plaques outside every house. “This is the ancient form of the mezuza,” he explained. “We have the liberty of choosing any blessing from the Torah and we inscribe the holy words above our doorways and on the outside of our houses.”
Robed men and boys came walking down the main street. They left their sandals outside the sanctuary door (God told Moses “remove your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy,” Benny explained). Inside the unadorned synagogue the floors were lined with Oriental rugs. Small wooden stands held prayer books and a seven-branch menora was in front of the room.
The men sat, kneeled, stood or bowed their heads in the direction of the ancient Tabernacle. The singing was deep and throaty. When they said “Moses” or other holy words, they covered their faces just as Moses covered his when God spoke to him. It was a deeply moving sight.
The service ended at 7:30, the official start of Shabbat. A group of men approached me where I sat on a plastic chair in the back of the room, the only woman present, to ask me a pressing question: “Do you know if Maccabee Tel Aviv won?” Their hearts were with God, but they wanted to know the earthly score of their favorite basketball team.
Back home there were no lights, no electricity and no writing. Miriam had stored hot beverages in thermoses lined up on the kitchen counter. The refrigerator was full of food, but it was unplugged. Visitors came and went.
Benny retired early because he had to get up to pray at 3:30 A.M. The men go to synagogue three times on Shabbat, but they do not read the Torah there. That is reserved for the family, and I was invited to attend a Torah reading at 6:30 in the morning at the home of the high priest. At 82, frail and ill, Levi b. Abisha was helped into the anteroom where all the men of his family gathered. (He died soon after my visit.)
Again there were no women present. Miriam had explained that women are allowed to participate but they choose not to. Only on the important festivals and on the fast day do they come to get thekohen’s blessing. When they do come they are not seated separately from the men.
Each man chanted a segment of the Torah portion. Every time the text proclaimeed “I am your God,” I felt the power of the sound in the ancient tongue: “Ani Shema.”
A few young boys chanted along. Benny whispered that boys and girls are taught to read the whole Torah, starting at age 5 or 6 and concluding by age 7. When they can chant by heart the blessing of Moses (Deuteronomy 33 and 34) there is a ceremony for them.
At 11:00, Miriam served lunch—plate after plate of hummus, tahini, pita, round matza, fried green beans, potatoes and filet of sole. At 1:00, Benny and I headed back to the synagogue. After two hours of melodic chanting, Benny and I went visiting. He explained that every Samaritan has two names—one is Arabic, for official use; the other is Hebrew, for use within the community.
We went to see Radwan (Ratson) Altif, 65, a political leader whose sumptuous Oriental-style living room was dotted with photos of him with Yasser Arafat and King Hussein.
“We Samaritans are in the middle of the struggle for land between the Palestinians and the Jews,” Altif explained. “We have to get along with both sides,” (Benny travels around the world to get support for an International Peace Center on Mount Gerizim.)
In every house we visited we were offered tea or soda or sweets—homemade cakes or chocolates.
In one house there were three beautiful young women who talked openly about the nidda (menstrual) laws. “When a woman has her period, she cannot touch or be touched by anyone,” said Najla (Yukabed). “She rests and her husband does all the housework. She doesn’t lift a finger. At the end of her temiyya [impure] period, she bathes in a home ritual bath. She purifies [with fire or water] everything she touched or wore during the impure days.”
Women must marry Samaritans, but men may marry Israeli Jews. Some matches are arranged by families at a young age; other times women are permitted to choose a husband.
We also visited Yaacov Cohen, who organizes youth activities. “We have a basketball team, a kindergarten and a youth center,” he said proudly. “There are no Samaritan dropouts…. The group pressures are too strong and the religion is too important to them.”
The sun was in the west and the men gathered for prayers; half prayed in the synagogue, the rest on the sacrificial grounds. Their voices rose in a chorus of fervent devotion.
“So how did you like it?” Benny asked me when the Sabbath ended.
Now that I am back in America, I have an answer. I would like to take every skeptical Jew to Argarizin for a Sabbath. I would like them to feel the depth, the sounds, the chants, the communal strength, the devotion to the Hebrew God by these ancient-modern Samaritans.
We should help them to preserve their culture for it is ours, too. They are keepers of the faith that goes way back to the founding mothers and fathers of Israel.
Samaritan Tours with Benyamim Tsedaka: firstname.lastname@example.org
Aleph Bet is published weekly in Modern Hebrew, ancient Hebrew, Arabic and English. It is the main source for Samaritan news and research information. Annual subscriptions are $150 including postage (P.O.B. 1029, Holon 58110, Israel). Web site: www.the-samaritans.com
The Samaritan Ensemble (mystae.com/samaritans.html) sings the most ancient vocal music in existence (going back to the roots of the people of Israel). The group represented Israel at the 5th world symposium of choral music in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. In July 2005 the group will perform in Tokyo and other Japanese cities.
Additional Web site: www.thesamaritanupdate.com .