The Samaritans – or Shomronim – are an ethnic/religious group who claim descent from the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Menashe, with a high priesthood descended from the biblical Aaron. They believe they survived the Assyrian annihilation of the Kingdom of Israel and thus are descendants of the “Ten Lost Tribes” who were taken into Assyrian captivity.
The Samaritans claim their link to ancient Samaria (now most of the territory of the West Bank) dates back to the original Jewish conquest of Eretz Yisrael as described in the Book of Joshua. The conventional Orthodox belief, however, is very different; the Talmud refers to them as “Kuthim,” reflecting the traditional Jewish belief that, rather than being descendants of the Biblical 12 tribes of Israel, they were non-Jews brought in from Kutha in Mesopotamia.
The story begins in 930 BCE when King Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, succeeded him on the throne. The 10 northern tribes of Israel rebelled against him and established their own northern Kingdom of Israel with its capital in Samaria, while the remaining two tribes established the southern Kingdom of Judah with Jerusalem as its capital. This 200-year schism badly damaged the viability of Jewish nationhood and, when Assyrian King Sargon II conquered the Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, the “Ten Lost Tribes” were widely dispersed and ultimately lost to history.
The Samaritans claim, however, that they are descended from Jews who defied the Assyrians and never left Eretz Yisrael. All agree, however, that when the Babylonians later conquered Judah, they kept many Jews in a central location where they could still retain their religious identification.
The usual practice for the Assyrians when capturing new territory was to exile residents, scatter them in small groups through their vast empire, and bring in Assyrians to repopulate the conquered region. The new Assyrian populace would continue to worship their gods and engage in their cultic practices, but they would also adopt some of the religious traditions of the people they had vanquished.
Accordingly, when the Assyrians defeated the Kingdom of Israel in 722 and settled in Samaria, they began to also worship the Jewish G-d, but, within only a few centuries, their Jewish worship became exclusive and they kept much of the Torah. However, contrary to Jewish tradition, they believed that they could offer animal sacrifices outside of the Temple in Jerusalem, which created a huge split between the Masoretic-true Jews and the Samaritan sect.
Before King Solomon built the Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem in the mid-10th century BCE, Jews did have other places where they worshipped. However, the Bible describes a later religious reform enacted first by King Hezekiah (reigned 715-686 BCE) and again by King Josiah (640-609 BCE) pursuant to which sacrificial worship was limited to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Beit HaMikdash thus became the only lawful place to bring animal sacrifices – which is why, with the destruction of the Second Temple, such sacrifices ceased.
However, there were Jewish sects that had other temples which they believed were equally holy. Thus, for example, as the Book of Jeremiah states, hundreds of years after the completion of Solomon’s Temple, some Jews were still bringing sacrifices outside Jerusalem.
A remarkable recent discovery supports the idea that during the time of the First Temple, Jews were still building temples outside Jerusalem and offering animal sacrifices there. According to an article recently published in the Biblical Archaeology Review by a team of archaeologists from Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority, a massive temple complex using the same architectural plan as the First Temple is currently being excavated at Tel Motza, some four miles northwest of Ir David (the City of David). It stood from around 900 BCE to about the early sixth century BCE and thus was in contemporaneous use during the time of the First Temple (which was destroyed in 586 BCE).
Samaritan practices are based upon the Samaritan Pentateuch, which the Samaritans believe reflects the true faith of the ancient Israelites and was preserved by those who remained in Eretz Yisrael after the Babylonian exile, and that the Judaism considered normative today was actually an altered religion brought by returnees to Eretz Yisrael from the Babylonian captivity.
Many (non-Torah) commentators seem to suggest that the Samarian Pentateuch is essentially similar to our traditional Masoretic text but, even setting aside the Samaritans’ total rejection of Rabbinic law, there are at least 6,000 significant differences between the two Pentateuchs. According to Samaritan Benyamin Tsedaka in his seminal work Israelite Samaritan Version of the Torah (2013), the differences between them essentially fall within two categories: orthographic (spelling differences or the addition of words within the text) and substantive (differences in the narrative).
Central to the Samaritan faith is the belief that Mount Gerizim, near the ancient city of Shechem, was the original Jewish sacred site from time immemorial. Samaritans believe it is the site of the Akedah where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac, as per the account in Genesis; that when Joshua later conquered Canaan, he established a “covenant” there by dedicating a special “stone,” which later become an altar (Joshua 8:30-35); and that Mount Gerizim is “the Mountain of Blessings” of Deuteronomy 11:29.
(According to the Biblical narrative [Deut. 27:11-14], six of the 12 tribes stood on Har Gerizim and the other six stood on Har Eval. All of them were instructed to face Har Gerizim when they were presented with the incredibly beautiful blessings that they would earn if they obeyed G-d’s Torah. They received the dreaded “tochachah,” the curses that would befall them if they fail to follow G-d’s laws, while facing Har Eval.)
As such, one key issue between real Jews and Samaritans has always been the location of the chosen place to worship G-d – the Temple Mount of Moriah in Jerusalem, according to traditional Masoretic Judaism, or Mount Gerizim, according to Samaritanism.
This difference has particular relevance in the celebration of Passover. For two millennia, the Samaritans have observed Passover on Mt. Gerizim, and they continue to gather there to offer the sacrifices specified by their Torah. Masoretic Jews have not brought the Paschal sacrifice since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash but Samaritans never gave their sole allegiance to the Jerusalem Temple, so the approximately 700 Samaritans who remain in Eretz Yisrael continue to hold their sacrificial services on Mt. Gerizim.
What makes the Samaritan Pesach ceremony so interesting is that it preserves in many respects a Torah ceremony that hasn’t been conducted by traditional Jews for close to 2,000 years. The entire Samaritan community gathers before sunset at its mountaintop ceremonial ground all dressed in long white robes (community leaders also wear distinctive red Fez hats with a black tassel), except for the priests, who wear distinguishing turquoise garb. The services start near sunset with the recitation of the relevant Passover verses from Exodus.
Under the light of the full moon, their High Priest gives the signal; the head of each household slices the throat of his family’s lamb; and, amid much joy and celebration, the animal is skewered and brought to one of the 2- to 3-meter-deep stone-lined roasting pits to be cooked for hours.
Close to midnight, each family takes its lamb home (those who cannot afford their own sacrifice join together with other families), where it is eaten together with matzah and bitter herbs. The family holds a “seder” of sorts, although they do not use our formal Haggadah text. There are marked similarities to the Masoretic Seder, nonetheless, including encouraging children to ask questions about why and how the sacrifice is performed.
In the incredible page exhibited here, a supplement to the April 22, 1905 edition of The Sphere, the eight steps of the Samaritan Paschal sacrifice are photographically presented and described in detail:
The Samaritan Passover
The annual feast of the Samaritan Passover is held on Mount Gerizim in Samaria. Six sheep are sacrificed, and their blood is marked on the foreheads and noses of all the people in the community. The sheep are afterwards boiled in water, the wool removed, and the carcasses roasted over burning faggots.
The Preparations in Camp
Repeating the Scriptures
When the golden arc of the sun has sunk behind the Mediterranean, the priest repeats in a loud voice the Samaritan version of Exodus xii:6. In an instant, the lambs are seized and passed from one to another of the sacrificial ministers until they reach the white-robed man whose office is to slay.
Catching the Blood in Basins
As the lambs lie quivering in their death throes, two or three of the surpliced young men catch the blood in the basins and proceed around the camp sprinkling the upper and side posts of the tent doors and the faces of the women and children with the blood.
The carcasses of the lambs are then examined and if pronounced faulty are rejected and consumed in a separate fire. If passed as without blemish, their fleeces are stripped off and their entrails extracted.
Carrying the Carcasses to the Pit
Each carcass is pierced lengthwise by a wooden spit with a cross-bar near the extremity, and carefully placed in the circular pit which has been already heated like an oven. Unleavened bread and bitter herbs are also prepared for the midnight feast.
Roasting the Bodies
When all are safely deposited, the mouth of the pit is closed up with sticks and mud and the bodies remain until they are fully roasted. The covering is then torn off in the presence of the whole male community.
Eating the Lamb’s Flesh
About midnight, the roasted lambs are dragged out on their long spits. The eating is done literally according to verse 17. In less than ten minutes, almost every vestige of the meat is gone, the women and children being supplied in the tents.
The Samaritans remain encamped for an entire week following their sacrifice of the Paschal lamb. On the seventh day, known as the “Feast of the Unleavened Bread,” prayers begin at midnight at which time the men silently read the Biblical story of creation, followed by a loud reading of Genesis and Exodus up to the Passover story. Then, at dawn, they make a pilgrimage to the top of their sacred mountain, one of the highest peaks in the West Bank at 2,890 feet above sea level and, upon their descent, the entire community holds a festive meal.
The annual sacrifice of the Paschal lamb on Mount Gerizim remains a central tenet of Samaritanism to the point that those who do not participate in the rite are deemed to have abdicated their faith. Even today, when there are only about 800 Samaritans, the head of the Samaritan community is the high priest, who is the elder of the priestly family and resides on Mount Gerizim. (The High Priest does not assume his position through primogeniture, but he is elected from the sons of the previously serving High Priest.)
Only after Israel took over the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War, however, was the Samaritan community granted unfettered access to Mount Gerizim to perform their 2,500-year-old sacrificial rite, and the Samaritan Paschal sacrificial ceremony is now a formal annual event designed to accommodate thousands of spectators.
Exhibited here is an invitation from the Samaritan community to attend its Passover sacrifice ceremony on Har Gerizim on the 14th of Iyar, 5735 (April 25, 1975), which corresponds to Pesach Sheni, or the “Second Passover.”
As described in Numbers 9:9-13, Pesach Sheni takes place each year one month after Erev Pesach, the date which the Torah establishes for bringing the Korban Pesach, i.e., offering the Paschal lamb. This sometimes-forgotten Jewish festival day was instituted to give Jews who could not bring the Paschal sacrifice on the 14th of Nissan – either because they were in a state of ritual impurity or because they were on a “distant journey” – a “second chance” to fulfill this beautiful and important religious obligation.
Some Jews have the custom to eat matzah on Pesach Sheni which, according to some commentators, marks the day when the Jews ran out of the matzah they had so hastily prepared and taken with them when fleeing Egypt in the middle of the night. Several chasidic groups hold a formal meal that includes four cups of wine, matzah, and maror.
According to UNESCO, the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim are today the smallest and most ancient living ethnic community in the world. Samaritanism is designated as a separate religion in Israel, and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate requires Samaritans to undergo a halachic conversion if they wish to be formally recognized as Jews.