the Samaritans



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Guard's of Mount Grizim

by Alex Maist

Once there was a temple on this place. It was destroyed, but the mount, where it had towered, is sacred. This is the Mount Grizim near Shehem.

Every Pesach, Samaritans ascent up the mountain side to make their purifying sacrifice. Just like two and a half thousands years ago, they pitch tents and put on particular fancy white loose gowns with white waist bands. Their heads are covered with fesses and they keep long staves in their hands. Like those, on which Jews leaned, while leaving Egypt. A man in a red loose gown is standing out of the crowd. That's the Cohen, the chief priest, head of the community, and, as Samaritans believe, Aaron's descendant.

Some weeks before Pesach Samaritans start baking "maza", which is not crunching and fragile, as Jews make, but soft and round like Arabic "pitas". They ascend to a sacrificial stone and seven sheep are let into the circle – as it's described in Torah. Here, observing all the details of sacrifice ceremony the Samaritans slaughter them. Then they cut carcasses and grill the meat on spits. They do their work carefully in order not to crush bones and commit sacrilege.

Now it's time for the feast. They swallow up food feverishly and quickly, choking with pieces of meat. But not because they are hungry, but because "in a hurry were we leaving Egypt". After the meal, the Samaritans burn the remains of the food. Thoroughly nothing should remain and profane holiness of this place.

Many years ago, before the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews had performed just the same ritual. But if such sacrifice is a historical anachronism for Jews these days, the Samaritans esteem it more than their life.

Nobody stays at home on this day. All the people make an ascend of the Grizim Mount. Old men get out of beds, disabled and sick people are carried by their relatives, and mothers bring up their babies. This is not only a tradition, this is the obligation. One of the divinity code, which isn't to be discussed, the obligation that has been keeping Samaritans on the surface of history for two thousand years.

Two faces of one people

There are two faces of the Samaritan Community. On weekday Neve-Pinhas district on Holon outskirts doesn't differ from any other sleeping area in Israel. At the gates of the public garden there's a strange inscription reminding of Shumer cuneiform.

People consider this language Aramaic. Actually it's the original language of Tanach, the Old Testament, but not modern Hebrew. We speak this ancient Hebrew as fluently as modern Hebrew, - says Shahar Jegoshya, the secretary of the Samaritan Community in Holon.

Shahar is a typical representative of the community. He is a deputy manager in the bank and, according to Israeli standards, belongs to the wealthy middle class. He has recently added a second floor to his villa and proudly shows us a spacious veranda with the view of Neve-Pinhas.

Many of us are quite well-to-do people. Practically all of us have our own houses and cars. Our guys serve in the Army.

Shahar is proud of his elder son, who is finishing the Army service and keen on computers.

His girlfriend isn't a Samaritan, she is a Jew from Beer-Sheva, - winks Shahar. – Israeli girls like our guys, they are anxious to marry them, though they don't even guess how difficult it is to be a Samaritan.

It's really difficult. Routine and simplicity of life of Neve-Pinhas inhabitants is deceptive. The second face of the community is revealed when Shabbat comes.

Samaritans put on traditional Shabbat clothes, switch off electricity all over, and stop communicating with the external world till the end of Shabbat. It's a day of praying, and between prayers chapters of Pentateuch are read. Like the ascent to the Grizim Mountain no allowances for age or health are made, everyone is supposed to observe Shabbat this way.

"Shabbat is a sacred day for all of us, because, unlike Jews, we are not divided into "secular" and "religious". We don't break any Torah's commandments, "says Shahar.


Samaritans, from the ancient Hebrew word "guards", believe that the Mount Grizim is famous Moria and consider themselves heirs of the ancient Israel Kingdom. They claim that not all the people of Israel Kingdom were led away by the Assyrian king. A considerable number of them remained – foremost the branch of Yosef, which was split into the Ephraim and Menashe tribes.

Actually this isn't Tanach version. According to Tanach, modern Samaritans are descendants of pagan tribes from Mesopotamia, North Syria and Western Iraq, who were conquered by the Assyrian king and deported to the territory of the destroyed Israel Kingdom. Having settled down in the new land the newcomers absorbed the natives and adopted their God. They built sanctuary on the Mount Grizim and coexisted quite peacefully with Jews remained in Judea, after being ruined by Babylon.

Jews and Samaritans agree on the fact that the split occurred after the Jews had returned from Babylon. The Samaritan chronics narrate, that "shomronim" requested Nehemiah to allow them to participate in restoration of the new Temple in Jerusalem, but got definite refusal on assertion that they weren't Jews and so couldn't take part in a religious rite. According to the Tanach, Samaritans hindered the creation of the Second Temple by zealous adherence to Mount Grizim, and put obstacles in Nehemiah's work. This infuriated Nehemiah who discharged the Samaritans from the participation in the restoration of the Temple.

Now it's difficult to say which version is accurate. In any case the relationships between the two peoples were spoiled. The gap increased more after Alexander the Great's decision to allow Samaritans to erect their own Temple on the Grizim Mount, and the contradictions aggravated after Hasmonei king Yohanan Girhan had ascended the throne. Arrogant Girhan decided to annihilate "Samaritan's heresy". Having invaded Samaria he devastated it, and to overcome "pagans" completely razed the Grizim Mount Temple to the ground. It was a terrible shock for Samaritans, as not barbarians, but their own Brother, Jewish king, triumphed over the ruins of their sacred Temple!

Henceforth the Temple in Jerusalem became a symbol of lie and heartlessness for Samaritans. They called it not "Beit-Mikdash" but "Beit-mahtash" ("House of Shame"). Their bitterness produced probably the first anti-Jewish calumnies in human history. The slander, which took deep roots in Samaria, said that Jews hid a human skeleton in Jerusalem Temple instead of "aron kodesh" and secretly worshipped it.

Jews weren't better than Samaritans in their prejudices. Greeting Samaritans with jeers, Jews fastidiously turned away, spread rumors, that "shomronim" worshipped ancient pagan god Nergal, and made human sacrifices. It was a typical example of hatred, engendered by religious arrogance and petty cavils. But the price for it turned out to be extremely high.

World turned back to the past

After the destruction of their Temple the Samaritans haven't altered their former traditions even slightly. They have rejected Talmud, revere only written Torah and observe religious feasts solely. From their point of view Purim and Hanukah haven't any value. However Samaritan's religious feasts differ from Jewish ones too. Samaritan's "sukka" is erected not outdoors, but inside the house. It is decorated with multi-colored lace of fruits under the ceiling. "It's a very difficult and perhaps even intricate job. You should fix every fruit to the ceiling in a special way to provide necessary ornament. This is our tradition. We don't make a hut as Jews do", - explains Shahar.

The Samaritans preserve high priest's dignity very zealously because they believe the high priest is Aaron's descendant.

Like Jews "Shomronim" built synagogues, but their synagogues are emphatically modest and give an impression of temporality. Only the interior of a new synagogue in Neve-Pinhas is made in more elegant and solemn style. At the same time Samaritans regard Temple ceremonies with extraordinary reverence. At the entrance of a synagogue they take off their shoes, as Jews used to do two thousand years ago at the entrance to the Temple. The Samaritans don't wear skull-caps and don't put on "tephilin", because they consider it an invention of Rabbis from the exile. They adhere to their calendar, which differs from the Jewish one. They don't trust Jewish "kashrut" and have their own "shohat", who is paid tithe as in ancient time. Samaritans believe in Messiah, who will be Taheb, Josef's son.

Religious fervency of the Samaritans is unique and it was generously rewarded. Salvation came when the sword of History was hanging above them.

Byzantines anvil

During a period of several centuries, from the second to the fifth, Samaritans were the prevailing ethnos in Palestine. Many Jewish uprisings left vast territories in Palestine deserted: from Carmel in the North to Judea desert in the South; from Caesarea in the West to Beit-Shean in the East. The Samaritans could settle there practically without any resistance.

The situation got worse with the strengthening of the Byzantine Empire in the Middle East. Once and again the Samaritans revolted against Constantinople and each time the Byzantines smashed them hardly using one tenth of their might.

The tragedy reached its culmination during the Justinian reign. Two years after his ascending to the throne, on Pesach, hundreds of armed Samaritans burst into Shehem and slaughtered local Christians. The bishop was murdered, churches were ruined ruthlessly. The leader of the upraising Julianus Sabr proclaimed himself a king and was crowned in Shehem. Justinian quickly recovered from the shock, assembled troops from Syria and Palestine and encircled the uprisers in Shehem. Julianus was forced to retreat to the mountains. He meant to exhaust the enemy by guerilla war, but the Byzantines turned out to be a more insidious adversary, than Sabr had expected. They set Bedouin tribes on the Samaritans and finally Sabr's exhausted rebellions were taken unawares and dispersed by Arab sheikh Aby-Karib.

A few months of the uprising turned Samaria into desert. Thousands of people perished, hundreds of thousands were sold to slavery. A considerable part of the Samaritans was forced to convert to Christianity.

Measures taken by Justinian broke the Samaritans completely. Only 146 Samaritans had survived by the time of Balfour declaration. Their community seemed to be doomed but miraculously revived. They have increased in number and exceed 600 people today in spite of gloomy forecasts of specialists.

Before new ordeals

The man, who favored the development of the Samaritan Community more than anybody else, was Izhak Ben-Zvi, the late president of Israel. In 1954 he initiated the creation of the Samaritan's quarter on the outskirts of Holon. The Six-day war accelerated the process of unification Samaritan community in Israel. The Mount Grizim became a part of Israel; Cohen Pinhas Ben-Abraham returned to Samaria and was proclaimed the chief priest and head of the Samaritans for life. The quarter in Holon was named after him – Neve-Pinhas. Half of the Samaritans live there, others reside in a village called Neve-Kedem near the Grizim Mount.

Though the relationships between the Jews and Samaritans are far from ideal, Shahar is optimistic.

Of course, there are some problems, but it's impossible to compare the life in Israel with our position among infidels, - he believes.

The range of problems, he is speaking about, vary from the routine questions that cause some discomfort to religious items. As before, orthodox Sephardi Jews who live in the neighborhood, treat Samaritans as pagans and strangers. It's difficult to call relationships between the inhabitants of the two areas friendly and even neighborly.

Nevertheless, in spite of the problems, the community increases. Young men marry Jewish girls and such marriages renew ancient blood of Samaritan people.

Not demography but policy bothers Samaritans nowadays. Samaritans are concerned that probable Israel-Palestine agreement could split their little community and bring them back to the situation before the Six-day war in 1967 year. And so Neve-Pinhas would be cut off from the Grizim Mount.

But Shahar isn't inclined to desperation.

If G-d decides to subject us to new ordeals, we will overcome them. We will not forget the Grizim Mount, as Jews will not forget Jerusalem, - he says.


from the April 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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