Thousands of years after they first appeared in history, the Samaritans continue to practice the biblical rites including animal sacrifice. The Tower’s photographer captures their unique Passover experience.
The Samaritans are among the most ancient and unique communities in the Land of Israel. Though their origins are still obscure and controversial, they are unquestionably an ancient offshoot of Judaism that was already an entirely separate community by the time of the Second Temple—over 2,000 years ago. The Samaritans themselves trace their origins to the Babylonian exile, holding that they are descended from the tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel who were not expelled, unlike many of those from the southern kingdom of Judah. When the Babylonian exiles returned and rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple, the Samaritans took a different path, creating their own scriptures, temple, diaspora, dialects of Hebrew and Aramaic, and holy sites.
There are only around 700 Samaritans alive today, composed of four family lineages and living in two separate communities: One in the Israeli city of Holon, and the other in the West Bank (or Samaria, where their name comes from). Although they are considered Jews under Israel’s Law of Return and can claim citizenship and equal rights in Israel, they consider themselves a separate group while still being part of the larger “children of Israel.” Accordingly, their rituals and interpretations of biblical tradition are very different from those of Judaism, and often hew closer to a literal reading of biblical law.
As a result, some see the Samaritans as a window into Judaism’s ancient past, a vision of what Jewish life may have been like thousands of years before the exile, the rabbinical tradition, and the modern State of Israel. Perhaps the most famous and fascinating example of this is the Samaritan Passover. Usually celebrated in May, the festival is utterly unlike the Jewish practice of Seder dinners and cleansing hametz. Every year, the Samaritans gather on Mount Gerizim in the West Bank, which they believe is the holiest place on Earth, and enact a ritual sacrifice in which lambs are slaughtered, cooked, and eaten. This is close to the ritual prescribed in the Torah and may be very similar to that practiced by the ancient Israelites. This unique celebration of the Exodus is, for Jews, a passage back to the time of their ancestors; and, for others, a living remnant of the biblical past.
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Banner Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower