Tiny Group of Samaritans Still Practice Their Ancient Religion

By: Dave Roos  | 

Samaritan Passover
Samaritans take part in the traditional Passover sacrifice at Mount Gerizim near the northern West Bank city of Nablus April 18, 2019. Samaritans live in two communities, one on the mount and one in the Israeli city of Holon, near Tel Aviv. JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP via Getty Images

In the New Testament parable of the "Good Samaritan," Jesus tells the tale of a traveler who was robbed, beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. Several people walk by the naked, injured man, including Jewish priests and authorities, but a Samaritan, a stranger, stops. He treats the victim's injuries, takes him to an inn and leaves the innkeeper money to pay for any expenses.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is such a powerful example of unconditionally "loving thy neighbor" that many hospitals and charities now carry the name "Samaritan." There are also "Good Samaritan laws" which give legal protection to people who give aid to those who are injured or in danger.

But when Jesus first told the parable 2,000 years ago, it would have been received very differently. To the Jewish community of the first century C.E., the Samaritans were an unclean and unholy sect. A "good" Samaritan, in fact, would have been unthinkable.

"It's like saying 'the good Osama bin Laden,'" says Terry Giles, a theology professor at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania. "It would have been shocking to a Jewish audience that a Samaritan was the hero of the story."

The truth is that Samaritans and Jews have a tremendous amount in common. Both are ancient peoples who can trace their origins back to the biblical Israelites, God's "chosen people" whom Moses led into the Promised Land. Both Samaritans and Jews revere the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as the word of God and faithfully follow its commandments. And they both have suffered centuries of cruel persecution.

What most people don't know is that there is still a small but thriving community of Samaritans in the Holy Land, where they continue to practice their distinct Israelite religion and traditions. And the good news is that the ancient animosity between Jews and Samaritans has largely faded away.

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When and Why the Samaritans and Jews 'Split Up'

Abood Cohen is one of 830 Samaritans (he estimates) currently living in Israel and the West Bank, a Palestinian territory. Cohen conducts English-speaking tours of his Samaritan community on Mount Gerizim, an ancient Samaritan holy site near the Palestinian city of Nablus.

Cohen says that according to Samaritan history, the split between the Jews and the Samaritans happened 400 years after God led Moses and the Israelites out of Egypt and into the promised land of Canaan.

"About 3,200 years ago, we were one nation, but then we split in two," says Cohen, "Samaritans and Jews."

Samaritan worshipper, Passover
A Samaritan worshipper arrives to take part in a Passover ceremony on top of Mount Gerizim, May 2, 2021. Samaritans trace their lineage to the Israelites whom Moses led out of slavery in Egypt and who established themselves in the biblical northern kingdom of Israel, known as Samaria.
JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP via Getty Images

The breakup, according to the Samaritans, had to do with a fight over the correct location of the Tabernacle holding the Ark of the Covenant. In Deuteronomy 12:5, God instructed Moses to establish a place of worship in a place that he "will choose." The Samaritans believe that the chosen location was always Mount Gerizim, the same place where Samaritans say that Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, and where Jacob had his vision of a ladder reaching up to the heavens.

The trouble started, Samaritans say, when an Israelite high priest named Eli rebelled and took his followers to another site called Shilo. The true tabernacle remained on Mount Gerizim, Samaritans say, while Eli and his followers constructed a new one in Shilo and then took it to Jerusalem, where Solomon built his famed Temple.

The group that chose Jerusalem as God's dwelling place became the Jews, and the people who continued to worship at Mount Gerizim became the Samaritans.

The name "Samaritan" was given to the group by outsiders including the Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, who believed that Samaritans came from the geographic region known as Samaria. Giles says that the name might also be a Latinized version of the Hebrew Shomrim, which means "keepers" as in the keepers of the true Israelite religion on Mount Gerizim.

Giles, who has written several books about the Samaritans, including "The Keepers: An Introduction to the History and Culture of the Samaritans," says that historians believe that the split between the Samaritans and the Jews likely occurred much later than the traditional Samaritan account, sometime between the third and first century B.C.E.

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The Samaritan Torah and Beliefs

Since Samaritans and Jews descended from the same people, they share many of the same religious beliefs and customs like observing Shabbat, the weekly day of rest, and keeping kosher, which means avoiding foods prohibited by God in the Torah. But over the centuries since their split, the two groups have developed distinct traditions, based in large part on their differing versions of the Torah.

The Samaritans use a version of the Torah known as the Samaritan Pentateuch (Greek for "five books"). The Samaritan text contains the same five books as the "Masoretic" or standard Jewish Torah — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy — but Cohen says there are around 6,000 small variations in the Samaritan scripture and about 30 major differences.

Most of those major differences are verses that solidify the Samaritan claim that Mount Gerizim is the rightful place to worship God. For example, the Samaritan Pentateuch contains a different version of the Ten Commandments, the foundational laws handed down by God to Moses on Mount Sinai.

In the Samaritan version of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), the first two commandments are combined and there's a new and detailed 10th commandment making it clear that God commanded Moses and the Israelites to build their altar on Mount Gerizim when they possessed the land of Canaan.

Samaritan symbols adorn Mount Gerizim
Samaritan symbols adorn Mount Gerizim, Nablus, West Bank April 2, 2019. Mount Gerizim is the holiest place in the Samaritan community.
Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Cohen points out that the Samaritan Pentateuch is also written in an ancient form of Hebrew, what scholars call "Paleo-Hebrew," which dates from the 10th century B.C.E. and looks significantly different from the Hebrew letters found in standard Jewish texts.

Modern Judaism and Jewish traditions were largely developed during the Rabbinic period that followed the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Over the centuries, the Samaritans developed their own interpretations of God's commandments, passed down through a continuous line of high priests. The results are variations in the way that Samaritans and Jews observe the same commandments.

On Shabbat, for example, Cohen says that Samaritans and Jews recite different prayers and that Samaritans bow down on the ground when they pray.

"We believe it's how our ancestors did it for 3,000 years," says Cohen. "We also have seven hours of prayer on Shabbat spread across the day. We wake up from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. every single Shabbat of our lives."

And the way that Samaritans and Jews keep kosher is also different. A Jewish person who keeps kosher typically will not only avoid forbidden foods like pork, shellfish and eating milk and meat in the same meal, but they will only eat foods that are labeled kosher.

For Samaritans, says Cohen, "It doesn't have to have 'kosher' written on it. If the Torah says it's OK to eat, we eat. We can only eat meat from inside the community, though, from a Samaritan butcher. If we're eating outside of the community, we don't eat meat."

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On Passover, Samaritans Still Sacrifice Sheep

Passover, the holiday born of the Torah's commandment to remember and recount how God brought the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, is celebrated by both Jews and Samaritans. But Samaritans do something truly unique on Passover — they perform a ritual animal sacrifice on Mount Gerizim.

"As far as I'm aware, the Samaritans are the only western religious group that still practices animal sacrifice," says Gile. "The ceremony can be very moving."

Cohen says that animal sacrifices are only performed during Passover and are part of a communal Passover feast. The day before the sacrifice, every Samaritan household makes its own matzah, the same "unleavened bread" that the Israelites ate as they rushed to escape the pharaoh's wrath.

Samaritans animal sacrifice
At Passover, Samaritans traditionally sacrifice sheep on Mount Gerizim.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images

"You can smell the matzot throughout the neighborhood, I love it," says Cohen, using the plural form of matzah. "All through the village, you can hear the singing and smell the matzot cooking. It's a really festive feeling."

On the night of the Passover sacrifice, fires are lit in a dozen deep pits. Each extended family provides one or two sheep for the sacrifice. After a special prayer by the high priest, the sheep are carefully slaughtered according to Torah specifications (no broken bones), placed on spits and slow-roasted for three hours over the glowing coals.

"The smell is amazing," says Cohen. "We eat the meat from the sheep with unleavened bread and bitter herbs at midnight. It's exactly like how the Torah tells us. We're happy, we're chanting prayers, and it's really beautiful."

During holidays like Passover, Samaritans dress in white robes and red hats that resemble a Turkish fez. On most days, Samaritans dress just like everyone else.

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Samaritans as 'Bridge of Peace' in Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

The Samaritan community in the Holy Land once numbered around 1.5 million people, but centuries of persecution and forced conversion by Muslim and Christian invaders reduced the community to less than 150 people by 1919. Cohen says that when an American scholar encountered this small group of Samaritans a century ago, he compared it to finding a living wooly mammoth, something thought to be long extinct.

After the State of Israel was established in 1948, the government set aside land for a Samaritan community in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv. The Samaritan community on Mount Gerizim, where Cohen lives, has changed hands many times, but is now part of the West Bank and governed by the Palestinian National Authority.

Samaritan boy, basketball
A Samaritan boy holds a basketball on Mount Gerizim, Nablus, West Bank, April 2, 2019. Samaritans don't traditionally marry outside the faith but the small population has caused some men to take brides from Eastern Europe.
Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Cohen says that Samaritans have a unique perspective on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as neither Jew nor Arab, but something in between.

"Those of us living on Mount Gerizim have three passports: Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian," says Cohen. "We speak Hebrew and Arabic and have friends from both sides. We can travel pretty much anywhere in the Holy Land and we can see both nations' struggles and successes."

Cohen says that he and his fellow Samaritans, a people who were almost wiped out a century ago, try to be a "bridge of peace" between their warring neighbors. Cohen even created a podcast with a couple of friends called Open Peace to help find common ground and show that "coexistence is possible."

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