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by the uncertainties of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the world's
smallest ethnic community will gather Friday, May 4 on Mount Gerizim for
the biblical observance of Passover.
The 760 Samaritans in the
world are the last remnant of the once flourishing biblical kingdom of
Israel. They trace their descent back to the tribes of Ephraim and
After the death of King Solomon in ca.920 BCE, his
northern subjects gathered at Shechem (modern Nablus) to secede,
rejecting his arrogant heir Rehoboam (I Kings 12:1-20). The breakaway
kingdom bolstered its political independence from Judah by theologically
challenging the beliefs of the older kingdom. The Samaritans maintained
that God's chosen site for his sanctuary is Mount Gerizim, an 881-meter
peak looming over Shechem from the south, rather than Mount Moriah in
Jerusalem 63 km to the south. The Samaritan religion became fossilized
in the centuries following the split between Israel and Judah. Very
little innovation in thought, literature or social organization has
arisen over the millennia, affording a telescopic glimpse of the
pristine Judaism of pre-Rabbinic times.
The Samaritans call
themselves Shamerim, meaning guardians (of the truth). They hold as
sacred the Five Books of Moses but have never accepted as canon the
Prophets or Writings, or the Talmud (the compendium of Jewish Oral Law.)
Torah, written on parchment in the ancient Hebrew alphabet, contains
some 6,000 variants from the Masoretic Hebrew Bible. Most of these are
discrepancies over spelling or pronunciation. Some, however, reflect the
bitter historical and religious struggle waged in antiquity between the
Samaritans and the Jews.
For example, the Ten Commandments as
they are known to Jew and Christian alike have been compressed into nine
in the Samaritan version. A 10th commandment drawn up from passages in
Deuteronomy 11 and 27 proclaims the sanctity of Mount Gerizim, the Mount
of Blessing. The Samaritans observe only the biblical Holy Days - the
New Year, Day of Atonement, Sukkot, Shavuot and Passover, the latter
being their most important festival.
This year the Passover
sacrifice is again being led by the community's High Priest Elazar ben
Tsedaka ben Yitzhaq. Born in 1927 when Nablus was a city in the British
Mandate of Palestine, Elazar succeeded his cousin Saloum Cohen in 2004
to become the 131st holder of this post. He traces his genealogy back to
biblical figure Uziel, son of Kohath, son of Levi. It was the Levites
who assisted the Kohanim in their priestly duties in Solomon's Temple.
year's festival follows one month after Jews celebrated Passover since
this year is a leap year in the Samaritan tradition. In contrast to
Rabbinic Judaism, which adds an extra month seven times in a 19-year
cycle, the Samaritan elders determine leap months on an ad hoc basis.
1624 there had existed a chain of High Priests descended from Eleazar,
the son of Aaron, and the nephew of Moses. Ben Abisha, who lives in
Nablus, conducts his business from a cramped room that opens onto a back
"We are the true Israelites," Elazar says of the
Samaritans. His long white beard, red turban, and full-length robe
bestow upon him an air of authority that belies the chaos and poverty of
his office. He ignores the scattered newspapers, the rusty piece of
pipe, and decades of dust around him.
In addition to his official
duties as final arbiter in matters of religion and as leader of
religious ceremonies, Elazar has encouraged the young to learn their
historical and literary traditions from the community's sages, and has
endeavored to find matches for the unwed. More than half of the
Samaritans are under the age of 30.
Traditionally the sacrifice
of the paschal lamb takes place at dusk on the 15th of Nisan, the night
of the full moon according to the Samaritans' 354-day lunar calendar.
But this year the sacrifice will be advanced to noon so as not to
desecrate Shabbat. The ritual itself has been faithfully preserved
across the generations and is a literal observance of the Passover
slaughter commanded in Exodus 12.
noon approaches, a crowd of chanting males carrying cleavers and
wearing rubber boots will escort the High Priest in a procession to the
sacrificial site, a plateau 80 meters from the summit. He is carrying
the Abisha Scroll, which the Samaritans claim is the oldest Torah
manuscript in the world. The followers are dressed in flowing white
ceremonial robes or plain white shirts and pants, their heads covered
either with the traditional red tarboosh or the warm Czech wool cap
popular with local Arabs during the rainy winter season. The young men
prefer baseball caps.
Elazar, wrapped in a prayer shawl, leads a
semi-circle of heads of families in the rhythmic chanting of Hebrew
verses from the Samaritan Pentateuch describing the Exodus from
Pharaoh's bondage. The archaic Samaritan pronunciation of Hebrew differs
considerably from Israel's standard Sephardi usage, and speakers of
modern Hebrew have difficulty in following the service.
and boys have readied the sheep for slaughter, binding them by the feat
in an earthen altar, a shallow 2.15-meter long trench lined with
stones. At a signal from the High Priest, the 28 sheep are slaughtered,
one for each clan, evoking an ecstatic outburst of cheering, chanting
and clapping by the entire assembly. Their white robes splattered with
blood, the ritual butchers raise their bloodied knives into the air,
embrace and kiss each other's forehead and on the cheeks of their
children. Boiling water is poured over the sheep, the carcasses stripped
of their fleece, gutted, salted and impaled on spits for baking. The
two ovens, rectangular, concrete lined pits dug into the earth, are
covered with shrubs and wet clay. The fleece and fat are set aside as a
burnt offering. As the sacrifice slowly bakes in the fire-pits, more
prayers are chanted. Then all the community retires indoors to remove
their white clothing, emerging dressed in rough garments and heavy
shoes, with staff in hand and bundles on their back, ready to re-enact
Exactly at noon (instead of midnight), the earthen
ovens are opened. Each extended family claims its lamb and everyone
tears a piece of meat from the sacrifice, standing while eating it
quickly together with matza and bitter herbs to symbolize the hasty
departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt and the bitterness of
slavery. In compliance with biblical law, not one bone of a paschal lamb
may be broken. All the bones and any leftover meat are heaped on the
embers to ensure that nothing remains by morning.
has hastily eaten, the pilgrims circle the sacred precinct in a
procession symbolizing the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness on
the way to the Promised Land. They pass a fenced-off slab of rock said
to be the site at which Abraham intended to sacrifice Isaac, and an
altar of stones supposedly built by Joshua when he assembled the Tribes
to hear the reading of the Torah. (Jewish tradition maintains the
respective sites of these events are Mount Moriah - Gen. 22:2-14, and
Mount Ebal, Mount Gerizim's cursed sister peak - Joshua 8:30-35.)
The pilgrims then sit down to a full festive meal. Any leftovers are burned.
ceremony is open to the public and invitations are available from the
Tourist Ministry. Transportation must be arranged privately. Every year a
small group of students of comparative religion and just plain
curiosity seekers make their way to Mount Gerizim to watch this ancient
rite of animal sacrifice unique among the world's monotheistic faiths.Gil Zohar is a Canadian born Israeli tour guide and journalist and writes regularly for Travelujah,
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