“I have the heart,” a tall, young Samaritan man yelled out to his friend.
In his outstretched hand he held up the large plum red heart of the sheep he had just helped slaughter and disembowel.
A few drops of blood dripped from his hand to the ground, but did not splatter on the white pants, shirt and jacket that he wore.
He was one of several hundred Samaritan men of all ages, dressed in white, who participated Wednesday night in the Passover ritual of slaughtering and sacrificing sheep to symbolize the ancient people of Israel’s journey from slavery to freedom.
(Samaritans heat up the sacrificial pit, where the slaughtered sheep will be placed)
On Friday night, Jews around the world will symbolically mark the animal sacrifices once conducted by priests during Passover when the Temple stood in Jerusalem less than 2,000 years.
Many Jews do this by placing a roasted chicken wing on their Seder plate or the roasted leg of a lamb, the actual animal that was slaughtered at the time.
But the Samaritans, a small sect of some 800 people that claim direct descent from of the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe, still engage in the ritual slaughter of sheep according to the instructions set out in the Book of Exodus.
(Cleaning out the slaughtered sheep)
A small group of Samaritans live in Holon. The remainder live in the village of Kiryat Luza, atop Mount Gerizim in Samaria.
It is located next to the settlement of Har Bracha and high above Nablus, which was once, the biblical city of Shechem.
The Samaritans hold that they worship as the ancient Israelites did prior to the Babylonian exile, and that Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem, is the place where an angel from God stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son Issac.
Visitors who wanted to watch the proceedings on Mount Gerizim were able to catch a shuttle bus at the entrance to Nablus, run by the Samaria Regional Council.
Palestinians, Israelis and tourists took the bus to the top of the mountain and then hiked some 15 minutes up the small paved road that led to the village, but which was closed to traffic for the night.
Menashe Tsadaka traveled from Holon as he does every year to participate in the ceremony and to spend the holiday with his family. Tsadaka, who works for the IDF and teaches the Samaritan religion to young children on the side, explained that the sacrificial ceremony always takes place on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan.
“Just as it was written in the Book of Exodus,” the tall white-haired man said.
Tsadaka had stepped away from the proceedings to sit on his niece’s porch, with his seven- year old nephew Rani by his side, so he could explain how the ceremony worked.
He was dressed in white, except for a red Turkish hat with a black tassel that he wore.
Jews refrain from performing the ancient sacrificial rituals until the Temple is rebuilt, Tsadaka said.
But according to the Bible, this particular sacrifice that is central to the holiday celebration of freedom is not linked to the Temple, Tsadaka said.
(Young Samaritan men waiting for the next stage of the ceremony)
“That is why every one is supposed to participate, including the women,” Tsadaka said.
There were many years when Samaritans were prevented from living atop Mount Gerizim and or even performing the sacrifice there, he said.
Earlier in the last century, he said, the Samaritan high priest worked out a compromise with the Arabs in the area to allow them to ascend the mountain for the ceremony in exchange for two sheep.
Prior to the Six Day War, King Hussein of Jordan stopped that exchange and even sent a legion of Jordanian soldiers to protect the Samaritans so they could freely worship atop Mount Gerizim. It was only when Israel took over the West Bank after the Six Day War, that the Samaritans had free access to the mountain top, he said.
This year the Passover festivities began Tuesday night when they baked matza by hand, Tsadaka said.
Their matza only lasts for three days, not like the factory matza most Jews eat, which when stored properly is good for months on end, he said.
Late in the afternoon five large round pits three meters deep, located in the courtyard, were lit, he said.
(Preparing the mud mixture)
The elders led by the Samaritan high priest recited a set of prayers, while the younger men each held onto a sheep, he said. Typically there is one sheep per family, he said, which has probably paid about NIS 1,600 for the animal.
The priest then reads the passages from the Bible that describe the proceedings.
When he gets to the words, “and then the people of Israel slaughtered it,” the young men kill the sheep they are holding, Tsadaka said.
“They immediately take the blood and put it on their foreheads and the foreheads of those around them, so as to stave off the angel of death,” Tsadaka said.
The sheep are skinned and their bellies slit so all the organs can be removed, Tsadaka said. The organs are stacked and burned on a large, square open steel netting that is set up over the burning pits, he said.
(Samaritans burning the organs of the sheep)
The sheep carcasses are then placed on large five-meter-long spiked wooden skewers, he said. They are washed and salted and wrapped in a wire mesh to keep them in place.
At a certain time after dark determined by the priest, the men take the skewers and place the skinned and prepared sheep in the pit, some 10 animals to an oven, he said.
“Today, we slaughtered 50 sheep,” he said.
A large tarp is then placed on top of the poles, whose sharp ends pierce through the fabric.
A muddy mixture is then placed on top of the tarp, so that it is weighed down, and with the absence of oxygen the fire is extinguished in the pit, but the heat is kept in, he said. The stones that are there are now hot enough to cook the sheep, which are removed after about two and a half hours.
(Oven pit during the Samaritan Passover ceremony)
Participants than sing “Miriam’s Song” in Aramaic and each family receives a wooden box of meat, Tsadaka said.
As she watched her son-inlaw salt a sheep carcass, Tikvah Cohen of Holon said everyone participates in the ceremony and that she herself has come every year.
“The ceremony has not changed and it will not change,” she said. “I am 67 years old, from the time I was born and until the day I day will die, I will be here.”
Photos by Tovah Lazaroff