Samaritans mourn their high priest

Elazar ben Tsadaka, 83, ‘wise’ and ‘selfless,’ traced his office back to Aaron.

By BY BEN HARTMAN
February 8, 2010 23:04
2 minute read.
The funeral of Elazar Ben Tsedaka

elazar ben tsedaka 311. (photo credit: Ben Hartman)

 
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Snow flurries drifted to the ground on Mount Gerizim overlooking Nablus on Thursday, as mourners gathered to bury the spiritual leader of the Samaritans, who passed away the previous day.

High Priest Elazar ben Tsadaka ben Yitzhaq was born during a snowstorm 83 years ago, one mourner said. On Thursday, as he was being laid to rest at the holiest site in the Samaritan religion, the snow began to fall again.

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According to Samaritan tradition he was the 131st holder of the post since Aaron. This is not accepted by all historians, but the office may well go back to the Hellenistic period, which would still make it the oldest office in the world. One account in Josephus suggests that it is an offshoot of the Zadokite high priests in Jerusalem from around the time of Alexander the Great.

Mourners took shelter from the storm inside the community center in the hilltop neighborhood of Kiryat Luza, where much of the ethnoreligious group of 730 lives. Nearly all the rest live in Holon’s Neveh Pinchas neighborhood.

Inside, well over 100 men gathered in a somber, eerily quiet ceremony around the casket holding Elazar, who will be replaced as head priest by his cousin Aharon Ben-Av Hisda Cohen.

The Samaritans are a tiny, largely misunderstood sect that practices a religion that is a close parallel to Judaism. Samaritans believe theirs is the true religion of the Israelites and follow their own Samaritan Torah, written in an ancient form of Hebrew largely alien to modern Israeli eyes. Today’s Samarians trace their lineage to Israelites who have lived in northern Samaria before the Babylonian exile, and they still view Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem, as the center of their religion.

Elazar ben Tsadaka ben Yitzhaq was eulogized by the Palestinian Authority’s governor of the Nablus region, Jibrin al-Bakri, before a procession of senior IDF officers filed in, shaking hands with village elders.



Brig.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai, head of the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria,  stepped forward, and in Arabic, spoke warmly of Elazar.

Mordechai said Elazar was a kind, intelligent man who had a deep connection with IDF officials in the area. Mordechai also said that in the years he dealt with Elazar, the priest never once asked anything for himself and always put his community first.

Mourner Menashe Tsadaka described Elazar as “a wise man in the community who people always came to for answers.”

Tsadka added that the high priest always served as a bridge between IDF officials and the Palestinian communities in the area, something he said was illustrated by the eulogies given both by PA and IDF officials.

The eulogies finished, the mourners began to pray in the ancient Hebrew that is their liturgical language. The crowd swayed and chanted a prayer that bore little resemblance to the Jewish kaddish, but had a moving, hypnotic cadence.

Pallbearers then carried Elazar to his final resting place in a small cemetery on Mount Gerizim. He was lowered into the earth and mourners quickly mixed cement and poured it atop the casket as the wind howled. Finally, several wreaths were laid upon the wet cement.

As the procession hurriedly left the cemetery, people headed to the shiva ceremony at the high priest’s home, where over heaping plates of rice and lamb, mourners wept for the loss of the leader of one of Israel’s tiniest communities atop the mountain that has been the center of their religion for millennia.

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