Sacrificial lambs

High atop the West Bank, the Samaritans hold their annual Pessah ceremony before a crowd of thousands.

May 7, 2010 16:00
Sacrificial lambs

Sacrificial lambs 311. (photo credit: Ben Hartman)


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The approach to the Samaritan community of Kfar Luza atop Mount Gerizim was jam-packed last Wednesday, as thousands  of tourists snaked their way to the hilltop village outside Nablus to observe the tiny Samaritan community’s annual sheep sacrifice held every year on Pessah.

As a cold wind blew through the village, almost 900 meters above Nablus, a rare mix of settlers, Palestinians, journalists and Israeli and Palestinian politicians thronged the village. Throughout Kfar Luza, IDF troops, border policemen, and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) officers worked to keep the peace for a crowd that was the largest the community had seen in years.Before the sacrifice ceremony began, a meeting was held in a building next door whose attendees reflected the Samaritan community’s status as part of both Israeli and Palestinian society. The meet and greet between Samaritan high priests and Israeli and Palestinian leaders included Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein, Nablus Region Governor Jibrin al-Bakri, Samaria Regional Council head Gershon Mesika, and Civil Administration head Brig.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai.

Outside the meeting hall, an IDF jeep bristling with radio equipment and Nahal troops in combat gear was parked only meters from a fire truck from the Nablus Fire Department, a juxtaposition illustrating that while Kfar Luza is in an area under IDF control, it falls within Area A and its public services are provided by the Palestinian Authority.

THE SAMARITAN religion closely resembles Judaism, though it has several marked differences, including its own Samaritan Torah, written in the ancient Hebrew that is their language of liturgy. In addition, they believe that Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem, is the holiest place on earth and the site of the temple, as well as where Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God.

Samaritans believe that their religion is closer than Judaism to that of the original Israelites from before the Babylonian Exile. Their religion is free of the rabbinical interpretations and commentary, such as the Talmud, that became part of Judaism in the Diaspora.

Samaritans believe that they are descendants of the original Israelites who never left during the Babylonian Exile. Though they trace their lineage to Samaria, their name comes from the Hebrew term shomrim, to designate them as “keepers of the law.”

Though historians believe that they once numbered up to a million during Roman times, over the years their numbers dwindled following their revolt against the Byzantines in the sixth century CE and large-scale conversions to Islam during Muslim rule of Palestine. Today they number little more than 700, half of whom live on Mount Gerizim and the other half in Neveh Pinhas in Holon, founded in 1954 by president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Until the 1980s, many Samaritans lived in Nablus, but left due to violence following the outbreak of the intifada.

The Samaritans are all citizens of the State of Israel and service in the IDF is widespread in their community. They also maintain good ties, including economic cooperation, with their Palestinian neighbors in the Nablus area.

AFTER THE meeting, the eclectic mix formed a procession leading to the arena next door where the ritual sacrifice is held every year. Most years, the arena is more than big enough to hold worshipers and observers, but this year’s observance was the first in several years to fall after the Jewish Passover, a fact that allowed a larger than usual number of outside observers to attend. Some estimated the crowd at around 7,000, with Samaritan Guy Yehoshua saying that “as big as I thought it would be this year, it’s at least three times that size.” Yehoshua added that he had heard that as many as 15,000 people were estimated to have tried to attend the ceremony, the crowds so out of hand that as sundown neared the army and Border Police began turning away busloads of visitors at the base of Mount Gerizim.

The arena was so packed that shoving matches broke out between observers and cameramen, as well as between Samaritans. Within the arena there was virtually no room to move and actually viewing the sacrifice was near impossible as hundreds of cameramen jockeyed for position, often blocking the way for Samaritans trying to take part in the ceremony, as police and soldiers repeatedly tried to maintain order.

The rooftops of all surrounding buildings were also packed with visitors who for one reason or another couldn’t make their way into the arena.

One member of the Samaritan community, Menashe Tzadka, said he had never seen such a crowd and that the large numbers of observers “are disturbing people very much. You probably didn’t hear it, but a lot of people were saying this is impossible, we can’t hold the ceremony like this.”

AT THE heart of the swelling mass, in the center of the arena, the heads of Samaritan families stood around a trough holding the sheep they would slaughter in unison when the signal was given. The three dozen or so sheep seemed very docile. The skies were cloudy, though Yehoshua pointed out that the clouds had broken above the arena, something he said happens every year during the ceremony.

“This always happens, every year. God doesn’t want anything to block his view,” Yehoshua said.

After around a half hour of prayers and chanting, the high priest gave the signal and the sheep’s throats were slit, their blood pouring into the trough as the crowd erupted in applause and cameramen scrambled to capture the moment. In accordance with tradition, after the sheep were killed, Samaritans dabbed the blood upon their foreheads.

The sheep bled out and the men got to work skinning and gutting the carcasses. Not every Samaritan man is allowed to perform sacrifices; the authority to do so is only given to those with the training in Samaritan kashrut and rites of ritual slaughter. After the carcasses were skinned, the pelts were tossed on an open flame to be consumed, as were the unusable innards.

As the skinned sheep were hung up to be washed and salted, the cold air became thick with the smell of sweat, blood, fat and bonfires. After they were made clean and covered in salt, the sheep were hoisted on stakes and about a half a dozen were placed into two or three meter pits to roast. A metal grate was then placed on each pit, followed by a burlap sheet and a thick layer of mud, creating a smoking, earthen oven for the sheep to bake in for hours. The sheep are ready to eat around midnight, when they are taken from the earth and the roasted cuts taken back to the Samaritans’ houses to be eaten alone with their special matzot. Whatever isn’t eaten is thrown into the flames to be consumed.

By the time the mud was laid atop the earthen ovens the crowd had withered to only a few dozen hardy cameramen and tourists waiting for their buses to leave. The visitors descended in their buses from the mountaintop as the Samaritans headed to their homes, and Mount Gerizim again became the peaceful home of one of the world’s tiniest religious sects.

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