Who are the Samaritans? Washington exhibit to showcase the biblical people

The groundbreaking exhibition The Samaritans: A Biblical People will open on September 16.

Members of the Samaritan sect take part in a traditional pilgrimage marking the holiday of Shavuot, atop Mount Gerizim (photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)
Members of the Samaritan sect take part in a traditional pilgrimage marking the holiday of Shavuot, atop Mount Gerizim
(photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)

Though not actually Jewish, but practicing many Jewish rituals and traditions, the Samaritans consider themselves to be the true guardians of the Torah – the Book of the Law of Moses and of Israel.

The Samaritans claim descent from the ancient Israelites of Samaria, but their origins remain unclear, and there are several different versions.

Nonetheless they have survived the vicissitudes of time, conflicts and assimilation, and today are the smallest of Israel’s minorities, with a foot in both the Israeli and the Palestinian camps.

Most Israelis know very little about the Samaritans, and people outside of Israel, who are not familiar with the Bible know nothing about them at all beyond the expression the Good Samaritan.

The opportunity for Americans to learn more about the Samaritans comes by way of a comprehensive  exhibition, guided tours, lectures and a film  that  are being seen and heard at the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC where the groundbreaking exhibition The Samaritans: A Biblical People opens on September 16.

 The Samaritan Passover sacrifice ceremony (credit: ROI HADI) The Samaritan Passover sacrifice ceremony (credit: ROI HADI)

The Samaritan exhibition

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a medieval Samaritan inscription on a limestone tablet on loan from the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.

Israel’s second president Yitzhak Ben Zvi, who studied Samaritan history and culture, came by the tablet which features a dedication in ancient Samaritan script attesting to the establishment of a synagogue on Mount Gerizim, which to this day is the holiest site to people of the Samaritan faith. The tablet is dated “611to the Kingdom of Ishmael 1214 CE.”

The inscription pays tribute to Abraham the son of Ebitarna of Bnei Bedua for funding the construction of the synagogue.

Created in partnership with Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies, the exhibition includes the most important artifacts from museums and libraries around the world.

President Isaac Herzog was delighted to contribute to the exhibition, which is believed to be the first about the Samaritan Israelite community, and he sent a congratulatory video recording to Washington for the opening.

The tablet went under careful conservation work in Jerusalem before being transferred to Washington.

Lecturers during the exhibition will be Moshe Alafi, and Steven Fine of Yeshiva University who have also made a film – The Samaritans: A Biblical People, which took them five years to complete.

Dr. Jesse Abelman, co-curator of the exhibition, notes the importance of the limestone tablet for two reasons.  One is that it proves the enduring centrality of the Torah to the culture of the Samaritan people, and their continuity throughout history. The other is the fact that Ben Zvi was known to be a friend of the Samaritans.

The exhibition will be on view till the end of the year.